Trans-Atlantic Journeys Traced In Slave Trade Atlas In the 1400s, the ships of the trans-Atlantic trade system began carrying cargoes of human beings. Some 12.5 million people would be shipped as slaves from Africa over the next 350 years. Historians David Eltis and David Richardson talk about their new book, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
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Trans-Atlantic Journeys Traced In Slave Trade Atlas

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Trans-Atlantic Journeys Traced In Slave Trade Atlas

Trans-Atlantic Journeys Traced In Slave Trade Atlas

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This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Everybody knows in very broad terms that slave ships carried millions of Africans across the Atlantic, and we remember a few indelible images: a slave castle in Gambia, a sketch of men chained onto the deck of a ship, Kunta Kinte auctioned on the docks of Annapolis and the cotton plantations of the Antebellum South.

First, an online database and now a new book trace the almost 36,000 individual voyages that conducted this infamous commerce: the ports of departure, the ports where they purchased their human cargo, the places they took them.

In a series of maps and charts we discover astonishing detail, just four percent of the overall traffic carried slaves to what became the United States, for example, and the enormity of this vast enterprise: twelve and a half million men, women and children over 350 years, more than 10 million of whom survived the voyage.

Later in the program, we continue a series of conversations about how life's changed for various groups over this past year. Today, Moustafa Bayoumi on Muslim-Americans.

But first, what have you learned about the slave trade? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

The new book is "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade." The authors join us from suitably distant points. David Eltis, a professor of history at Emory University from CBC Studios in Vancouver, B.C., nice to have you with us today.

Professor DAVID ELTIS (History, Emory University; Author): Thank you.

CONAN: And David Richardson, professor of economic history at the University of Hull, and he joins us from a BBC studio in that English city. Welcome to you.

Prof. DAVID RICHARDSON (Economic History, University of Hull; Author): Thank you, and welcome - I'm pleased to be here from the U.K.

CONAN: David Eltis, let me begin with you. For a lot of Americans, that four percent statistic is going to jump out. How do you account for that?

Prof. ELTIS: It's particularly striking because, of course, when slavery came to an end, indeed when the slave trade came to an end, the number of people living in North America was - that were enslaved was larger than anywhere else.

And it's extraordinary that the slave trade accounts for such a small share of that number, and the basic explanation is the fact that the North American continent had relatively benign conditions, both on plantations and indeed in general life in terms of food and microbes, and all populations in North America, on the mainland, at least, did reasonably well.

The black populations didn't do as well as the white, as you might expect, but nevertheless, they did rather better than black populations in the Caribbean and in Brazil.

So most of the very large population that we see in the 19th century, slave population in North America, was the result not of the slave trade but of natural population growth.

CONAN: And you talk late in the book about the importance - and it's not the subject of this particular of this particular book - but the subjects of the inter-American trade in slaves after, well, Maryland and Virginia and the Carolinas became great sources of slaves that were sold elsewhere in the country.

Prof. ELTIS: Yes.

CONAN: But again, that's the subject perhaps of another book. David Richardson - oh, I'm sorry, did...

Prof. ELTIS: And another data set.

CONAN: And another data set. David Richardson, I wanted to ask you. We think, again, the American vantage point that this is a lot about cotton, and in fact, reading your book, it's all about sugar.

Prof. RICHARDSON: That's exactly right, and of course, cotton is largely associated with the U.S. Antebellum South, and as David Eltis has already explained, the population growth of slaves in the U.S. South is largely driven by natural reproduction.

What I think is striking is where you do have - as you mentioned Brazil, in the West Indies, a heavy concentration on sugar production. It's in those parts of the Americas where you get heavy concentrations of slaves but also slaves which are failing to reproduce demographically.

And I think that's part, if you like, of the whole tragedy of the slave system, its wastefulness of human life. And it's particularly striking in the case of the sugar sectors of the Americas. And it's evident to some extent, too, in Louisiana, where unlike much of the rest of the U.S. Antebellum South, the slave population does not seem to have grown as fast as in, say, the cotton sector.

CONAN: In addition to these astonishingly informative maps and charts in "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade," there are excerpts from diaries and logbooks and various other literary references. Here is one from Thomas Phillips, "A Journal of a Voyage Made in the Hannibal of London, 1693-1694."

