Opinion: New revelations about slaves and slave trade
The new "Atlas" of the slave trade provides 189 maps tracing the voyages.
February 14th, 2011
02:04 PM ET

Opinion: New revelations about slaves and slave trade

Editor's note: David Eltis and David Richardson are co-authors of the "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade." Eltis is Robert W. Woodruff professor of history at Emory University and co-editor of the Transatlantic Slave Trade database. Richardson is the director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, England.

Most students of American history understand that a dramatic re-peopling of North and South America began in the years after Christopher Columbus first landed in the New World. But they may not realize that it was Africa, not Europe, that formed the wellspring of this repopulation process.

In the 3¼ centuries between 1492 and about 1820, four enslaved Africans left the Old World for every European. During those years, Africans comprised the largest forced oceanic migration in the history of the world. Who were they? Who organized the slaving voyages? Which parts of Africa did they come from? How did they reach the Americas? And where exactly did they go?

Strikingly, we can now provide better answers to such questions for Africans than we can for European migrants. The African slave trade reduced people to commodities, but commodities generated profits, and where there were profits there was generally good record-keeping.

Since the onset of the computer revolution in the early 1960s, early modern business and government records have allowed historians to retrieve information on 35,000 slave voyages from Africa to the Americas and make the information available on the internet. For many of these voyages, we have rich detail on the slave ship itineraries, as well as who was put on board, who survived and how they traveled.

A new "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade" draws on five decades of research in archives around the north and south Atlantic to provide 189 detailed and sumptuously drawn maps that answer many questions.

These maps show that almost every port in the early modern Atlantic world organized and sent out a slave voyage, and that the bigger the port, the greater the number it sent out.

Such ubiquity suggests that before the abolitionist era, there was no moral outrage or public disgrace associated with trading in African slaves. The maps also show that almost half of all voyages were organized and set out from the Americas, not Europe. As a result, bilateral (that is out and return) itineraries were almost as common as the famous "triangular voyage" pattern based on voyages dispatched from Europe.

Within the United States, we now know that slave voyages left from almost every port and that although Rhode Island might be well-known as a slave trading region, it was far from synonymous with the U.S. slave trade. New York and Charleston, South Carolina, were also major centers.

A profile of those on board ship as well as the conditions to which they were subjected also emerges from the pages of the Atlas. Thus, Samuel Adjai Crowther, liberated from a slave ship as a child in 1821, became the first Anglican African bishop and was largely responsible for creating the first written version of the Yoruba language. Remarkably, he married Asano, whom he had first met as a girl on the slave ship from which they were both rescued.

The Atlas also contains the story of Mahommah G. Baquaqua, who was enslaved probably in what is now western Nigeria in 1845 as a 20-year old. He was first taken to Recife in Brazil, and after a ship's captain purchased him in Rio de Janeiro, he was taken to New York where he escaped, fled to Haiti, and after returning to New York to study and then moving to Canada, he wrote his autobiography.

For most there was no escape. As another captive, Ottobah Cuguano, wrote in 1787 in his own narrative, "the misery of that of any of the inhabitants of Africa meet with among themselves is far inferior to those of the inhospitable regions of misery which they meet with in the West Indies, where their hard-hearted overseers have neither regard to the laws of God, nor the life of their fellow men."

Some of the survivors lived on into the age of photography. Photographs of Crowther as well Cudjoe and Abache Lewis, who arrived on the last slave vessel to come into the US (the Clotilde in 1860) are displayed among the maps along with stories and paintings of some of their 18th century predecessors, such as Venture Smith and Phillis Wheatley.

See co-author David Eltis talk about the findings

The Atlas also charts more general patterns among captives such as their age and sex and, for two regions, evidence of ethno linguistic origins. The maps show that both mortality and voyage length in days declined over the slave trade era, but, as with ports in Europe from which free migrants left, risk of death was persistently greater from some regions of departure than from others. Captives leaving from what is now eastern Nigeria were particularly at risk with, on average, almost one fifth of those embarked dying on the Middle Passage.

But the major contribution of the Atlas is to make it clear that the slave trade was not a random process. Systematic connections between Africa and the Americas can be tracked in the same way that people have been doing for years between Europe and the Americas.

