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Slave Trade as Part of Atlantic Commerce Essay

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Updated: Feb 28th, 2022

The slave trade is a dramatic page in the world’s history, which has existed and developed over the centuries. Africans in this respect are often seen as victims of the brutality of European colonialists who needed labor. However, from the beginning of the establishment of the Atlantic Trade and throughout its existence, the Africans were the voluntary sellers of their people. Although Europeans mercilessly exploited slaves in America, black people initially did not resist the slave trade, which was highly beneficial to them.

The Dominance of the Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade from Africa to South and North America is the most extensive maritime trade in history. The first among European traders who began to exchange goods with Africans were the Portuguese. At the beginning of the development of relations, they exchanged with the continent’s inhabitants “pepper, ivory, cloth, and beads.” However, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europeans needed slaves for sugar plantations, which led to the opening of a separate slave market in 1516. However, it is important to note the exceptional and often central role of Africans and their interest in relations with European merchants, including slave traders.

First of all, Africans expected to profit from the Atlantic trade and made efforts to develop it. The rulers of Congo and Benin played a central role in the early development of trade with Europeans, as both states sought to monopolize exchange. It was the ruler of Benin who first noticed the Europeans’ need for African slaves and opened a special market in the early 16th century for overseas visitors. While Benin had a wide range of valuable goods for Europe, Congo focused specifically on the African slave trade. Commercial relations were mutually beneficial for both parties since there was an exchange of goods between continents, and Europeans also paid some African rulers a tax for the right to trade in a certain territory.

However, until the early eighteenth century, slave selling was not as widespread as in later periods. At the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century, the African gold trade began to develop. Even then, the Africans’ dominant position in the establishment of trade orders was noticeable, as conflicts occurred if the Europeans violated the conditions set by the inhabitants of the continent. Africans had little reason to fear European traders, which allowed them to set their rules on favorable terms. Thus, Europeans and Africans traded together, which is true for all goods, including slaves.

At the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Atlantic trade between continents underwent significant changes. In a hundred years, from 1680 to 1780, the volume of goods exchanged increased approximately sixfold. Most importantly, during this period, the slave trade became the primary source of benefit for Africans, as its volumes exceeded the volume of trade of all other African commodities combined. Moreover, there were changes in the structure, as the maritime business became mostly British, and the Africans were able to centralize their power over commerce on the continent and strengthen their position. The increased demand for African slaves enabled the rulers to receive three to four times more goods for each of them than a century ago. The primary source of slaves was Central West Africa, where the exports grew to 40,000 people a year at the end of the eighteenth century. With the expansion of African rulers’ control over the Atlantic trade, slave prices for Europeans also rose, increasing the continent’s inhabitants’ profits.

The slave trade was the primary source of benefits for Africans, as they received considerable quantities of European goods in exchange for people. In turn, this situation is explained by the need of the New World’s inhabitants for African workers on various plantations. Thus, the slave trade became dominant in the Atlantic Trade by the early eighteenth century, which was beneficial to both Africans and Europeans.

Impact of the Atlantic Trade

The exchange of goods had a significant impact on the life of society across the Atlantic world. First of all, there were changes in commerce, since for Africans it was important not only to export but also to import European goods. Moreover, traders from the New World conducted exchanges also within the African continent, which allowed the development of many territories. It is noteworthy that the production of African goods was well developed even before the colonialists’ arrival, and they also withstood competition in many areas of exchange, including cloth and beads. Thus, commerce changed only in relation to new goods and technologies, as well as the flow of African slaves.

More significant changes have occurred in society’s culture, particularly in terms of language and family relations. Since European traders were beneficial to Africans, they actively studied European languages ​​and acted as translators. Africans perceived the introduction of another culture as a positive experience, as it was beneficial for commercial activities. Despite the study of languages, the adoption of writing was not widespread on the continent. Many African women have also interacted with European men, as the children could be important in “commercial and cultural relations. Often women, having married a European slave trader, also engaged in commerce, achieving some success. For the most part, in patriarchal Africa, such relationships were male-led, and marriages served to strengthen bonds with business partners. Thus, not only Europeans conducted the direct sale of slaves in America, but also Africans and women in particular. Ethnically mixed relations were quite common at the time with the development of the Atlantic trade.

Politically, there have been changes in relation to local authorities and the position of slaves and free blacks on both continents. It is noted that Africans could be not only slaves but also free blacks in America, mainly due to marriage. Positions responsible for the terms of trade in certain territories have been created in Africa. Firearms imports had an impact on both the military transformation of African states and the increase in the slave trade. From a technological and economic perspective, trade did not have a major impact on the Africans since they had most of the goods before the Europeans came, and they were not particularly interested in technology. Thus, the exchange had for both sides mostly cultural and commercial significance, increasing the volume of goods, income, and also creating ethnic mixing.


In the modern world, it is widely believed that the position of Africans in the slave trade is solely as victims. However, upon closer examination of the problem, it appears that they had a commercial interest in selling African people to Europeans. Moreover, African rulers created and managed slave markets on the territory of their states. Some black people took an active part in the Atlantic trade as free people of the New World. Thus, slaves became the dominant commodity precisely because of the desire of Africans to profitably exchange them for imported goods, as well as the need for labor in America.


Ashcraft-Eason, L. “‘She Voluntarily Hath Come’: A Gambian Woman Trader in Colonial Georgia in the Eighteenth Century.” In the Identity in the Shadow of Slavery (The Harriet Tubman Series on the African Diaspora), edited by P. E. Lovejoy, 202-221. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2009.

Northrup, David. Africa’s Discovery of Europe. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

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