What the Textbooks Don’t Tell Us About The Atlantic Slave Trade: An Animated Video Fills In Historical Gaps

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Christo­pher Hitch­es Makes the Case for Pay­ing Repa­ra­tions for Slav­ery in the Unit­ed States

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

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