The Trans-Atlantic slave trade ravaged practically all of West Africa. Although slavery had existed in West Africa for many centuries, the astounding number of people affected and the distance of migration had never been at this scale and magnitude. In fact, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is considered the largest long distance forced migration of people in world history. Between the 16th & 19th centuries, millions were violently and forcibly removed from their homes, their culture, their society and ancestors, and forced into enslavement in the Americas - across the Atlantic.
|Source: Slavery in America, an educator's site made possible by New York Life|
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade started with the Portuguese in the 16th century, with all major European powers following suit, and by the early 18th century Britain became the world's leading slave trading power. Those taken into slavery were used as free labor in the European colonies in the Americas, working in various plantations, like sugar, tobacco, coffee, cotton and other crops.
The slave trade is sometimes called the "Maafa" by African and African-America scholars, meaning "great disaster" in Swahili.
The kidnapping of Africans occurred mainly in the region that now stretches from Senegal to Angola. African kings sold captured enemies or criminals that were being used as slaves for themselves to the European traders. However, for the most part, Africans sold into slavery to the Europeans were free people who were kidnapped. European traders encouraged Africans on the coast to raid & attack neighboring tribes and take captives. People were often captured inland and marched for weeks to coastal slaving stations. They were exchanged for European goods like cloth, horses and guns, which perpetuated the vicious cycle that enabled more tribes to be invaded and captured.
Although there is no exact figure, estimates range that between 10-28 million people were captured. Packed onto ships in deplorable conditions, up to half died during transport to the Americas. There was a constant demand for slaves because conditions on plantations were so bad - especially in South America - that many only survived a few years after arriving. The North American mainland played a minor role in the trade, with only 5% taken directly from Africa. It was the relatively "better" conditions that resulted in natural growth of a population of slaves - that is, those enslaved having children themselves. The horrible laws at the time meant that children were also considered slaves, and as such property to be bought and sold - often being taken away from their families.
Slavery's footsteps in West Africa
As the coast used for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the shadow of slavery is cast over West Africa. There are monuments and heritage sites preserved lest this horrific part of history be forgotten.
La Route des Esclaves
Along the coast in the city of Ouidah in Benin is the well marked "Route des Esclaves" (Slave route). It's a 4km route that more than a million slaves took to the coast to board the ships. It starts at a Portuguese fort, where captives destined to slavery were held, chained together. When a group of slaves arrived, an auction was held, and traders branded their purchased captives.
On the way to the beach, slaves were forced to walk around the Tree of Forgetfulness (allegedly nine times for men and seven times for women), told this would ensure they forget their homeland and make them less likely to rebel.
There now stands a memorial at the end of the route, known as the Gate of No Return, symbolizing the captives' final moments on African soil. From this point, captives were taken on small boats and ferried to the ships that would take them across the Atlantic, never to return.
|The Gate of No Return at the end of the slave route, in Ouidah, Benin|
Photo Credit: JB Dobane (CC)
The Door of No Return
Ghana has perhaps the greatest concentration of slavery sites with about 40 "slave castles" built by European traders. Originally used for trade in materials like timber and gold, they became the holding areas for those captured while waiting for the ships to carry them to the Americas. These sites, known as "The Door of No Return" were the last stop before crossing the Atlantic.
|Barack Obama visited Cape Coast Castle, one of the many "slave castles" in Ghana used during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade|
Photo Credit: "Barack Obama in Cape Coast Castle" by White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza)
Of course, this post is barely an introduction to an important and complex subject. Here are some resources to learn more about slavery, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and its far ranging impact.
- Ted Ed has a great introductory video, with excellent animation.
- The School Run This is a great site for kids to learn more about the subject. It includes introduction to many facets, top 10 facts, a timeline, a gallery of illustrations and related videos.
- The Atlantic Slave Trade: Crash Course World History by John Green is a video detailing the subject in 11 minutes that packs in a lot of information in an accessible way. *If you've ever seen any of these videos, you will know that he often uses comic relief, and though he takes this subject matter more seriously, there are still moments where he can't seem to help himself. It doesn't ultimately detract from the gravity of the subject, but I thought I should mention it
- Breaking the Silence: Slave Routes. Learn more about the routes, and the individual countries & colonies involved.
- Understanding Slavery Initiative. More comprehensive information, in a readable, accessible manner, from Europe prior to the slave trade to the abolition movement to today's diaspora.
The Old African by Julius Lester. With beautiful illustrations, this book presents the brutal realities of the kidnapping, transport and lives of those enslaved during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade through the story of the "Old African" and slave legends of freedom. It starts with the horror of the plantation where workers must watch the master whip a young runaway. Another slave, the Old African has the spiritual power to enter the minds of others to take away their pain, including the young runaway's. This gift takes him back in memory to the attacks on his village, how his wife was treated, and the terrible journey across the ocean. He ends up finding the courage to lead the plantation slaves back to the ocean, where they walk into the water to freedom. Although a picture book, this text heavy story and its illustrations are honest about the realities of the situation. It's recommended for grades 5-9.
This post is part of the Black History Month series on Multicultural Kid Blogs. Be sure to visit the main page for the full schedule and to link up your own posts about sharing Black History Month with kids! And of course, don't forget to enter our amazing giveaway:
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