Skip to main content

The Processes & Conditions of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
The transatlantic slave trade was a brutal, multicontinental, centuries-long effort that changed the course of history and demographics across the world. This image depicts the branding of slaves by Europeans before being transported to the Americas.

The transatlantic slave trade was a brutal, multicontinental, centuries-long effort that changed the course of history and demographics across the world. This image depicts the branding of slaves by Europeans before being transported to the Americas.

What Was the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

In many ways, it's apparent the transatlantic slave trade between Africa, Europe and the Americas has had a lasting effect on modern-day society like few other events. The centuries-long slave trade directly impacted countless aspects of today's world.

Defining the Term

The term “transatlantic” means across the Atlantic Ocean. As for the phrase “slave trade”—I'd guess everybody knows what it means. Nevertheless, if you don’t know, it means, simply, the buying and selling of human beings to be used as slaves.

The transatlantic slave trade was the unscrupulous activity of buying human beings (slaves and non-slaves) from West Africa and transporting them across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the West Indies (now referred to as the Caribbean) where they were then sold as slaves for what was likely the rest of their lives.

The transatlantic slave trade refers to the buying, transporting and selling of West African people that occurred between the 15th and the 19th centuries.

A depiction of the routes ships participating in the Atlantic slave trade took. Notice how a triangle shape is generally formed.

A depiction of the routes ships participating in the Atlantic slave trade took. Notice how a triangle shape is generally formed.

Logistics of the Trade

Other names for the transatlantic slave trade include the Atlantic slave trade and the “Triangular Trade”. The term “Triangular Trade” came about because of the fact that the slave trade system involved three geographic regions—Africa, the Americas and Europe—which, together formed something like a triangle.

The slave traders travelled first from Europe to West Africa, where they bought slaves and captured others, then took them to the West Indies and America and a few on to Europe.

There were goods traded among the people of the three continents as well. Europe brought weaponry and textiles to Africa, then brought African slaves to the Americas and forced them to produce products like tobacco and cotton which were then brought back to Europe. Since slaves were considered property and not human beings, they were sold at markets like other goods.

The profits generated from the work that was forced to be completed by the enslaved people generated immense profits for European powers and their American descendants, thereby forming the triangle.

The Slave Trade Routes

  • From Europe to West Africa
  • From West Africa to America and the West Indies (South America)
  • From America to Europe

When the slaves from West Africa arrived in the Americas, they mainly worked in coffee, tobacco, cotton and sugar plantations. Others were also forced to work in rice fields and in gold and silver mines. The female slaves mainly worked as domestic servants for their White masters, and many were often raped by them.

It is worth noting that before the Europeans went to Africa for the first time and started the slave trade, Africans themselves had their own form of slavery. Many historians believe that existing slave trades in areas like current-day Benin and the African's preparedness to sell their own brothers and sisters motivated the Europeans to start engaging in the slave trade business.

In addition to the information above, it is important to note that it wasn’t the whole of Europe that was engaged in the slave trade. The borders of Europe at the time looked entirely different, and the slave trade was perpetuated generally by the nations actively colonizing the Americas. It began with the Portuguese before countries like Spain, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden became involved as well.

How Slaves Were Obtained

The most common ways people were brought into slavery and then shipped to the Americas included the following:

Slaves of War

Before and during the European-led slave trade, Africans were also involved in the business with other Africans. Prisoners and captives of wars and conflicts between ethnic groups and tribes were often taken as slaves by chiefs and warriors. They were then sold to Europeans, leading African leaders themselves to play a prominent role in the trade.

Criminals and Prisoners

Another source of slaves was prisoners and people who had committed crimes against the gods or their various communities. During the years preceding the slave trade, people found guilty of criminal activities or offending the gods were often punished by being banished from their villages or by enslavement. The concept of prisons was not prevalent at the time.

