How were the slaves sent across the Atlantic originally captured?

Obviously, a lot of the slaves in antebellum America were native born. But the original generation came from Africa. What were the logistics of that abduction? Were slave catchers literally raiding towns to capture people? Or were kingdoms selling off the prisoners of war from competing nations? Or something else?

(I realize that there’s potential racism in this topic: I’ve heard some people try to excuse America’s legacy of racism on the grounds that Africans were responsible for enabling the slave trade in the first place. This comment partially informs my question, but I am not trying to lend credence to any racist tropes. I just want the straight dope on history)

Thanks to all who reply.

My understanding is that tribes in Africa would go to war with each other, then the winning tribe would capture the healthy people in the losing tribes and sell them to western slave ships in exchange for things like weapons and other items.

European ledgers reveal the many things traded in exchange for people, including: cloth, hard cash (cowries), iron bars, guns, gun powder, textiles, pottery, glassware, beads, ironmongery, horses and brandy.

In the early days, slaves were captured by western Europeans who came to Africa looking for things like ivory and other goods that they could only get in Africa. As time went on, and especially after the rise of the plantations in the American South, slavery turned into a huge industry of its own.

It’s important to keep in mind that Africa was not one big country, but was a bunch of tiny nations, each with their own rules and culture. In many areas, slaves predominantly came from tribal wars, though unprovoked raids on villages specifically for the purpose of gathering slaves were common. In other areas, slaves were primarily criminals or those who were unable to repay large debts. And there were also some areas that refused to participate in the slave trade.

European nations set up trading areas for slaves along the coast, and slaves were gathered from inland Africa by other Africans. Some Europeans engaged in raids along coastal areas, but these raids could only provide a tiny fraction of the slaves needed by the plantations.

In the early days, slaves mainly came from coastal areas. Later, slaves were gathered from further and further inland and were marched to the coast for sale to the slave traders.

I was not originally going to post here. However, engineer_comp_geek, I think your post needs real revision. It is not all wrong, but much of it is just misleading enough to really confuse.

Now, before I go into all this, nothing I say here will excuse any historical injustice. I can describe a great many of them all day long. Human history is filled with people doing all kinds of nasty things to one another. These are simply all the facts I can communicate in a short space.

Europeans did not create the slave trade; they discovered it, and then expanded it. Slavery was a not-trivial enterprise in parts of western Africa for centuries. As Europeans ventured down the coasts in search of India, they found existing markets in various kingdoms. This was not a great surprise to them; both Spain and Portugal knew of the trans-Saharan slave trade through North African kingdoms.

Actually venturing in to capture African peoples as slaves probably happened some times, but it would have been very rare compared to purchasing them from the major slave markets, such as Luanda. Europeans rarely ventured beyond the slave ports themselves, although as time went on some colonies were established. These were tiny enclaves compared to the large colonial empires built in the 19th century, however.

The slave-trade did two things, neither of which were intended by Europeans. First, they brought power to those who possessed the markets. And active port meant wealth, and wealth meant goods - including those with military value such as guns. And all that together meant power. For those who did not have access to such markets, it meant becoming a huge target. Now, trade links did form, so that some groups far inland became very powerful, but on the whole the slave trade radically increased conflict. It also transformed many who might not have otherwise been attacked into victims, either as groups or as individuals. Women might have been left alone previously (although war is a cruel business and people can be pretty bad regardless) but now they were represented profits, too. Captured soldiers might have been allowed to go free in prior times, or perhaps could have joined the kingdom that captured them; but once sold that was no longer possible. The net result was that those willing to lead slave-taking wars and raids saw their power grow, while those who would not or could not might face ruin and collapse.

On the flip side, the consequences for the slaves that lived to reach the new World could be horrendous. Death rates among slaves in some colonies reach frankly impossible levels - impossible without constant cargoes of new slaves to replace them. Conditions in Saint-Domingue, which became modern Haiti, was killing off something like 10,000 slaves annually for an entire century. That’s a million souls, and from records a huge proportion were dying extremely young compared to the free population, either of disease or overwork or starvation (because some plantations effectively didn’t bother to feed their slaves) or accidents.

