How African Slaves Were Obtained During The Transatlantic Slave Trade

What is the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

The term “transatlantic” means across the Atlantic Ocean. As for the phrase “slave trade”, I guess everybody knows what it means. Well, if you don’t know what “slave trade” means, it is simply the buying and selling of human beings to be used as slaves.

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Spanish "gentlemen" selecting slaves in Cuba, 1837.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was the unscrupulous activity of buying human beings (slaves and non slaves) from West Africa and taking them across the Atlantic Ocean to America and the West Indies where they were eventually sold as slaves.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade occurred between the 15th and the 19th century.

Other names for the transatlantic slave trade include the Atlantic slave trade and the “Triangular Trade”.

The term the “Triangular Trade” came about because of the fact that the slave trade system involved three continents – Africa, America and Europe, which came together to form something like a triangle.

The slave traders traveled from Europe to West Africa, where they bought the slaves and captured some and then took them to the West Indies and America and some to Europe thereby forming the triangle.

The slave trade routes 

  • From Europe to West Africa
  • From West Africa to America and the West Indies (South America)
  • From America to Europe

When the slaves from West Africa arrived in the Americas, they mainly worked in coffee, tobacco, cotton, and sugar plantations. Others were also forced to work in rice fields and in gold and silver mines.

The women slaves mainly worked as domestic servants for their White masters. Many of the women slaves were raped very often by their masters.

Since slaves were considered property and not human beings, they were sadly sold at markets along with other goods.
It is worth noting that prior to the Europeans coming to Africa for the first time and starting the transatlantic slave trade, Africans themselves had their own form of slavery.

Many historians believe that it was the already existing African slave trade and Africans preparedness to sell their own brothers and sisters as slaves that motivated the Europeans to start engaging in the slave trade business.

In addition to the information above on the transatlantic slave trade, it is important to note that it wasn’t the whole of Europe that was engaged in slave trade.

The slave trade was first started by the Portuguese before other countries in Europe such as Britain, Spain, France, etc. followed.

How slaves were obtained during the transatlantic slave trade

There were a number of ways that the Europeans obtained African slaves to be shipped outside Africa. The most common sources of slaves included the following:

Slaves of war:

Slave Market on the Kambia River, Coast of Africa. A woodcut from an oil painting from 1840.

Before and during the transatlantic slave trade era, Africans were already involved in the slave business.

Prisoners and captives of wars and conflicts between ethnic groups were usually taken as slaves by chiefs and warriors. These slaves were then sold to the Europeans during the transatlantic slave trade, making Africa play a very prominent role during the slave trade.

Criminals and prisoners:

Another source of slaves was prisoners or people who had committed crimes against the gods or their various communities.

During the olden days in Africa, people found guilty of criminal activities or offending the gods were often punished by being banished from their villages or by enslavement since at that time there were no prisons. With slavery becoming a very lucrative business, many of these convicted criminals or ‘sinners’ were punished by enslavement instead of banishment.

African chiefs and kings sold these enslaved criminals or ‘sinners’ to the European slave buyers. The main reason why these convicted criminals or ‘sinners’ were sold into slavery was so that they could no longer stay within their various communities and commit sins and crimes.

Another major reason why these offenders were sold into slavery was because of the fact that it was extremely lucrative selling them to the Europeans.

Tribute slaves:

Tribute slaves were slaves who were gifted to kings and chiefs by other prominent people in society in order to show appreciation or to say thank you to the chiefs or kings. During the transatlantic slave trade era, most chiefs ended up selling their tribute slaves to the European slave traders.

Plantation overseer punishes a slave in Brazil, 1834.


Some slaves were innocent people who were captured during raids and kidnappings.

Seeing how extremely lucrative the slave trade business was with the Europeans, some unscrupulous chiefs and ordinary Africans began raiding and kidnapping their own people from their farms and other desolate places to be sold into slavery.

Sometimes these unscrupulous men would raid entire communities and villages and capture mainly women and children to be sold into slavery.

Collateral slaves:

There was also a group of slaves known as “collateral slaves”.

These slaves were innocent people who were given out to others as surety for loans so that when the person who went in for the loan failed to pay the loan, the creditor took possession of the innocent person.

Most of these collateral slaves were sold by their masters to African middlemen (African slave buyers) who in turn sold them to the European slave buyers.

As a result of how lucrative the slave trade business was, slaves were sometimes even sold in the open market. It is worth noting that the European slave buyers rarely went inland to buy the slaves. They mainly stayed at the coasts and waited for the slaves to be brought to them.

The job of going inland to get slaves was done by their African middlemen or agents who bought the slaves and transported them to the coastal areas where the Europeans eventually bought them off the middlemen.

The reason the European slave traders couldn’t go into the interior of West Africa to get the slaves was because of the fact that they were afraid of catching certain diseases from the local people. Also, they were afraid of being attacked by the Africans who disliked their presence on African soil.

How the slaves were kept before being shipped to the Americas

The slaves were mainly kept in slave farms or slave camps which were controlled by the European slave traders who employed Africans to help them take care of the camps. In these slave camps, the slaves were kept in chains and poorly fed. On top of this, they were constantly beaten.

From the slave farms or camps, the slaves were then transferred to castles by the coasts of West Africa. In these castles, the slaves were chained to one another and kept in dark and dirty rooms called Dungeons.

These dungeons were special cells built in the castles by the European slave traders to keep slaves until it was time for them to be shipped out of Africa.

The dungeons had no windows and therefore no fresh air entered inside. On top of this, the slaves were given very little food and given inhumane treatment. Many of them ended up dying as a result of the harsh and inhumane treatment they received.

Slavery in the Americas was more brutal than slavery in Africa

While slavery existed both in Africa and the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade era, it must be known that the form of slavery in the Americas was more brutal than that which existed in Africa.

For example, in Africa, slavery was not inheritable. This meant that the children of slaves were not considered slaves. But in the Americas, all the children of slaves were also slaves. These children were therefore also subjected to the inhumane treatment that their parents underwent.

European and African slave traders, 1856.


The transatlantic slave trade, which is considered one of mankind’s worst actions, lasted for roughly 400 years, from 1450 to somewhere around 1850. The reason why the slave trade lasted for this long was as a result of a lot of factors.

The most prominent reason was because it was extremely lucrative to both the European slave traders and the African chiefs and middlemen involved in the slave trade business.

As of that time there was no human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the others to fight on behalf of the slaves. As a result of all these, slave trade continued to exist for over 400 years during which over 12 million African slaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas and parts of Britain.

SOURCE: Hub pages

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