Exploration and Settlement


What are the origins of slavery in America?

The roots of slavery in North America date back to about 1400, when the Europeans arrived in Africa. At first, the result of African contact with Europeans was positive, opening trade routes and expanding markets. Europeans profited from Africa’s rich mineral and agricultural resources and for a while abided by local laws governing their trade; Africans benefited from new technologies and products brought by the Europeans. But the relationship between the two cultures soon turned disastrous as the Europeans cast their attention on a decidedly different African resource—the people themselves. As the Portuguese in West and East Africa began trading in human lives and the Dutch in South Africa clashed with the native people who, once displaced by the wars, became servants and slaves, other Europeans began calculating the profits that could be made in the slave trade.

By the end of the 1400s Europeans had landed in the New World. Soon Europe’s established and emerging powers vied for control of territories in the new lands of North and South America and the West Indies. The Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, English, and Swedes all made claims in the Western Hemisphere and began setting up colonies.

By the mid-1600s triangular patterns of trade emerged: The most common route began on Africa’s west coast, where ships picked up slaves. The second stop was the Caribbean islands—predominately the British and French West Indies—where the slaves were sold to plantation owners and traders used the profits to purchase sugar, molasses, tobacco, and coffee. These raw materials were then transported north to the third stop, New England, where a rum industry was thriving. There ships were loaded with the spirits before traders made the last leg of their journey back across the Atlantic to Africa’s west coast, where the process began again. Other trade routes operated as follows: 1) manufactured goods were transported from Europe to the African coast; slaves to the West Indies; and sugar, tobacco, and coffee transported back to Europe, where the route began again; and 2) lumber, cotton, and meat were transported from the colonies to southern Europe; wine and fruits to England; and manufactured goods to the colonies, where the route began again. There were as many possible routes as there were ports and demand for goods.

The tragic result of the triangular trade was the transport of an estimated 10 million black Africans. Sold into slavery, these human beings were often chained below deck and allowed only brief if any periods of exercise during the transatlantic crossing, which came to be called the Middle Passage. Conditions for the slaves were brutal and improved only slightly when traders realized that should slaves perish during the long journey across the ocean, it would adversely affect their profits upon arrival in the West Indies. After economies in the islands of the Caribbean crashed at the end of the 1600s, many slaves were sold to plantation owners on the North American mainland, initiating another tragic trade route. The slave trade was abolished in the 1800s, putting an end to the forced migration of Africans to the Western Hemisphere.


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