*As a side note, I’m sure that Saint Dominic, who famously lived an austere and monastic existence, really approved of naming a slave-holding hell growing luxuries after him.

Not every place in the New World was like that, of course. In some places, slaves formed a new peasant class, oppressed somewhat worse than those in Europe but at least able to live full lives. A fair number were granted liberty and joined the free population. In some colonies enslaved women often married their masters and raised families like any other mother would. And in much of the New World slavery never put down roots at all, such as Mexico or Canada or eastern South America.

Of those who came to the New World, about half went to Brazil, and a bit less than half went to the Caribbean. Somewhere in the ballpark of half a million went to the English colonies and a similar number to northern South America. This is somewhat misleading, however, because some areas, such as what would become the United States, purchased few slaves from Africa ports, but rather brought them over from Spanish or Dutch Caribbean colonies. In total, something like twelve million souls entered the hellish confines of the slave ships. Probably one-sixth, on average, died in the crossing.

Now, to clarify just how awful this was, imagine being rounded up by people from the next major city, manacled in a ship with almost no light or even the ability to use the restroom for three months. Every sixth man or woman with you dies and their corpses are hurled overboard. Then you’re dragged off naked and sold in a strange land and the even the fellow slaves around you may not speak the same language. If you are lucky, you may now work on somebody else’s farm for the rest of your life, perhaps forty years. If not, you may now work on somebody else’s farm for the rest of your life which will be about one single year before your abused body can take no more.

[I can also describe slavery in the early British colonies as well, but that’s something of a side note, so I will leave it there.]

Can you recommend books on this topic? Thanks

I think there must be a mistake here. Brazil is about as eastern South American as you can get. Did you mean western South America?

Didn’t Canada also have slavery?

Good article:

Interestingly, the local slave trade in Nigeria continued until the early 1950s, long after international slave trade had been abolished.

Slave trade in the 20th Century

Acclaimed Igbo historian Adiele Afigbo described the slave trade in south-eastern Nigeria which lasted until the late 1940s and early 1950s as one of the best kept secrets of the British colonial administration.

While the international trade ended, the local trade continued.

“The government was aware of the fact that the coastal chiefs and the major coastal traders had continued to buy slaves from the interior,” wrote Afigbo in The Abolition of the Slave Trade in Southern Nigeria: 1885 to 1950.

He added that the British tolerated the ongoing trade on political and economic grounds.

They needed the slave-trading chiefs for effective local governance, and for the expansion and growth of legitimate trade.

Records from the UK’s National Archives at Kew Gardens show how desperately the British struggled to end the internal trade in slaves for almost the entire duration of the colonial period.

They promoted legitimate trade, especially in palm produce. They introduced English currency to replace the cumbersome brass rods and cowries that merchants needed slaves to carry. They prosecuted offenders with prison sentences.

“By the 1930s, the colonial establishment had been worn down,” wrote Afigbo.

“As a result, they had come to place their hope for the extirpation of the trade on the corrosive effect over time of education and general civilisation.”

To correct some of this post–Europeans did not “discover” slavery in West Africa in the early age of New World colonization. Slavery had been practiced for thousands of years in Western Europe, Noth Africa, Asia Minor, the Levant, Mesopotamia etc.

Venice for example became a major slave trading hub in the 700s and was still one 700 years later, trading Slavic peoples, Turks, Armenians and many other groups. Note that as is sometimes popularly stated–that Christians only enslaved non-Christians, is not factual. Christians actually could have Christian slaves, but there were conventions that existed prohibiting Christians from selling Christian slaves to non-Christians.

In general there was a slot of slave trading and slave owning in Middle Ages and early Middle Ages Europe. It is generally true that unlike say, the old Western Roman Empire whose entire agricultural economy was underpinned by mass slavery, that was not the norm in the various successor states of that Empire, and slavery was less common for agriculture (which is the largest manpower driver of slavery at this time.) But it’s complicated, a lot of Europe was moving towards mixed systems of peonage, with some small percentage of slavery, and a mixture as well of genuinely free yeoman farmers. England is an example of a country that wasn’t significantly participating in slavery even early on. At the time of the Domesday book only around 10% of the population were enslaved.

