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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The transatlantic slave trade.

Necklace: Pendant

Necklace: Pendant

Figure: Seated Portuguese Male

Figure: Seated Portuguese Male

Pipe: Rifle

Pipe: Rifle

Alexander Ives Bortolot Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

October 2003

From the seventeenth century on, slaves became the focus of trade between Europe and Africa. Europe’s conquest and colonization of North and South America and the Caribbean islands from the fifteenth century onward created an insatiable demand for African laborers, who were deemed more fit to work in the tropical conditions of the New World. The numbers of slaves imported across the Atlantic Ocean steadily increased, from approximately 5,000 slaves a year in the sixteenth century to over 100,000 slaves a year by the end of the eighteenth century.

Evolving political circumstances and trade alliances in Africa led to shifts in the geographic origins of slaves throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Slaves were generally the unfortunate victims of territorial expansion by imperialist African states or of raids led by predatory local strongmen, and various populations found themselves captured and sold as different regional powers came to prominence. Firearms, which were often exchanged for slaves, generally increased the level of fighting by lending military strength to previously marginal polities. A nineteenth-century tobacco pipe ( 1977.462.1 ) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Angola demonstrates the degree to which warfare, the slave trade, and elite arts were intertwined at this time. The pipe itself was the prerogative of wealthy and powerful individuals who could afford expensive imported tobacco, generally by trading slaves, while the rifle form makes clear how such slaves were acquired in the first place. Because of its deadly power, the rifle was added to the repertory of motifs drawn upon in many regional depictions of rulers and culture heroes as emblematic of power along with the leopard, elephant, and python.

The institution of slavery existed in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans and was widespread at the period of economic contact . Private land ownership was largely absent from precolonial African societies, and slaves were one of the few forms of wealth-producing property an individual could possess. Additionally, rulers often maintained corps of loyal, foreign-born slaves to guarantee their political security, and would encourage political centralization by appointing slaves from the imperial hinterlands to positions within the royal capital. Slaves were also exported across the desert to North Africa and to western Asia, Arabia, and India.

It would be impossible to argue, however, that transatlantic trade did not have a major effect upon the development and scale of slavery in Africa. As the demand for slaves increased with European colonial expansion in the New World, rising prices made the slave trade increasingly lucrative. African states eager to augment their treasuries in some instances even preyed upon their own peoples by manipulating their judicial systems, condemning individuals and their families to slavery in order to reap the rewards of their sale to European traders. Slave exports were responsible for the emergence of a number of large and powerful kingdoms that relied on a militaristic culture of constant warfare to generate the great numbers of human captives required for trade with the Europeans. The Yoruba kingdom of Oyo on the Guinea coast, founded sometime before 1500, expanded rapidly in the eighteenth century as a result of this commerce. Its formidable army, aided by advanced iron technology , captured immense numbers of slaves that were profitably sold to traders. In the nineteenth century, the aggressive pursuit of slaves through warfare and raiding led to the ascent of the kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now the Republic of Benin, and prompted the emergence of the Chokwe chiefdoms from under the shadow of their Lunda overlords in present-day Angola and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Asante kingdom on the Gold Coast of West Africa also became a major slave exporter in the eighteenth century.

Ultimately, the international slave trade had lasting effects upon the African cultural landscape. Areas that were hit hardest by endemic warfare and slave raids suffered from general population decline, and it is believed that the shortage of men in particular may have changed the structure of many societies by thrusting women into roles previously occupied by their husbands and brothers. Additionally, some scholars have argued that images stemming from this era of constant violence and banditry have survived to the present day in the form of metaphysical fears and beliefs concerning witchcraft. In many cultures of West and Central Africa, witches are thought to kidnap solitary individuals to enslave or consume them. Finally, the increased exchange with Europeans and the fabulous wealth it brought enabled many states to cultivate sophisticated artistic traditions employing expensive and luxurious materials. From the fine silver- and goldwork of Dahomey and the Asante court to the virtuoso wood carving of the Chokwe chiefdoms, these treasures are a vivid testimony of this turbulent period in African history.

Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003)

Further Reading

Hogendorn, Jan, and Marion Johnson. The Shell Money of the Slave Trade . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Additional Essays by Alexander Ives Bortolot

  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Portraits of African Leadership: Living Rulers .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Portraits of African Leadership: Memorials .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Portraits of African Leadership: Royal Ancestors .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Trade Relations among European and African Nations .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Ways of Recording African History .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Art of the Asante Kingdom .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Asante Royal Funerary Arts .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Asante Textile Arts .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Gold in Asante Courtly Arts .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ The Bamana Ségou State .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Women Leaders in African History: Ana Nzinga, Queen of Ndongo .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Women Leaders in African History: Dona Beatriz, Kongo Prophet .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Exchange of Art and Ideas: The Benin, Owo, and Ijebu Kingdoms .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Women Leaders in African History: Idia, First Queen Mother of Benin .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Kingdoms of Madagascar: Malagasy Funerary Arts .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Kingdoms of Madagascar: Malagasy Textile Arts .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Kingdoms of Madagascar: Maroserana and Merina .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Kingdoms of the Savanna: The Kuba Kingdom .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Kingdoms of the Savanna: The Luba and Lunda Empires .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Women Leaders in African History, 17th–19th Century .” (October 2003)
  • Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “ Portraits of African Leadership .” (October 2003)