We spent in our passage from St. Thomas to Barbados two months, 11 days, from the 25th of August to the fourth of November, following in which time there appeared such sickness and mortality among my poor men and negroes that of the first I buried 14 and of the last 320, which was a great detriment to our voyage, the Royal African Company losing 10 pounds by every slave that died and the owners of the ship 10 pounds 10 shillings, being the freight agreed upon to be paid by the charter company for every negro delivered alive, ashore to the African Company's agents of Barbados, whereby the loss in all amounted to near 6,560 pounds sterling.

And it goes on to describe the various diseases that caused this, but David Eltis, this is simply a monetary calculation. There's no sense of human suffering here.

Prof. ELTIS: Exactly so. It's - human beings were a commodity, at least African human beings were a commodity at that point. And it's - that document is absolutely typical of the complete - what I call normalcy of the trade. There was really no distinction made between shipping people and shipping commodities, what we recognize as commodities.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to know what you have learned in your life about the slave trade, the transatlantic slave trade, 800-989-8255. Email us, And Susan joins us on the line from New London in Connecticut.

SUSAN (Caller): Yes, hello. Last year, I heard James Walden(ph) speak about slavery, and he's a British scholar on abolition. And he was speaking at the Custom House in New London, which is where the Amistad ship came in originally. It's the only place where the ship actually ever sailed in this country.

And the point that he made that I thought was really fascinating is that one in 10 ships with carrying slaves had a revolt on it, there was some sort of revolt action on the parts of the captives, and that the only -well, one of the very few we know about is the Amistad, and that's because somebody, you know, on the other side, in this case a New London abolitionist, stood up for the captives and said, you know, that they deserve to be let go.

This was after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. So, I mean, that's a little complicated to get into, but it's just - you know, you're talking about it as commerce and something that was matter-of-fact, but for the captives, it was not, of course, and apparently there were many more revolts than we know of but that they just didn't - they were not able to go anywhere.

CONAN: David Richardson?

Prof. RICHARDSON: Yeah, I think that's a very interesting observation. And of course, we have been collecting a lot of detail about shipboard revolts in the course of constructing the data set. And Jim Walden, I think, was perhaps citing some of that material when he was making this point to the audience in New London.

I do think we have to recognize Africans were, in some instances, agents of their own emancipation, although we also have to recognize in most cases, shipboard revolts were put down with huge brutality, and most of those who were carried on those ships with revolts, where revolts occurred, those ships still completed their oceanic voyage, and the surviving slaves were delivered and worked in the American plantations.

But I do think one of the things which has come out of our work is the importance of recognizing what I would call African humanity and the African agency in terms of the transatlantic trade. And of course, also we do know that in some cases, notably in the case of San Domingue, you have a huge slave rebellion in San Domingue, which totally destroys what was then the most prosperous and expansive slave system within the Americas. And it, of course, became later in Haiti.

So slaves were undoubtedly a part of the story of abolition, and we do find evidence of slave revolts, whether onboard ship or in other places, in a lot of sources, including, and this comes back, I think, to David Eltis' point about the banality or the normality of it all, these revolts were often reported without too much elaboration.

In newspapers in the 18th century, they've been a prime source of information about shipboard revolts. I do think it's an important question and an important issue, though, that we recognize African agency in all of this.

CONAN: David Eltis?

Prof. ELTIS: If I could just add one other thing. Even when rebellions onboard vessels failed, they had an impact in the sense of raising the costs of transportation, and anything that raised the costs of transportation tended to reduce the volume of whatever it was that was being transported, so that I don't think slaves that died in rebellions died in vain. They in effect prevented other captives from being brought to the Americas.

And one article that David and I have co-authored, we've actually done a rough calculation of how many slaves were actually saved from the transatlantic slave trade via this cost-raising procedure.

CONAN: And what's the estimate?

Prof. ELTIS: It's over a million.

CONAN: Interesting also, fascinated, and you conclude that there's no -historians have no explanation for this but people being taken from the more northerly part of the west coast of Africa were involved in more slave rebellions on ships than those from the more southerly parts.

Prof. ELTIS: Yes, that is something that comes out, and linked to that, of course, is the fact that the more northerly parts sent fewer slaves. Probably fewer slaves per capita left from those areas than from further south.

