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Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas
Trading States
Items of Trade
Kongo
Benin

Captive Passage
has been made
possible in part by:
National Endowment for the Humanities
Recognition of
additional sponsors
for this exhibition
can be found by
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DepartureDeparture from AfricaWest Africa Before Slaving
Contact Between Europeans and AfricaThe Enslavement of AfricansResistance and Endurance

Contact Between Europe and Africa

West Africans had traded with the Mediterranean through merchants in North Africa for centuries. In the 15thcentury, Portuguese traders began sailing down the coast of West Africa; Dutch, British, French, and Scandinavian traders followed later, drawn by precious goods such as gold, ivory, and spices, particularly pepper. From their first contacts, they kidnapped and bought Africans to sell in Europe. However, it was not until the 18thcentury that transatlantic slaving became the dominant trade.

When the slave ships arrived from Europe, they were laden with trade goods-everything from gold and glass beads to rum and firearms. Captains offered gifts to local African leaders and paid taxes for the right to trade. They then began the serious business of barter and exchange.

Fort de Maures, sur l'isle Moyella
Fort de Maures, sur l'isle Moyella

European traders captured some Africans in raids along the coast but bought most from local African or African-European dealers. They paid the dealers in goods and established regular trading links. By including firearms among the trade goods, Europeans encouraged warfare in West Africa and ensured for themselves a steady supply of prisoners of war to transport to the Americas.

Some states, such as Asante and Dahomey, grew powerful and wealthy as a result of the slave trade. Other states were destroyed and absorbed by rivals. Males accounted for approximately two-thirds of those Africans sold to European traders. Those who remained behind bore the burden of rebuilding their violated communities.

King of Benin with Armed Soldiers
King of Benin with Armed Soldiers

The rate in trade is generally adjusted with the king, and none permitted to buy or sell till that is proclaimed; whereby he reserves to himself the preference in all dealings, he for the most part having the greatest number of slaves, which are sold at a set price, the women a fourth or a fifth cheaper than the men. This done, and the king's customs paid ... the [trading agent] has full liberty to trade...
Jean Barbot, from A description of the coasts of north and south Guinea, and of Ethiopia...account of the western maritime countries of Africa, London, 1732


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Trading States