Europeans lacked the resources to travel inland to seize slaves. Instead, they relied on local African rulers and traders to bring captives—usually from other African nations—to coastal trading posts. There, the traders exchanged captured Africans for weapons, gunpowder, textiles, iron, and other goods.
In the 1500s, the slave trade was relatively small. Over the next 300 years, however, it grew into a huge, profitable business.
By the 1700s and 1800s, traders had shipped tens of thousands of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to work on tobacco and sugar plantations in the Americas. These slaves were property.
As the slave trade grew, some African leaders tried to slow it down or even stop it altogether. They used different forms of resistance, but in the end, the system that supported the trade was too strong for them to resist.
An early critic of the slave trade was Afonso I, ruler of Kongo in west-central Africa. As a young man, Afonso had been tutored by Portuguese missionaries, who baptized him to Christianity.
The African slave trade expanded in response to Europeans' increasing use of enslaved workers on plantations in the Americas.
Impressed by his early contacts with the Portuguese, Afonso hoped to build a Christian state in Kongo. After becoming king in 1505, he called on Portuguese missionaries, teachers, and technical experts to help him develop Kongo and increase his own power. He sent his sons to Portugal to be educated in Christian ways.
Afonso grew worried as more and more Portuguese came to Kongo to buy slaves. Afonso wanted to maintain contact with Europe but end the slave trade. His appeal failed, and the slave trade continued.
In the late 1700s, another African ruler tried to halt the slave trade in his lands. He was the almany (religious leader) of Futa Toro, in present-day Senegal. Since the 1500s, French sea captains had bought slaves from African traders in Futa Toro. To end this trade, the almany issued a law in 1788. It forbade anyone to transport slaves through his land to sell abroad. However, the inland slave traders simply worked out a new route to the coast. Sailing to this new market, the French captains easily purchased the slaves that the almany had prevented them from buying in Futa Toro.
Portuguese soldiers and missionaries are received by the king of Kongo. Afonso I of Kongo welcomed Portuguese missionaries and scholars and sent his son to Portugal to learn about Christianity.
Why did the African slave trade expand?