ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE Referring to the forced transport of black Africans to the western hemisphere, the modern Atlantic slave trade had its inception during the early sixteenth century. Since the Portuguese pioneered in the exploration of the western coast of Africa, it is not surprising that Portugal was the first European country to take advantage of the rich economic potential involved in the selling of human slaves. The Portuguese were able to maintain a virtual monopoly over the Atlantic slave trade during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. From the mid-seventeenth century on, however, the slave trade became intensely competitive, with Holland, England and, in due course, the United States becoming involved.
The ultimate destination of the overwhelming majority African slaves transported across the ocean during the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries included the
West Indies, Central America and South America. Beginning in th mid-eighteenth century, an increasing number of African slaves were being transported to North America. Historians do not agree on the number of slaves carried across the Atlantic to the New World during these four centuries. Estimates range from a minimum of fifteen million to a maximum of nearly sixty million. Most authorities would agree that the number was not less than fifteen million and probably more than twenty million. This figure, of course, merely presents the number of Africans who arrived in the New World alive. Millions of others were killed during slave-raiding expeditions in Africa and countless others died enroute to the western| hemisphere.
Although most Europeans during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries recognized and perhaps even sympathized with the fact that the slave trade had its share of "evils" and "cruelties," they nevertheless were able to justify and provide a rationale for its existence. It was argued that slavery was as old as antiquity. Accordingly, there was little fear that they were opening a Pandora's box by the creation of a "new" institution and the mechanical means which made this institution possible. Secondly, the Europeans generally justified the slave trade in terms of their alleged Christian mission and charity; i.e., they were doing the African a favor by "rescuing" him from the depths of "savagery" and "heathenism." But perhaps the primary motivating factor which prompted the Europeans — and later the Americans — to engage in and support the existence of the slave trade was to take advantage of the possibility of high financial return. As it happened, this return, according to historian Eric Williams, was so immense that it in large part financed the rise of a mature industrial capitalism in western Europe.
Similar to the differences existing between historians as to the actual number of Africans transported to the New World via the Atlantic, there are a number of interpretations concerning the effect the slave trade had upon Africa itself. John Hope Franklin has argued that the Atlantic slave trade dealt Africa a "body blow"' from which it is still recovering. "The removal of the flower of African manhood," according to Franklin, "left the continent impotent, stultified, and dazed." Fellow historians August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, however, have challenged this traditional assumption. Arguing that the slave trade "encouraged the development of a substantial [native] mercantile group," Meier and Rudwick maintain that "in spite of the social disruption it caused, the transatlantic trade did not generally lead to a breakdown in West African social and political organization."
For additional information concerning the Atlantic slave trade, especially as it relates to its operational aspects, see: AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE, BARRACOON, CABOCEER, COASTAL FOREST KINGDOMS, COFFLE, MIDDLE PASSAGE, SLAVE COAST, and SLAVE TRADE SUPPRESSION.