One of the big drivers of slavery in Europe was actually selling slaves to wealthy Muslim states (one reason there developed conventions against selling Christians to non-Christians was to stop exactly that), and William the Conqueror banned the export of slaves from England. This helped to push slavery in England almost to non-existence by the time of Columbus, as subsequent Kings maintained that rule and thus England was not part of the broader European slave trade. Italy and its merchant Republics can be seen occupying a different end of the spectrum, where Venice and Genoa made vast fortunes from slave trading, and the only thing that significantly curtailed it was growing conflict with Muslim countries which eventually lead to a series of Popes issuing steadily more strict decrees that limited the ability of the Italians to easily trade in slaves (eventually of any type) with Muslims. But even Columbus’s Genoa was still trading slaves.

The Iberian Kingdoms of Columbus’ time also had the largest population of black African slaves in Europe, importing them with North African Berber people acting as the middle men. The North African Muslim states had always sourced at least some slaves from West Africa, which was also a major driver of the West African slave trade (so it wasn’t just the colonialist European demand for slaves that drove it, but it definitely increased demand.)

The TLDR is Europe practiced slavery at varying levels back to its earliest known history until around the 1800s when European countries ceased practicing it. Note that while some European countries had earlier dates at which they stopped practicing slavery “domestically”, most were at least “involved” in the trade of slaves, or enslavement in their colonies, until the early 19th century.

One thing you don’t mention is Europeans enslaved by North Africans.

Large numbers of white people from southern Europe, Britain, and even the United States, were sold into slavery in North Africa.

The numbers were not negligible. From the early 16th century to the early 19th century it’s estimated that up to 1,250,000 European men, women and children were captured and sold into slavery. (Compare this with about 450,000 black slaves brought to North America - of course far more black slaves were taken to the Caribbean and South America.)

European slaves were used as labourers in fields and mines, as galley slaves, as domestic slaves - and many women would end up in harems.

The Barbary Coast comprised what is today Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The region was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, but independent for most practical purposes.

Barbary raiders sailed as far afield as the North Atlantic and South America. In the 17th century the village of Baltimore in Ireland was sacked and its inhabitants taken away en masse as slaves. There were also Barbary raids on the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. In the four years from 1677-1680, 160 British merchant vessels were captured by Algerians. Spain and Italy fared very much worse, with whole areas of their coastlines left depopulated due to Barbary raiders.

As late as the early 19th century, United States ships were being captured by Barbary corsairs and their crews sold into slavery or held for ransom.

In 1800, payments in ransom and tribute by the United States to the Barbary states amounted to 20% of the US Government’s annual revenue. The first overseas war that the US ever fought was against the Barbary states the following year.

What’s interesting is how much this seems to be ignored in the modern narrative of slavery.

Thank you for catching that. I meant western South America, as in Peru and Chile. Spanish Holdings there did have some amount of forced labor from the native population, but did not establish much of anything in the way of chattel slavery. A small number of slaves also went to the Argentina region, but those were a pretty trivial number in the overall story. You are right that Brazil was probably the biggest single receiver of slaves in the new World, but that was partly a function of its size and longevity compared to any other single colony except maybe Mexico, as well as the relative difficulty of blockading it by sea.

Also, lest I confuse anyone: Luanda was created by Europeans, but most other the slave ports were not.

It wasn’t mentioned since it wasn’t directly relevant to the origins of the West African slave trade.

The main point I was making is slavery was widely practiced for millennia prior to Columbus discovering the “New” World. It’s a weird modern American-centrict belief that slavery only existed for post-Columbian purposes.

I would agree that this is all true, but it’s a very complicated subject because in the post-ROman world the line between slave and free was very hazy. Nearly everyone in Europe had some form of labor service owed in some way, and the exact breakdown on what made a man a “slave” was something a culturally-defined idea that was applied in retrospect. I may get into this tomorrow.

