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The History of the Slave Trade in America


When the first colonists settled down in America in the early 1600s, they marked the beginning of a new nation aimed at setting itself free from British tyranny. Yet, this nation itself became tyrannical toward black people who were bought in America and enslaved by colonists. Although slavery and the slave trade were completely inhuman, they had the economic reasoning behind them and led the country to economic prosperity. This paper aims at exploring the rise of the slave trade in America and its influence on American economic life. It will also discuss the government’s efforts to restrict the slave trade in 1807 and the ways it continued to exist until its abolition in 1865.

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The reason for colonists’ involvement in the slave trade was a high need for the labor force. When they first arrived in America, they used the labor of indentured servants. These were Europeans who signed a contract, according to which they agreed to work for an American master for 4-7 years in exchange for the passage to America and a piece of land there (Shi & Tindall, 2016). Yet, with the increasing production of cash crops, such as tobacco and rice, the labor of indentured servants soon became insufficient, and colonists began utilizing the slave labor (Dubofsky & McCartin, 2017). The first ship with African slaves was a Dutch ship with “20 Negars” on board, which arrived at Jamestown in 1619 (Shi & Tindall, 2016, p. 67). These were the first African slaves in the English American land, and their arrival marked the beginning of the slave trade.

Prior to 1807, the transatlantic slave trade was the main source of black slaves for America. The British ships came to the West African coast owned by various European countries, where African slave traders offered them African slaves for purchase. Africans were constantly involved in internal wars among different groups, so they often captured their enemies to sell them later to America as slaves (Araujo, 2017). Once slaves were chosen and purchased, they were labeled on their backs or buttocks with a company sign, chained, and loaded onto a ship, which then headed to America via the Middle Passage (Shi & Tindall, 2016). Although one in six Africans did not survive the passage, slave traders highly appreciated their work, which is seen from the notes of one of them: “What a glorious and advantageous trade this is … It is the hinge on which all the trade of this globe moves” (Shi & Tindall, 2016, p. 103). Thus, the transatlantic slave trade flourished until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In the eighteenth century, the number of enslaved blacks was increasing, adding value to the American economy and raising the government’s and slaveholders’ concerns. According to Marques (2016), estimated 100,000 enslaved Africans were brought to America in 1783-1807, and, among them, 40,000 were disembarked in the port of Charleston. Apart from the newly imported Africans, black slaves born in America were growing in number. By 1700, black slaves comprised 11% of the overall American population, and, by 1750, nearly 80% of black slaves in the Chesapeake region were born in America (Shi & Tindall, 2016). As a result, Americans became afraid that, if more African slaves were imported, they would raise a revolt (Marques, 2016). At the same time, there was no need for new imported Africans because American slaveholders had a large number of American-born black slaves (Marques, 2016). These concerns resulted in the passage of “An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into Any Port or Place within the Jurisdiction of the United States” on March 2, 1807 (Kerr-Ritchie, 2019, p. 40). This act came into force in 1808 and prohibited the transatlantic slave trade.

Yet, the slave trade continued to exist in two forms: the inland slave trade and the coastal slave trade. In 1800-1860, America experienced an economic boom due to the increasing production of cotton that was of great value at that time. The production of cotton required much hard labor of slaves. Therefore, the primary concern for planters was “to buy Negroes to raise cotton & raise cotton to buy Negroes” (Shi & Tindall, 2016, p. 482). This obsession with growing cotton and buying slaves made the slave trade business a very profitable one. Slave traders held auctions, where they brought slaves dressed in neat blue clothes and assigned categories, such as Prime, No.1, No.2, or Second Rate (Shi & Tindall, 2016). Buyers examined slaves as if they were cattle, checking their teeth, whip scars, and any defects (Shi & Tindall, 2016). Slaves were often bought in such a way as to separate mothers from their children and husbands from their wives.

The coastal slave trade was conducted along the eastern coast of the US. It involved such ports as Baltimore, Alexandria, Richmond, Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, St. Petersburg, Pensacola, Mobile, and Galveston (Kerr-Ritchie, 2019). About 50,000 slaves were transported by ship between the 1820s and 1850s through this Coastal Passage (Kerr-Ritchie, 2019). Sometimes, the US ships accidentally entered the waters belonging to Britain, which abolished slavery. In such cases, British officers, guided by the principle that keeping black people as slaves was illegal, freed slaves.


The slave trade was practiced in the US until the beginning of the 1860s when tensions within the country led to the civil war, which ended in 1865 with the abolition of slavery. The hard labor of slaves on tobacco, rice, and cotton plantations led the US to become a prosperous nation and facilitated its transformation during the Industrial Revolution. Yet, the inhuman treatment of black people has stained America’s reputation and spawned long-lasting racial conflicts.

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Araujo, A. L. (2017). Reparations for slavery and the slave trade: A transnational and comparative history. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Dubofsky, M., & McCartin, J. A. (2017). Labor in America: A history. Wiley-Blackwell.

Kerr-Ritchie, J. R. (2019). Rebellious passage: The Creole revolt and America’s coastal slave trade. Cambridge University Press.

Marques, L. (2016). The United States and the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas, 1776-1867. Yale University Press.

Shi, D. E., & Tindall, G. B. (2016). America: A narrative history (10th ed.). W. W. Norton & Co.

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