Engage & Learn

A Brief History of Slavery

Written by

Stephanie Wilson Executive Director
New Jersey Amistad Commission

Slavery is a social-economic system under which certain persons – known as slaves – are deprived of personal freedom and compelled to work. Slaves are held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth and are deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to receive compensation (such as wages) in return for their labor. In the narrowest sense, the word slave refers to people who are treated as the property of another person, household, company, corporation or government. This is referred to as chattel slavery.

The 1926 Slavery Convention described slavery as “the status and/or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” Slaves cannot leave an owner, an employer or a territory without explicit permission (they must have a passport to leave), and they will be returned if they escape. Therefore a system of slavery – as opposed to the isolated instances found in any society – requires official, legal recognition of ownership, or widespread tacit arrangements with local authorities, by masters who have some influence by virtue of their status and their lives. The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines forced labor as “all work or service which is extracted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

Like most world tragedies, the Atlantic Slave Trade, or the European slave trade, started almost accidentally. At first, the Europeans did not visit the coast of West Africa looking for peoples to enslave; they were searching for a route to Asia for the spices and the sweets they had heard about and were anxious to possess. Europe needed new energy, new land and new resources. Plagues, famines and internal wars had left Europe partly exhausted and partly under-populated. In the years between the first European entry into West Africa from about 1438 to the year of Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean Islands in 1492, there were few Africans taken out of Africa as slaves because there was no special work outside of Africa for them to do. The creation of the plantation system in the Americas and the Caribbean Islands set in motion a way of life for Europeans that they had not previously enjoyed. This was done mainly at the expense of African people whom they enslaved and transported for the sole purposes of work en masse. It is important to note that as Africans were enslaved there was no value placed on their lives other than as replicable and replaceable labor.

As we begin to examine and make alignment in genocide studies, we must be mindful of the devastating and long-lasting effects of slavery upon African people and their transplanted descendants throughout the world.


The European slave trade in Africa was started and reached its crescendo between 1400 and 1600. This was also a turning point in the history of the world. The Atlantic slave trade was different from all earlier slavery systems in many respects. Mostly in that it was the first instance of slavery that was solely motivated by commercial incentives and justified by race. In earlier times slaves had been used as domestics and soldiers. The African slave trade was a capitalist invention. It was the large scale capitalist mode of production which required cheap labors that introduced the transatlantic slave trade. Slaves in earlier times enjoyed social and individual rights – like marriage, freedom to raise a family, to speak their own languages, and worship their gods. These rights were denied to the African slaves who were exported to the Americas from their homelands in Africa. They were stripped of all humanity and could not even bear their own names.

It was capitalism that introduced chattel-slavery. This socioeconomic factor would establish a flood of human life from Africa to the Americas over the course of 400 years, destroying a people and debilitating a continent.

Africans were captured, sold and held in coffles (groups of slaves bound by chains) of slave ships in the quest to fulfill the unending thirst for labor in the Americas. They were taken as free people and then forced into slavery in South America, the Caribbean and North America. This slavery did not happen all at once. Involuntary servitude in America became the province of Africans at first and evolved into slavery. To justify this cruel trade, Europeans and European- Americans invented the new concept of race which in their view made slavery acceptable. Nothing in modern history has been as formative as the onset of racial slavery in the seventeenth century and the invention of the concept of race at the same time. Both of these events placed a monumental mortgage on modern society that we are still paying off today.

It is important to note that the original justification for separating blacks once they were brought to America was religion. Africans were believed to be heathens. This religious argument formed the backbone for the justification of lifetime slavery of Africans. In 1667, however, Virginia was the first colony to pass a law that stated that Christian Africans could be slaves, as well – thus one more step was taken towards slavery as a full scale racial phenomenon. In Virginia, more than any other place, we see the beginnings of the history that would dominate the combined experience of African and European Americans for the next three hundred years, a great chasm of color that we still haven’t crossed to this day.

The magnitude of the European forced migration of enslaved Africans is in fact the genocide of a people. Europe’s extraordinary reach into another continent, to capture and force the migration of people for the sole purpose of exploitation in a land and sea journey more perilous than other forced migration of peoples. After Africans were kidnapped and/or captured, merchants forced them to walk in slave caravans to the European coastal forts, sometimes as far as 1,000 miles distant. Shackled and underfed, only half survived these death marches. Those too sick or weary to keep up were often killed or left to die. Those who reached the coastal forts (such as the now infamous Cape Coast Castle) were put into underground dungeons until they were boarded onto slave ships for the trip to the Americas.


Along the west coast of Africa, from the Cameroons in the South to Senegal in the north, Europeans built some sixty forts that served as trading posts. European merchants seeking riches brought rum, cloth, guns and other goods to these posts and traded them for human beings (future slaves). This human cargo was transported across the Atlantic Ocean and sold to New World slave owners to work their crops. The slave trade devastated African life, culture and traditions because anyone could be abducted in the slave raids.

Just as horrifying as these death marches was the Middle Passage, the transport of slaves across the Atlantic. On the first leg of the trip, slave traders delivered valued goods from Europe to West African merchants. On the middle leg, ship captains loaded their empty holds with slaves to be transported to the Americas and the Caribbean. A typical Atlantic crossing took 60 to 90 days but some lasted up to 4 months. Upon arrival, the captains sold the slaves and purchased raw materials to be brought back to Europe on the last leg of the journey. Over 400 years about 54,000 such voyages were made by Europeans and Americans to buy and sell enslaved Africans. The total number estimated to be about 30 million persons. To further articulate the atrocity of this genocide, it should be noted that of the 30 million persons that were stolen from the continent of Africa, only 10-15 millions arrived in the “New World”. The numerous souls at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean are further testament of this 400 plus year genocide.

Few scholars dispute the harm done to the enslaved Africans themselves, nor the legacy of their enslavement. For the purposes of this curriculum, reader, we will put the legacy of slavery in the broader context of a genocide, suggesting that its effects exceed mere physical persecution and legal disenfranchisement: but the destruction of human possibility thus redefining African humanity to the world. Slavery, colonialism and racism have engendered a broad array of after effects, which are still visible in western society.

The persecution of Africans has been largely minimized in history. But this is not the end of the story. What has been underappreciated is the indominatable spirit of those who were enslaved and their descendants and their relentless quest to restore themselves to their full freedoms. When Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “All men are created equal,” he could not have known that that his own slaves and all the others would take his words and dedicate their lives to seeing their equality fully restored.

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