The transatlantic slave trade, in which Africans were bought or kidnapped and carried across the South Atlantic to be sold into slavery in New World colonies from the southern United States down to Brazil,, was one of the most discreditable episodes in the history of Western civilization--matched, perhaps, only by the virtual extermination of many of the native peoples of the Americas during the same centuries.
It was also a trade which operated over a very long period. It began in a sense even before the discovery of America: the Portuguese were buying slaves on the coast of West Africa from 1444 on (Reynolds 7). At about the same time, the plantation economy which would be the basis of the slave system was also being developed on the newly discovered Atlantic islands of the Canaries, Cape Verdes, and Azores. After 1492, the same activity was simply extended to the New World, on a much larger scale.
The trade operated for four centuries, coming to an end only after the American civil war (slavery lasted into the 1880s in Brazil). The slave trade (and the slave-plantation system it supported) was never more extensive or profitable than in the decades just before and after 1800. Yet in 1807 the British outlawed the slave trade, and suppression of the trade was a major activity of the British Navy in the decades after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. What brought an end to this profitable trade? Was it moral revulsion? Economic development? or a complex admixture of the two? These questions will be examined below.
An 18th-century British writer was to observe that slave labor was the "fundamental prop and support" of Britain's overseas colonies, and the same was true for other European colonial powers Reynolds 108). The reason for this was rooted in preindustrial values and the relationship of land and labor in the New World.
Apart from Spanish gold and silver, the chief trade products to be found in the New Worl...