The scale of the Atlantic Slave Trade is hard to imagine. It can be tempting to minimize it in order to alleviate some anxiety. One way of minimizing slavery assumes a kind of innocence in the enterprise, an “everybody was doing it” attitude. But, of course, not everyone in Europe profited from the kidnapping, sale, and lifetime captive labor of over 10 million African people in the Americas. Only few people on any continent really did, though the institution flooded the markets with often addictive consumer goods that raised the general standard of living for a few more.
Not only did slavery leave a lasting impact on the millions of descendants of enslaved people, but also on “the economies and histories of large parts of the world,” notes Anthony Hazard’s TED-Ed video above. Slavery was integral to the most formative periods of Western capitalist democracies in Europe and the U.S. “The crops grown in the new colonies, sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton,” were commodities traded in the first global markets and built dynasties of capital and wealth.
Slavery has occurred all over the world, with institutionalized inequality and some form of forced labor forming the basis of every empire. The Atlantic slave trade “stands out,” says Hazard, “for both its global scale and its lasting legacy.” At the time, African slavery resembled other forms of forced servitude existing contemporaneously in Europe and the colonies, such as indentured servitude and serfdom. European slave traders exploited tribal divisions, and the greed of African chieftains and kings led to an arms race on the continent.
Some African leaders profited, but a large part of the continent suffered demographic losses that have resonated into the present. “Not only did the continent lose tens of millions of its able-bodied population,” but these losses caused economies to collapse, and the warfare begun by competition for European capital continued, leaving African countries open to colonization. This despoliation and mass rendition of enslaved people was accompanied by racist propaganda that assuaged the consciences of Christians, as Ibram X. Kendi has exhaustively shown in his National Book Award-winning history, Stamped from the Beginning.
Slavery acquired its specifically racialized character. Africans, Europeans were told, were biologically inferior, thus slavery did not violate Christian ethics and, in fact, improved people’s lot by Christianizing and civilizing them. Before the age of printing and a popular press, however, few people in Europe knew what was happening in the colonies, or knew anything at all about African people, who might as well have been the monsters of sailors’ myth and legend in many people’s minds.
As literacy spread, and more people read and heard accounts and arguments, even from former slaves themselves, increasing numbers came to staunchly oppose slavery, as would happen a few decades later in the northern part of the U.S. Partly due to the activities of Quaker publishers and writers, British popular sentiment in the 18th century turned toward abolition in waves. “In 1788 over one hundred petitions were presented to Parliament,” wrote historian John Pinfold on the 100th anniversary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade.
“A further wave of petitions followed in 1792,” Pinfold goes on, “when no fewer than 519 were presented, the largest number ever presented during a single session in Parliament. On this occasion every single English county was represented amongst the petitions, with some also from Scotland and Wales, and it has been estimated that around 400,000 people, roughly 13 percent of the adult male population of the time, had put their names to them.” It took another 15 years, but the slave trade was abolished in 1807.
Those numbers don’t necessarily indicate such widespread support for the total abolition of race-based slavery in the colonies. Racist ideology runs through abolitionist literature, as it did, and does, through the culture in general. But they tell an essential part of this hundreds-of-years-long story: one in which access to information swayed huge numbers of people to make what we universally (with exceptions unworthy of mention) believe to be the only moral course of action. Informing ourselves about this history shows us that Atlantic slavery was driven by the desire of a relatively small number of people for a massive accumulation of capital at the cost of millions of lives. And that it took the resistance of much larger numbers to end the indefensible practice.