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The Atlantic Slave Trade and The Plantation Slavery of The New World as The Roots of European Racism

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The transatlantic slave trade involved the transportation of slaves in Africa, by slave traders mainly to the Americas. This essay is going to evaluate the following statement that “the roots of European racism are to be found I the transatlantic trade and the plantation slavery of the new world”, through the use of different historical sources. The Atlantic slave trade that happened throughout the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries and the modern systems of slavery established in its existence had a great impact on evolving relationships between black and white world societies. trans- Atlantic slavery not only conditioned attitudes and behaviour involving New World white enslavers and black enslaved. It further had a bearing on the nature of developing contacts between the European and African countries, thus ultimately affecting the original systematization of white-world and black-world relationships. The processes of African enslavement and the New World systems of slavery to which it grew was that it was part of a developing European and white-world search for global influence and power in Africa.

Reasons for the Formation of Slave Trade

While the sugar plantations grew they required a large number of workers and strenuous levels of labour, slaves that came from the inland of Europe or the imported slaves from Africa acquired through trade with the nearby West and Central African coast. In this way, African Atlantic islands became home to some of the earliest examples of the plantation agricultural complex and enslaved African labour system that would come to dominate the Atlantic World.

These plantations developed from Mediterranean farming systems that were more focussed on growing cash crops for trade rather than subsistence crops for local use. Europeans first encountered many of their major cash crops, such as sugar, through exposure to Muslim agriculture during the Crusades from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Sugarcane particularly appealed to Europeans because their only sweetener before that time had been honey. They could also use sugar to make alcoholic beverages, such as rum or Madeira. Even at that growing sugarcane required access to tropical lands that were not available in northern Europe, and processing and transporting sugar throughout Europe required significant labour and trading resources. Sugar also did not have the nutritional value to be a staple crop for local consumers, like wheat or rice. Instead it was a supplemental, luxury good that had to be grown for a widespread consumer base to become a profitable cash crop. This launched a demand for long-distance trade networks, as well as significant labour and land resources. For these reasons, the expanding European sugar market particularly fuelled the rise of plantation-style agriculture, cash crop trading, and plantation slavery throughout the Atlantic World.

When Europeans settled areas in America where sugarcane could not grow, or when they had to adjust to a competitive sugar market, they found that they could adapt the plantation model and made a persuasion on the labour structure to capitalize on other cash crops that also had a large consumer market appeal, such as tobacco, indigo, rice, and eventually cotton. Considering the close proximity of Africa, Europeans chose not to colonize and establish plantations on the nearby West and Central African mainland, but opted to rather spend valuable resources to cross the Atlantic Ocean to America. Ultimately most Central and Western African nations and empires were militarily too strong for extensive European occupation. Leaders of these African regions often proved willing to trade goods and enslaved Africans, and they even established military alliances with Europeans in outpost settlements, but they resisted and generally prevented widespread European colonization during the early stages of New World expansion.

In addition, Europeans lacked immunities to many tropical diseases, which encouraged them to settle on islands or the coast rather than in the African interior. The strength of the Ottoman Empire blocked European expansion east of the Mediterranean, which also forced Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to look west for commercial growth and colonization. Driven by making profit, labour intensive ventures such as plantations and mines, Europeans transformed the Atlantic Ocean from a barrier into highways for transporting goods, settlers, and persuaded labourers. Plantation agriculture and cash crop trading played a central role in fuelling European expansion into the New World, and in developing chattel slavery, primarily of Africans, in the Americas.

Establishment of the Trade

In the fifteenth century, Portugal became the first European nation to take significant part in African slave trading. The Portuguese primarily acquired slaves for labour on Atlantic African island plantations, and later for plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean, though they also sent a small number to Europe. Initially, Portuguese explorers attempted to acquire African labour through direct raids along the coast, but they found that these attacks were costly and often ineffective against West and Central African military strategies.

