Explorers and Colonists
When Africans first came to the New World, they came of their own free will, and they arrived at virtually the same moment as the first Europeans. During the 16th century, African adventurers joined into the spirit of the Age of Exploration and crisscrossed the globe. In the early 1500s, Africans trekked across Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador, conquered New Mexico with Coronado, and gazed upon the shores of the mysterious Pacific Ocean alongside Ferdinand de Balboa. The African explorer Estevanico helped the De Vaca and Coronado expeditions open up what is now the Southwestern United States for Spain, and Africans accompanied the French Jesuit missionaries as they charted the northern reaches of North America.
In the early 17th century, as the Age of Colonization began in earnest, Africans had begun to come to North America to stay. In 1619, a year before English pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, a group of Africans were brought to the Jamestown colony in Virginia as indentured servants.
Within 50 years, however, this colony of free people was no more, and most of the African immigrants in Virginia had been enslaved. Like practically all other Africans in North America, they had been caught up in the transatlantic slave trade-a web of international commerce and human suffering that was entangling Europe, the Americas, and Africa. This new institution would bring about profound changes in society, politics, and everyday life on all four continents, and would shape the African experience in America for centuries to come.
West Africa before the Slave Trade
At the dawn of the era of transatlantic slavery, Africa was a vast and diverse land, the home of many ancient cultures and more than 800 languages. The region that would be most powerfully affected by the slave trade was in West Africa, along a strip of coast between the Senegal and Congo rivers. This vast expanse of land was marked by a rich and varied culture, having long absorbed influences from Arab North Africa, from European trading posts, and from the cosmopolitan cities of the interior. The inland city of Timbuktu was a major center for scholarship, and the work of its astronomers, mathematicians, and theologians spread throughout West Africa. Several large kingdoms, such as Mali, Songhay, and Benin, held sway over significant stretches of territory, and in the 16th century the capital of Benin was one of the largest cities in the world. In much of the region, though, people lived in small clusters of villages, ruled by tribal kings or chieftains, and worked the fields and forests for food, pooling their labor and resources as a community.
Olaudah Equiano was the son of a chief of the Igbo people in West Africa, but was kidnapped and sold into slavery as a small boy. In his autobiography of 1789, he looked back on life in his homeland, remembering it as "a charming fruitful vale."
Agriculture is our chief employment; and every one, even the children and women, are engaged in it. Thus we are all habituated to labour from our earliest years. Every one contributes something to the common stock; and as we are unacquainted with idleness, we have no beggars. The benefits of such a mode of living are obvious.
A Global Network of Suffering
The rise of the transatlantic slave trade disrupted the traditional way of life in West Africa, and over the centuries would extract an immeasurable human toll. Europeans had first made contact with West Africans centuries before, and had long maintained trading posts on the coasts. As European colonies in the Americas expanded, though, their governments looked to West Africa for a source of cheap labor to power their growing farms, mines, and plantations.
Beginning in the 16th century with the Spanish, then the Portuguese, French, and Dutch, Europeans began systematically kidnapping and enslaving large numbers of West Africans, and transporting them to the American colonies for sale. In 1702, by the Treaty of Utrecht, the British became increasingly involved in the slave trade and were accorded a 30-year contract to send nearly 5,000 African slaves a year to the Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Soon, countless cargo ships were crossing the Atlantic, carrying shiploads of shackled Africans to the Americas, then bringing raw materials home to Europe. By 1750, an average of 10,000 Africans were involuntarily transported across the Atlantic every year. By the time the slave trade reached its peak in the 18th century, the number was up to 60,000 per year.
It is estimated that during the 300 years of the transatlantic slave trade, between 15 million and 20 million Africans were transported to the Americas as slaves. Of these, more than 400,000 were sent to the 13 British colonies and, later, the United States. We may never know a precise number, but current estimates hold that more than 1 million Africans died on the journey.
The trade in slave labor fueled an unprecedented era of expansion, innovation, and prosperity across the European world, from London to Amsterdam to Philadelphia. But it ruined the kingdoms and villages of West Africa. Slavery had never been unknown in the region, but the large-scale abduction and transportation of slaves, as well as the treatment of those slaves as permanent property, were unheard of. Wars broke out as local tribes sought to protect their people from roving bands of slave traders, and villagers retreated behind barricades. But the greatest blow was the loss of its people, and the youngest and strongest men, women, and children-West Africa's future-were taken across the ocean to a harsh life in another land.