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  • Eastern and Southern Africa, 1400–1600 A.D.
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Slavery Essay for Students and Children


500+ Words Essay on Slavery

Slavery is a term that signifies the injustice that is being carried out against humans since the 1600s. Whenever this word comes up, usually people picture rich white people ruling over black people. However, that is not the only case to exist. After a profound study, historians found evidence that suggested the presence of slavery in almost every culture. It was not essentially in the form of people working in the fields, but other forms. Slavery generally happens due to the division of levels amongst humans in a society. It still exists in various parts of the world. It may not necessarily be that hard-core, nonetheless, it happens.

Slavery Essay

Impact of Slavery

Slavery is one of the main causes behind racism in most of the cultures. It did severe damage to the race relations of America where a rift was formed between the whites and blacks.

The impact of Slavery has caused irreparable damage which can be seen to date. Even after the abolishment of slavery in the 1800s in America, racial tensions remained amongst the citizens.

In other words, this made them drift apart from each other instead of coming close. Slavery also gave birth to White supremacy which made people think they are inherently superior just because of their skin color and descendant.

Talking about the other forms of slavery, human trafficking did tremendous damage. It is a social evil which operates even today, ruining hundreds and thousands of innocent lives. Slavery is the sole cause which gave birth to all this.

Get the huge list of more than 500 Essay Topics and Ideas

The Aftermath

Even though slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, the scars still remain. The enslaved still haven’t forgotten the struggles of their ancestors. It lives on in their hearts which has made them defensive more than usual. They resent the people whose ancestors brought it down on their lineage.

Even today many people of color are a victim of racism in the 21st century. For instance, black people face far more severe punishments than a white man. They are ridiculed for their skin color even today. There is a desperate need to overcome slavery and all its manifestations for the condition and security of all citizens irrespective of race, religion , social, and economic position .

In short, slavery never did any good to any human being, of the majority nor minority. It further divided us as humans and put tags on one another. Times are changing and so are people’s mindsets.

One needs to be socially aware of these evils lurking in our society in different forms. We must come together as one to fight it off. Every citizen has the duty to make the world a safer place for every human being to live in.


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The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Advanced Placement United States History Study Guide

AP US History Curriculum Study Guide

Period 2: 1607-1754

The origins of slavery.

essay on slave trade

African American life in the United States has been framed by migrations, forced and free. A forced migration from Africa—the transatlantic slave trade—carried black people to the Americas. A second forced migration—the internal slave trade—transported them from the Atlantic coast to the interior of the American South. A third migration—this time initiated largely, but not always, by black Americans—carried black people from the rural South to the urban North. At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, African American life is again being transformed by another migration, this time a global one, as peoples of African descent from all parts of the world enter the United States.

While each of these massive movements shaped and reshaped African American life, none was more important than the first, the so-called Middle Passage from Africa to America. More than any other single migration the Middle Passage has come to epitomize the experience of people of African descent throughout the Atlantic world. The nightmarish weeks and sometimes months locked in the holds of stinking slave ships speak to the traumatic loss of freedom, the degradation of enslavement, and the long years of bondage that followed. But the Middle Passage also represents the will to survive, the determination of black people not to be dehumanized by dehumanizing circumstances, and the confidence that freedom would eventually be theirs and that they would take their rightful place as a people among peoples.

Detail of a map of Costa Damina from “Taboas geraes de toda a navegação,” by Joã

With the advent of the plantation in mainland North America, the nature of slavery and then the slave trade changed. The beginnings of plantation production—tobacco in the Chesapeake in the late seventeenth century and rice in the Lowcountry in the early eighteenth century—increased the level of violence, exploitation, and brutality in these regions. Slaves worked harder, propelling their owners to new, previously unimagined heights of wealth and power. As they did, slave owners expanded their plantations and demanded more and more slaves, as slaves proved to be an extraordinarily valuable form of labor. Not only were they workers, but they reproduced themselves, adding to the owners’ wealth. Rather than arriving in ones and twos from the Atlantic littoral, boatloads of captives—generally drawn from the African interior—crossed the ocean. Although slavers deposited their human cargoes in ports from Providence to New Orleans, the vast majority of slaves who disembarked in mainland North America did so in the Chesapeake (largely Virginia and Maryland) and the Lowcountry (largely South Carolina, and Georgia).

Slaves imported directly from Africa—distinguished from Atlantic Creoles—first landed in the Chesapeake in large numbers during the last decades of the seventeenth century. Following the legalization of chattel bondage in the 1660s, they slowly replaced European and African indentured servants as the main source of plantation labor. Although black people never challenged white numerical dominance in the region, they achieved majorities in a few localities. For many European settlers, it seemed as if the Chesapeake would “some time or other be confirmed by the name of New Guinea.”

