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Episode
447

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Feb 20, 2024
History
-
21
minutes

In this episode, we delve into the dark history of the transatlantic slave trade, exploring how it was driven by commercial interests and the dehumanisation of millions.

From the triangular trade routes to the Middle Passage, we uncover the shocking truths behind one of the most inhumane practices in human history.

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Transcript

[00:00:04] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of a three-part mini-series on the uncomfortable but important topic of slavery.

[00:00:28] In part one, in case you missed it, we looked at slavery in antiquity, in the ancient world.

[00:00:34] In part three we’ll take a look at modern slavery, how slavery in different forms still exists today.

[00:00:42] And in this episode, part two, we’ll be talking about the bit in between, perhaps the period in history most synonymous with the barbarity and inhumanity of slavery: the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:00:55] We have a lot to be dealing with in this episode, so let’s get right into it.

[00:01:01] On the 8th of June, 2020, a small group of people gathered in the English city of Bristol. They crowded around a bronze statue of a man called Edward Colston, shouting and jeering.

[00:01:16] They fastened ropes around the statue, which had been standing in the same place since 1895, and pulled it to the ground.

[00:01:25] Immediately, people started jumping up and down on the statue, they painted it red, and then dragged it to the water’s edge, whereupon it was thrown into the river.

[00:01:37] Edward Colston, the man in question, had been a celebrated philanthropist, he had given today’s equivalent of tens of millions of Euros to help the poor in and around Bristol.

[00:01:51] He was something of a Bristolian hero, and, until recently at least, if you wandered around Bristol you would find Colston Tower, Colston Hall, and Colston Street.

[00:02:03] What a kind man he must have been, you might be thinking, to give all of this money away.

[00:02:10] But, as you can probably guess, it wasn’t this simple.

[00:02:15] Colston made his money, a large part of it at least, through trading humans.

[00:02:21] He was a member of something called the “Royal African Company”. Despite its innocent-sounding name, its business was far from it.

[00:02:31] The Royal African Company, or RAC for short, was a slave trading company.

[00:02:38] Between the years of 1672 and 1731, the RAC made 653 trips across the Atlantic, from the west coast of Africa to the British colonies in America.

[00:02:55] On these ships were people ripped from their homes, and sold as slaves.

[00:03:01] The numbers here are quite astounding.

[00:03:05] A total of 187,697 people got on to the ships of the RAC, with 38,497 of those dying en route, so more than 1 in 5 not surviving the journey.

[00:03:23] Of those that were lucky enough to survive, they would find a life of backbreaking labour ahead of them. No doubt for many, there were times that they wished they had not survived the trip.

[00:03:36] It was from the trade of these people, African slaves, that Colston’s riches originated. 

[00:03:44] The money might have eventually flowed towards so called “good” causes, in terms of hospitals and dwellings for the poor, but the fact that it had come from this most inhumane of businesses meant that it was forever tainted, stained by the blood and suffering of those who had been sold into slavery to create it.

[00:04:06] Now, Colston is just one slave trader, today’s episode isn’t only about him, nor is it about Britain’s struggle to deal with its history of people like Colston.

[00:04:17] Instead we are going to explore the transatlantic slave trade more broadly, how did it get started, how did it work from a practical basis, and what finally brought it all to an end.

[00:04:32] As to the question of how it got started, as you will know already, and as we spoke about in part one of this mini-series, the practice of slavery has been in existence since the most ancient of civilizations.

[00:04:46] But it tended to be relatively localised: invade a neighbouring city and take its citizens slaves, rack up large debts and have to sell yourself into slavery, and so on.

[00:04:59] It was a fundamental part of many ancient civilisations, it kept the wheels turning, but it was not industrialised, it was not its own multi-billion dollar industry.

[00:05:13] And moving forward into the Middle Ages, the period of European history that is defined as widely as being from 500 AD right through to 1500, slavery in Europe at least took a different shape.

[00:05:27] Or rather, slavery gave way to the feudal system, a system in which there were lords and peasants, not masters and slaves, but on a day-to-day basis the reality wasn’t so different.

[00:05:42] While all of this was happening, there was another area of the world where the slave trade was really just getting started. Arabs from North Africa had started to travel south, across the Sahara, and had found a new source of people that they could take back with them to be sold as slaves in the Middle East. 

[00:06:03] African tribes, from East to West, realised that they could attack a nearby tribe, take its people prisoner, and sell these captives to Arab slave traders from the north for a healthy profit.

[00:06:17] And we are talking in huge numbers here. 

[00:06:21] One historian, a man called Paul Lovejoy, estimates that 6 million Africans were sold into slavery and transported across the Sahara by Arab slave traders between the years 650 and 1500, before the transatlantic slave trade really got started.

[00:06:40] Now, we aren’t talking about the Arab slave trade today, but the reason to mention it is to underline that the practice of Sub Saharan Africans being sold into slavery, often by their own fellow men, dates back far longer than some people are aware of, or care to admit.

[00:06:59] So, what was it that really caused the transatlantic slave trade to start when it did?

[00:07:05] The unfortunate reality is that the transatlantic slave trade was first and foremost a question of economics, it is a story of commercial interests.

[00:07:15] Humans were treated as commodities, goods to be bought and sold, their price based on how much value someone could extract from them before they died.

[00:07:27] It is clearly horrific to put it in these terms, but it does help explain how and why the transatlantic slave trade took place when it did. It was a solution to a commercial problem.

