In the 1400s, Europe began discovering the great mass of Africa beyond the vast Sahara. At the end of the century, it also discovered the Americas. Little did it know that the two land masses would become so inextricably bound.

For the next two centuries, European superpowers planted a chain of European colonies from New England to the West Indies to Brazil. Such places seemed to have an inexhaustable supply of sugar, tobacco, silver, and gold. Visions of great wealth danced before the superpowers' eyes—provided they could find the labor to exploit the situation.

They soon concluded that such labor could not be found in the Americas. The "redskins" in the North refused to abandon a nomadic lifestyle based on hunting to pick cotton on white men's plantations. The natives of Central and South America didn't seem physically capable of the work their conquerors expected of them. Yet somehow, civilized Europe was determined to have its sweets, tobacco, and other exotic commodities.

20 black slaves

The solution came from Portuguese traders who had found something in Africa besides gold. In 1440 the first cargo brought to Lisbon by the first European company for the exploitation of West Africa consisted of 20 black slaves. The Portuguese concluded that if blacks could work in Portugal, they could work in Brazil. To the Portuguese, these Africans were simple, childlike folk, docile, inured to tropical heat, strong, tough—they seemed to have been created for the special needs of colonial planters.

Nor was it particularly difficult or dangerous to get them. In fact, they could be gotten more easily than gold or ivory.

So, in due course, men, women, and children of West Africa were bundled across the ocean not just by the Portuguese but by all of Europe's superpowers, and not in tens or hundreds, but in thousands and tens of thousands. Life and commerce in the Americas had been saved, so to speak, by a transfusion of blood from Africa.

From 1660 onward, the expansion of the slave trade was steadily encouraged by English statesmen as a key factor in the country's commercial and naval strength. Forts were built on the African "Gold Coast," from Cape Verde to the Gulf of Guinea, and in 1713 a treaty with Spain transferred from French to English merchants the notorious Asiento, the monopoly of the supply of slaves to the Spanish colonies.

The trade grew quickly. By the early 1700s, English traders dumped about 25,000 Africans on the other side of the Atlantic every year. By about 1770, it had risen to 50,000, half of what all Europe exported. By 1787 the numbers were down, but Britain was still the European leader in transports, with 38,000 slaves annually (France was second with 31,000).

Season of terror

The season of the coming of the slave ships was a season of terror and violence all along the Gold Coast, or "hunting-ground," as the traders called it. The slaves were obtained in three ways: by seizure, by purchase from professional traders, or by barter with a chief.

If the slave ship visited an unfrequented part of the coast, or if inhabitants could be taken by surprise, a sudden armed landing was made and Africans were kidnapped.

The meanest treachery was regarded by some slave captains as legitimate business practice. On one occasion, the British military Governor of Goree was entertaining a party of over a hundred natives-men, women, and children-who were thoroughly enjoying themselves in dance and song. Three slave captains with him suggested that the whole party be seized and carried off to their ships. They claimed that a former governor, on a similar occasion, had consented to just such an act.

Professional traders were mostly Arabs of old-established firms, which had carried on the traffic in the heart of Africa for ages past. They captured their slaves in the interior and brought them to the coast for sale.

A deal with a native chief was the easiest and most productive method. British agents were sent to the interior with orders "to encourage the chieftains by brandy and gunpowder to go to war and make slaves." A chief was rarely found who could hold out against such "encouragement." The usual result: the chief ordered his soldiers to round up a neighboring village at night and bring back all the captives. Sometimes, if his greed were desperate, a chief sold his own subjects into slavery.

If there were raids, then there were reprisals. Chief went to war with chief and tribe with tribe. Victory meant wealth, and defeat meant slavery.

With their holds filled by one means or another with living cargo, slave ships set sail for the West. Peace, at least for a season, settled down again on West Africa. But villages lay wrecked and empty among the neglected corn, and childless parents and orphaned children grieved.

