The Transatlantic Slave Trade

16th Century–1867

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a business in which the commodity was African men, women, and children. They were captured in Africa, transported across the Atlantic Ocean over the “Middle Passage,” and forced to work in the Americas. It was also part of the Triangular Trade System and the Mercantile System.

Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1840, Painting, Biard

Detail from The Slave Trade by Auguste François Biard, 1840. Image Source: Wikipedia.

What was the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a business network built to profit from the acquisition, transfer, and distribution of African men, women, and children who were forcibly removed from their homes. 

There were two major points of exchange in the network The first was in Africa; the second in the Americas. Bridging the gap between the two points of exchange was the Middle Passage — the horrific overseas route captive Africans were forced to travel as cargo, below deck in the dark holds of slave ships.

Those who survived the Middle Passage were forced to work in the Americas, primarily on plantations, growing and harvesting things like sugar, rice, and cotton. However, many were also put to work in mines and others worked as servants in homes.

The system was lucrative for just about everyone involved in it, especially those directly involved with the exchange of Africans. However, many others benefitted from the products that were produced from slave labor and the wealth it created.

Sugar Plantation, West Indies, Illustration
This illustration depicts a Sugar Plantation in the West Indies. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Important Dates in the Transatlantic Slave Trade

16th Century — The Transatlantic Slave Trade begins.

1526 — The first voyage carrying enslaved people from Africa to the Americas is believed to have sailed.

1867 — The business was outlawed, however, the slave trade continued to operate outside of the law.

1700–1850 — More than eight out of ten Africans forced into the system crossed the Atlantic Ocean over the Middle Passage.

1720–1780 — The majority of Africans carried to British North America arrived.

1821–1830 — It is believed more than 80,000 people a year left Africa in slave ships.

By 1825 — Roughly 25% of the population of the Western Hemisphere was made up of Africans who had been enslaved and their ancestors, many of whom were born into slavery.

Transatlantic Slave Trade Statistics 

The Transatlantic Slave Trade lasted for approximately 366 years.

It is estimated that 12.5 million African men, women, and children were taken as captives in Africa, sold to merchants, and shipped across the Middle Passage. Roughly 11 million arrived in the Americas. The rest died in some way.

90% of the enslaved Africans were delivered to South America and the Caribbean.

6% of the enslaved Africans were delivered to the American Colonies. The largest number of them entered through Sullivan’s Island, just outside of Charleston, South Carolina.

Roughly 70% of the Africans were forced to work on plantations that produced molasses, sugar, and rum.

Slave Auction, South Carolina
This illustration depicts a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Brief History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was started by the Portuguese and Spanish. They were followed by other European nations, including the Netherlands, England, and France.

The business increased with the establishment and expansion of plantations in South America and the Caribbean. This also led other nations and colonies to participate in the business, including the American Colonies.

Slave labor was eventually expanded to plantations that produced valuable goods, including tobacco, cotton, and rice.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a key component of Mercantilism, the economic theory that drove European nations to establish colonies in the New World. Cheap labor became a cornerstone of the system and carried over into the Colonial Era in America, particularly in the Southern Colonies where tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton were vital to the economy.

Transatlantic Slave Trade Facts

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a lucrative business and benefitted slavers, traders, merchants, plantation owners, and anyone else who was involved.

There were risks involved that could easily reduce profitability — rough weather on the seas, inexperienced crews, outbreaks of disease, uprisings organized by the Africans, and attacks by privateers and pirates.

Over time, the system was modified and streamlined. 

Spain essentially outsourced its slave acquisition operation by creating agreements with other nations — Asiento — to supply its colonies with Africans.

Eventually, two significant companies controlled the Transatlantic Slave Trade — the Royal African Company (Britain) and the Dutch West India Company (Netherlands).

The ports where slave traders and merchants operated prospered, due to the influx of wealth. The first ports to prosper were in Europe — Liverpool, Liston, Nantes — and spread to South America — Rio de Janeiro — and North America — Boston, Newport, and Charleston.

The routes traveled by slave ships also allowed the transfer of goods and products from one region to another. This led to the development of the Triangular Trade System which was part of the English Mercantile System that the American Colonies were part of. 

After American merchants became involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the routes their ships sailed allowed them to trade with ports in places like the French West Indies. This violated Britain’s maritime laws, the Navigation Acts. Although Americans considered it good business, Britain considered it smuggling. However, during the time of Salutary Neglect, when Britain failed to strictly enforce the Navigation Acts, American merchants prospered.