[00:07:41] European countries had goods to sell: textiles, clothing, manufactured goods, guns and rum.

[00:07:50] Their colonies in the new world also had goods to sell: mainly sugar, tobacco, and coffee.

[00:07:57] The problem was that the colonies in the new world didn’t need what the European countries wanted to sell.

[00:08:05] What they needed was people, workers. 

[00:08:09] The crops that they were growing: sugar, tobacco, coffee, and later cotton, were all very intensive crops, they required a lot of manual labour. There weren’t enough European settlers who were prepared to do this work, and the indigenous population had been decimated by the European settlers, so there was a serious labour shortage in these new world colonies.

[00:08:33] So, what the European countries needed was to find someone they could trade their goods with, and in exchange, they would receive something the new world colonies needed.

[00:08:46] They needed to find a source of people.

[00:08:49] It just so happened that Sub Saharan Africa, after centuries of local rulers attacking rival tribes and selling their people into slavery to Arabs from the north, they were well-practised in the slave trade.

[00:09:03] So, a sort of three-way trade system was set up, a “triangular trade route”.

[00:09:10] Ships set sail south from Europe, to the west coast of Africa, full to the brim with textiles, guns and rum. These goods would be traded for slaves, who would be packed into ships and sent across the Atlantic.

[00:09:25] Upon their arrival in the Americas, the ships would be unloaded, those lucky enough to survive the trip would be sold to work in the sugar, tobacco and coffee plantations. And the money made from the sale of the slaves would go into buying sugar, tobacco, and coffee, which would be loaded onto the ship, and taken back to Europe to be sold at a profit.

[00:09:48] Of course, this is a gross simplification, and we’ll go into some of the nuances in due course, but the point is to demonstrate how various intertwined economic interests drove the transatlantic slave trade. 

[00:10:03] Textiles, guns and rum from Europe were traded with slaves, which were traded with sugar, tobacco and cotton, which were brought back to Europe, and the vicious circle continued.

[00:10:14] Now, let’s focus on the so-called “Middle Passage” of this trade, the transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas.

[00:10:24] And let’s first talk about where exactly these slaves came from.

[00:10:29] Geographically, we are talking about Sub Saharan Africa, and principally the Western part of Sub Saharan Africa. Modern day Nigeria, Gambia and Ghana, but slaves were taken from almost every region of west and central Africa.

[00:10:46] Warring tribes would take people from the losing tribe as prisoners, sell them to slave traders, who would march them to the coastal ports, where they would be sold to the European traders, who would pack them off to the Americas.

[00:11:01] While originally people might have been captured and sold into slavery as a byproduct of wars and local rivalries, as the demand for slaves increased, the capture of slaves became a major driver for war and conflict.

[00:11:18] And while there is debate among historians about whether African kingdoms actually went to war with each other for the express purpose of capturing slaves, the fact that going to war might mean that you had the double advantage of removing your rivals by literally sending them thousands of kilometres across the oceans AND that you could get paid well from it, well this certainly changed the regional dynamics.

[00:11:45] And to make matters worse, one of the goods that the Europeans would sell in exchange for slaves was guns. The region was flooded with powerful weapons, which changed regional dynamics and made the capture of slaves even easier.

[00:12:03] Now, once they were captured, slaves were often forced to march hundreds, even thousands of kilometres towards the sea, their hands and necks bound.

[00:12:13] When they arrived at the coast, like animals waiting to be sold at market, they would be held in large forts, sort of open air prisons, waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.

[00:12:26] And sold they would be, and packed onto large slave ships that would then make the treacherous journey across The Atlantic.

[00:12:35] Now, the journey itself wasn’t treacherous for the ship; technological developments had meant that crossing The Atlantic was pretty safe, and there was little danger of the ship getting lost or capsizing in the high seas.

[00:12:50] The danger was for the slaves on board, who were packed into the tightest of spaces, normally clapped up in irons, and given precious little to eat or drink.

[00:13:02] It is no surprise that one in five died during the six to eight week journey.

[00:13:10] Now, I imagine that you will be familiar with lots of the horrors of this trip, and of what life as a slave was like, so instead of repeating general points I’m sure you already know, we are going to talk about some lesser known elements of the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:13:27] Firstly, it is a common misconception, perhaps given the relatively high proportion of the population that can trace their families back to people who were enslaved, that most slaves were sent to what is now the United States. 

[00:13:42] In fact, only around 5% of all slaves were sent to the modern day United States. 

[00:13:49] The remainder were split between the Caribbean and Brazil, with the lion’s share going to Brazil.

[00:13:56] But if up to 33% of the total population of America were slaves, which it was in 1750, you might be thinking something doesn’t add up, right?

[00:14:08] Well, this is due to the fact that life as a slave in the American colonies was slightly better, or perhaps I should say not quite as absolutely terrible, as it was in the Caribbean or in Brazil.

[00:14:23] For a slave sent to Brazil, it was almost a literal death sentence.

[00:14:29] The average slave who ended up in Brazil lasted only between 4 and 7 years, meaning that the life expectancy for a Brazilian slave was a miserable twenty three years. 

[00:14:42] In the plantations of Brazil, slaves were literally worked to death and then replaced, bought, forced to work until they dropped, and then replaced by another unlucky slave who would face the same fate.

[00:14:57] In North America, life for a slave was slightly better, in that the average slave lived to their 33rd birthday. 

