Slavery: The transatlantic slave trade

6 Sep 2011

The transatlantic slave trade had a huge impact on economies, societies and cultures all over the world and its legacy remains today. Whilst the transatlantic trade was abolished in 1807, some forms of slavery still exist today.

Slaves cutting cane on a sugar plantation © Anti-Slavery InternationalBackground

The year 2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the slave trade in Britain and the colonies – the first step to outlawing slavery altogether. The campaign to abolish the trade was the first example of mass public protest in Britain, with people from all walks of life working together. The efforts of both British and African activists in the UK, alongside the slave revolts in the colonies, brought an end to the misery and suffering of millions of slaves. This important movement can still be seen in aspects of life today, from attitudes towards discrimination to techniques of political protest. Read on to find out how Britain became involved in the rise, and the fall, of the slave trade.

Britain and the slave trade

1562 saw the first British recorded voyage to West Africa to capture people for slavery in the Caribbean. By 1698 the London-based trade had captured over 100,000 African people for slavery and was making huge profits from sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Bristol and Liverpool followed in the capital’s footsteps eventually becoming the leading slave-trading ports.

The slave trade made a huge contribution to the British economy and its rise as an industrial nation. As well as generating business for the slavers (i.e. ship building for transport and shackle-making for imprisonment) the slave routes provided cheap raw materials and labour – allowing production work to be scaled up massively. Cotton production in the Americas fed textile mills in England, transforming small towns such as Manchester into vast industrial cities.

Brutal conditions

It is estimated that 24 million Africans were captured and enslaved, with around 10 million surviving the Atlantic crossing. During the crossing, adults and children were shackled to each other and crammed below decks. These stinking conditions were ripe for spreading disease. For those who arrived alive, one in three would die within three years. Africans were penned up like animals while buyers chose whom they wanted. Friendships and familial relationships were disregarded and once split-up, many people never saw each other again. Slaves were flogged or beaten for minor offences (or sometimes for no reason at all), forced to work day and night, sick or well, were under-fed and often vulnerable to sexual harassment. Children born into slavery automatically became slaves themselves. They were seen only as property with no legal rights and inferior intelligence.

Olaudah Equiano © Anti-Slavery InternationalThe abolition movement

Many groups and individuals were part of the campaign to end the slave trade – one of the first mass human rights movements. Organisations such as The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and The Sons of Africa (a group of Black community leaders including Olaudah Equiano) used petitions, speeches, articles testimonies from the slaves and leaflets to gather support and lobby parliament for a change in the law. On 25 March 1807, legislation was passed which made the slave trade illegal. Slavery itself was not abolished until 1833, but it was an important step towards the total abolition of the trade (in other countries) and liberation of those who had been enslaved.

Legacies of the slave trade

The legacy of the slave trade has many repercussions today. The ideology of racism, set-up to justify the enslavement of Africans, can still be seen in aspects of modern day racism. The economic development of Africa was severely interrupted and some people argue that reparations should be made today.

Slavery today

Under international law, slavery and the slave trade are illegal, but people trafficking and forced labour is still evident all over the world. Some of the ways that people are enslaved today include: bonded or forced labour, child labour, early and forced marriage and chattel slavery.

Niger slave girl at well © Romana Cacchioli/Anti-Slavery InternationalWhy teach about the slave trade?

The Anti-Slavery website ‘Breaking the Silence’ highlights why it is so important to teach about the slave trade. Learning about the causes and consequences of the slave trade can help students to reflect on and understand its impacts on society today. From the vast contributions Africans made to the social, cultural and economic development of the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe through modern day racism and slavery. It can promote inter-cultural exchange and help to develop critical thinking.

This can be a sensitive topic to study and may rouse strong feelings regarding both historical atrocities and contemporary issues. Guidance on issues that may arise can be found on the websites listed below.

The slave trade can be taught as part of a number of subjects, including English, Geography, History, the Arts, PSHE / PSE / PSED and Citizenship related subjects – or even as a cross-curricular project.

Read how another school approached the issue of slavery

» A Special Needs school explored slavery through Art and History

Teaching Resources

Browse through teaching resources relating to Slavery or Child labour.

Useful websites

Breaking The Silence
This site is aimed at supporting teachers and educators to teach about the enslavement of Africans. There are links to various teaching resources and ideas and an online activity and quiz for children.

Recovered Histories
This site provides a digitised collection of 18th and 19th century literature on the Transatlantic Slave Trade – a great primary source for historical research.

Remembering Slavery 2007
Draws upon original documents and artefacts held in Durham’s museums and uses primary source material to help students look at different aspects of slavery.

Image 1: Nearly two thirds of all slaves taken to the Caribbean ended up cutting cane on sugar plantations. During harvests this typically meant 14 hours of back breaking labour six days a week in extreme heat for women, men and children. The combination of hard labour, exposure to new diseases and inadequate food meant that approximately one in every three Africans died within three years of arriving in the Caribbean.

Image 2: Olaudah Equiano, c1745-1797. Equiano was a former slave who bought his own freedom. He wrote one of the best selling books of his time and became one of the most influential abolitionists in Britain.

Image 3: Niger slave girl at well. The anklet denotes her status as slave caste.

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