CONAN: Susan, thank you very much, interesting question.

SUSAN (Caller): Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the transatlantic slave trade with historians David Eltis and David Richardson. More with them, more of your calls when we come back from a short break. What do you know about the transatlantic slave trade? What do you want to know? 800-989-8255. Email us:

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We think we know a lot about the transatlantic slave trade, when it began, when it ended, which countries most involved in the slave trade and where the majority of those transported as human cargo ended up.

A new book by historians David Eltis and David Richardson provides updated information and challenges a lot of what we think we know. The atlas provides detailed maps, charts, as well as personal histories of some of those involved in the trade. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, What have you learned about the transatlantic slave trade. You can also go to our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And there are maps there taken from the transatlantic slave book that you can see for example. Our guests are the authors, the - David Eltis with us from the CBC in Vancouver, Canada, his co-author David Richardson from the BBC in Hull in the United Kingdom.

And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Michael(ph), Michael with us from Kalamazoo.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, Neal. This is Michael. Thank you for having me. One thing that I have heard over the years is that the slaves were sold by their own people, their own families or tribes. And this sometimes seems to be used as a justification that they were obtained in this way.

I wonder if the author could comment about how the slaves were captured or what transpired to sell them into slavery, how that happened and what his comments are.

CONAN: David Richardson, there's quite a bit in the book about this.

Prof. RICHARDSON: Yes, there is quite a lot, obviously, about where the slaves embark ship, though clearly because of the dearth of information about where the slaves came from for the most part within Africa, that makes putting together or reconstructing the story of where they came from, the circumstances under which they were enslaved, that part of the story is more difficult to establish.

But we do have some broad indications, I think, of the circumstances in which people were enslaved. Mostly, this would involve violence of some sort, whether kidnapping, whether warfare, whether slave raiding, and the patterns of this varied by African societies.

I think we do need to bear in mind, too, though, that when we talk about Africans selling each other and so on, we have to be a bit careful about reading into the past the notion that Africans had a sense of African-ness.

At least through most of the period of the transatlantic slave trade, they would largely relate more to ethnic groups rather than to any sense that they had a sense of the common African nature or personality or character.

And in that sense, therefore, what we do, what we see is the slave trade linked to what we could call interstate, interethnic conflict within Africa. And of course, some of the abolitionists would say that the slave trade encouraged such inter-African or interethnic conflict within Africa.

There is no doubt, I think, in most people's mind that levels of violence in Africa, levels of social disruption, at least in the areas closest to the African coast, affected by the Atlantic slave trade, the levels of violence in those areas probably increased as the slave trade reached its peak in the late 18th, early 19th century.

CONAN: David Eltis, you also point out, if I could ask, point out in the book that obviously, the slave trade existed probably before recorded history, but it was the transatlantic slave trade that resulted in it being racialized.

Prof. ELTIS: Yes, that's the extraordinary feature, I think, of the transatlantic slave trade over three and a half centuries. It was racialized, at least in the sense that only non-whites were carried off.

If I could just go back to the point David's made and just bring in the quote from Nathan Huggins, who is head of the Du Bois Institute at Harvard. He opened a book several years ago with a question: Why did Africans enslave other Africans and send them overseas? And the answer he provided on page one was that, well, they didn't know they were African.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call.

MICHAEL: You're welcome.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jim, and Jim's with us on the line from Minneapolis.

JIM (Caller): Hi, yeah, my first - I guess I kind of have two parts to my question, and the first part is about Eric Williams in the Williams thesis about the transatlantic slave trade, the triangular trade with sugar and slaves and how that contributed to the development of British and world capitalism, which is, you know, very out of favor within academia right now.

CONAN: That's a point made quite specifically in the forward by David Brion Davis. So I'm not sure how out of favor it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JIM: Well, my experience in history that they don't even like to talk about slavery because it's considered a mode of production, and to have an economic analysis of the slave trade would be considered economistic, and it goes against the idea of the new cultural history.

CONAN: Well, it's interesting. There is a quote from Adam Smith, where he decries slavery as inefficient and anti-productive, not to mention immoral. But nevertheless, David Richardson, you're the economic historian here. Is Jim right?

