WHP Lesson 29: The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Slavery has existed since some of the earliest human societies, but the transatlantic slave trade was unprecedented in its scale and violence. Rather than being part of a different social class, enslaved people were considered property. This was justified using ideas about race and religion, but the motives fueling the trade were mainly European economic interests. Looking for sources of inexpensive labor to produce cash crops and raw materials, Europeans created a transatlantic slave trade which enabled Europe to amass a lot of wealth—to the serious detriment of societies in Africa and the Americas.

Driving Question: What was the Transatlantic slave trade?

  • Any attempt to understand the Columbian Exchange, and its impact on a global scale, must take into account the Atlantic slave trade. The Atlantic slave trade is a horrific episode—and a long one—in human history. As many as 12-15 million people in Africa were enslaved and forcibly transported, mainly to the Americas, over about 400 years. In the process, millions more died. It was not really a trade, in fact. We use that word because humans were treated as if they were a product to be bought and sold. But really it was a system of violence and slaving at a vast scale which lasted about 400 years and had a huge global impact.
  • The Transatlantic slave trade was, of course, a system of enslavement. There have been many such systems in history, but many of the historic cases where we talk about ‘slaves’ are quite different. Two factors that were distinct in the Atlantic slave trade, but weren’t always true of slavery, were that slavery in the Atlantic was permanent (enslaved for life and passed down to future generations), and it was racialized (tied to the color of a person’s skin).


Historian’s Journal Prompt

  • Where do we see modern day slavery today?
  • Today, we’re shifting a bit to discuss something for our journal that isn’t related to COVID. While this is at the top of mind most days, there are still plenty of other things going on in the world. One of those is human trafficking, or modern-day slavery. Try to find news articles about how this problem exists in our world today.