The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Plantation workers cut down sugar cane on an estate.

Cutting the Sugarcane, on Delap’s Estate

    • If you visit Liverpool today you can go and visit the International Slavery Museum. This museum is there to teach us all about the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade which ran between Britain and the Americas from the 15th to the 19th centuries. This is especially important to the history of Liverpool as this was one of the key British ports which dealt with the trade in slaves. A group of students from Belvedere Academy in Liverpool have made some videos about their visit for you to watch.

      Most of the people who were taken into slavery came from West Africa. Before the beginning of the slave trade West Africa had a rich culture and the people there made a living from trading goods. These were often local goods such as gold, ivory and spices but also they sold things which had been made in West Africa. An example of this craft is the Benin Bronzes which can be found in the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum and The British Museum. We can see from these that the people of West Africa were very advanced and highly skilled.

      Image shows a cooking vessel made of leaves as well as two baskets for serving food.Drawings of Western Africa
      This however, did not matter to the British and American traders who just wanted more people to sell on in the Americas. British slavers would take their ships to the ports of West Africa and would buy as many slaves as they could afford. These men, women and children would then be crammed in to the large ships and taken away from their homes and families to the Americas. The cramped conditions on these ships meant that diseases spread very quickly and many people died on the crossing, those who survived were often very ill when they arrived.

      Image shows recently captured slaves being forced into the hold of a ship under the watch of two merchants.On Board a Slave Ship
      Once they reached their destination the slaves were sold in auctions to the highest bidder. This made them seem more like property than like real people. The act of buying and selling people like this had the effect of de-humanising them. After being bought the slaves were taken to work on plantations where they would farm sugar, cotton and tobacco for their owners to sell. Life on the plantations was very hard and slaves were often badly punished, generally by being whipped or beaten.

      The trade of slaves was banned in Britain in 1807 and slavery itself was abolished in 1833. In America it took a lot longer and slavery was not outlawed until the end of the American Civil War when the 13th Amendment was added to the constitution.

      Following the abolition of slavery in the United States we see the beginning of racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. The people in these groups believed that black people should not be treated the same way as white people. The Ku Klux Klan are well known for their murder of hundreds of black people, many of whom had only just gained their freedom. Famously they wear long white outfits to hide their identity and to scare their victims. You can learn more about one of these outfits in this video.

      Image shows two people wearing the typical KKK white pointed hoods which cover their face. Opposite them is a black man holding a placard.Ku Klux Klan Protest© Culture Street
      The racism that began with the trans-Atlantic slave trade was particularly long lasting in America. In the 1960s, 100 years after slavery was abolished black Americans were still having to fight for their rights. Martin Luther King was one of the best known civil rights activists and you can watch the video of his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech here.

      The horrors of the slave trade make it a difficult subject to learn about; however it is important that we remember these events. Museums play a very important role in helping us to learn about what happened. Why do you think this is so important? How do you think we should remember the slave trade? What do you think are the most important impacts of the trans-Atlantic slave trade?

      Unless stated otherwise, images sourced from, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library. Courtesy of authors Jerome S Handler and Michael L Tuite Jr.
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