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The Atlantic slave trade

What was the Atlantic slave trade?

The Atlantic slave trade or triangular trade involved the forced enslavement of many millions of Africans and their transport to the Americas, where they were made to work without wages in often inhumane conditions.

The trade was at its height during the 18th century when Britain was the most active trading nation.

The cost of the slave trade in terms of human suffering can not be calculated.

Top 10 facts

  1. Slavery had existed for many years before the Atlantic slave trade commenced. The first known written law code – that of Hammurabi, dating from around 1760 BC – makes references to slaves.
  2. The first Europeans to enter into and profit from the slave trade in Africa were the Portuguese who began trading in the 15th century.
  3. African kings and merchants sold captured enemies or criminals to the European traders. Sometimes they had to sell slaves or risk being taken captive themselves.
  4. Approximately 12 million people were enslaved as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.
  5. The journey between Africa and the Americas, the so-called middle passage, took an average of seven weeks.
  6. Nearly 40% of people taken in slavery came from West Central Africa – the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.
  7. Approximately 15% of slaves died whilst being transported to the Americas.
  8. Slaves were often captured inland and were marched for many weeks to reach the coast. There they were imprisoned in forts called factories awaiting shipping across the Atlantic.
  9. Slaves were tightly packed on board ships which could carry between 350 and 600 people, with as little as 4 feet of space. The unsanitary conditions led to the spread of disease and many slaves attempted to starve themselves or became very depressed. Some tried to jump overboard.
  10. 70% of slaves worked to produce sugar with others producing tobacco, coffee or cotton.


  • 1619
    First ship-load of Africans arrive in Virginia USA
  • 1760
    First protest against the slave trade is led by a slave called Tacky
  • 1772
    James Somerset escapes from his owner and with the help of the abolitionists Granville Sharp goes to court and is freed; Lord Mansfield rules slavery illegal in England
  • 1781
    The Captain of the Zong slave ship throws 133 Africans overboard to claim on his insurance
  • 1787 
    Committee for Abolition of Slave Trade formed in UK
  • 1789
    UK bans slavery
  • 1791
    Slave revolt in Haiti led by Toussaint l’Ouverture
  • 1792
    British Government agrees in principle to end the trade
  • 1807
    British Government rules that anyone found transporting slaves will be fined £100 per slave
  • 1808
    US bans slavery
  • 1831
    Slave revolt in Virginia led by Nat Turner
  • 1853
    Brazil outlaws the slave trade

Did you know?

  • Denmark was the first country to ban the slave trade in 1792.
  • Slaves were expected to work 48 hour shifts during harvest time.
  • During the 18th century approximately 6 million slaves were transported from Africa. The major slaving nation at that time was Britain, responsible for the transport of 2.5 million Africans.
  • The life expectancy for slaves in Brazil was 23 years of age.
  • It has been calculated that slaves had only 4 square feet of space on the slave ships.
  • Former slaves Olaudah Equino and Sojourner Truth both wrote about their experiences of slavery and were effective campaigners against slavery.
  • Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland in the United States of America and became the most famous "conductor" of the Underground Railroad, leading slaves in the American South to freedom in the North. Harriet Tubman was only five foot tall but she liberated over 300 slaves! 
  • The Atlantic slave trade lasted four and a half centuries.

Browse the gallery below and see if you can spot the following:

  • Slaves being moved to the coast of Africa
  • An African slave dealer marching slaves to the coast
  • Slaves onboard ship
  • Plan of a slave ship
  • Slaves being taken to a slave ship
  • A revolt aboard a slave ship
  • Slaves being rescued from a slave ship



Slavery is where one person is owned by another. A slave is treated as if he or she were a piece of property and is forced to work for nothing for their owners. Slavery has probably existed throughout human history and been practised by many different civilisations.

Slavery in Africa existed before the arrival of Europeans but the Atlantic slave trade changed the scale of the trade and the way it was conducted. Over the centuries up to 12 million African people were enslaved and transported to the Americas. The majority (48%) went to the Caribbean islands, with 41% going to Brazil and 5% to North America. These slaves were chattel slaves which meant that their children were also slaves.

The Atlantic slave trade arose because Europeans were keen to make money from the newly discovered territories of the Americas. The native Indian population had been very much reduced and in some places almost wiped out by the Europeans and the survivors proved unsuited to the heavy labour they required. The transport of slaves from Africa seemed to provide the profit-hungry Europeans with an endless supply of labour.

The trade in slaves was called the triangular trade because it had three stages.

  1. Manufactured goods from Europe such as blankets, beads and guns were taken to Africa where they were exchanged for slaves.
  2. The transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas was known as the middle passage.
  3. Finally raw material and goods produced as a result of slave labour such as cotton, sugar, rum and tobacco from the Americas were brought back to Europe.

The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave trade was led by William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, though many Black British people also participated in the abolition movement. Although the British took a leading role in abolishing the trade it should not be forgotten that for many years Britain had been the most active slave-trading nation of all. Many people made a lot of money from the trade and cities such as Bristol, London and Liverpool grew wealthy as a result of it.

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