[00:15:07] This was not necessarily out of some great compassion on the part of their owners, but rather that slaves were business assets to be protected. It didn’t make good business sense to replace them every few years if you could treat them slightly better and they would continue to live for longer. 

[00:15:26] What’s more, if they didn’t die, they might reproduce, have children, meaning that your investment would multiply. And this is what happened in America. 

[00:15:37] Soon enough, the slave population was self-sustaining, meaning that, unlike in Brazil, new batches of slaves didn’t need to be imported every week, as new young slaves-to-be were being born in the country.

[00:15:52] Now, I hope you will forgive me for talking in such inhumane terms, but this was the reality of how slave traders and slave owners thought about the people that they were buying, selling, and then controlling: they were goods, assets to be put to work, not human beings with a heart, a soul and a mind of their own.

[00:16:14] Of course, this dehumanisation of tens of millions of people was underpinned by racism and prejudice. Racism was both a cause and a consequence of the slave trade. 

[00:16:28] Black Africans were seen as inferior to their white masters, lower in the racial hierarchy, and like Plato in Ancient Greece, it was “natural” for them to be enslaved.

[00:16:41] And as millions of Black Africans were enslaved, and countries like the USA developed with this shared memory of slavery, this perpetuated racial prejudice that still exists today.

[00:16:54] So, both cause and consequence.

[00:16:58] Now, clearly, this is an incredibly complicated and sensitive topic, still raw because of the scale of the slave trade, the fact that tens, hundreds of millions of people even, can trace their family lines back to people who were slaves, millions more can find evidence of ancestors who owned slaves, and the fact that the world we live in today still bears the signs and effects of the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:17:26] It is a topic that is easy to simplify, but when we look closer it is full of contradictions. 

[00:17:35] Yes, people like Edward Colston made fortunes buying and selling slaves, but so did many African tribal leaders. Yes, by some estimates over 10 million Black Africans were sold into slavery and transported over the Atlantic, but almost as many went north, sold to Arab slave traders, destined for the Middle East. 

[00:18:00] And hundreds of years before the first ship set sail across the Atlantic, and more than 100 years after the last ship left, slavery was still going on in a range of African states. 

[00:18:12] In fact, slavery wasn’t made a criminal offence in Mauritania until 2007, after the first iPhone was released.

[00:18:23] The point is that the transatlantic slave trade is incredibly complicated, a mishmash of economic interests combining with racism, exploitation, and an utter lack of humanity.

[00:18:36] What is unfortunately incredibly simple is the huge human cost.

[00:18:42] An estimated 12 to 15 million people ripped from their homeland and transported across the ocean, one in five of whom would die on the journey across. 

[00:18:54] For those who made it, a short, miserable life awaited them, in the worst of cases, no more than three years, with practically every waking minute of that short time filled with backbreaking labour under awful conditions, for no pay.

[00:19:10] It is hard to find a darker stain on humanity than the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:19:16] And perhaps an even more tragic aspect to consider is that a significant driver of it was the European pursuit of commodities like coffee, tobacco, and sugar – luxuries that, while they make our lives a bit more pleasurable, are certainly not essentials. 

[00:19:34] But in the grand houses of London or Paris or Amsterdam, the ladies and gentlemen sipped their coffee and smoked their cigars, and enjoyed sugar from the Caribbean plantations, harvested thanks to the backbreaking unpaid labour of African slaves, with the final product enjoyed without a thought spared for the blood, sweat and injustice that went into producing it.

[00:20:01] OK then, that is it for part two, today's episode on the sensitive but important issue of transatlantic slave trade.

[00:20:09] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that even though I’m sure this is something that we all know quite a bit about already, well I hope you've learnt something new.

[00:20:17] As a reminder, this was part two, so keep a lookout for part three on this mini-series, where we will be looking at the important and current issue of modern day slavery.

[00:20:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:32] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:04] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of a three-part mini-series on the uncomfortable but important topic of slavery.

[00:00:28] In part one, in case you missed it, we looked at slavery in antiquity, in the ancient world.

[00:00:34] In part three we’ll take a look at modern slavery, how slavery in different forms still exists today.

[00:00:42] And in this episode, part two, we’ll be talking about the bit in between, perhaps the period in history most synonymous with the barbarity and inhumanity of slavery: the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:00:55] We have a lot to be dealing with in this episode, so let’s get right into it.

[00:01:01] On the 8th of June, 2020, a small group of people gathered in the English city of Bristol. They crowded around a bronze statue of a man called Edward Colston, shouting and jeering.

[00:01:16] They fastened ropes around the statue, which had been standing in the same place since 1895, and pulled it to the ground.

[00:01:25] Immediately, people started jumping up and down on the statue, they painted it red, and then dragged it to the water’s edge, whereupon it was thrown into the river.

[00:01:37] Edward Colston, the man in question, had been a celebrated philanthropist, he had given today’s equivalent of tens of millions of Euros to help the poor in and around Bristol.

[00:01:51] He was something of a Bristolian hero, and, until recently at least, if you wandered around Bristol you would find Colston Tower, Colston Hall, and Colston Street.

[00:02:03] What a kind man he must have been, you might be thinking, to give all of this money away.

[00:02:10] But, as you can probably guess, it wasn’t this simple.

[00:02:15] Colston made his money, a large part of it at least, through trading humans.

[00:02:21] He was a member of something called the “Royal African Company”. Despite its innocent-sounding name, its business was far from it.

