The Slave Trade (Africa In The Caribbean)

By Dennis R. Hidalgo

The Slave Trade (Continuation of Africa In The Caribbean

The Atlantic slave trade brought about 11 million Africans to the Americas and over 40 percent of them came to the Caribbean, deeply shaping the region’s population and cultures.

Africa became Portugal’s exclusive concern after signing the Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain in 1494. The two kingdom’s agreed that Spain would have exclusive rights to the western route to the Indies while Portugal would have a monopoly on the African route. Portuguese merchants were therefore the lawful providers of African captives to Spanish colonists in the Caribbean. At first, they received individual asientos, the Spanish royal license to sell slaves in its colonies.

But in 1562 the Englishman JOHN HAWKINS assembled a group of financiers to invest in the slave trade. He set sail for the African coast where he hijacked a Portuguese slaving ship near modern Sierra Leone. Hawkins took the enslaved Africans and sold 301 of them to Spanish colonists in the Caribbean. The extraordinary profits he brought home generated English interest in the slave trade.

French and Dutch ships were also challenging Spanish supremacy in the Caribbean and the Portuguese control of the Atlantic Slave Trade. From the Iberian perspective, they were all pirates. Thus, in 1595 the Spanish Crown tried to regularize the trade by officially giving the Portuguese a monopoly over the asiento.

Former slaves in Puerto Rico, 1898

Former slaves in Puerto Rico, 1898.

From the 1620s to the 1650s, England and France claimed their own colonial settlements in the Caribbean. While they initially used INDENTURED SERVANTS, these new colonies turned also to the African slave trade. The importation of African captives intensified after 1660, when sugar estates began to outpace TOBACCO farms in SAINT-KITTS, BARBADOS, ANTIGUA, MARTINIQUE and GUADELOUPE. From the mid-1660s, the number of enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic more than doubled.

In 1634, the DUTCH WEST INDIA COMPANY occupied the islands of ARUBA, BONAIRE AND CURAÇAO. In 1662, after they captured Elmina and other Portuguese trading posts on the West African coast, the Dutch made Curaçao the center of their slave trade in the Caribbean, and the source of thousands of slaves heading into French and Spanish colonies. When France succeeded in putting a member of its ruling Bourbon family on the Spanish throne, it appeared likely that French slave traders would dominate commerce with Spain’s colonies.

But in 1713, the British gained the Spanish asiento, or slave-trading license, and with the exclusive rights to this niche market they raised slave trading profits to record heights. European imperial competition over colonial profits in the slave business, but especially in sugar, had a huge impact on the African diaspora in the Caribbean.

In the 1700s, sugar became a mass market commodity in Europe, a staple of the middle class diet and eventually for the working classes too. This made Caribbean sugar colonies into the most valuable overseas possessions of France and Great Britain. These empires believed that to increase sugar production they had to enlarge the enslaved working population in the colonies.

A powerful example of this was SAINT-DOMINGUE, which grew from an abandoned part of Spanish Hispaniola in the early 1600s to become France’s most valuable colony and the most valuable European colony in the world by the 1780s. Saint-Domingue produced more sugar than all the British Caribbean colonies combined, and it was also a leading producer of COFFEE. Indigo and cotton were also important products. The colony’s extraordinary production level was directly related to its enormous population of enslaved blacks.

In the single year of 1789 ninety-nine slave ships arrived in Saint Domingue unloading more than 27,000 enslaved men, women and children. The colonial censuses for that year say that 455,000 enslaved people lived in the colony, together with 31,000 whites and 28,000 FREE PEOPLE OF COLOR.

By the eighteenth century the triangular route that European slave ships took was becoming somewhat standardized [American ships followed a less triangular course]. Most vessels departed from European ports loaded with manufactured goods specifically chosen for the African market, including cloth, iron tools, tobacco, rum and cowry shells from the Indian Ocean. They traded these with African merchants in exchange for enslaved people and provisions. These ships then crossed the Atlantic, following the trade winds to the eastern Caribbean.

From this point captains could stop in the Lesser Antilles, or proceed west to Saint-Domingue or Jamaica. Those bound for Spanish markets often went to a continental port like Cartagena in modern day COLOMBIA. There they sold or traded their enslaved people for products like sugar, coffee, cacao and cotton. Colonial merchants, however, would have to fill several shiploads with these commodities to pay for the costly African captives.

The late eighteenth century was the zenith of buying, transporting and selling Africans into Caribbean slavery. Changes in ship design and more precise navigation drastically reduced the time it took to carry captives across the Atlantic thereby increasing the number of enslaved people reaching the Americas. These changes even cut the transatlantic mortality rates from about 20 percent in the sixteenth century to less than one-half this level.

Also, the European governments subsidized the African trade, making it illegal for their colonists to buy from foreign ships and using their navies to defend their slave trading routes and depots along the African coast. And, while they have initially restricted their African slave trade by assigning it to monopolies, by 1730s most have opened it up to all of their national merchants in selected ports. More traders hustling the open market in a highly efficient system were now satisfying the Caribbean estates’ seemly insatiable labor demands.

If he had concluded successful trades and navigated uneventful ocean crossings, a ship captain might bring back to Europe a sum many times greater than the initial investment. However many things could go wrong with this complicated series of voyages, including rebellions, bad market conditions, illness, storms and hostile ships. Debates over the trade’s profits have yielded diametrically opposed numbers. Roger Anstey has proposed a 10 percent annual profit, while Joseph Inikori’s more recent studies have suggested an average of 27 percent. The business’s risky nature seems to point to high, but volatile returns.

Slave traders bound for the Caribbean took about 80 percent of their captives from a vast coastline that stretched for 3,500 miles [5,600 km] along the West and Central African coast. In modern terms, this began with the nation of Senegal in the north to Angola in the south. It also penetrated into the African interior, between 500 to 1,000 miles [800 to 1,600 km]. About 20 percent overall came from the region of Mozambique in southeast Africa.

The list of African ports involved in this commerce changed many times in the long history of the trade. African coastal rulers and merchants controlled the supply of captives, so events in Africa were responsible for most changes in the location of the trade. Leaders who became involved in wars sold their captives to European ships and these profits encouraged Africans to fight each other and raid unprotected villages deep in the interior.

During the 1400s, the Portuguese took most of their captives from the Senegambia region, the modern nations of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau. In the 1500s, when they began shipping enslaved Africans to Spanish Caribbean colonies, the Portuguese moved south toward the West Central region of Africa, or modern-day Congo and Angola. This region would eventually supply up to 44 % of the all the enslaved people shipped out of Africa.

After the 1670s, as English slave traders began to outnumber other European merchants, new coastal areas became major exporters. The English favored the Bight of Benin [western modern-day Nigeria and southeast Niger] and the so-called Gold Coast [modern Ghana, Burkina Faso, eastern Ivory Coast, and southern Niger].

After 1807 the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade and the British Navy began to suppress it. Under pressure, traders shifted their focus mostly to the Bight of Biafra (an area that included western Cameroon and eastern Nigeria) and Sierra Leone. [see ABOLITION OF THE SLAVE TRADE] The French government tolerated slave trading to its Caribbean colonies up to 1830. The trade in captives to the Spanish Caribbean, most notably to Cuba, continued until 1866.

  • Coming up next: African and African-style cultures in the Caribbean. 


Dennis R. Hidalgo is a History Professor at Virginia Tech, who loves to read, enjoy nature, sports and hopes to make a positive impact in the world. While teaching and researching the history of the Atlantic World, Prof. Hidalgo seeks to improve as a person and hopes to make a positive impact on people. He blogs at

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