1. News & Issues

History of the Atlantic Slave Trade in America (1528-1807)


"[Slavery] involved redefining African humanity to the world..." -- Maulana Karenga
Frederick Gooddall's

This 19th-century painting depicts an Egyptian slave imported from Sub-Saharan Africa. Between the 8th and 19th centuries, colonial powers all over the world imported untold millions of slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Frederick Gooddall, "Song of the Nubian Slave" (1863). Image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center.

The Legacy of African Slavery

By the time European explorers began to colonize the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries, African slavery had already been accepted as a fact of life. Until the 19th century, white European law and culture was built on the idea that when you see a dark-skinned person, her or his primary purpose is to be a subservient laborer. Mainstream American and European society has only slowly moved away from this dynamic, and as a result we all still live under a disproportionately race-based system of social stratification.

The First African American?

When a Moroccan slave named Estevanico arrived in Florida as part of a group of Spanish explorers in 1528, he became both the first known African American and the first American Muslim. Estevanico functioned as a guide and translator, and his unique skills gave him a social status that very few slaves ever had the opportunity to attain.

Spanish Colonists and the Institution of African-American Slavery

The conquistadors relied on both enslaved American Indians and imported African slaves to labor in their mines and on their plantations throughout the Americas. Unlike Estevanico, these slaves generally labored in anonymity, often under extremely harsh conditions.

Slavery in the British Colonies

In Great Britain, poor whites who could not afford to pay their debts were swept up into a system of indentured servitude that resembled slavery in most respects. Sometimes the servants could purchase their own freedom by working off their debts, sometimes not, but in either case they were the property of their masters until their status changed. Initially, this was the slavery model used in the British colonies against white and African slaves alike. The first twenty African-American slaves to arrive in Virginia in 1619 had all had earned their freedom by 1651, just as white indentured servants might have.

Over time, however, colonial landowners grew greedy and realized the economic benefits of chattel slavery--the full, irrevocable ownership of other people. In 1661, Virginia officially legalized chattel slavery, and in 1662, Virginia established that children born to a slave would also be slaves for life. Soon, the Southern economy would rely primarily on African-American slave labor.
  1. About.com
  2. News & Issues
  3. Civil Liberties

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.