6 Introduction

The African Slave Trade and the Atlantic World

Module Introduction

According to W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the preeminent black intellectuals and activists of the late 19th and 20th centuries, the African slave trade, which transported between 10 and 15 million Africans across the Atlantic to work as slaves in the Americas, was the most important “drama in the last thousand years of human history.” The trade tore Africans away from “the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell.” Module 2 examines the tragic history of the transatlantic slave trade that occurred between European and African traders along the west coast of Africa from the late fifteenth through the nineteenth century. It addresses why Europeans came to Africa to acquire slave labor, why powerful African kingdoms who controlled trade along the coast of Africa sold human beings to European traders in exchange for foreign commodities, how the trade generated early ideas of racial difference and systems of racism, and how the trade transformed Africa and the lives of the Africans who found themselves ensnared in a slave system sustained by cold, calculating economic rationality and human brutality.

Rather than a primitive, archaic system, the transatlantic slave trade, and the labor performed by African and African-American slaves, created the modern Western world – one characterized by a global, interconnected system of capitalist expansion. The trade regarded human beings as commodities who themselves labored to produce commodities – gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, cotton – that generated profits for plantation owners, manufacturers, and merchants. African and African-American slaves resisted enslavement at every stage and found ways to create new communities, new kinship networks, and new cultures in defiance of an inherently dehumanizing system of racial slavery that survived for more than four hundred years. (1)

Learning Outcomes

This module addresses the following Course Learning Outcomes listed in the Syllabus for this course:

  • To provide students with a general understanding of the history of African Americans within the context of American History.
  • To motivate students to become interested and active in African American history by comparing current events with historical information.(1)

Additional learning outcomes associated with this module are:

  • The student will be able to discuss the origins, evolution, and spread of racial slavery.
  • The student will be able to describe the creation of a distinct African-American culture and how that culture became part of the broader American culture. (1)

Module Objectives

Upon completion of this module, the student will be able to:

Use primary historical resources to analyze a topic relevant to Europeans, Africans, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. (1)

Readings and Resources

  • Learning Unit: Exchanging People for Trade Goods (see below) (1)
  • Primary Source Documents (see below)
    • Olaudah Equiano excerpt
    • Thomas Phillips excerpt


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