Just like in 1444, Portuguese marauders arrived in Senegal ready to assault and capture Africans using armour, swords, and deep-sea vessels. But the Portuguese discovered that the Senegalese out-maneuverer their ships using light, shallow water vessels better suited to the estuaries of the Senegalese coast. In addition, the Senegalese fought with poison arrows that slipped through their armour and decimated the Portuguese soldiers. Subsequently, Portuguese traders generally abandoned direct combat and established commercial relations with West and Central African leaders, who agreed to sell slaves taken from various African wars or domestic trading, as well as gold and other commodities, in exchange for European and North African goods. Over time, the Portuguese developed additional slave trade partnerships with African leaders along the West and Central African coast and claimed a monopoly over these relationships, which initially limited access to the trade for other western European competitors. Despite Portuguese claims, African leaders enforced their own local laws and customs in negotiating trade relations. Many welcomed additional trade with Europeans from other nations.

When Portuguese, and later their European competitors, found that peaceful commercial relations alone did not generate enough enslaved Africans to fill the growing demands of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, they formed military alliances with certain African groups against their enemies. This encouraged more extensive warfare to produce captives for trading. While European-backed Africans had their own political or economic reasons for fighting with other African enemies, the end result for Europeans traders in these military alliances was greater access to enslaved war captives. To a lesser extent, Europeans also pursued African colonization to secure access to slaves and other goods. For example, the Portuguese colonized portions of Angola in 1571 with the help of military alliances from Congo, but were pushed out in 1591 by their former allies. Throughout this early period, African leaders and European competitors ultimately prevented these attempts at African colonization from becoming as extensive as in the Americas.

The Portuguese dominated the early trans-Atlantic slave trade on the African coast in the sixteenth century. As a result, other European nations first gained access to enslaved Africans through privateering during wars with the Portuguese, rather than through direct trade. When English, Dutch, or French privateers captured Portuguese ships during Atlantic maritime conflicts, they often found enslaved Africans on these ships, as well as Atlantic trade goods, and they sent these captives to work in their own colonies. In this way, privateering generated a market interest in the trans-Atlantic slave trade across European colonies in the Americas. After Portugal temporarily united with Spain in 1580, the Spanish broke up the Portuguese slave trade monopoly by offering direct slave trading contracts to other European merchants. Known as the asiento system, the Dutch took advantage of these contracts to compete with the Portuguese and Spanish for direct access to African slave trading, and the British and French eventually followed. By the eighteenth century, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade reached its trafficking peak, the British which was followed by the French and Portuguese had become the largest carriers of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. The overwhelming majority of enslaved Africans went to plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean, and a smaller percentage went to North America and other parts of South and Central America.

Shipment Conditions

A number of enslaved Africans were forced into the Middle Passage across the Atlantic died due to rough conditions on slave ships. Those who arrived at various ports in the Americas were then sold in public auctions or smaller trading venues to plantation owners, merchants, small farmers, prosperous tradesmen, and other slave traders. These traders could then transport slaves many miles further to sell on other Caribbean islands or into the North or South American interior. Predominantly European slaveholders purchased enslaved Africans to provide labour that included domestic service and artisanal trades. The majority, however, provided agricultural labour and skills to produce plantation cash crops for national and international markets. Slaveholders used profits from these exports to expand their landholdings and purchase more enslaved Africans, perpetuating the trans-Atlantic slave trade cycle for centuries, until various European countries and new American nations officially ceased their participation in the trade in the nineteenth century though illegal trans-Atlantic slave trading continued even after national and colonial governments issued legal bans.

New World Racism

Early forms of western European racial prejudice first began between Europeans. Ancient Greeks described “other” European groups, such as Scythians and Celts, as barbarians and savages. They often defined their prejudices based on physical preferences for certain bodily and facial features, including lighter skin, and discouraged intermarriage. By the Middle Ages, European Christians also stigmatized the colour black and associated it with sin and death. The darker skin of European labourers who worked outside with sun and wind exposure led elites to link skin colour and darkness to servitude, long before New World slavery. During later divisions and conflicts throughout Europe, combatants continued to claim physical and mental superiority over their opponents to justify military and labour subjugation. For example, during the British conquest of Ireland in the sixteenth century, the English monarchy characterized the Gaelic Irish as morally and physically inferior, as well as darker skinned, in comparison to the civilized English population. European concepts of conquest combined religious prejudices and stereotypes of physical and mental inferiority to justify subjugation as a civilizing force. These conquest ideologies took on a major economic purpose with New World expansion, when Europeans used physical and religious differences to justify the large-scale enslavement of Africans and displacement of American Indians for labour and land control in plantations and mines. Notably, as the economic incentives for subjugation increased, European racial stereotypes about Africans became more derogatory. As historian Ira Berlin notes.