With slavery becoming a very lucrative business, many of these convicted criminals or ‘sinners’ were punished by enslavement instead of banishment. African chiefs and kings sold the enslaved to European slave buyers. The main reason why these convicted criminals were sold into slavery was so they could no longer be within their communities to commit further sins and crimes. Additionally, the process of selling people to the Europeans and into slavery was extremely lucrative.

Tribute Slaves

Tribute slaves were slaves who were gifted to kings and chiefs by other prominent people in society to show appreciation or as a way of thanking them. During the slave trade, most chiefs ended up selling their tribute slaves to European slave traders.


Some slaves were innocent people who were captured during raids and kidnappings. Seeing how extremely lucrative the slave trade business was with the Europeans, some unscrupulous chiefs and other ordinary Africans began raiding and kidnapping their own people from farms and other more desolate places to be sold. Sometimes the men would raid entire communities and villages and mainly capture women and children to be sold into slavery.

Collateral Slaves

There was also a group of slaves known as “collateral slaves”. These slaves were innocent people who were given out as surety for loans. When the person who went in for the loan failed to pay, the creditor then took possession of the innocent person. Most collateral slaves were sold by their masters to African middlemen who, in turn, sold them to European slave buyers.

As a result of how lucrative the slave trade business was, slaves were sometimes even sold in the open market.

It is worth noting that European slave buyers rarely went inland to buy slaves. They mainly stayed toward the coasts and waited for the slaves to be brought to them. The job of going inland to get slaves was done by African middlemen or agents who bought slaves and transported them to coastal areas to be bought.

The reason the European slave traders couldn’t go towards inner West Africa was that they were afraid of catching local diseases and feared being attacked by the Africans who disliked their presence on their soil.

How Slaves Were Kept Before Being Shipped to the Americas

The slaves were mainly kept in slave farms or slave camps which were controlled by the European slave traders who employed Africans to help them take care of the camps. In these camps, slaves were kept in chains and poorly fed. On top of this, they were constantly beaten.

From the slave camps, the people were then transferred to slave castles by the coasts of West Africa. These were large castle-like forts—built with heavy influence from European architecture—concentrated strategically along the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) and used to protect Europeans from threats and Africans themselves.

In these structures, slaves were chained to one another and kept in dark and dirty dungeons until it was time for them to be shipped out of Africa. The dungeons had no windows, and therefore no fresh air could enter.

On top of this, the slaves were given very little food and treated inhumanely. As a result of the harsh and inhumane treatment, many died before even leaving the continent. For the ones that survived, it was the final experience of their homeland before departing to the new world.

Slavery in the Americas Was More Brutal Than Slavery in Africa

While slavery existed both in Africa and the Americas during the era of the transatlantic slave trade, it should be acknowledged that forms of slavery in the Americas were more brutal than in Africa.

For example, in Africa, slavery was not inheritable. This meant that the children of slaves were not automatically considered slaves. But in the Americas, all the children of slaves were also slaves. These children were, therefore, also subjected to the inhumane treatment that their parents underwent.

Slavery in the American South (British Colonies) vs Latin America and the Caribbean

Although only roughly six per cent of slaves from Africa ended up in the current-day American south, by 1860, roughly two-thirds of all slaves were in the United States. This was due to a myriad of factors.

Though the Catholic church did not actively protect Latin/Caribbean slaves, in many cases, they were freed after getting sick, elderly or crippled, so their owners no longer bore any responsibility. Another major difference was that the ratio of male and female slaves in the United States was roughly equal. This meant they had a much higher birth rate to sustain the population and, as a result, created entire generations of people enslaved at birth.

It's reported that the birth rate in the early 1800s of slaves in the United States was roughly 9.2 children, over twice the rate in the Caribbean. It is also reported that the United States created a strict two-category racial system; you were either Black or White. In Latin America, a more complex system developed with classifications like mestizo that further blurred the lines between who descended from Europeans and who descended from Africans.