[00:02:31] The Royal African Company, or RAC for short, was a slave trading company.

[00:02:38] Between the years of 1672 and 1731, the RAC made 653 trips across the Atlantic, from the west coast of Africa to the British colonies in America.

[00:02:55] On these ships were people ripped from their homes, and sold as slaves.

[00:03:01] The numbers here are quite astounding.

[00:03:05] A total of 187,697 people got on to the ships of the RAC, with 38,497 of those dying en route, so more than 1 in 5 not surviving the journey.

[00:03:23] Of those that were lucky enough to survive, they would find a life of backbreaking labour ahead of them. No doubt for many, there were times that they wished they had not survived the trip.

[00:03:36] It was from the trade of these people, African slaves, that Colston’s riches originated. 

[00:03:44] The money might have eventually flowed towards so called “good” causes, in terms of hospitals and dwellings for the poor, but the fact that it had come from this most inhumane of businesses meant that it was forever tainted, stained by the blood and suffering of those who had been sold into slavery to create it.

[00:04:06] Now, Colston is just one slave trader, today’s episode isn’t only about him, nor is it about Britain’s struggle to deal with its history of people like Colston.

[00:04:17] Instead we are going to explore the transatlantic slave trade more broadly, how did it get started, how did it work from a practical basis, and what finally brought it all to an end.

[00:04:32] As to the question of how it got started, as you will know already, and as we spoke about in part one of this mini-series, the practice of slavery has been in existence since the most ancient of civilizations.

[00:04:46] But it tended to be relatively localised: invade a neighbouring city and take its citizens slaves, rack up large debts and have to sell yourself into slavery, and so on.

[00:04:59] It was a fundamental part of many ancient civilisations, it kept the wheels turning, but it was not industrialised, it was not its own multi-billion dollar industry.

[00:05:13] And moving forward into the Middle Ages, the period of European history that is defined as widely as being from 500 AD right through to 1500, slavery in Europe at least took a different shape.

[00:05:27] Or rather, slavery gave way to the feudal system, a system in which there were lords and peasants, not masters and slaves, but on a day-to-day basis the reality wasn’t so different.

[00:05:42] While all of this was happening, there was another area of the world where the slave trade was really just getting started. Arabs from North Africa had started to travel south, across the Sahara, and had found a new source of people that they could take back with them to be sold as slaves in the Middle East. 

[00:06:03] African tribes, from East to West, realised that they could attack a nearby tribe, take its people prisoner, and sell these captives to Arab slave traders from the north for a healthy profit.

[00:06:17] And we are talking in huge numbers here. 

[00:06:21] One historian, a man called Paul Lovejoy, estimates that 6 million Africans were sold into slavery and transported across the Sahara by Arab slave traders between the years 650 and 1500, before the transatlantic slave trade really got started.

[00:06:40] Now, we aren’t talking about the Arab slave trade today, but the reason to mention it is to underline that the practice of Sub Saharan Africans being sold into slavery, often by their own fellow men, dates back far longer than some people are aware of, or care to admit.

[00:06:59] So, what was it that really caused the transatlantic slave trade to start when it did?

[00:07:05] The unfortunate reality is that the transatlantic slave trade was first and foremost a question of economics, it is a story of commercial interests.

[00:07:15] Humans were treated as commodities, goods to be bought and sold, their price based on how much value someone could extract from them before they died.

[00:07:27] It is clearly horrific to put it in these terms, but it does help explain how and why the transatlantic slave trade took place when it did. It was a solution to a commercial problem.

[00:07:41] European countries had goods to sell: textiles, clothing, manufactured goods, guns and rum.

[00:07:50] Their colonies in the new world also had goods to sell: mainly sugar, tobacco, and coffee.

[00:07:57] The problem was that the colonies in the new world didn’t need what the European countries wanted to sell.

[00:08:05] What they needed was people, workers. 

[00:08:09] The crops that they were growing: sugar, tobacco, coffee, and later cotton, were all very intensive crops, they required a lot of manual labour. There weren’t enough European settlers who were prepared to do this work, and the indigenous population had been decimated by the European settlers, so there was a serious labour shortage in these new world colonies.

[00:08:33] So, what the European countries needed was to find someone they could trade their goods with, and in exchange, they would receive something the new world colonies needed.

[00:08:46] They needed to find a source of people.

[00:08:49] It just so happened that Sub Saharan Africa, after centuries of local rulers attacking rival tribes and selling their people into slavery to Arabs from the north, they were well-practised in the slave trade.

[00:09:03] So, a sort of three-way trade system was set up, a “triangular trade route”.

[00:09:10] Ships set sail south from Europe, to the west coast of Africa, full to the brim with textiles, guns and rum. These goods would be traded for slaves, who would be packed into ships and sent across the Atlantic.

[00:09:25] Upon their arrival in the Americas, the ships would be unloaded, those lucky enough to survive the trip would be sold to work in the sugar, tobacco and coffee plantations. And the money made from the sale of the slaves would go into buying sugar, tobacco, and coffee, which would be loaded onto the ship, and taken back to Europe to be sold at a profit.

[00:09:48] Of course, this is a gross simplification, and we’ll go into some of the nuances in due course, but the point is to demonstrate how various intertwined economic interests drove the transatlantic slave trade. 

[00:10:03] Textiles, guns and rum from Europe were traded with slaves, which were traded with sugar, tobacco and cotton, which were brought back to Europe, and the vicious circle continued.

