A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

David Eltis (Emory University), 2007

The Trade’s Influence on Ethnic and Racial Identity

In the Atlantic after 1492, oceans that had hermetically sealed peoples and cultures from each other sprouted sea-lanes almost overnight. Cultural accommodation between peoples, in this case between Europeans and non-Europeans, always took time. The big difference was that before Columbus, migrations had been gradual and tended to move outwards from the more to the less densely populated parts of the globe. But Columbian contact was sudden, and inhibited any gradual adjustment, cultural as well as epidemiological. A merging of perceptions of right and wrong, group identities, and relations between the sexes, to look only at the top of a very long list of social values, could not be expected to occur quickly in a post-Columbian world. In short, cultural adjustment could not keep pace with transportation technology. The result was first the rise, and then, as perceptions of the insider-outsider divide slowly changed, the fall, of the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans.

During the long coercive interlude of forced trans-Atlantic migration European and African conceptions of self and community (and eligibility for enslavement) did not remain static. On the African side, the major effect of the African-European exchange was to encourage an elementary pan-Africanism, at least among victims. The initial and unintentional impact of European sea-borne contact was to force non-elite Africans to think of themselves as part of a wider African group. Initially, this group might be Igbo, or Yoruba, and soon, in addition, blacks as opposed to whites. At the most elemental level, by the late eighteenth century, the slaves at James Island vowed to drink the blood of the whitemen. In Gorée, a little later, one third of the slaves in a carefully planned conspiracy, “would go in the village and be dispersed to massacre the whites”. When asked “[w]hether it were true that they had planned to massacre all the whites of the island....[t]he two leaders, far from denying the fact or looking for prevarication, answered with boldness and courage: that nothing was truer”.(3) Many similar incidents could be cited from the Americas side of the Atlantic. And on board a slave ship with all the slaves always black, and the crew largely white, skin color defined ethnicity.

The Ending of the Slave Trade Eventual Abolition
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