In 1492, when Columbus set out on his voyage to the "Indies," the
plantation system of enslaved African labor had already been established
by the Portuguese in the Atlantic Islands off the west coast of Africa,
where it achieved particular success on the lucrative sugar plantations
of Madeira. African slaves arrived in the Caribbean as early as 1501,
and by 1820 8.7 million African slaves had been transported to the
Americas--77 percent of all immigrant arrivals to the new world.
From 1820 to 1880 the African slave trade, now illegal, transported
another 2.3 million more slaves, mainly to Brazil and Cuba.
addition to the millions of Africans
swept up in the slave trade, untold numbers were killed and whole
societies disrupted in wars of enslavement, encouraged by the European
powers and carried out by predatory African states.
Major European powers involved in the trade included the Portuguese,
Dutch, English, French, Spanish, and Danes, who quickly learned to
form alliances with African kingdoms along the continent's western
coast. Commerce between the European nations and those kingdoms involved
in the slave trade was carefully regulated by both parties. In exchange
for slaves and, to a lesser extent, other commodities, Europeans
traded textiles, liquor, iron, guns, and tools.
Conditions on slave ships were horrific.
Approximately fifteen percent of those
Africans who boarded the slave ships died
during the Middle Passage between Africa
and the New World. One out of every ten
voyages was marked by some form of rebellion.
Nearly nineteen out of every twenty Africans
who survived the voyage ended their days
on the plantations of Brazil and the
Caribbean, where conditions were equally
harsh; the life expectancy for a newly
arrived slave on the sugar plantations
of the Caribbean was approximately seven
years. Except in a few instances, slave
populations were unable to reproduce
fast enough to compensate for their high
mortality rates, which only stoked the
demand for new slaves.
Over four centuries,
writes historian David Brion Davis, the
trade consumed Africans "so
increasing numbers of Europeans (and later,
white Americans) could consume sugar, coffee,
rice, and tobacco." Connecticut