[00:10:14] Now, let’s focus on the so-called “Middle Passage” of this trade, the transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas.

[00:10:24] And let’s first talk about where exactly these slaves came from.

[00:10:29] Geographically, we are talking about Sub Saharan Africa, and principally the Western part of Sub Saharan Africa. Modern day Nigeria, Gambia and Ghana, but slaves were taken from almost every region of west and central Africa.

[00:10:46] Warring tribes would take people from the losing tribe as prisoners, sell them to slave traders, who would march them to the coastal ports, where they would be sold to the European traders, who would pack them off to the Americas.

[00:11:01] While originally people might have been captured and sold into slavery as a byproduct of wars and local rivalries, as the demand for slaves increased, the capture of slaves became a major driver for war and conflict.

[00:11:18] And while there is debate among historians about whether African kingdoms actually went to war with each other for the express purpose of capturing slaves, the fact that going to war might mean that you had the double advantage of removing your rivals by literally sending them thousands of kilometres across the oceans AND that you could get paid well from it, well this certainly changed the regional dynamics.

[00:11:45] And to make matters worse, one of the goods that the Europeans would sell in exchange for slaves was guns. The region was flooded with powerful weapons, which changed regional dynamics and made the capture of slaves even easier.

[00:12:03] Now, once they were captured, slaves were often forced to march hundreds, even thousands of kilometres towards the sea, their hands and necks bound.

[00:12:13] When they arrived at the coast, like animals waiting to be sold at market, they would be held in large forts, sort of open air prisons, waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.

[00:12:26] And sold they would be, and packed onto large slave ships that would then make the treacherous journey across The Atlantic.

[00:12:35] Now, the journey itself wasn’t treacherous for the ship; technological developments had meant that crossing The Atlantic was pretty safe, and there was little danger of the ship getting lost or capsizing in the high seas.

[00:12:50] The danger was for the slaves on board, who were packed into the tightest of spaces, normally clapped up in irons, and given precious little to eat or drink.

[00:13:02] It is no surprise that one in five died during the six to eight week journey.

[00:13:10] Now, I imagine that you will be familiar with lots of the horrors of this trip, and of what life as a slave was like, so instead of repeating general points I’m sure you already know, we are going to talk about some lesser known elements of the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:13:27] Firstly, it is a common misconception, perhaps given the relatively high proportion of the population that can trace their families back to people who were enslaved, that most slaves were sent to what is now the United States. 

[00:13:42] In fact, only around 5% of all slaves were sent to the modern day United States. 

[00:13:49] The remainder were split between the Caribbean and Brazil, with the lion’s share going to Brazil.

[00:13:56] But if up to 33% of the total population of America were slaves, which it was in 1750, you might be thinking something doesn’t add up, right?

[00:14:08] Well, this is due to the fact that life as a slave in the American colonies was slightly better, or perhaps I should say not quite as absolutely terrible, as it was in the Caribbean or in Brazil.

[00:14:23] For a slave sent to Brazil, it was almost a literal death sentence.

[00:14:29] The average slave who ended up in Brazil lasted only between 4 and 7 years, meaning that the life expectancy for a Brazilian slave was a miserable twenty three years. 

[00:14:42] In the plantations of Brazil, slaves were literally worked to death and then replaced, bought, forced to work until they dropped, and then replaced by another unlucky slave who would face the same fate.

[00:14:57] In North America, life for a slave was slightly better, in that the average slave lived to their 33rd birthday. 

[00:15:07] This was not necessarily out of some great compassion on the part of their owners, but rather that slaves were business assets to be protected. It didn’t make good business sense to replace them every few years if you could treat them slightly better and they would continue to live for longer. 

[00:15:26] What’s more, if they didn’t die, they might reproduce, have children, meaning that your investment would multiply. And this is what happened in America. 

[00:15:37] Soon enough, the slave population was self-sustaining, meaning that, unlike in Brazil, new batches of slaves didn’t need to be imported every week, as new young slaves-to-be were being born in the country.

[00:15:52] Now, I hope you will forgive me for talking in such inhumane terms, but this was the reality of how slave traders and slave owners thought about the people that they were buying, selling, and then controlling: they were goods, assets to be put to work, not human beings with a heart, a soul and a mind of their own.

[00:16:14] Of course, this dehumanisation of tens of millions of people was underpinned by racism and prejudice. Racism was both a cause and a consequence of the slave trade. 

[00:16:28] Black Africans were seen as inferior to their white masters, lower in the racial hierarchy, and like Plato in Ancient Greece, it was “natural” for them to be enslaved.

[00:16:41] And as millions of Black Africans were enslaved, and countries like the USA developed with this shared memory of slavery, this perpetuated racial prejudice that still exists today.

[00:16:54] So, both cause and consequence.

[00:16:58] Now, clearly, this is an incredibly complicated and sensitive topic, still raw because of the scale of the slave trade, the fact that tens, hundreds of millions of people even, can trace their family lines back to people who were slaves, millions more can find evidence of ancestors who owned slaves, and the fact that the world we live in today still bears the signs and effects of the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:17:26] It is a topic that is easy to simplify, but when we look closer it is full of contradictions. 

[00:17:35] Yes, people like Edward Colston made fortunes buying and selling slaves, but so did many African tribal leaders. Yes, by some estimates over 10 million Black Africans were sold into slavery and transported over the Atlantic, but almost as many went north, sold to Arab slave traders, destined for the Middle East. 