Prof. RICHARDSON: I think there are certain historians who still believe passionately in the Williams thesis. Some other historians, including myself, have been skeptical of some aspects of it and in particular the aspect of it which attributes, if you like, British industrialization or Western industrialization to the slave trade and the slavery system.

On the other hand, I do think there has been an increasing recognition amongst historians that there is a link, interestingly, between abolitionism and what we might call economic development in the West, and that includes industrialization and urbanization in Western Europe and other parts of the world.

So I think the links between the slave trade, slavery, industrialization and abolition are increasingly recognized. It's highly complex. And I think for me, one of the more interesting aspects of recent work has been the recognition, even amongst those who are hostile to Williams, that there was some sort of connection between processes of industrialization in the West and moves to end slavery and the slave trade.

And that's not necessarily the link which I think your listener was perhaps alluding to in the first place. It just demonstrates that grand theses like the Williams thesis, they do move on. They evolve and so on, as we get to know more and more about the slave trade and slavery and indeed about abolitionism itself.

JIM: Well, am I still on the air here?

CONAN: Yeah.

JIM: Yeah, I guess there's, you know, I suppose, you know, it would be, you know, a vulgar idea overall at this point, but there is something in how it's been used of the idea, instead of an inherent racial superiority of Europe and using that reason as to why they came to dominate the globe that it was based upon happenstance, the geographic position they were in.

You know, and I think there's a big thing about that, you know, an argument between the global South and the global North of why Europe came to dominate the world, not for racial reasons, racial superiority but for just circumstance.

CONAN: Guns, germs and steel, I think we're hearing here. But Jim, thanks very much for the call. David Eltis, it is fascinating the degree to which, though, wind currents and the winds and currents dominate the whole formulation of the slave trade, indeed that there were two separate systems dominated from completely different areas of the Atlantic.

Prof. ELTIS: And by different slave traders, national groups of slave traders. The Portuguese dominated the south, and the British dominated the north.

CONAN: And indeed between them, they account for some two-thirds of the slave traffic.

Prof. ELTIS: Indeed they did, yes, yes. We should note that right at the very end of the slave trade, we actually had some steam ships involved. I think there are about 30 examples in the database, and had the slave trade continued, I think there's little doubt that those winds and currents would have been less important.

CONAN: It's interesting, too, that London, a great port involved in outfitting slave ships not because of its location, you said in fact sometimes ships spent weeks beating against the prevailing westerlies in the English Channel, but because of its economic advantages.

Prof. ELTIS: Yes. It could provide a range of services, and of course, it was a clearinghouse for a vast range of commodities, and the slave trade drew on an amazing range of economic activity in the way of different types of goods because each region in Africa basically required a different mix of products from other regions.

So any port that could offer that wide market in goods, as well as services for shipping and outfitting, and London could certainly do that. There's (unintelligible) insurance was going to be important in the slave trade. And those advantages, in effect, overcame the drawbacks of getting access to the Atlantic Ocean.

CONAN: Let's go to Naema(ph), Naema with us from Charlotte.

NAEMA (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon, Neal. Thank you for...

CONAN: Hi. Are you are you there? I think Naema is (technical difficulty)...

NAEMA: ...your distinguished guest will address a pet peeve of mine. I'm grown up and learning about the Atlantic slave trade. Hearing about repeated voyages to Africa to get more slaves, I developed the idea that Africa was a continent populated by slaves. And so I'm wondering if there is a technical point at which people transitioned from being captives to being slaves or is the terminology less formal than that? The people who were - some people say kidnapped from Africa or captured in Africa, were they slaves in Africa or did they become slaves due to some process in the, quote, unquote, "New World"?

CONAN: I'm not sure which of you wants to deal with that. Why don't we talk to David Richardson?

Prof. RICHARDSON: Okay. I'll have a go at that one. It seems to me that what one has is a process within Africa in which, yes, there were already slave populations within African societies, almost certainly before Europeans went there.


