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Slave trade

A model of a slave shipA model of a slave shipFrom the 16th century onwards, overseas colonies brought huge wealth to countries in Europe. Spain plundered its colonies on the American mainland, carrying vast amounts of gold and silver to Europe. Portugal, too, had rich sources of gold in its colony in Brazil. Goods such as sugar (from the Caribbean), tea (from China), coffee and chocolate (from South America) also became popular across Europe. To exploit these resources, the European colonists needed labourers. They turned to Africa, from where captives were transported to the Americas in their millions. This was the slave trade.


Slaves working on a sugar cane plantation in AntiguaSlaves working on a sugar cane plantation in Antigua

Sugar cane

Spanish colonists in the Caribbean quickly discovered that sugar cane grew well in the hot, humid climate of the islands. Sugar was increasingly popular in Europe, as it could be used to sweeten the new drinks that were also arriving from overseas: coffee, tea and cocoa.

The Spanish colonists grew sugar cane in plantations, where they forced the local Indians to work. But so many of them died, from ill-treatment and from disease epidemics, that there was soon a shortage of labourers. So in the early 1500s captives were brought from Africa instead to work as slaves on the plantations. The trickle soon turned to a flood, as millions of people were transported across the Atlantic Ocean. 



The Asiento signed by Britain and Spain in 1713The Asiento signed by Britain and Spain in 1713

The trade begins

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, more than 12 million enslaved Africans were shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas. Around 40% were from west central Africa (present-day Angola, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo) and another 35% were from the Bights of Benin and Biafra on the west coast of Africa.

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