[00:18:00] And hundreds of years before the first ship set sail across the Atlantic, and more than 100 years after the last ship left, slavery was still going on in a range of African states. 

[00:18:12] In fact, slavery wasn’t made a criminal offence in Mauritania until 2007, after the first iPhone was released.

[00:18:23] The point is that the transatlantic slave trade is incredibly complicated, a mishmash of economic interests combining with racism, exploitation, and an utter lack of humanity.

[00:18:36] What is unfortunately incredibly simple is the huge human cost.

[00:18:42] An estimated 12 to 15 million people ripped from their homeland and transported across the ocean, one in five of whom would die on the journey across. 

[00:18:54] For those who made it, a short, miserable life awaited them, in the worst of cases, no more than three years, with practically every waking minute of that short time filled with backbreaking labour under awful conditions, for no pay.

[00:19:10] It is hard to find a darker stain on humanity than the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:19:16] And perhaps an even more tragic aspect to consider is that a significant driver of it was the European pursuit of commodities like coffee, tobacco, and sugar – luxuries that, while they make our lives a bit more pleasurable, are certainly not essentials. 

[00:19:34] But in the grand houses of London or Paris or Amsterdam, the ladies and gentlemen sipped their coffee and smoked their cigars, and enjoyed sugar from the Caribbean plantations, harvested thanks to the backbreaking unpaid labour of African slaves, with the final product enjoyed without a thought spared for the blood, sweat and injustice that went into producing it.

[00:20:01] OK then, that is it for part two, today's episode on the sensitive but important issue of transatlantic slave trade.

[00:20:09] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that even though I’m sure this is something that we all know quite a bit about already, well I hope you've learnt something new.

[00:20:17] As a reminder, this was part two, so keep a lookout for part three on this mini-series, where we will be looking at the important and current issue of modern day slavery.

[00:20:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:32] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:04] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:20] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of a three-part mini-series on the uncomfortable but important topic of slavery.

[00:00:28] In part one, in case you missed it, we looked at slavery in antiquity, in the ancient world.

[00:00:34] In part three we’ll take a look at modern slavery, how slavery in different forms still exists today.

[00:00:42] And in this episode, part two, we’ll be talking about the bit in between, perhaps the period in history most synonymous with the barbarity and inhumanity of slavery: the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:00:55] We have a lot to be dealing with in this episode, so let’s get right into it.

[00:01:01] On the 8th of June, 2020, a small group of people gathered in the English city of Bristol. They crowded around a bronze statue of a man called Edward Colston, shouting and jeering.

[00:01:16] They fastened ropes around the statue, which had been standing in the same place since 1895, and pulled it to the ground.

[00:01:25] Immediately, people started jumping up and down on the statue, they painted it red, and then dragged it to the water’s edge, whereupon it was thrown into the river.

[00:01:37] Edward Colston, the man in question, had been a celebrated philanthropist, he had given today’s equivalent of tens of millions of Euros to help the poor in and around Bristol.

[00:01:51] He was something of a Bristolian hero, and, until recently at least, if you wandered around Bristol you would find Colston Tower, Colston Hall, and Colston Street.

[00:02:03] What a kind man he must have been, you might be thinking, to give all of this money away.

[00:02:10] But, as you can probably guess, it wasn’t this simple.

[00:02:15] Colston made his money, a large part of it at least, through trading humans.

[00:02:21] He was a member of something called the “Royal African Company”. Despite its innocent-sounding name, its business was far from it.

[00:02:31] The Royal African Company, or RAC for short, was a slave trading company.

[00:02:38] Between the years of 1672 and 1731, the RAC made 653 trips across the Atlantic, from the west coast of Africa to the British colonies in America.

[00:02:55] On these ships were people ripped from their homes, and sold as slaves.

[00:03:01] The numbers here are quite astounding.

[00:03:05] A total of 187,697 people got on to the ships of the RAC, with 38,497 of those dying en route, so more than 1 in 5 not surviving the journey.

[00:03:23] Of those that were lucky enough to survive, they would find a life of backbreaking labour ahead of them. No doubt for many, there were times that they wished they had not survived the trip.

[00:03:36] It was from the trade of these people, African slaves, that Colston’s riches originated. 

[00:03:44] The money might have eventually flowed towards so called “good” causes, in terms of hospitals and dwellings for the poor, but the fact that it had come from this most inhumane of businesses meant that it was forever tainted, stained by the blood and suffering of those who had been sold into slavery to create it.

[00:04:06] Now, Colston is just one slave trader, today’s episode isn’t only about him, nor is it about Britain’s struggle to deal with its history of people like Colston.

[00:04:17] Instead we are going to explore the transatlantic slave trade more broadly, how did it get started, how did it work from a practical basis, and what finally brought it all to an end.

[00:04:32] As to the question of how it got started, as you will know already, and as we spoke about in part one of this mini-series, the practice of slavery has been in existence since the most ancient of civilizations.

[00:04:46] But it tended to be relatively localised: invade a neighbouring city and take its citizens slaves, rack up large debts and have to sell yourself into slavery, and so on.

[00:04:59] It was a fundamental part of many ancient civilisations, it kept the wheels turning, but it was not industrialised, it was not its own multi-billion dollar industry.

[00:05:13] And moving forward into the Middle Ages, the period of European history that is defined as widely as being from 500 AD right through to 1500, slavery in Europe at least took a different shape.