The Role of Captains, Crews, and Ships of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Merchants and investors hired ships to transport cargo from one location to another. The cargo could include Africans, along with raw materials, goods, and finished products that could be traded in various ports.

The goods and products that were traded were often seasonal in nature. A number of things affected the business, including growing seasons, the spread of disease, and the weather on the high seas.

Despite the dangers of the voyages, it was in the best interest of the ship’s crew to ensure the safety of the Africans on board. However, Africans were often subjected to violence and brutal conditions that led to many of them dying on the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Some estimates say as many as 20% of Africans died.

When ships arrived at their port of destination, the captain and crew were responsible for preparing the Africans to be delivered to their owners or to be sold at auctions.

Middle Passage, Captive Africans, Illustration, NYPL
This illustration depicts captive Africans in the cargo hold of a slave ship. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

John Hawkins and the English Slave Trade

John Hawkins (c. 1532–1595) was one of the most prolific sailors and commanders of his time. He is most well-known for his role as a “Sea Dog” and for involving England in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Born in Plymouth, England, Hawkins followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a prominent merchant.

During his early years as a merchant, Hawkins traveled to the Canary Islands, where he saw the use of enslaved Africans. Believing he could profit from the slave trade, he formed a business partnership that was responsible for funding three major slave trading expeditions.

In 1562, he captured and traded for captive Africans along the coast of Africa, and sailed to the Caribbean, where he traded them for pearls, animal hides, and sugar. The expedition was so lucrative that a coat of arms was designed for him, which included a crude drawing of an enslaved African. The first trip is considered by some to be the first implement and profit from the Triangular Trade Route.

Hawkins carried out two more slave expeditions and helped fund another. He was one of the Sea Dogs, a group of privateers who were hired by Queen Elizabeth I to attack Spanish ships. 

The others were Sir Francis Drake, Sir Martin Frobisher, and Sir Walter Raleigh, all of whom had connections to the establishment of English colonies in North America. Hawkins and the others were so successful that King Philip II sent the Spanish Armada to invade England, however, most of the fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Gravelines (August 8, 1588). Hawkins served as Vice Admiral of the English Navy during the conflict.

Although Hawkins is praised for his role as a naval commander, he is also identified as the founder of Triangular Trade, which was largely based on the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, Painting, Loutherbourg
This painting by Philip James de Loutherbourg depicts the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Trade Routes in the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Trade consisted of three main routes along which Africans were acquired, transported, and distributed.

First Route — Acquisition in Africa

Historians indicate that slavery was practiced in Africa in various forms long before the continent was exposed to Europeans. However, the practice was not unique to Africa and was found in every inhabited continent at some time.

When Europeans started trading for captive Africans, it transformed the system of slavery and gave rise to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

There were three distinct groups involved in the acquisition of Africans for the Transatlantic Slave Trade:

1. Local Slavers — Local slave traders were responsible for kidnapping people and subjugating tribes living in the African interior and then transferring them to the West Coast of Africa. The work of local slavers made large numbers of captives available to the kingdoms on the coast.

2. African Coast Slave Traders — Local slavers delivered their captives to the African kingdoms on the coast, who held them and then traded them to Europeans. The desire for the coastal kingdoms to acquire European goods and products incentivized them to provide more captives for trade.

3. European Slave Traders — Europeans formed business alliances with the kingdoms on the coast and then traded goods and products for the captive Africans. Europeans built forts and factories — trading posts — on the African coast, which were used to acquire and then hold people before they were loaded onto ships.

Second Route — Transportation Across the Middle Passage

The Middle Passage was the route that transported captive Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the West Indies, where they were sold into slavery, often to work on large tobacco and sugar plantations.

The conditions on the ships were horrible, as Africans were usually confined below deck in cramped quarters. Many were marked with brands and men were chained together. Many Africans died during the journey and many more suffered from illness or harsh treatment from the crewmembers.

From 1619 to 1860, it is believed roughly 475,000 Africans were abducted and sent to North America, where they landed in a port and were auctioned off as slaves. It is believed that 18-20 percent of the slaves that crossed the Middle Passage died during the journey.

Third Route — Distribution in the Americas

After arriving in the Americas, Africans were forced to travel to their destination, which could be to a plantation deep in the South American forests, the Carolina Backcountry, or slave auctions in large cities like New York, Charleston, and Savannah.

Enslaved Africans in the Americas

The majority of captive Africans were enslaved in the Caribbean and South America. However, enslaved Africans in the American Colonies and the practice of chattel slavery became a key point of disagreement in the United States, eventually leading to the Civil War.


