The Atlantic Slave Trade Visualized in Two Minutes: 10 Million Lives, 20,000 Voyages, Over 315 Years

Not since the six­ties and sev­en­ties, with the black pow­er move­ment, flow­er­ing of Afro­cen­tric schol­ar­ship, and debut of Alex Haley’s Roots, nov­el and mini-series, has there been so much pop­u­lar inter­est in the his­to­ry of slav­ery. We have seen Roots remade; award-win­ning books like Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Nev­er Been Told climb best­seller lists; and The Freedman’s Bureau Project’s dig­i­ti­za­tion of 1.5 mil­lion slav­ery-era doc­u­ments gives cit­i­zen-schol­ars the tools to research the his­to­ry on their own.

In addi­tion to these devel­op­ments, Slate mag­a­zine has designed a mul­ti­part, mul­ti­me­dia course, “The His­to­ry of Amer­i­can Slav­ery,” as part of its online edu­ca­tion­al ini­tia­tive, “Slate Acad­e­my.” Host­ed by Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebec­ca Onion and fea­tur­ing guest his­to­ri­ans like Bap­tist, Hen­ry Louis Gates, Jr., Annette Gor­don-Reed, Eric Fon­er and more, this thor­ough sur­vey con­sists of a nine-part pod­cast, with copi­ous sup­ple­men­tary essays, book excerpts, and oth­er resources draw­ing on pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments and arti­facts. One sup­ple­ment, the ani­ma­tion above, shows us the “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Min­utes.”

Visu­al­iz­ing 315 years—“from the trade’s begin­ning in the 16th cen­tu­ry to its con­clu­sion in the 19th”—the ani­ma­tion dis­plays slave ships as increas­ing num­bers of black dots zip­ping across the Atlantic to the Amer­i­c­as from the African coasts. The dots “also cor­re­spond to the size of each voy­age. The larg­er the dot, the more enslaved peo­ple on board.” The Youtube video above pro­vides only a par­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this impres­sive graph­ic. The full ani­ma­tion at Slate allows users to pause, click on indi­vid­ual dots, and get detailed infor­ma­tion, when avail­able, about the name of the ship, num­ber of enslaved peo­ple trans­port­ed, and points of ori­gin and entry in the New World.

In all, we see ani­mat­ed “more than 20,000 voy­ages cat­a­logued in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Data­base.” And though we typ­i­cal­ly, with typ­i­cal U.S. solip­sism, think of Amer­i­can slav­ery as a most­ly North Amer­i­can phe­nom­e­non, the truth is quite the con­trary:

Of the more than 10 mil­lion enslaved Africans to even­tu­al­ly reach the West­ern Hemi­sphere, just 388,747—less than 4 per­cent of the total—came to North Amer­i­ca. This was dwarfed by the 1.3 mil­lion brought to Span­ish Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, the 4 mil­lion brought to British, French, Dutch, and Dan­ish hold­ings in the Caribbean, and the 4.8 mil­lion brought to Brazil.

Ear­ly slave expe­di­tions were con­duct­ed by the Span­ish and Por­tuguese. “In the 1700s,” writes Bouie, “Span­ish trans­port dimin­ish­es and is replaced (and exceed­ed) by British, French, Dutch, and—by the end of the century—American activ­i­ty. This hun­dred years—from approx­i­mate­ly 1725 to 1825—is also the high-water mark of the slave trade, as Euro­peans send more than 7.2 mil­lion peo­ple to forced labor, dis­ease and death in the New World.” Sur­pris­ing­ly, Por­tu­gal remained one of the lead­ing nations among enslavers for most of the slave-trade’s his­to­ry.

The ani­ma­tion and short explana­to­ry essay by Bouie show us the stag­ger­ing his­tor­i­cal scope of the immense­ly prof­itable and pro­found­ly inhu­mane enter­prise that shaped not only the Unit­ed States, but also—in many ways more so—Central and South Amer­i­ca and the Caribbean. There is no his­to­ry of the Amer­i­c­as, and no growth of many of the colonies into wealthy, world-his­tor­i­cal nations, with­out slav­ery, nor can the wealth of Europe be in any way divorced from the prof­its of the slave trade and slave indus­try. Bouie and Onion explain in the short video above why they decid­ed to pro­duce the course.