[00:05:27] Or rather, slavery gave way to the feudal system, a system in which there were lords and peasants, not masters and slaves, but on a day-to-day basis the reality wasn’t so different.

[00:05:42] While all of this was happening, there was another area of the world where the slave trade was really just getting started. Arabs from North Africa had started to travel south, across the Sahara, and had found a new source of people that they could take back with them to be sold as slaves in the Middle East. 

[00:06:03] African tribes, from East to West, realised that they could attack a nearby tribe, take its people prisoner, and sell these captives to Arab slave traders from the north for a healthy profit.

[00:06:17] And we are talking in huge numbers here. 

[00:06:21] One historian, a man called Paul Lovejoy, estimates that 6 million Africans were sold into slavery and transported across the Sahara by Arab slave traders between the years 650 and 1500, before the transatlantic slave trade really got started.

[00:06:40] Now, we aren’t talking about the Arab slave trade today, but the reason to mention it is to underline that the practice of Sub Saharan Africans being sold into slavery, often by their own fellow men, dates back far longer than some people are aware of, or care to admit.

[00:06:59] So, what was it that really caused the transatlantic slave trade to start when it did?

[00:07:05] The unfortunate reality is that the transatlantic slave trade was first and foremost a question of economics, it is a story of commercial interests.

[00:07:15] Humans were treated as commodities, goods to be bought and sold, their price based on how much value someone could extract from them before they died.

[00:07:27] It is clearly horrific to put it in these terms, but it does help explain how and why the transatlantic slave trade took place when it did. It was a solution to a commercial problem.

[00:07:41] European countries had goods to sell: textiles, clothing, manufactured goods, guns and rum.

[00:07:50] Their colonies in the new world also had goods to sell: mainly sugar, tobacco, and coffee.

[00:07:57] The problem was that the colonies in the new world didn’t need what the European countries wanted to sell.

[00:08:05] What they needed was people, workers. 

[00:08:09] The crops that they were growing: sugar, tobacco, coffee, and later cotton, were all very intensive crops, they required a lot of manual labour. There weren’t enough European settlers who were prepared to do this work, and the indigenous population had been decimated by the European settlers, so there was a serious labour shortage in these new world colonies.

[00:08:33] So, what the European countries needed was to find someone they could trade their goods with, and in exchange, they would receive something the new world colonies needed.

[00:08:46] They needed to find a source of people.

[00:08:49] It just so happened that Sub Saharan Africa, after centuries of local rulers attacking rival tribes and selling their people into slavery to Arabs from the north, they were well-practised in the slave trade.

[00:09:03] So, a sort of three-way trade system was set up, a “triangular trade route”.

[00:09:10] Ships set sail south from Europe, to the west coast of Africa, full to the brim with textiles, guns and rum. These goods would be traded for slaves, who would be packed into ships and sent across the Atlantic.

[00:09:25] Upon their arrival in the Americas, the ships would be unloaded, those lucky enough to survive the trip would be sold to work in the sugar, tobacco and coffee plantations. And the money made from the sale of the slaves would go into buying sugar, tobacco, and coffee, which would be loaded onto the ship, and taken back to Europe to be sold at a profit.

[00:09:48] Of course, this is a gross simplification, and we’ll go into some of the nuances in due course, but the point is to demonstrate how various intertwined economic interests drove the transatlantic slave trade. 

[00:10:03] Textiles, guns and rum from Europe were traded with slaves, which were traded with sugar, tobacco and cotton, which were brought back to Europe, and the vicious circle continued.

[00:10:14] Now, let’s focus on the so-called “Middle Passage” of this trade, the transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas.

[00:10:24] And let’s first talk about where exactly these slaves came from.

[00:10:29] Geographically, we are talking about Sub Saharan Africa, and principally the Western part of Sub Saharan Africa. Modern day Nigeria, Gambia and Ghana, but slaves were taken from almost every region of west and central Africa.

[00:10:46] Warring tribes would take people from the losing tribe as prisoners, sell them to slave traders, who would march them to the coastal ports, where they would be sold to the European traders, who would pack them off to the Americas.

[00:11:01] While originally people might have been captured and sold into slavery as a byproduct of wars and local rivalries, as the demand for slaves increased, the capture of slaves became a major driver for war and conflict.

[00:11:18] And while there is debate among historians about whether African kingdoms actually went to war with each other for the express purpose of capturing slaves, the fact that going to war might mean that you had the double advantage of removing your rivals by literally sending them thousands of kilometres across the oceans AND that you could get paid well from it, well this certainly changed the regional dynamics.

[00:11:45] And to make matters worse, one of the goods that the Europeans would sell in exchange for slaves was guns. The region was flooded with powerful weapons, which changed regional dynamics and made the capture of slaves even easier.

[00:12:03] Now, once they were captured, slaves were often forced to march hundreds, even thousands of kilometres towards the sea, their hands and necks bound.

[00:12:13] When they arrived at the coast, like animals waiting to be sold at market, they would be held in large forts, sort of open air prisons, waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.

[00:12:26] And sold they would be, and packed onto large slave ships that would then make the treacherous journey across The Atlantic.

[00:12:35] Now, the journey itself wasn’t treacherous for the ship; technological developments had meant that crossing The Atlantic was pretty safe, and there was little danger of the ship getting lost or capsizing in the high seas.