The Age of Exploration led to significant growth in European exploration, as nations and merchants looked for new trade routes and sources of gold and other precious metals. 

Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, leading to a massive cultural exchange that was felt worldwide. Initially, the Spanish enslaved the indigenous populations, but eventually moved away from that, replacing them with Africans. 

In the Caribbean, Africans were forced to work in mines and on plantations in various locations, including Barbados, Saint-Domingue — present-day Haiti — and Jamaica.

Landing of Columbus, Vanderlyn, AOC
Landing of Columbus, John Vanderlyn, 1847. Image Source: Architect of the Capitol.

South America

Portuguese explorers followed in the footsteps of Columbus and other Spanish expeditions in exploring the New World and establishing colonies. 

The Portuguese arrived in present-day Brazil in the early 1500s and, like the Spanish, enslaved the indigenous population and then transitioned to an African workforce.

By the middle part of the 16th Century, the Portuguese were establishing Sugar Plantations in Brazil and imported Africans to work on them.

Brazil was one area that continued to participate in the Transatlantic Slave Trade into the latter half of the 19th Century.

Sugar Cane Plantation, Enslaved Workers, Sugar Act Image
Enslaved Africans working on a Sugar Cane Plantation. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

North America and the American Colonies

In North America, there was a mix of French, Spanish, and English colonies. In the interior of North America, the colonies were largely divided by major geographical landmarks, including the Mississippi River, the Appalachian Mountains, and the Great Lakes.

French colonies formed along the north of the Atlantic Coast, although French territory stretched south to Louisiana, along the Mississippi River. The entire region was known as New France.

New Spain, the Spanish colonies, were located in the Caribbean, South America, and stretched north into the present-day American Southwest, up the coast into the upper regions of present-day California.

The English Colonies developed south and east of New France, along the Atlantic Coast. They went as far south as present-day Georgia. Originally called “Virginia,” the region was eventually divided into 13 Colonies. Colonies in the Chesapeake Bay and further south enjoyed a long growing season due to the climate, which allowed certain crops, including tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton, to flourish.

Over time, England transformed into Great Britain and a Domestic Slave Trade emerged in the British Colonies, encouraging the exchange of enslaved Africans between colonies and geographical regions. By the middle of the 18th century, the colonies experienced the First Great Awakening, and the seeds of abolition were planted in the minds of many Americans.

Following the American Revolution and the American Revolutionary War, the institution of slavery still drove the economy in many states. By then, production was so high — and dependent on cheap labor — that it was difficult for many merchants and plantation owners to conceive of any other way to continue their operations.

Although the Transatlantic Slave Trade was abolished in the United States in 1808, the Domestic Slave Trade continued to thrive.

In the wake of the Second Great Awakening, the Abolition movement grew, led by former slaves like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Federick Douglass, journalists like William Lloyd Garrison, politicians like Abraham Lincoln, and religious leaders like Henry Ward Beecher

Impact of the Headright System on the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Several colonies, including Virginia, needed to increase their population and workforce.

The Headright System was developed to encourage settlement. In that system, wealthy landowners paid for settlers to move to America. 

In return, the settler agreed to work for the landowner as an Indentured Servant. The company that ran the colony also gave the landowner more land. 

However, when servants finished their contracts, they were freed, leaving the landowner with no way to replace the worker.

Eventually, landowners realized that they could use the Headright System to a greater advantage. If they paid to have captive Africans imported into their colony, they received land — and they also created a more permanent, reliable workforce for their plantations.

Tobacco Culture and Cultivation, Virginia, Headright System
This illustration depicts enslaved African Americans working on a tobacco plantation in Colonial Virginia. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Transatlantic Slave Trade Significance

The Transatlantic Slave Trade is important to United States history for the role it played in transporting captive and enslaved Africans to the American Colonies. Over time, American merchants, especially in the South, replaced indentured servants with slaves, boosting profits and ensuring a sustainable workforce. However, the institution of slavery was divisive, contributing to decades of disagreement between the North and South, eventually leading to the Civil War.

Transatlantic Slave Trade APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Colonial Era, the New England Colonies, the Middle Colonies, and the Southern Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Transatlantic Slave Trade APUSH Definition and Simple Explanation

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was a system of commerce that operated for more than 350 years. It involved the forced movement of millions of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, where they were exploited as forced laborers in various industries, particularly the agrarian economies of the Southern Colonies.

Transatlantic Slave Trade Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Heimler’s History discusses the history of slavery in the British Colonies, including the impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.