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Who first brought slaves from Africa?

The transatlantic slave trade which involved transporting enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas lasted from the 16th to the 19th century. This was one of the largest forced human migrations in modern history. But who started it? When did it begin and how did it spread and grow over the centuries?

When did the transatlantic slave trade start?

The transatlantic slave trade is often traced back to the 15th century when the Portuguese first began exploring the coast of West Africa. However, the first slaves were not shipped directly to the Americas at this time. Instead, they were taken to Europe or to Atlantic islands off the coast of Africa to work on sugar plantations.

It was not until the 16th century that the transatlantic slave trade really began in earnest. The Spanish and Portuguese established colonies in the Americas and needed laborers to work on plantations and in mines. The native populations had declined rapidly after contact with European diseases. As a result, the colonists turned to Africa for a source of cheap labor. The first African slaves arrived in Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1502.

Who initiated the transatlantic slave trade?

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to engage in the transatlantic slave trade. This was initiated under Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century as the Portuguese explored the west coast of Africa. However, it was limited to taking slaves to Europe at that time.

The transatlantic slave trade was then expanded by the Spanish, who brought the first African slaves to the Americas in the early 16th century. Other European nations soon followed suit, including the British, French and Dutch.

So while the Portuguese initiated early slaving voyages to Europe, it was the Spanish who really began the mass transatlantic slave trade and established the first permanent slave colonies in the Americas.

The growth of the transatlantic slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade started relatively small in the 16th century but grew rapidly in the 17th and 18th centuries as European colonies in the Americas expanded.

It’s estimated that between 1500 and 1900, up to 15 million African slaves were transported across the Atlantic. The peak period for the slave trade was between 1700 and 1808 when over 6 million slaves were transported.

The chart below shows the estimated number of slaves transported across the Atlantic each year between 1519 and 1867:

Year Number of slaves transported
1519-1600 37,000
1601-1700 278,000
1701-1800 6,133,000
1801-1900 3,330,000

As the chart shows, the transatlantic slave trade grew from thousands per year in the 16th century to hundreds of thousands per year in the 18th century. The rapid growth was driven by the emergence of Europe’s largest slave trading powers – the Portuguese, French, English and Dutch empires.

The geographical spread of the slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade linked four continents – Europe, Africa, North America and South America. However, the geographical patterns and flows changed over time as different empires became dominant.

In the 16th century, the Spanish and Portuguese shipped slaves mostly to Central and South America and the Caribbean islands. Brazil and the Caribbean received over 3.5 million African slaves alone between 1500 and 1800.

In the 17th century, the Dutch joined the slave trade and established colonies in northeastern South America and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the Portuguese continued to dominate the slave trade in Brazil.

By the 18th century, the British had become the biggest slavers. They shipped slaves from Africa to their colonies in North America and the Caribbean, with around 70% going to the Caribbean. France also expanded its slave trading activities for its colonies in the Caribbean and Louisiana during this period.

So while the slave trade was initiated by the Spanish and Portuguese empires, it eventually expanded to involve all the major maritime powers in Europe by the 18th century.

The impact on Africa

The transatlantic slave trade had a devastating effect on Africa. The African regions that suffered most were Senegambia, Benin, Nigeria and the Congo. Overall, it’s estimated that between 10 to 15 million Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas.

The slave trade depleted Africa’s workforce and caused widespread violence and social disruption as people were captured and villages were raided. The removal of so many young and able-bodied men in their prime working years was extremely detrimental. It’s been argued this made Africa more vulnerable to colonial rule later on.

African kingdoms did supply slaves at times, but often they were responding to demand from European slave traders offering guns, textiles and other goods in exchange. The massive scale of the transatlantic slave trade was driven by European colonial powers and the insatiable demand for cheap labor in the Americas, rather than African kingdoms.

Abolition of the slave trade

By the 19th century, abolitionist movements were gaining ground in Europe. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, although slavery itself continued in British colonies until full emancipation in 1838.

Other European nations soon followed suit: the United States in 1808, Sweden in 1813, the Netherlands in 1814 and France in 1818. However, the trade continued illegally despite the official bans.

It took until the 1860s before the transatlantic slave trade was largely eradicated and slavery abolished in the Americas.


In conclusion, the transatlantic slave trade was initiated by the Portuguese in the 15th century before being expanded massively by the Spanish in the 16th century. It then continued to grow through the 17th and 18th centuries as the Dutch, French, British and other European powers prosecuted the trade at an industrial scale. While African kingdoms were often complicit, the slave trade was driven by European colonial demand for labor. It had a devastating impact on Africa, with long lasting social, political and economic consequences. After several centuries, it was finally abolished in the 19th century after relentless campaigning by abolitionists.