Recorded slavery has been a part of the fabric of history since ancient Egypt, and the Roman Empire used slaves for domestic service and to attend to their agricultural needs. In the mid-1300s the Black Death swept across the European continent killing up to two hundred million people. Sugar plantations, influenced by and learnt from the Muslims during the Crusades, were labor intensive. The death of millions left a labor shortage especially on the these plantations, and slaves were brought in from Africa to meet the demand.
In 1441, Antam Gonçalvez, a Portuguese sea captain, captured a man and a woman in Western Sahara as a gift for Prince Henry the Navigator who was his financier and sponsor. He was later knighted for making such an impression. Four years later the Portuguese built a fort on Argun Island, just off the coast of Mauritania. The fort was used as a base to buy and sell gold, which was scarce and very valuable, and to trade in slaves. Gold was the highest priority as a quarter of the revenue of the Portuguese Crown was generated from this precious metal. But gold supplies declined and the Portuguese shifted their attention to the slave trade.
A Papal Bull in 1455 granted Portugal absolute monopoly on the trade along the West African coast. They did what they could to keep their trading activities concealed. Sailors were sworn to secrecy, and maps and navigational charts were removed from all ships and record-keeping facilities. The Crown appointed one loyal family to make all charts, maps and globes under royal instruction only. Any foreign ships encountered along the African coast were to be stopped and their crew was to be thrown overboard.
With the discovery of the Americas, sugar plantations spread from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Islands to the Caribbean and the American continents. The taste for sugar in Europe increased and thus the demand for slaves to work the sugar plantations increased too. The Portuguese struggled to keep their secret.
Until the mid-1550s, Portugal had been the 'middle man' in the slave trade. A tenth of Lisbon's population was made up of African slaves as they bought and sold between five and six hundred African slaves per day. Very quickly the Spanish, French, British, Dutch and the Danish realised that the slave trade was more profitable than gold and even the sugar plantations, and they too became involved in the West African slave trade.
The well-oiled 'production line' was fueled by African chiefs. Their willingness to trade human beings benefitted them too. Slavery was already established in many African tribes. With the arrival of the European ships the chiefs bought North African slaves to unload goods at the harbors, transport the merchandise inland, clear land for agriculture and for an increased need for protection. The chiefs also raided villages in the interior to capture slaves of their own and brought them to the coast in large caravans to sell to the European ships. Many of the slaves died on the journey and today there are still trails of skulls on these routes in the Sahara Desert. It is believed that for every one slave that survived, ten had died along the way. The chiefs often sold criminals, debtors and people with disabilities to the traders. The only place where slaves were not loaded onto ships, was where there was no harbor. Human beings had become a dominant part of the import and export industries of many European and African countries.
Some tribal communities managed to resist the slave trade. Women, in especially Chad, began to self-mutilate to make themselve un-sellable. The chiefs in Jola of Casamance (southern region of what is today Senegal) had no interest in any goods except cattle and thus did not engage in the exchange of goods as part of the slave trade. The Kru of modern Liberia killed themselves or the traders, so they were avoided. In 1516 Benin stopped exporting male slaves due to a dramatic reduction in their male population.
The Atlantic Slave Trade shaped the continents of Europe, North and South America and Africa. The impact on demographics, culture, society and politics has put millions of people on very different paths. The Atlantic Slave Trade has given rise to remarkable stories of pain, anguish, horror, devastation, loss and fear, but has also shown the resilience and courage of human beings.