The Stunning Statistics of the Slave Trade

The Stunning Statistics of the Slave Trade May 3, 2016

One of the most surprising revelations to me during my research for my new book American Colonial History was just how much Africans dominated transatlantic immigration from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Sure, I knew that millions of Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas during that period. But the actual numbers, especially in comparison to that of European immigration, are stunning.

Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The latest statistics on the transatlantic slave trade tell us that about eleven million Africans disembarked in the Americas from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. That means that from 1492 to 1820, forced African immigrants vastly outnumbered those from Europe. As many as four-fifths of all transatlantic immigrants during that period came from Africa, not Europe.

This fact requires that we reorganize the way that we see the story of “coming to America” during the colonial era and early republic. Demographically, Africans dominated, and Europeans were also-rans.

Why have we not emphasized these statistics before? There are several reasons. One is that few of these African immigrants left written records of their lives. The European colonies in the Americas were a death trap. Many slaves died within a year of arrival, if they survived the Middle Passage across the Atlantic.

Also, American historians have tended not to see the slave trade in Atlantic perspective, which has limited our understanding of the patterns of slavery in the Americas. Portuguese Brazil took the most slaves, about 4.8 million. The British Caribbean colonies (like Jamaica) took the next most, followed by Spain’s New World colonies, and France’s Caribbean possessions. Mainland North America, which gets so much attention historically, comes in as only the fifth most common point of disembarkation for enslaved African people in America, with about 390,000 slaves going there.

In the 1700s, the North American mainland slave population became self-replicating, so that by the eve of the Civil War, almost four million slaves lived in the United States. Obviously, the southern and the entire American economy was deeply connected to slave labor at that point, but the future United States only received a small minority of the total number of slaves coming to the Americas.

If four-fifths of all immigrants during the colonial era came from Africa, then we need to do a better, fuller job of focusing on the history of slavery. You could make a powerful statistical argument that forced African immigration needs to be at the center, not the periphery, of American colonial history.

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