Particular ports and regions in Africa were linked via winds, currents and political circumstances with particular islands, regions and ports in the Americas. For example, Angola supplied four out of every five captives in the very large branch of the trade that went to the southern cone region of South America (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay). The United States drew a larger proportion of its slaves from Senegambia south to Liberia than any other region in the Americas. And Amazonia drew almost all of its captives from what is now Guinea-Conakry.

Where a given part of the Americas drew on a number of African regions, it tended to do so in sequence. Thus Jamaica drew heavily on what is now Ghana and Benin in the 17th century before switching to first eastern Nigeria and then northern Angola and the Congo region. Such transatlantic links bear an uncanny resemblance to the patterns established by free migrants leaving Europe for the Americas.

Finally, the Atlas shows that the Atlantic slave trade remained strong until it was suppressed. Like the institution of slavery, the traffic that supplied captives did not die a natural economic death. The maps establish that in all the major importing areas of the Americas, the volume of the traffic peaked in the years just before its suppression. This pattern held for Brazil, the United States, and the British Americas as a whole.

It is becoming commonplace to claim that there are more slaves in the world today than ever and that large-scale trafficking in people continues. The "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade" suggests that such claims tend to obscure the horrors - unique in human history - of the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. It is indeed hard to imagine circumstances in which any parallel to the transatlantic slave trade could ever happen again.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the authors.


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soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. lawal G. waheed

    Slavery has never been aborlished. It has just been modernised. Take for instance this modernised way of self-slavery; I know it will be a surprise to a lot of people if I say in some part of Africa especially Nigeria, young able body females are voluntarily seeking trafficers who will take them abroad to serve them (as their sponsorers) for certain number of years as prostitutes. The trafficers then free them after they have fulfilled the pact between them. Failure to fullfil this agreement leads to series of molestations and finally deportation back to their country. These girls do it mostly with their parents concent, who believe it's a way of seeking greener pasture. Terrible Economic situations doesn't help matter, rather, it contributes immensely to this modern day fashion of slavery.

    March 7, 2011 at 7:12 am | Reply
  2. YouKnow

    You really wanted everyone to know you're African I suppose, middle initial and all. Anyway, voluntarily entering into prostitution isn't slavery. What the story is about and what this project is about concerns the hundreds of thousands that are forced into trafficking and the millions around the world, including Africa, that are forced to perform labor in their country to produce the cheap products that Americans buy for expensive prices.

    April 11, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Reply
  3. Chizoba Okoro

    It is really a pity that i have not heard anyone apologise for what happened to Africans centuries ago. the Europeans try to justify it by saying that without the help of the black Africans that it would not have been possible. Most of these horrors are brought about by the white man, an idea is introduced and the wickedness in man makes it grow and fester. Take the chopping off of limbs as an example, it was introduced by the Belgians in Congo, out of every 200 slaves, one had his/her limbs cut off to put fear in other slaves, and people think all bad things come from the Black man particularly Africans. I commend CNN for launching this project to open the eyes of people to what is happening around them. No matter your race, the colour of your skin, the straightness of your hair, evil exists in every race, no race has monoploy over evil. Lets join hands and expose those involved in HUMAN TRAFFICKING AROUND US.

    May 6, 2011 at 5:35 am | Reply
  4. goodknight

    This story is very informative and it a reminder of how this evil practice flourished. However, the author seems to exclude the Europeans from be active participants in the early slave trades. Infact, it was England that started the transatlantic slave trade and the British at one time did own slaves in England. Even the Anglican Church of England own slaves. Slavery was abolished in England only 35 years before it was abolished in America. This atlas doesn' t show the slave trade routes to England. Slaves were considered as a valuable commodity and a lot of white people got rich in the slave trade. If you go to Liverpool, in England you will see vivid reminders and evidence of the slave trade in the buildings that still stand today. Infact, Lords of London insured the ships that carried the slaves. Most of the big expansive old mansions and ivy league universities were built from the wealth of the slave trade. The reason why the importing of slaves increased before the end of the American Civil War was because the slave traders were trying to maximise on their profits before the Civil War ended because they knew President Lincoln would abolish slavery in America.
    I agree that to this day, there has yet to be a formal apology for the slave trade. I think it is well over do and along with that reparations to those whose ancesters were brought to America as slaves.
    As for the modern day slavery, I feel that the only way to end it is to make it a world law punishable by deatth for anyone envolved in human traffic. This is a serious crime that has been allowed to continue because either the laws are too weak or just don't exsist at all.

    June 1, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Reply
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