For a sense of how his­to­ri­ans’ and the public’s under­stand­ing of slav­ery have changed over many decades—for all kinds of ide­o­log­i­cal reasons—read this excerpt from Baptist’s ground­break­ing book. As he says in an inter­view with Salon, most his­to­ries and recre­ations of the peri­od of enslave­ment attempt to hide the facts: “The resis­tance to reck­on­ing with the role of slav­ery in the tra­jec­to­ry that makes the U.S. the most pow­er­ful nation on earth, that’s real; that’s very, very deep…. What­ev­er we say about the role of the U.S. in glob­al his­to­ry, it’s absolute­ly clear to me that slav­ery is essen­tial to the rise of U.S. pow­er.” Slate’s series goes a long way toward telling us the true his­to­ry of slav­ery, from the mouths of writ­ers and schol­ars who engage with it dai­ly.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

The “Slave Bible” Removed Key Bib­li­cal Pas­sages In Order to Legit­imize Slav­ery & Dis­cour­age a Slave Rebel­lion (1807)

Mas­sive New Data­base Will Final­ly Allow Us to Iden­ti­fy Enslaved Peo­ples and Their Descen­dants in the Amer­i­c­as

Crowd­sourced Data­base Will Locate the Bur­ial Sites of For­got­ten US Slaves

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Ignas says:

    Why does this stop in 1833 ? Should you not do an accom­pa­ny­ing ani­ma­tion of the Slave Trade in 2 min­utes from 1833- 2016 to pre­vent the mis­take of peo­ple believ­ing that slav­ery is abol­ished ?

  • Ignas says:

    Why does this end in 1833 ? Should you not pro­vide an accom­pa­ny­ing ani­ma­tion to show slav­ery from 1833- to 2016 to pre­vent increas­ing the mis­tak­en idea that the abo­li­tion of slav­ery in 1833 applied to the entire plan­et ?

  • Edward Pye says:

    Wow, that real­ly puts it into per­spec­tive — as a white per­son, I apol­o­gize for any part my ances­tors played in this.

  • European says:

    Why do we nev­er hear any­thing of the ‘Bar­bary slave trade’ in the media? Where ‘white’ peo­ple were enslaved by islam­ic slave-pirates and ‑traders. There as well mil­lions of peo­ple were enslaved and they were heard of nev­er again. Maybe it’s because it does­n’t fit in with the polit­i­cal cor­rect hype of blam­ing the white man for every­thing that’s going wrong on this plan­et.

  • Ed Courtney says:

    Per­haps you should. My ances­tors how­ev­er had noth­ing to do with it. Just think, if we could go back in time and stop this great injus­tice the US would be just like Ice­land today, hard­ly any blacks at all.

  • Vincent Christopher says:

    If you real­ly want to make a point, include the trans-Saha­ran slave migra­tions.

  • Gene R Rankin says:

    “What­ev­er we say about the role of the U.S. in glob­al his­to­ry, it’s absolute­ly clear to me that slav­ery is essen­tial to the rise of U.S. pow­er.”

    Yet Europe’s slavers were the chief ben­e­fi­cia­ries, with the US slavers rep­re­sent­ing a mere 4% of the total.

    The argu­ment that slav­ery was essen­tial to the US’s rise sim­ply buys into the South’s view of the caus­es of the Civ­il War, that it was an eco­nom­ic war by the indus­tri­al North.

    The writ­ers need to grasp the very words of the South’s sev­er­al Dec­la­ra­tions of Seces­sion to see the inher­ent lie in that argu­ment.

  • Michele Hollie says:

    Our fam­i­ly is con­nect­ed to the
    George­town project, through
    my grand­fa­thers fam­i­ly.
    is moth­er Savorine Verett

  • John Redmond says:

    I would love to see a video map show­ing whose fam­i­lies ben­e­fit­ed from all this inhu­man­i­ty to mankind.
    Maybe the wealth could be giv­en to those in need now I naive­ly think/propose.

  • Chris says:

    I’m not sure this explains the whole sto­ry. Yes, the major­i­ty of slaves arrived in the New World via the Caribbean, but that was a stop on the “Tri­an­gle Trade”: Molasses to Rum to Slaves, as the song goes. Molasses from New Eng­land, to the Caribbean Islands to take on rum, to West Africa for slaves, then back that same route (since the Caribbean was a clos­er land­ing spot from Africa). Slaves were then sold up into the colonies from there. So are the num­bers here only stop­ping at the arrival point, and not their final des­ti­na­tion?

  • Jaz says:

    We know this his­to­ry in the Arab world since we were lit­tle. We also know that the so called mod­ern, civilised world of Europe and Amer­i­c­as have forced many from our con­ti­nent Africa into forced labour and enslaved many. We also knew that they have stolen our resources, min­er­als and lives. We knew our his­to­ry, how­ev­er, these peo­ple, Eurooeans and in the Amer­i­c­as, they tried not only to change his­to­ry but also to erase it com­plete­ly from the books, from the school cur­ricu­lum and denied it to their own chil­dren yet they still call them­selves demo­c­ra­t­ic, civilised world!

  • LUIS PEREZ says:

    It’s bull say­ing the us owes its pow­er to the explota­tion of the slaves. The US would have been a super­pow­er as it is even if no slav­ery had hap­penned. Brazil got most of the slaves and a super­pow­er it is not; by far!

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