Monday, July 29, 2013

A comparative look at the numbers in the slave trade

Despite the overwhelming attention paid to it in comparison to the role of Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America the US played a comparatively small role in the international slave trade. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade to begin was considerably smaller than the combined Trans-Saharan and Trans-Indian Ocean slave trades. These far less well known slave trades lasted from about 650 to 1905 and totaled about 17 million African slaves (John Ralph Willis, fn. 2, p. x). The much shorter lived Atlantic slave trade saw the arrival of around 10 million surviving Africans in the Western hemisphere during the 16th to the 19th centuries (Polian, table 1, p. 18).Contrary to the impression given by US commentators the number of slaves sent to the US during this time was only a small fraction of these men and women.

The single largest importer of slaves shipped across the Atlantic was Brazil dwarfing the US by a factor of ten. The US ceased importing slaves by 1808 by which time the total number of imported slaves was only around 400,000 or 4% of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In contrast Brazil imported over 4 million slaves from Africa or about 40% of the total to survive the Middle Passage (Bergad, 96). In the Caribbean even very small islands imported almost as many slaves as the US. The British shipped 387,000 slaves to tiny Barbados by 1807, almost as many as were transplanted to the US (Kiple, p. 106). Large islands received many more slaves than the US. Spanish Cuba received 780,000 slaves or almost twice as many as the US (Bergad, p. 97).  The Spanish and British imported over 1 million slaves into Jamaica (Eltis, p. 188). Brazil continued to import slaves into the 1850s and only abolished slavery in 1888, twenty three years after the US did. Yet by the 1860s there were some 4 million slaves of African descent in the US versus only 1.5 million in Brazil and 370,000 in Cuba, less than half the number originally transplanted (Bergad, p. 97). In 1834 at the time of emancipation, Barbados had a mere 82,000 surviving slaves or less than a quarter of the number imported. Deaths exceeded births by a constant 4-5% annually on the island from 1676-1725. Jamaica was slightly less deadly with an annual death rate of 3-3.5% above births during the 18th century (Kiple, p. 106). These difference were due in large part to the huge differences in mortality rates stemming from a far better diet in the US (Bergad, pp. 98-100 and Kiple, pp. 117-118). They also stem in large part from the fact that plantation owners growing sugar cane in Brazil and the Caribbean literally worked to death many of their slaves (Bergad, pp. 102-103). The far deadlier conditions suffered by slaves in Brazil and the Caribbean like the very existence of Black slaves outside the US is something that is almost never mentioned by US commentators.

The popular image of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade as primarily a US crime against humanity is completely inaccurate. Around 96% of slaves imported to the Western hemisphere went to places other than the territory of the US. Brazil alone accounted for 40% of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and Jamaica 10%.  Yet it is the US rather than Brazil or Jamaica that is consistently portrayed as as the dominant country in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the popular imagination.


Laird W. Bergad, The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

David Eltis and David Richardson, "Prices of African Slaves Newly Arrived in the Americas, 1673-1865: New Evidence on Long-Run Trends and Regional Differentials," in David Eltis, Frank D. Lewis, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff, Slavery in the Development of the Americas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Kenneth F. Kiple, The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Pavel Polian, Against their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004).

John Ralph Willis, ed., Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa: Volume II: The Servile Estate (London: Frank Cass, 1985).

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