The miserable passage

The sufferings of Africans had only begun. The voyage to the West Indies could take three or four weeks, or more in unfavorable weather. The route to the West Indies was entirely within the tropical belt. For the slaves in the small sailing ships, this "Middle Passage" was an inferno.

The bigger the cargo, the bigger the profit. A boat of 100 to 150 tons could carry 300 to 600 slaves. Five feet of space separated the decks. Male slaves were laid on the floor and on shelves, manacled together in pairs, sometimes so closely packed they had to lie on their sides in sultry heat and rank air. Abruptly torn from their homes, wholly unused to the sea, they lay terrified by the mystery of what was to become of them.

They were fed the coarsest food. Numbers fell ill. Dysentery was rife. In fine weather, they would be taken on deck for a time and forced to dance in their chains, for exercise, while their quarters below were cleaned. In rough weather, they had to remain below. Conditions in a severe Atlantic gale of some days' duration would multiply their sufferings. It is a wonder that only up to a quarter of the slaves died on the voyage. But it is not a wonder that sometimes an African, temporarily released from his fetters, would leap into the sea.

Women and children were not chained together or packed so closely. But the women were regularly exposed to sailors' lust and children to sailors' cruelty. John Newton often told about a mate "who threw a child overboard because it moaned at night in its mother's arms and kept him awake."

(Ironically, the slaves were not the only sufferers. Brutal treatment of crews was more or less a regular part of the sailor's life at sea. Add to that the inescapable disease on such ships, and we can understand why the death-rate among the white men engaged in the slave trade was far higher than in any other merchant service. We can also understand why, at times, captains of slave ships had to seize young British men from the street or from gambling parlors and force them to crew on slave ships.)

Toward the end of the voyage, slaves were examined and prepared for sale. Wounds were doctored and, as far as possible, concealed. But all traces of the Middle Passage could not always be removed. Agents' reports at the ports in the early records are full of complaints: "The parcel of negroes were very mean." "Very bad, being much abused." "These … included some little boys and dying negroes." Strong men were singly and quickly disposed of at good prices—as much as £40 apiece—but the sick and injured would be lumped with women and children in a batch and sold off at a discount—such were called "refuse."

Then began the next chapter in a life of servitude.

Vested interests

All Englishmen in the 1700s, whatever their faults, were not devilishly cruel. How could they tolerate this state of affairs? First, the harsh facts of slavery were not widely known. Second, the public knew as little and cared as little about Africans as "Indians." It demanded an unusual effort of imagination to comprehend the sufferings of remote foreigners.

But why did the leaders of church and state, many of whom knew very well what was going on, do nothing?

First, the slave trade was a profitable business. Liverpool slavers, for instance, between 1783 and 1793, carried over 300,000 slaves to the West Indies, sold them for over £15,000,000, and pocketed a net profit of 30 percent. The productivity of the West Indies was on the line. "The impossibility of doing without slaves in the West Indies," wrote a London publicist in 1764, "will always prevent this traffic being dropped. The necessity, the absolute necessity, then, of carrying it on, must, since there is no other, be its excuse."

Second, there were reasons of state. If Britain withdrew from so large a field in the slave trade, it would put her maritime strength, at least compared with her European rivals, in jeopardy. Besides, any interference with the trade by England would arouse the bitterest resentment in the colonies. It was also argued that filling-up the islands with slaves would keep them more loyal to the mother country—lest they become like those tiresome New England colonies, which developed into little democracies of white men with English notions of political freedom.

And so the slave agents, colonial planters, naval officers, and officials of state became a powerful vested interest. These "West Indians" became a formidable body in politics and society, and it would be a bold man who would face their influence and wrath. But the silence of consent did not remain unbroken. No sooner had the trade firmly established itself and the vested interests felt secure than individual protesters began to make themselves heard.

Mark Galli is editor of Christian History. This article is an adaptation of a chapter from Reginald Coupland's Wilberforce (Collins, 1945).