The Atlantic Slave Trade and Its Role in the European Economy

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • The High Demand for Workers
  • Forced Labour
  • Inexpensive Slaves
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography


The Atlantic slave trade was one of the most extraordinary movement of people in world history. Slavery stripped Africans of their rights and freedom, and they had to endure harsh conditions on the way to the new world. Every year, thousands of African slaves were transported and compelled to work until their death. This illustrates that slavery built the European economy because there was a high demand for workers in the new world, slaves could be used and exploited as forced labour and they were inexpensive to purchase; therefore, slavery is an important part in the history of globalisation.

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The High Demand for Workers

There had been a high demand for workers all around the globe, especially in the New World. After Spain conquered the Americas in the 15th century, they began to set up large plantation systems which included sugar, tobacco and coffee crops. These crops dominated the European markets and to keep up with the high demand the Europeans needed large quantities of workers. First, the Europeans tried to enslave the American Indians that were already on the land, but this proved to be difficult as the new settlers brought with them diseases that the Indians have never been exposed too "a major smallpox epidemic broke out among the Indians with massive deaths".

In addition to that, the Indians could easily escape from their enslavers because they knew the landscape well. European indentured servants were brought to the Americas but not as paid labour. Indentured servants would work on a contract for several years without any wages and then after their contract was finished, they would be free. But many servants were killed by diseases and harsh working conditions before their contract was finished and by the 18th century servants were scarce and expensive to ship to the New World. The Europeans needed alternative labourers that were cheap, mobile and would not catch new diseases easily and this is when the largest migration of Africans began. The Atlantic slave trade transported thousands of enslaved Africans each year to the Americas, the passage to the new world was long and sickening followed by years of harsh labour, cruel owners and loss of freedom.

Forced Labour

African slaves were immorally used and subjugated to forced labour, regardless of whether it was men, women or children. Slaves were viewed as property to their buyers, their lives were consistently controlled until their death. The uncertainty of their life meant that their families could be separated and sold to others in an instant. Most African men and women would work in the fields on plantations, long days from sunrise to sun dusk and even longer during harvesting season. They lived in small quarters on the plantations where they were allowed "plots and gardens, pens for animals and workshops for manufacture and maintenance of plantation equipment".

Abuse was very regular for workers, "instruments of torture were ordinarily the raw hide, or a bunch of hickory- sprouts seasoned in the fire and tied together. But if these were not at hand, nothing came amiss" mistreatment would happen for no reason or for amusement. Enslaved women and a few young children would work in the great houses on the plantations. Working in the houses could be just as difficult as working in the fields with long days of cooking, cleaning, laundry and waiting on the family. In some cases, domestic slaves lived more comfortable lives with better food, clothing and emotional connection with their owners, but this was not always the case.

Slaves could improve their skills and learn a new trait which would benefit them, some would become carpenters, blacksmiths, masons or shoemakers. By acquiring these skills slaves could earn money from their owners by performing a particular task, this would be the only income they could earn as they never received any wages from the crop work. Even with these smallest of benefits for field and domestic slaves their freedom could never be obtained, their life was disposable and replaceable to their owners.

Inexpensive Slaves

African slaves were inexpensive to purchase due to the fact that Africa was at a lower economic stage than Europe thus compelled to trade humans at a cheap rate. Europeans would buy enslaved Africans from local traders within Africa, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano recalls "some of the Africans in my country keep slaves, which they take in war or for debt", trading with Africa did not use regular currency but goods such as cotton, guns, cloths and beads. The slave ships would be filled with approximately 450 people while on board the slaves would be prepared to be sold, they would be washed and cleaned and tried to hide any signs of sickness. Prices of slaves depended on a variety of factors: sex, age, health and physical condition. Strong, young able men would be sold for a higher price than women and children.

There were a number of ways for slaves to be purchased, some slaves would be delivered to owners who placed orders, auctions would be held where each enslaved person would be put on display " he took me by the hand and lead me out to the middle of the street and turning me slowly around, exposed me to the view of those who attended the venue". Undoubtedly the most disturbing would have been ‘the scramble' where slaves would be put in a small space like cattle the potential owners would run and rush to grab the slaves they wanted. With African slaves being inexpensive this benefited Europe the most while Africa still had to rely on human trading to obtain their needed products.


In conclusion, the high demand for workers, forced labour and slaves being inexpensive to purchase this suggests that slavery built the European economy. African slaves would live long, or short miserable lives filled with harsh labour, abuse, uncertainty and being sold like animals all to increase the profits from crops that were in high demand.


  1. Clarke, Lewis Garrard, Milton Clarke, Jonathan Walker, and La Roy Sunderland. 1846. Interesting memoirs and documents relating to American slavery, and the glorious struggle now making for complete emancipation. London: Chapman, Bros.
  2. Cugoana, Quobna Ottoban. Thoughts And Sentiments On The Evil Of Slavery, penguin classics, 1999
  3. Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. 2nd Ed., New ed. New Approaches to the Americas. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  4. Prince, The History Of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Narrative, 1831, London
  5. Walvin, James. The Slave Trade. History Files. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011

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