History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

July 19, 2019  - by 

The transatlantic slave trade was responsible for one of the largest forced migrations in recorded history—and for dooming millions of people and their descendants into lives of slavery. Here’s a summary of how early transatlantic traders began trafficking in humans and a glimpse of what that experience was like for those who suffered it.

Transatlantic Trade Turns to Slavery

In the 1500s, Africa was a continent of diverse cultures, languages, and political structures. Its people were similarly diverse, but many had knowledge of metalworking, medicine, mathematics, or astronomy. Trade with other lands thrived along the West African coast. African merchants traded handmade luxury goods for manufactured items from Portuguese seafarers and eventually from other Europeans as well.

Slavery existed within Africa during this period, and at times enslaved people were sold to European traders too. Some people were enslaved due to debt or crime or as prisoners of war.

During the 1600s and 1700s, sugar and coffee plantations in the New World demanded ever-increasing numbers of enslaved workers. European traders purchased slaves from the regions of Senegambia and Ghana. As time passed, the slave trade expanded south and east. By the 19th century, people were being captured from a wide swath of central and south-central Africa, from Kongo east to what is now Somalia, and south to modern-day Mozambique, and sold as slaves. About 65 percent of those taken were male; on average, one in five was a child.

From Capture through the Middle Passage

Upon capture from their homes, the fields of battle, or other situations, African men, women, and children were chained and forced to march toward coastal areas, where they could be sold. This overland journey could take weeks or months. Their bodies suffered from exposure, thirst, hunger, and relentless walking. After arriving at the coast, the prisoners awaited sale and deportation in comfortless holding cells. Once sold, they boarded ships to travel the infamous Middle Passage of a triangular trade route—from Europe to Africa and then to the New World.

Enslaved adults and children who traveled the Middle Passage endured conditions so brutal that between 10 and 15 percent of them didn’t survive.  They were often forced to lie or crouch in a tiny space, crowded alongside others to whom they might be shackled.

people transported in the middle passage during the transatlantic slave trade.

Olaudah Equiano, captured into slavery in the 1700s, later recalled such vile stench from bodies and seasickness that he couldn’t eat; his captors force-fed him just enough to keep him alive. Some captives, especially women, suffered additional abuse along the journey.

Enslavement in the New World

The vast majority of ships in the transatlantic slave trade landed on the isles of the Caribbean.  A relative few ships deposited their enslaved passengers on the shores of Spanish South America and even fewer in British North America.

shackles used on enslaved persons.

At any point along the path into enslavement—capture, forced march, initial sale, or subsequent sale in the New World—people were wrenched permanently from parents, spouses, siblings, and other loved ones. Enslavers deliberately stripped them of their identity and dignity in a conditioning process meant to ensure that they would be more compliant workers.

Equiano recalled his arrival at Bridge Town, Barbados, as an experience akin to being purchased like livestock. Merchants examined him and kept him in a pen with other enslaved people. On a given day, buyers thronged noisily into the pen and selected the people they wanted to purchase. Many of those bought were branded with hot irons and kept in chains or subjected to other tortures. The slaves then began a new life of hard, continuous labor that would generally end only with their deaths.

By the time the last known slave ship delivered its passengers in 1859, an estimated 12.5 million African men, women, and children had been abducted from their homes and forcibly transported to the New World as part of the transatlantic slave trade.

Records of the Transatlantic slave trade are difficult to find, but resources such as the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database are available. FamilySearch can teach you how to connect these kinds of records to your ancestors and how you can use them to grow your family tree. Sign into your FamilySearch account to get started.

Discovering Your African American Heritage

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Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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  1. I have a Scottish ancestor that was captured by English Cromwell’s soldiers and sent to the Massachusetts area as a slave working in the ironworks. It should be remembered that African’s captured other Africans and used them for slaves as well as selling them to the Europeans.

  2. Only one Dutch ancestor had one free (?) slave & one not-free slave living in New Jersey. Their house was beautiful and now I know why.

  3. Glad to know the database can be connected to Family Tree. The only obstacle is the research log and near confirmation.

  4. While I appreciate the entry, our African heritage and history does not begin with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Africa is the world’s second largest and most populous continent. Familysearch would do well to provide access to research to Africa before European Colonization and Trans-Atlantic Trade. In the case of British North America during the Colonial era, many enslaved Africans originated from the Gold Coast ( Ghana today). Seek to provide access to documents and scholarship that connects with the Ghana Empire, Mali, Kingdom of Nri, Yoruba and Akan Empire of Ashanti along with other ancient kingdoms of West Africa that would greatly influence the settlement and people of America. African enslavement is not our only Black history, African enslavement disrupted our Black history.