With the rise of African slavery in the New World, Europeans shifted these stereotypes to support a racial hierarchy where Africans and African Americans were depicted as animalistic, servile, unintelligent, and sexually promiscuous. As Berlin explains, New World racism developed to justify New World slavery. Over time, this racial boundary of white superiority, and the belief that Africans and American Indians belonged to inferior races, grew to influence European social, political, legal, and labour systems throughout Atlantic World societies. However, shared white racial privileges did not mean conflicts between European nations ceased. The French and the English, for example, proved more than willing to repeatedly go to war with one another. Despite ongoing conflicts, neither nation was willing to enslave one another or their own citizens based on their prior history of competitive balance, and a growing sense of white racial superiority over non-Europeans.

Enslaved Africans and American Indians consistently resisted their secondary status within this developing racial hierarchy, and many began to demand access to the labour and mobility rights enjoyed by Europeans in the Americas. They enacted this resistance in a range of ways, including running away, open rebellion, and warfare. In response, European slaveholders in the Americas enacted rigid laws to enforce racial hierarchies and subjugation, and used tactics of violent coercion to secure chattel slavery. By the eighteenth and into the early nineteenth centuries, these racial hierarchies became systemically entrenched throughout American social structures and institutions. Freedom became associated with white Europeans and their Euro American offspring, while slavery became associated with non-whites, particularly people of African descent and their offspring.

Resistance to the Trade

With some early exceptions, Europeans were not able to independently enter the West and Central African interior to capture Africans and force them onto ships to the Americas. Instead, European traders generally relied on a network of African rulers and traders to capture and bring enslaved Africans from various coastal and interior regions to slave castles on the West and Central African coast. Many of these traders acquired captives as a result of military and political conflict, but some also pursued slave trading for profit. Europeans also went to great lengths to influence African traders and leaders to provide enslaved Africans for the trans-Atlantic trade. European traders encouraged African consumer demands for European goods, formed military alliances to instigate fighting and increase the number of captives, and shifted the location of disembarkation points for the trade along the West and Central African coast to follow African military conflicts. In areas of West and Central Africa where slavery was not prevalent, European demand often expanded the presence of the institution and trade. But European traders still generally worked within terms set by African rulers and traders, who negotiated their own interests in these trading and military alliances.

Regardless of the situation, the suffering of separated families and the experiences of enslavement during the trans-Atlantic trade were universally devastating for victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Throughout the trade, the Africans who were enslaved or threatened with enslavement consistently resisted the dehumanizing confines of this institution. Villages and towns built fortifications and warning systems to prevent attacks from traders or enemy groups. If captured and forced onto ships for the Middle Passage, enslaved Africans resisted by organizing hunger strikes, forming rebellions, and even committing suicide by leaping overboard rather than living in slavery. Scholars believe that roughly one slaving voyage in every ten experienced major rebellions. These rebellions were costly for European traders, and led them to avoid certain regions known for this resistance strategy, such as Upper Guinea, except during periods of high slave trade market demand. This resulted in fewer Africans entering the trans-Atlantic slave trade from these regions, which suggests that African resistance strategies could be effective.

In conclusion this essay has evaluated the statement that “the roots of European racism are to be found I the transatlantic trade and the plantation slavery of the new world”, and it has used different historical sources.


  1. Date of access: 23 Sep. 2019
  2. Date of access: 25 Sep. 2019
  3. Date of access: 27 Sep. 2019
  4. Date of access: 27 Sep. 2019

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The Atlantic Slave Trade And The Plantation Slavery Of The New World As The Roots Of European Racism. (2021, March 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 28, 2021, from
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