The Continuous Impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The transatlantic slave trade, widely viewed as one of mankind’s worst actions, lasted for roughly 400 years, from 1450 to somewhere around 1850. The reason the slave trade was able to last this long was the result of several factors.

The most prominent reason was that it was extremely lucrative for both the European slave traders and the African chiefs and middlemen involved in the slave trade business. At that time, there were no international organizations like the United Nations or human rights groups like Amnesty International to investigate and condemn in an internationally coordinated effort. There was really no one to fight on behalf of the slaves.

As a result, the slave trade continued to exist for over 400 years, during which some 12 million Africans were shipped from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean, drastically altering the entire history of the region. The world would simply not be or look like what it does today if the transatlantic slave trade did not happen.



Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on June 23, 2020:

Reading this made me sad and angry. The bible is full of slavery, so it's been around for a long time. No wonder we are seeing black people march for equal rights. It's about time!

lubna on May 05, 2020:

it helped

Angelo Rigsby on December 26, 2018:

There is some evidence that Africans came to America prior to the Trans-Atlantic African Holocaust. There is No evidence that African loaded Africans on ships and brought them to the America or anywhere else in the world.. There is no evidence that Africans built and entire world economy (capitalism) based on the free labor of Africans. Where in the Africa of the 17th through 19th century and now the 21st century is there an African economy that got wealthy based on the enslavement of African peoples. Yes, We Africans participated when passed on or sold slaves from war and prisoners we held due to crime and misconduct. There was no looking at your child, mother, brother, or member of your immediate group and selling them to Europeans. There was also no knowledge on the part of the Africans of what the differences were between the concept of slavery in America and the concept of slavery in Africa. Africans of the interior were not aware of the level of cruelty that was to be brought down on the backs of the Africans that they traded for trinkets and guns and gun powder. We had know knowledge of the atrocities and ultimate economic gains that would come from the Trans Atlantic slave trade. Please don't say to me "Well Africans sold Africans to justify or excuse the atrocities of the European slave trade". To say this to me is more insult to injury. I get this same insult when someone says: "Just forget slavery it happen a long time ago" NO! I am never going to forget what happen to my great great grandparents as slaves. I say to them:" Would you want to just dismiss the torture and daily , hourly, oppression of your grandparents. Just act like they never happen! Who is that much of a monster other than a monster!

Raphael Duncan on November 13, 2017:

Because the slave did not do them any thing

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on November 26, 2015:

It could be they shipped them elsewhere and I imagine so when one looks a map.

M Y Venn (author) from Ghana on November 25, 2015:

Are you sure about Mogadishu, Somalia being the main port for exporting slaves during the Transatlantic Slave Trade? Somalia isn't in West Africa. And during the transatlantic slave trade era, the ports from which slaves were shipped out of Africa were the ports in West Africa. West African countries such as Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Liberia, etc were mainly where these slaves were shipped from to the Americas.

Reynold Jay from Saginaw, Michigan on November 25, 2015:

Yes--very sad part of history. Well done HUB. Mogadishu, Somalia was the main port for exporting slaves. To this day Mogadishu is considered to be the most violent city in the world.

M Y Venn (author) from Ghana on November 24, 2015:

Cheaptrick, you have a very strong point there. What is freedom? What is the definition of freedom? Are we really free? Maybe not. Maybe we are to a certain degree. Cheaptrick, your comment is really deep and thought provoking.

cheaptrick from the bridge of sighs on November 24, 2015:

Slavery was and is a look into the dark side of human nature.

An interesting fact about slavery in America(that most folks aren't aware of)is only wealthy people could afford slaves.Less than 10% of Americans had the money to buy one...

The vast majority of slaves were owned by the same 10% who's decedents own All of us today...only the chains have been replaced by debt,taxation,and the double speak of politicians.

Freedom is a word used by dreamers and fools.We(the people of the world)are like cattle bred for generations to serve the owners...who do with us what they wish..