Seasonality in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Stephen D. Behrendt (Victoria University of Wellington), 2008

Agriculture in the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade

In examining seasonality in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it is important to focus on agricultural history because the majority of people in the Atlantic world lived on farms, producing crops and raising livestock. During the era of the slave trade, 1514-1866, most sub-Saharan Africans from rural communities, forced across the Atlantic, continued their farming lives by working New World lands. They grew some familiar provisions, including crops imported from Africa, like Guinea corn (millet) or West African rice. However, many saw crops such as sugar, tobacco, coffee, indigo, cacao, or cotton, for the first time.

Though historians lack data on precolonial African demography, it is reasonable to suggest that most Africans forced overseas were farmers or pastoralists. Men and women, adults and children, helped to produce yearly supplies of millet, sorghum, rice, maize, yams, cassava, plantains, or other crops. The ratio of men, women, and children working on farms varied by crops and region, but all villagers worked together clearing land, planting, weeding, and storing crops to produce sufficient amounts of food to enable communities to survive through the out-of-crop hungry seasons. Smaller numbers of enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic were craftsmen or professionals; as African towns grew in size in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so too did the numbers of urban residents who were enslaved.

For those eleven million African peoples who survived the Middle Passage, the majority would labor on plantation lands producing provisions and cash crops. As in Africa, ratios of men, women, and children working in the fields varied by crops and region, and the hungry months occurred before the year’s harvest. About 5.25 million African migrants worked in sugar cane, and perhaps 1.5 million toiled on tobacco, coffee, rice, indigo, cotton, and cacao estates. Another 1.5 million people worked in livestock pens, or on plantations producing millet, maize, wheat, cassava, or forestry products. An estimated one million enslaved Africans worked in silver and gold mining, but mostly before 1750. Brazilian gold, important particularly in 1690-1750, drew in perhaps 500,000 African workers. Household work or ranching occupied the lives of 750,000-1,000,000 African men, women and children.

Introduction Seasonal rainfall in the Atlantic slaving world
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