The True Beginning of African Slavery in the Americas

Posted on August 25, 2019


By now, unless you are a hermit or living under a rock, we all know from the avalanche of media that slavery began in America four hundred years ago, in 1619, with the arrival of a Dutch ship off the coast of Virginia with some African slaves they traded to the Virginia colonists for some supplies.

The significance of the slave experience in the U. S. over the next four centuries is in debate. What is often missing in these hot debates arguing for one ideology or another are some facts. So, here are some facts for the debaters, not only on the impact of African slavery in the making of U. S. culture, but also on some other hot button issues such as reparations.

As is often the case with “American” historians, or more exactly, historians of the United States, they tend to be a bit myopic and think of America as just North America. African slavery was introduced into the Western Hemisphere, or the Americas (North, Central, and South) about one hundred years before by Spanish and Portuguese traders.

The background was the rapidly dwindling indigenous people in the face of the advancing Spanish conquest of the sixteenth century which came with heavy demands for labor on the growing sugar plantations. Africans had been imported into southern Europe, especially Spain and Portugal, for the past half century, so why not just send some to the Americas?

Since the first half of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese had been exploring down the coast of Africa. Just before mid-century they arrived in the area of Senegal and captured some Africans to be brought back to Portugal and sold into slavery.[1] Soon thereafter they discovered that it was more efficient, less confrontational, and quite a bit safer to deal directly with African kings and chiefs along the coast and up the rivers of West Africa. The Portuguese bought slaves offered for sale by the Africans themselves.

The Portuguese simply took advantage of a slave system already well developed in West Africa. African slavery was very much in existence and flourishing in such pre-colonial African empires as Dahomey and Ashanti (modern Benin and Ghana). [2]

John Thornton in his Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World noted that “the slave trade (and the Atlantic trade in general) should not be seen as an ‘impact’ brought in from outside and functioning as some sort of autonomous factor in African history. Instead, it grew out of and was rationalized by the African societies who participated in it and had complete control over it until the slaves were loaded onto European ships for transfer to Atlantic societies.”[3]

This modern interpretation of the origins of the African slave trade gives credence to the Portuguese position that they were simply trafficking in people already in bondage, thus making the slave trade a “just” trade and legal within the accepted norms of the age.

In the last two decades of the fifteenth century, approximately 2000 slaves per annum were bought by Portuguese traders on the African coast.[4] Most were carried to Portugal and southern Spain where they were employed in domestic service in urban centers such as Seville.

The slaves in southern Iberia were rarely used in agriculture or plantation slavery as would develop in the Americas. Rather they fit into society much like the Moorish slaves who preceded them, eventually being absorbed into the local society, becoming members of Christian brotherhoods, developing a significant free colored population, and Herbert Klein in his The Atlantic Slave Trade wrote that these “African slaves readily adopted the culture, language, and religion of their masters.”[5]

The plantation slavery that evolved later on in the English colonies of the Americas was pioneered far earlier than the seventeenth century beginning with the 1619 phenomenon that has eclipsed the news today.

Plantation slavery evolved on the Atlantic islands, especially the Madeiras, the Canaries, and Sâo Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea. By 1550, Sâo Tomé had over sixty sugar mills and between 5,000 and 6,000 plantation slaves.

If we are to deal with the legacy of African slavery in the making of (North) America, and reparations, then why start with 1619? Go back to the 1450s, and even earlier, when slavery was common in Africa and the Portuguese interest in acquiring and selling slaves led to the common exploitation of Africans by other Africans.

From these facts we can deduce whatever truth one is interested in pursuing. But if you abandon or ignore the facts, your truth too becomes suspect, or as the Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, framed it so succinctly when faced with trying to determine if Jesus Christ was indeed a threat to the Roman empire: what is truth?

[1] John Thornton, in his Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (2nd ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) does an excellent job of recreating this early period of Portuguese maritime and commercial expansion into the Atlantic islands and down the African coast. See especially his Chapters 1-3 for the European dimension to the establishment of the slave trade.

[2] For a few examples of African world scholarship, see Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World; David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005); Herbert Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[3] Thornton, pp. 74, 94-96.

[4] Here following Klein, Atlantic Slave Trade, pp. 10ff.

Published as “Honk Protests are a legacy of British rule,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Aug. 25, 2019.

[5] Klein, p. 13.