[00:12:50] The danger was for the slaves on board, who were packed into the tightest of spaces, normally clapped up in irons, and given precious little to eat or drink.

[00:13:02] It is no surprise that one in five died during the six to eight week journey.

[00:13:10] Now, I imagine that you will be familiar with lots of the horrors of this trip, and of what life as a slave was like, so instead of repeating general points I’m sure you already know, we are going to talk about some lesser known elements of the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:13:27] Firstly, it is a common misconception, perhaps given the relatively high proportion of the population that can trace their families back to people who were enslaved, that most slaves were sent to what is now the United States. 

[00:13:42] In fact, only around 5% of all slaves were sent to the modern day United States. 

[00:13:49] The remainder were split between the Caribbean and Brazil, with the lion’s share going to Brazil.

[00:13:56] But if up to 33% of the total population of America were slaves, which it was in 1750, you might be thinking something doesn’t add up, right?

[00:14:08] Well, this is due to the fact that life as a slave in the American colonies was slightly better, or perhaps I should say not quite as absolutely terrible, as it was in the Caribbean or in Brazil.

[00:14:23] For a slave sent to Brazil, it was almost a literal death sentence.

[00:14:29] The average slave who ended up in Brazil lasted only between 4 and 7 years, meaning that the life expectancy for a Brazilian slave was a miserable twenty three years. 

[00:14:42] In the plantations of Brazil, slaves were literally worked to death and then replaced, bought, forced to work until they dropped, and then replaced by another unlucky slave who would face the same fate.

[00:14:57] In North America, life for a slave was slightly better, in that the average slave lived to their 33rd birthday. 

[00:15:07] This was not necessarily out of some great compassion on the part of their owners, but rather that slaves were business assets to be protected. It didn’t make good business sense to replace them every few years if you could treat them slightly better and they would continue to live for longer. 

[00:15:26] What’s more, if they didn’t die, they might reproduce, have children, meaning that your investment would multiply. And this is what happened in America. 

[00:15:37] Soon enough, the slave population was self-sustaining, meaning that, unlike in Brazil, new batches of slaves didn’t need to be imported every week, as new young slaves-to-be were being born in the country.

[00:15:52] Now, I hope you will forgive me for talking in such inhumane terms, but this was the reality of how slave traders and slave owners thought about the people that they were buying, selling, and then controlling: they were goods, assets to be put to work, not human beings with a heart, a soul and a mind of their own.

[00:16:14] Of course, this dehumanisation of tens of millions of people was underpinned by racism and prejudice. Racism was both a cause and a consequence of the slave trade. 

[00:16:28] Black Africans were seen as inferior to their white masters, lower in the racial hierarchy, and like Plato in Ancient Greece, it was “natural” for them to be enslaved.

[00:16:41] And as millions of Black Africans were enslaved, and countries like the USA developed with this shared memory of slavery, this perpetuated racial prejudice that still exists today.

[00:16:54] So, both cause and consequence.

[00:16:58] Now, clearly, this is an incredibly complicated and sensitive topic, still raw because of the scale of the slave trade, the fact that tens, hundreds of millions of people even, can trace their family lines back to people who were slaves, millions more can find evidence of ancestors who owned slaves, and the fact that the world we live in today still bears the signs and effects of the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:17:26] It is a topic that is easy to simplify, but when we look closer it is full of contradictions. 

[00:17:35] Yes, people like Edward Colston made fortunes buying and selling slaves, but so did many African tribal leaders. Yes, by some estimates over 10 million Black Africans were sold into slavery and transported over the Atlantic, but almost as many went north, sold to Arab slave traders, destined for the Middle East. 

[00:18:00] And hundreds of years before the first ship set sail across the Atlantic, and more than 100 years after the last ship left, slavery was still going on in a range of African states. 

[00:18:12] In fact, slavery wasn’t made a criminal offence in Mauritania until 2007, after the first iPhone was released.

[00:18:23] The point is that the transatlantic slave trade is incredibly complicated, a mishmash of economic interests combining with racism, exploitation, and an utter lack of humanity.

[00:18:36] What is unfortunately incredibly simple is the huge human cost.

[00:18:42] An estimated 12 to 15 million people ripped from their homeland and transported across the ocean, one in five of whom would die on the journey across. 

[00:18:54] For those who made it, a short, miserable life awaited them, in the worst of cases, no more than three years, with practically every waking minute of that short time filled with backbreaking labour under awful conditions, for no pay.

[00:19:10] It is hard to find a darker stain on humanity than the transatlantic slave trade.

[00:19:16] And perhaps an even more tragic aspect to consider is that a significant driver of it was the European pursuit of commodities like coffee, tobacco, and sugar – luxuries that, while they make our lives a bit more pleasurable, are certainly not essentials. 

[00:19:34] But in the grand houses of London or Paris or Amsterdam, the ladies and gentlemen sipped their coffee and smoked their cigars, and enjoyed sugar from the Caribbean plantations, harvested thanks to the backbreaking unpaid labour of African slaves, with the final product enjoyed without a thought spared for the blood, sweat and injustice that went into producing it.

[00:20:01] OK then, that is it for part two, today's episode on the sensitive but important issue of transatlantic slave trade.

[00:20:09] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that even though I’m sure this is something that we all know quite a bit about already, well I hope you've learnt something new.

[00:20:17] As a reminder, this was part two, so keep a lookout for part three on this mini-series, where we will be looking at the important and current issue of modern day slavery.

[00:20:27] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:32] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]