The Slave Trade

The trade in slaves in the American colonies by the English and other northern Europeans beginning in the early 17th century grew out of an established trade developed by the Portuguese and Spanish over the previous century and followed on several centuries of African slave trade with the Arab world. Colonial trade centered on the west African slave coast , mainly along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. Our understanding of the slave trade and the African cultures in which it grew comes from a variety of sources: slave traders, ship's crew, representatives of slave trading houses in Europe, anti-slavery advocatess, and slaves themselves. Painting an accurate picture of the slave trade requires a look at a variety of points of view.

Analyzing any historical documents means asking a variety of questions, not all of which you may be able to answer. They include:

    • Who created the document?
    • When was it written?
    • What is the document (e.g.- personal letter, official report, painting, etc) ?
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Is the creator presenting first hand (primary) information or second hand (secondary) information?
    • What particular perspective on the topic is represented in the document?
    • What are the facts presented in support of the main argument?
    • Is there an appeal to emotion?
    • What questions arise as a result of studying the document?

The documents linked below all relate to the African slave trade and were written or created between 1727 and 1854. Each presents a particular point of view. Study and complete a copy of the Analysis Note Sheet for each of the documents you are assigned.

The experience of Venture Smith in surviving capture and slavery to become a free man, becoming literate in English, and providing a narrative of his life was rare, but not unique. The narrative of Ottobah Cugoano provides another example. More common, though, were accounts of African lives and slavery filtered through the eyes of European authors. The memior of Bossa Ahdee written by the Englishman Robert Norris is one such example.

Individuals like Venture Smith and Ottobah Cugoano who lived and were captured inland were marched in coffles, or slave caravans, to forts on the African coast. The European countries involved in the slave trade all built forts along the coast to hold slaves prior to shipment across the Atlantic and to Europe. The forts pictured below, one on James Island at the mouth of the Gambia River and the other on Bunce Island in the Sierra Leone River, are examples. The print of Bunce Island is from the book Observations Upon the Windward Coast of Africa by Joseph Corry published in 1807 just prior to the decision to end the slave trade by the British Parliament. Corry's views on slavery are mixed. In the long term he wanted to see it abolished, but in the short term saw reasons for maintaining the status quo:

The slave trade, therefore, being lucrative, and of immemorial existence, must, in the interim, pursue its present course, as a fatality attached to the condition of Africa, and as a polluted alliance, which the dictates of policy and humanity impose, until a succedaneum is found in its stead.

While this invidious exigency obstructs the immediate manumission of the slave, it does not the less accelerate it in conformity thereto, but on the contrary, is a necessary preliminary to his efficacious emancipation.

Before he is admitted into the political society of his master, and is allowed to be free, his intellectual faculties must be expanded by the example of polished society, and by the arts of civilization.1

Bunce Island

James Island

The fort on James Island (renamed Kuntah Kinteh Island in honor of the Alex Haley character from the novel Roots) sits in the mouth of the Gambia River. The island was first occupied by the Portuguese in the 1490s, passed briefly into Dutch hands in the mid 1600s, and then to the British.

Travelers and participants wrote extensively about Africa and the slave trade. John Atkins was a surgeon aboard ships sent to contol pirates along the Guinea coast of Africa and in the Carribean. His writing is basically a natural history of the regions he traveled and the people he encountered. Acting as the ship's burser he also provides a detailed account of the ship's trade.

The slave trade was not without its critics despite the fact that it was very lucrative for private investors and resulted in great wealth for European treasuries. In 1807 England was the first country to ban the slave trade. However, the debate leading to its ban extended over several decades. The drawing of a Captured Slave Coffle, Plain Questions from an English broadside, and the political cartoon by James Gillray provide insight into anti-slavery arguments leading to Parliament's decision.

Captured Slave Coffle

A Few Plain Questions

Barbarities in the West Indias

The transatlantic colonial slave trade beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese in the sixteenth century and not ending until the late nineteenth century is remarkable in its extent both numerically and geographically. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database is a project from Emory University that has attempted to bring together international data derived from ship's logs, the records of trading companies, and slave sales among other sources to estimate and document the trade. Open the Slave Trade map at right. The map gives access to summary data from the project. Data in the Slave Sources layer includes the numbers of slaves who were embarked from African ports in fifty year intervals. Embarked 1525, for example, refers to slaves who left African ports between 1500 and 1550. Select to Change style and vary the Attribute shown to show the numbers and locations of slaves embarked from 1500 to 1900. You will notice a dramatic change in both the number and source of slaves over the three centuries.

To Start You Thinking

1) Review your notes with others who read the same set of articles correcting any misconceptions and filling in any ommissions of important facts or ideas. Be prepared to share your understanding of each document with others.

2) What were the major arguments in defense of slavery based on the documents you studied? the major arguments against?

3) The image of the Captured Slave Coffle is rich in detail. List as many specifics about this means of moving slaves as you can glean from the drawing.

3) Look again at the drawing of the fort on James Island. Describe the fort's gun placements. What do the placements suggest about the greatest threat to the fort and the slaves imprisoned there?

4) The Memior of Bossa Ahdee from which you read was written by an Englishman, Robert Norris. This passage is a defense of the slave trade. What is Norris' basic argument for continuation of the trade?

5) Select three of the most important elements of the James Gillray political cartoon, Barbarities in the West Indias, and explain their symbolic meaning.

6) John Atkins begins his description of his slave trading experience with the comment that "The publishing of this voyage, is from a supposition that it contains something useful to those following in the same track." An account of what items trade best and where is clearly an important and useful topic. How would you characterize the items he lists?

7) Describe changes in both the numbers of slaves and the regions from which they left Africa over the years from 1500 to 1900 based on your exploration of the Slave Trade map.


image from Joseph Corry, “Bance Island, River Sierra Leone, Coast of Africa," 1805. Downloaded Jan 8, 2017 from

William Smith,,“Plan of James Island and Fort, Gambia, 1727," London: 1727. Downloaded Dec 3, 2016 courtesy of University of Virginia The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library

"Slave Coffle," in Anthony Tibbles (ed.), Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity (London: HMSO, 1994. Downloaded Jan 31, 2017 courtesy of University of Virginia The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library

"A Few Plain Questions to Plain Men," in London: S. Bagster Jun. Printer, 1820s. Downloaded Jan 9, 2017 and By permission of Wilberforce House Museum, Hull, England

James Gillray, Barbarities in the West Indias," London: H Humphrey N. 18 Old Bond Street, 1791. Downloaded Jan 30, 2017 courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Last modified in July, 2019 by Rick Thomas