Overlooked Topic – The Beginnings of the Slave Trade

The 500th anniversary of the beginning of the slave trade between Africa and America passed by almost unnoticed in August of this year. We are willing to celebrate the ending of slavery but not to mark its beginnings, and analyze its causes. In this program, we put what happened in 1518 in perspective.

Professor David Richardson, from the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull joins the program.

Professor Richardson starts off by dismissing the hypothesis that the anniversary of the Spanish King Charles 1st issuing a charter authorizing the transportation of slaves direct from Africa to the Americas is overlooked because of lack of historical facts: "On the contrary, what I think has been one of the remarkable achievements in the last 30 or 40 years is the accumulation of information about, for example, slaving voyages. There has equally been a huge explosion of knowledge of slavery in the Americas, of which the Atlantic slave trade was a key part of. Together with other people, I have been part of the project called ‘slavevoayages', which is a website, and on there you can find information relating to about 35,000 slaving voyages… I think it is important to say that we can now mark the 500th anniversary because we have the information available."

And yet, as host John Harrison points out, there are only one or two academics worldwide who are really up to date with what actually happened. Professor Richardson comments: "That is true, but one needs to bear in mind that the further back in time one goes, the more difficult it is to find information… In a way, it does not surprise me that there are not very many people working on it, simply because of the difficult nature of the material you are working with. It is only English speakers from the US or Europe who are exploring these voyages at the moment." There does, however, seem to be a reluctance on behalf of Spanish and Portuguese historians to delve into their own past; it was these two countries that pioneered the slave trade. As Professor Richardson says: "A Brazilian writer recently pointed out the amnesia of the Portuguese and indeed the Spanish to some degree, about recognizing their involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade… In part, this reflects the complexity of tracking the voyages….My suspicion is that there will be a reluctance of people in the Iberian nations and their satellites in Spanish America and Brazil to get involved in research in this specific area."

In the second part of the program, Professor Richardson explains that 1815 does not mark the beginning of the slave trade and that slaves were bought and sold for a long time before that. "Slaves arrived in Portugal and in Spain even before the time of Columbus's voyages. It goes back into the 15th century, and African slaves were brought into the Mediterranean world for many years even before then. So, the Iberian powers and indeed the Mediterranean nations were familiar with enslaved Africans and enslaved other people as well. The Atlantic slave trade was born out of the experiences of the Mediterranean world, with enslaved Africans before Columbus and certainly before 1518. Slaves had been taken to the Americas before 1518 from Spain or Portugal itself…"

The effect on Africa and indeed the world was incalculable. Professor Richardson points out: "One has to see the Atlantic slave trade as part of a series of human tragedies. The first tragedy was the decimation of many of the indigenous population of the Americas, following the arrival of the Europeans. So as time went on, there was no indigenous population left which the Europeans could exploit easily, so they looked to an outside choice. Africans were the slaves of choice for many Europeans wishing to settle and exploit the Americas. What you then find is another tragedy — the loss of human life in the process of getting slaves to the Americas. Then you have the slave system itself in the Americas, which is another tragedy because slave populations didn't reproduce. If you put all of those things together, you get an explanation as to why roughly 12.5 million people boarded ships going to the Americans between say the 1500s and the 1860s. That's the minimum number affected because we do not know how many died in the course of being force-marched to the coast, we do not know how many died during the process of enslavement in Africa….Nobody pretends that there weren't wars in Africa before Europeans arrived, and no one pretends that many of the wars and many of the violent actions which took place in Africa and indeed in Europe were related directly to the Atlantic slave trade. But it would be difficult to argue that the level of intensity of such activities did not increase because of the slave trade. The slave trade was an engine that generated further violence, corruption, one might say of legal systems in Africa, and I think there is no question there, from an African perspective, that there was probably some stalling of population growth. There may have even been depopulation. There was an increase in violence and an increase in the identification of some African elites with wealth accumulation from the Atlantic slave trade. What I find interesting is how the legacy of this has continued to affect the course of African history."

There are people today who are trying to understand the total amount of slaves today, Professor Richardson says, and estimate that there are about 40 million people enslaved; that is more people than at any time in human history. However, the population of the world in 1800 was 1 billion, which is roughly one-seventh of what it is today. "Therefore, in the context of that time, from 1500 to 1800, a movement of 12 million people out of Africa, in particular out of the Atlantic coastal parts of Africa, that was a major movement of people, and it couldn't help having a deleterious effect on the well-being of the population as a whole and the well-being of societies as a whole in those societies. Some were profiting from that activity and many were paying the price, not only direct victims but their dependents; because one tends to forget that those taken out of Africa also had family members. Slaves were of prime working ages, and therefore when you add all of that together you had a very damaging effect upon large swathes of African peoples." 

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