Prof. RICHARDSON: And what I think is also significant is that it's most probably likely that the number of people who entered into some form of bondage in Africa may well have increased as a result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

And the processes by which they became slaves and then moved out of Africa - and we need to bear in mind that the majority of those who were shipped out were males. The processes by which they became slaves usually involved some sort - form of violence. And may well have involved some sort of repeated transaction within Africa by which they were moved to the African Coast, sometimes over very long distances. In most cases, probably over shorter distances than most people imagine. But there would have been, if you like, a succession of transactions in which people will eventually be moved to the coast.

And in a sense, therefore, when Europeans bought Africans at the coast or bought captives, as we sometimes call them in the book, then, in fact, what they were doing is - that was a process by which a further stage in that, if you like, the transfer. Now, each of those transfers remove them further from their homeland, and therefore, for some, would increase their sense of depersonalization.


Prof. RICHARDSON: They were being treated as commodities and moved through a sequence of exchange transactions. And so, when they reach the Americas, then, of course, they went through another process of exchanged transaction. And even after that, there may have been further ones as they were moved on within - to different parts of the Americas from the original point to which they disembarked.

NAEMA: I know...

Prof. RICHARDSON: So what we see is a sequence of exchanges.

NAEMA: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Naema...

NAEMA: But to point that these Africans were loaded onto these ships, we could accurately call them slaves at that point.

Prof. RICHARDSON: Oh, I think so.

Prof. ELTIS: Yes.

Prof. RICHARDSON: I think there were definitely enslaved people at that point. Someone had bought them. We know, as David Eltis has pointed out, there were bought with a mix of goods, the composition of which could vary according to the particular port or region of trade within Africa. But you do get - even in the narratives, for example, the narratives of Venture Smith, which we report in the book.


Prof. RICHARDSON: He refers in his own narrative to being bought for a certain amount of rum and some calico.

NAEMA: Mm-hmm.

Prof. RICHARDSON: And at that point, there was a transaction and he had been bought from someone else for those items. And in that sense, when he reached the Coast, he was already a slave. And indeed, he had already passed through several hands at that point.

CONAN: Naema, thanks very much for the phone call.

NAEMA: Thank you so much.

CONAN: We're talking about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here is an email question that - this is from Bob. I heard the last U.S.-bound slave ship was actually caught in 1903. Is that a myth?

Prof. ELTIS: I think it's a myth. 1903, that's clearly a myth because slavery had been abolished some 40 years before then.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. 1867, I think, is the last time your- in your book.

Prof. ELTIS: Yes, but not the U.S. That's - 1867 is what we think is the last voyage that crossed the Atlantic with captives, and that went to Cuba, where slavery indeed continued through to 1888. But in the U.S., I think the last voyage comes in 1860 near Mobile, Alabama.

CONAN: Here's Ryan on the phone calling us from Rock Springs in Wyoming.

RYAN (Caller): Yeah. My name is Ryan. I'm a public school teacher in Utah and I have (unintelligible) bicultural. Dad from Burkina Faso and mother from Utah. And my question is about how you use this recent work to teach about the slave trade and teach about interracial racism in K through 12 public education, because I don't think we're doing a very good job yet and it sounds like there's some new information and new learning that could be used in developmentally appropriate ways? So how could you use this book for teaching kids?

CONAN: David Eltis, you want to try that?

Prof. ELTIS: Well, I think the basic motivation behind the book was actually to provide information not to universities and colleges but to schools. And in fact, I think the publisher have plans of paperback edition. The hope is that every school will have a copy of this publication. And I think Gilder Lehrman Institute, which is funding this whole project, has that as a primary goal. So you should be able to get access to this fairly soon, I think.

How to use it, I think it's probably best used in relation to the website, slave voyage's website, which actually lists the 34,000 -nearly 35,00 voyages and allows users to interact and create their own answers to any questions which they see, either in what they read or -and what interests them. So...

CONAN: Ryan, thanks very much for the call. And good luck to you.

RYAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'd like to thank our guests today. You just heard David Eltis, coauthor of "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade," principal investigator of the Electronic Slave Trade Database Project at Emory University, where he's also a professor of history. He joined us from the CBC in Vancouver. Thank you very much.

Prof. ELTIS: Thank you very much for having us.

CONAN: Also David Richardson, the other coauthor, director or the Wilburforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, professor of economic history at the University of Hull in England. And he joined us from there.

When we come back, we continue our series of conversations on 2012. Stay with us.

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