Just as the Chesapeake was about to become an extension of West Africa, the dynamics of black life changed dramatically. Slaves in the Chesapeake, in the words of one European observer, proved “very prolifick among themselves.” By the 1730s, births to slave women outnumbered imports, and the black population was increasing naturally. Although transatlantic slavers continued to deliver their cargoes to the great estuary, the proportion of Africans declined as the indigenous African American population increased. By mid-century, the majority of enslaved men and women in the Chesapeake had never seen Africa. At the start of the American Revolution, the first Great Migration was over in the Chesapeake. A native people began to sink deep roots in soils of mainland North America.

Four people working with harvested tobacco in shed

For much of eighteenth century, black people in South Carolina and Georgia—unlike those in Maryland and Virginia—resided in an immigrant society, more an extension of Africa than of Europe. With the slave trade open and the influx of “saltwater slaves” nearly continuous, lowland slaves had great difficulty forming families and reproducing themselves. The gender ratio among the newly arriving saltwater slaves was usually dramatically skewed, and acculturated slaves sometimes were reluctant to create families with the new arrivals. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, the black population of the Lowcountry began to reproduce itself and the number of African Americans grew, although it did so in tandem with newly arrived Africans. If at mid-century slaves in the Chesapeake had few opportunities to converse with Africans, Africans and African Americans in the Lowcountry knew each other well.

The land of the free and the home of the braves. Henry Byam Martin, 1833

The captives’ nationality was no more random than their age or sex. Europeans slavers developed specialties, in some measure to meet the demands of their customers on both sides of the Atlantic, whose preferences and needs grew increasingly well defined over time. Preferences on both side of the Atlantic determined, to a considerable degree, which enslaved Africans went where and when, populating the mainland with unique combinations of African peoples and creating distinctive regional variations in the Americas. Igbo peoples constituted the majority of African slaves in Virginia and Maryland, so much so that some historians have denominated colonial Virginia as “Igbo land.” A different pattern emerged in Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia, where slaves from central Africa predominated from the beginning of large-scale importation, so that if Virginia was Igbo land, the Lowcountry might be likened to a new Angola.

But if patterns of African settlement can be discerned, they never created regional homogeneity. The general thrust of the slave trade was toward heterogeneity, throwing different people together in ways that undermined the transfer of any single culture. Mainland North America became a jumble of African nationalities. Their interaction—not their homogeneity—created new African American cultures.

Slave Arrivals on the North American Mainland, map, Atlas of the Transatlantic S

No matter what their sex, age, and nationality, Africans shipped to the New World endured the trauma of enslavement. Captured deep in the African interior, Africans faced a long, deadly march to the coast. Traveling sometimes for months, they were passed from group to group, as many different African nations participated in the slave trade. But whoever drove the captives to their unwanted destiny, the circumstances of their travel were extraordinarily taxing. In some places, some forty percent of the slaves died between their initial capture in the interior and their arrival on the coast.

The captives then faced the nightmarish transatlantic crossing. The depths of human misery and the astounding death toll of men and women packed in the stinking hulls still remains difficult to fathom. Stripped naked and bereft of their every belonging, they boarded the ship and encountered—often for the first time—white men. Brandishing hot irons to mark their captives in the most personal way, these “white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair” left more than a physical scar. Many enslaved Africans concluded that the white men were in league with the devil, if not themselves devils. For other Africans, the trauma of having their skin seared confirmed that they were bound for the slaughterhouse to be eaten by the cannibals, who had stamped them in much the way animals were marked.

essay on slave trade

Surviving the Middle Passage was but the first of the many tests faced by the forced immigrants. Once African peoples disembarked, new anxieties compensated for whatever relief they gained from the end of the shipboard journey. Indeed the shock of arrival only repeated the trauma of African enslavement. Staggering to their feet, bodies still bent from their weeks below deck, shaking with apprehension, the captives were fitted with a new set of shackles—a painful welcome to their new homeland. The captives again confronted the auction block and the prospect of being poked and prodded by strange white men speaking strange languages, intent on demonstrating their mastery. Marched in chains to some isolated, backwoods plantation, forced to labor long hours at unfamiliar tasks, enslaved black men and women began their lives in mainland North America. It was a grim existence, as their debilitating work regime, drafty dormitories, and bland rations invited an early death. Within months of arrival, many of the new immigrants—ridiculed as "outlandish" by their owners—were dead.

But slowly, inexorably, the survivors made the new land their own. Transplanted Africans began to master the languages of North America, learned to traverse the countryside, formed friendships, pieced together new lineages from real and fictive kin, and created a new sacred world. Their children, who knew no other land, took root in American soil and made the land that had been forced on their parents their own. Like most other Americans, they too were the children of immigrants—but immigrants of a very different kind.

Ira Berlin , Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, is a leading historian of the history of slavery in North America and the Atlantic World. His books include Generations of Captivity: A History of Slaves in the United States (2002); Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in Mainland North America (1999), which received the Bancroft Prize and the Frederick Douglass Book Prize; and Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (1975).

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