HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

The Slave Trade

Last updated: 30 Oct. 2018 (READY for your use; if any links don't work, please report them to the Instructor Role in Sakai Messages)

This week's big question

What was the role of slavery in the making of the Atlantic world?

Video Introduction

Learning outcomes

At the end of this week you should be able to:

Questions to consider, and learning activity


Few stories in human history are as compelling as that of the Atlantic slave trade. And few stories have shaped the modern West so profoundly.  We have no complete records, but historians agree that between 1550 and 1850 approximately 10 million people were sold as slaves and transported across the Atlantic to the Americas. We know this because we have fairly good records for shipping in this period. There's lots, however, that we don't know much about. We don't know very much, for example, about the people who were captured, and their lives in the early years of the slave trade. We have a very poor sense of the number of slaves who died en route – that is, either during capture and transportation while still in Africa or at sea from disease, abuse or ships sinking.  The only thing we know with any certainty is that this was one of the most important, and saddest, chapters in human history.

Map of the slave trade (click the map for details and to expand)

Why slaves? And why so many slaves? The simple answer is that many of the colonies had potential large-scale resource industries – most famously the sugar, tobacco, and later cotton plantations, but also mines and in some cases fisheries. All of these industries required large amounts of human labour. The Spanish tried using Indigenous peoples, under both forced and free conditions, but this worked poorly in part because they resisted both free and coerced terms and (as we will see next week) the massive death toll from disease meant they were simply an unreliable labour force. The British and French experimented with indentured labour – where the workers signed away their freedom for a period of years in return for a fixed sum at the end – but that too proved unreliable. Indentured Europeans typically ran away, as white workers could easily gain work on a ship or in another colony. Africans had much better immunity to disease, and as slaves – marked by their skin colour and often branded – far fewer opportunities to escape.  Many chose death rather than the indignity of coerced servitude; it was the only way they could be free.

In forcibly transporting 10 million people to the New World, we can see three major impacts. First, there was the human impact: the incredible​ barbarity inflicted on human beings.  The indignity of treating humans as property; the cruelty inflicted on the lives, the families, and the bodies of so many people; the violence necessary to maintain its functioning; the disruption of African communities​ and economies (as we saw this past week, while some Africans profited, the broader economy and society were greatly damaged). All of these combined to inflict incalculable losses on the peoples and societies of West Africa. Second, there was the demographic impact: it’s the greatest observable demographic transition in world history. Today over half of the peoples of the Americas identify as people of African ancestry. Third, there was the economic impact: slavery (that is, both the trade and the slaves themselves) created enormous amounts of wealth. Whether it was the mines of Brazil, the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, the cotton plantations of the United States, or the many other smaller examples, incredible amounts of wealth were created in both the capture and delivery of slaves and from the work they then performed. Indeed, this is one of the most interesting dimensions of the academic debate on the slave trade: just how much did slavery contribute to the explosion of economic and political power in Europe over the early modern period? In the 1940s, Eric Williams​, one of the most important historians of slavery, argued that the industrial revolution was financed by monies made in the slave trade.  Other historians disagree, arguing that while great wealth was created, it was not enough that we can measure its place in capital investment in the period.  But however one sees the question, it’s impossible to deny the enormous sums of money made, the political influence that emerged from such wealth, and the power emerging from the combination. 

Our documents this week allow us to see aspects of the slave trade from capture in Africa, to the transportation across the Atlantic, the work they performed in the New World, and the many ways Africans resisted their condition. They do not allow us to answer that big question of slavery's financing of the modern West's success. But they do allow us to see something of the scale, and some effective illustrations of its inhumanity. There are few stories in human history that illustrate more clearly the depths to which humanity can sometimes fall.


In past weeks we have introduced you to several of the concepts of historical thinking, and in particular, you have focused on the skills of working with sources. In addition to these tools for historical thinking, you should also understand the challenges of thinking about the ethical dimensions of historical analysis. The authors of the introduction to ethical thinking in history highlight what they call a "difficult paradox": historians try to understand the past lives of people in terms that are fair to those people, but at the same time the accounts of the past that historians create do make moral judgements about past people's actions and beliefs.

Read the short introduction to ethical dimensions of historical analysis. While you should not forget about "the depths to which humanity can sometimes fall" (as we acknowledge in our introduction above), your challenge for your writing and learning this week is to practice understanding slave owners and traders in their own terms. In other words, you have to try to avoid imposing today's values and beliefs on them, even though we cannot agree with what they did or believed.

Primary sources

Secondary source

Kenneth Morgan​, Slavery and the British Empire (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007), 7-33.
Available as an eBook through the Library. 

Supplemental materials

A great resource for finding images related to the slave trade is the website at the University of Virginia entitled "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record."

There are also numerous advertisements and images available at the Nova Scotia Archives.

See Slate magazine's visualisation of the slave trade from the 16th to the 19th century. Click on an individual dot to get full information on the ship, its flag, and the number of slaves transported.


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