The Atlantic slave trade is customarily divided into two eras, known as first and second Atlantic
The first Atlantic system.
The first Atlantic system was the trade of enslaved Africans primarily to South American
colonies of the Portuguese and Spanish empires; it accounted for only slightly more than 3% for
all Atlantic slave trade.
It started (on a significant scale) in about 1502 and lasted until 1580, when Portugal was
temporarily united with Spain.
While the Portuguese traders enslaved people themselves, the Spanish empire relied on the
Asiento system, awarding merchants (mostly from other countries) the license to trade enslaved
people to their colonies.
During the first Atlantic system most of these traders were Portuguese, giving them a
nearmonopoly during the era, although some Dutch, English Spanish and French traders also
participated in the slave trade after the union, Portugal was weakened with its colonial empire
being attacked by the Dutch and British.
The second Atlantic system.
The second Atlantic system was the trade of enslave Africans by mostly British, Portuguese,
Brazilian, French and Dutch traders.
The main destinations of this phase were the Caribbean colonies, Brazil and Americas a number
of European countries built up economically slave dependent colonies in the New World.
Amongst the proponents of this system were Francis Drake and John Hawkins
Origin of Trans Atlantic slave trade.
Te Portuguese were the first foreigners to capture slaves off the coast of West Africa. They built
a fort on Arguin Island (Mauritania) where they bought gold and slaves from Gambia and
Senegal. Most of these slaves were taken to plantations in Portugal and Southern Spain.
By 1471 the Portuguese expanded their gold and slave trading activities to Ghana. In 1482, they
built Elmina castle to serve as their base there.
Factors for the rise of triangular slave trade.
The rise of capitalism: This mode of production depended on exploitation of one man by another.
Capitalism emerged in Europe after the decline of feudalism in Europe especially the first stage
of capitalism mercantilism where slaves became part of the commodities to be traded to
Discovery of marine technology: The invention of gun powder, ship building, compass direction,
and motor engine acted as a pushing force for the rise of slave trade, it facilitated the
transportation of the commodities and slave dealers.
The discovery of the new world by Christopher Columbus on 24 October 1492 opened a new
chapter as far as slave trade was concerned it brought high sky demand of cheap labour to work
in the new plantations in the Caribbean islands.
The inability of indigenous people to provide cheap labour: Diseases such as smallpox
eliminated the natives completely. In other cases such as south in south Carolina, Virginia and
new England the need for alliances with native tribe coupled with the availability of enslaved.
Africans at affordable prices (beginning in the early 18th century for these colonies) resulted in a
shift away from native American slavery. Native Americans were very reluctant to provide
labour and most of them had been affected with plagues and war and they were very few in
numbers. So Africans were the best alternative, therefore the rise of triangular slave trade.
Climatic conditions of the New World meant that Africans could easily live there since they
were used to tropical climates and had immunity of tropical diseases more than people from
Europe and Asia. They were able to withstand diseases and conditions of the New World.
Prior knowledge about African continent brought by explores: Before the establishment of slave
trade many explorers like Vasco Da Gama and Vasco Diaz-all from Portugal-had already
navigated Africa and had discovered many sea routes between Africa and the outsiders such
prior knowledge helped them to use Africans as slaves.
The expensiveness of White slaves: Before the mid of 17th century the European mercantilists
depended on indentured labourers, criminal convicts, contract labourers and refugees from
Europe who proved to be expensive and undependable compared to Africans who were not paid
anything apart from their basic needs for survival and were slaves for life.
The basic reasons for the constant shortage of labour was that, with large amounts of cheap land
available and lots of landowners searching for workers, free European immigrants were able to
become landowners after a relatively short time, thus increasing the need for workers as slaves.
Accessibility between the New World and the West African coast, the distance from West Africa
to the New World is very narrow bridged with Atlantic Ocean. Thus easy transportation of slaves
The establishment of more plantations in the New World which called for more demands of
slaves initially it was only Portugal and the Dutch that had established plantations but towards
the mid of 17th century France and Britain joined. This increased the demand for cheap labour.
The profitability factor: This acted as an attracting force for many mercantilists to join a trade
based on unequal exchange imagine exchanging human being with spices, umbrella, gold, ivory
with guns, mirrors and cloth.
Accumulation of wealth: Mercantilists accumulated a lot from this trade which enabled them to
sustain super profits obtained and in addition to that, many crops could not be sold for profit, or
even grown in Europe.
Exporting crops and goods from the New World to Europe often proved to be more cost effective
than producing them on the European mainland. A vast amount of labour was needed for the
plantations in the intensive growing, harvesting and processing of these prized tropical crops.
Western Africa (part of which became known as “the slave coast‟ and later central Africa,
became a source for enslaved people to meet the demands of labour.
The existence of seasonal winds and currents like the north east trade wind, north equatorial
current, the south west and the Gulf streams encouraged the growth of this trade by enabling the
vessels of the merchants to sail to Africa, New World and Europe.