Exploration and Colonization
Africans came to the New World in the earliest days of the Age of Exploration. In the early 1500s, Africans trekked across the many lands in North, Central, and South America that were claimed by Spain, some coming in freedom and some in slavery, working as soldiers, interpreters, or servants. Explorers of African descent joined the expeditions of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, Ponce de Léon, Hernan Cortés, Hernando de Soto, and many more. Esteban de Dorantes, also known as Estevanico, who was born in Morocco and held in slavery by a Spanish captain, traveled from Cuba to what is now Florida, was shipwrecked near Galveston, and served as a scout and interpreter on long journeys throughout Mexico and the land that is now the state of New Mexico.
As European powers increasingly sought to establish long-term colonies in the Americas, increasing numbers of Africans came to these continents, often against their will. Free and enslaved Africans lived in Spanish Florida by the late 16th century, and in 1619, a year before English pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, a group of "20 and odd" African people was brought to England’s Jamestown colony in Virginia in captivity.
These individuals 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. As it expanded, this institution would bring about profound changes in society, politics, and everyday life on multiple 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, although many other regions were touched by the slave trade.
Olaudah Equiano was the son of a chief of the Igbo people in West Africa, but was seized 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 expansion of the transatlantic slave trade disrupted in West and Central African societies, and over the centuries would extract an immeasurable human toll. Europeans had first made contact with African societies centuries before, and had long maintained trading posts on the continent's coasts. As European colonies in the Americas expanded, though, their governments increasingly looked to Africa for a source of cheap labor to power their growing farms, mines, and plantations.
Beginning in the 16th century and for centuries after, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch traders systematically purchased large numbers of African people, many of whom had been captured by the traders’ African allies in wars or in raids, and transported them to the American colonies for permanent enslavement. Some forms of slavery had already existed in the region, but large-scale abduction and transportation of people, as well as the treatment of enslaved people and their descendants as permanent property, were not common. Soon, countless cargo ships were crossing the Atlantic, carrying shiploads of shackled people to the Americas, often then bringing raw materials home to Europe.
It is estimated that during the many centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, more than 10 million people were enslaved and transported from Africa to the Americas. Of these, several hundred thousand were sent to the 13 British colonies and, later, the United States. We may never know a precise number, but some estimates hold that more than 1 million people died on the journey to the Americas. The survivors faced a harsh life in another land.