However, my main point is that Europeans mostly did not have chattel slavery until they discovered the availability of slaves in western Africa, and this drove the Atlantic slave trade. Other forms and practices of it did exist but aren’t as relevant to the OP.

this should help it’s about a family of African slave traders, and explaines how the African side worked

and apparently as notorious as these 2 were they were small to medium potatoes in the slave trade

and yes also it directly answers the op and the answer is the first 1/4th of the article

So how was your discussion of slavery in ancient and medieval times, slavery in Venice from the 700s, and the Domesday book in England, directly relevant to the origins of the West African slave trade?

The point is that slavery was present in one form or another in many, probably most, societies throughout history.

I’m sure most Americans are well aware of slavery in the Greek, Roman, and Biblical world, and medieval serfs at least.

I mentioned North Africans enslaving Europeans and Americans in the context of your general discussion of slavery, because few people know about it.

Algerian slave raids for white slaves on the coasts of England, Ireland, Spain and Italy in the 16th-18th century, and America paying off North African states not to attack their ships and enslave their crews as late as 1800, are parts of history that don’t fit neatly into narratives of European supremacy.

It was in response to a post that used phrasing to suggest that Europeans “discovered” and then grew the slave trade in West Africa, then the reality is Europeans had always practiced slavery, they simply didn’t need the vast number of slaves seen in the post-Columbian colonization until that time. But they would have known about the widespread slaving practices of Muslim states down further into Africa, especially the Portuguese who were well acquainted with the West African coasts and it would have been an obvious place to go if you had a sudden need for a lot more slaves than normal.

How much time have you spent in America or around Americans, particularly in a historical education context? I can promise you the vast majority have virtually no knowledge of the long history of slavery in Europe / Africa / West Asia. Most for example probably could not point to where the Ottoman Empire was on a map, one of the major slaving entities of the previous 500 years.

Even the Barbary Pirate Wars, which usually are given about 1 page of coverage in an American history textbook, usually don’t mention the significance of slavery to the Barbary states.

Martin_Hyde, I think you may be confusing me and GreenWyvvern. If so, please don’t. I find some of his statements both morally offensive and ahistorical.

Europeans discovered the west African slave trade. This is a fact. They expanded that into the trans-Atlantic slave trade. West Africa had a powerful pre-existing slave market already in place. This wasn’t a purely internal matter, because it relied upon external purchasers for African slaves. Europeans found these and took advantage.

You are obviously correct that Europeans knew what slavery was, and it hardly surprised them or anything. But I for one certainly did not suggest otherwise. However, slavery within Europe had become exceedingly marginal, to the point that it’s hard to even measure. For a variety of reasons, both religious and economic, authority figures across the Christian world had gone to some lengths to forbid the slave trade, and most former slaves had been at least partly freed. That is, they had more or less become serfs or yeomen over the years.

Which of my statements exactly do you find morally offensive and ahistorical?

Baltimore, Ireland? Hell those scourging Mussulmen went all the way to Iceland.

I guess they had a thing for blondes. In rhe East, the Turks sure did, slaving for Circassian maidens, to their eventual destruction.

But the Berbers and Turks enslavement of whites was minimal compared to Western enslavement of sub-saharan Africans: Europe was not destroyed by slavery. But Black Africa was (by both European and Arab).

(On balance, you can look back on the Africans who invaded Europe, and not only killed-off and/or raped the original inhabitants, but actually hunted them for food! You got a lot to answer for, Mr Cro-Magnon)

Nobody has clean hands when it comes to slavery. Plenty of Australians keep a chip on their shoulder for the poms who wrote new capital crimes on the books for trivial offences, then “graciously” pardoned the condemned by the thousands to transportation as indentured servants in NSW, but do many of them feel the same indignation for the Blackbirders who supplied slaves from Melanesia to the Northern Territories?

Maybe some of you were like me: a white kid who walked into class in an integrated school the morning in 1977 after Roots premiered. The smart white moms kept their kids home that day. But it spurred my interest in history for sure.