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Systems of Slavery Review for AP World History

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Review questions for this study guide can be found at:

Systems of Slavery Review Questions for AP World History

The Beginnings of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Portugal's quest for gold and pepper from African kingdoms brought it into contact with systems of slave trade already in existence in Africa. The subsequent development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was an extension of trade in human beings already carried out by Africans enslaving fellow Africans. The slave trade within Africa especially valued women slaves for use as household servants or as members of the harem.

The long-existent trans-Saharan trade had already brought some African slaves to the Mediterranean world. In the mid-fifteenth century, Portugal opened up direct trade with sub-Saharan Africa. Portuguese and Spanish interests in the slave trade increased when they set up sugar plantations on the Madeira and Canary Islands and on São Tomé. The first slaves from Africa arrived in Portugal in the mid-1400s. Europeans tended to use Africans as household servants.

Trade in gold, spices, and slaves brought the Portuguese into contact with prosperous and powerful African kingdoms, among them Kongo, Benin, Mali, and Songhay. Mali and Songhay had already become wealthy Muslim kingdoms enriched by the trans-Saharan gold–salt trade that had been in existence for centuries. In Kongo and Benin, Portugal was interested in Christianizing the inhabitants in addition to establishing trade relations. In the late fifteenth century, the rulers of Kongo had converted to Christianity; a few years later the nonruling classes were also converted.

Characteristics of African Kingdoms

Many of the African kingdoms encountered by the Portuguese had developed their own political and court traditions. African monarchs often ruled with the assistance of governing councils and had centralized governments with armies that carried out the state's expansionist policies. Artisans produced works in ivory and ebony and, in Benin, also in bronze. Active trade existed not only in slaves but also in spices, ivory, and textiles. Slaves usually were prisoners of war or captives from African slave raids that were carried out against neighboring kingdoms and villages.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

After Native Americans died in phenomenal numbers from European diseases, European colonists in the Americas turned to Africans as forced labor. West Africans, already skilled in agricultural techniques, especially were sought by Europeans for labor on the sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean and in the rice fields of the southern colonies of British North America. The trans-Atlantic slave trade reached its peak during the eighteenth century. The slave trade was part of a triangular trade that involved three segments:

  • European guns and other manufactured goods were traded to Africans for slaves. (Guns were then used by Africans to capture more slaves.)
  • Slaves were transported from Africa to South America or the West Indies. This Middle Passage across the Atlantic placed the slaves in shackles in overcrowded and unsanitary slave ships.
  • Sugar, molasses, and rum produced by slave labor were traded to Europe for manufactured goods, and the cycle resumed.

Slaves who crossed the Atlantic came from western and central Africa, particularly from Senegambia, Dahomey, Benin, and Kongo. As many as 25 percent of the slaves who came from central Africa died on the long march to the coast to be loaded onto slave ships. Perhaps 20 percent of slaves died on the Middle Passage from illness or suicide. If supplies ran low aboard ship, some slaves were thrown overboard.

Of the approximately 9 to 11 million slaves who crossed the Atlantic, only about 5 percent reached the colonies of British North America. Most of the slaves who eventually reached North America did not arrive directly from Africa, but first spent some time in the West Indies in the Caribbean Sea. The rigors of sugar production in the Caribbean islands and in Brazil required especially large numbers of slaves.

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