The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Millions of people from the continent of Africa were taken from their homes and families and transported across the ocean to both the UK and USA to work as slaves. Slaves by definition had no rights or quality of life, and many lived or died in dire conditions.

What happened?

Olaudah Equiano contributes a lot of our understanding of the slave trade and the slaves own experiences. His personal account entailed being taken from his home to Barbados in the Caribbean. From there Equiano was then sold to a plantation farmer in Virginia, USA. It is estimated 12 million people were enslaved, and about 2 million of those did not survive the journey to the USA.

Who was responsible/ the perpetrators?

The white Europeans who would advocate taking the African citizens from their homes and sold them on further to the UK and USA.

There were some Africans who were involved in harvesting and selling on the slaves to the white Europeans.

Who made the demands for the Slave Trade?

The demand for slave labour arose primarily due to colonisation of the United States from the Europeans from the 15th century. The deportation of the Africans as well created a large network, and the early stages of globalisation.

How did the Slave Trade come into existence?

The slave trade came into existence upon the colonisation of the Americas, but also was a consequence of predisposed social perceptions of inferiority and superiority. At the time, the slave trade was seen as just and right – this opinion changed overtime, but still exists today. The connotation of black and evil or sin had existed in European culture way before the slave trade itself.

What were the consequences?

  • Development of the UK and USA in cotton trade – white people got richer and nations developed (becoming what they are now)
  • Racism and polarised views of Black Africans and their place in the nation, often facing discrimination throughout every aspect of life
  • Poverty and premature deaths of millions of people, both travelling to the continent and those occupying USA

What does this mean for the globalised past?

The globalised past included the trafficking of millions of people in order to sustain plantations and manual labour elsewhere in the world. It also created trading networks from the manufactured goods, like sugar and cotton that were made on these farms to Europe. Lastly there was the movement of profits and revenues from the colonies to the countries that financed them.

What existed before this?

There are some reports of slavery before the transatlantic slave trade, which of course was a large scale operation. Before the 16th century most enslaved people exported from Africa went to the Arabian Peninsula.

What was demanded?

Reparations – Britain became the first nation to abolish slavery in its empire from 1833 – 1838. £20million was paid in compensation to the previous slave owners who lost an income from abolishing the slave trade – but not towards the really freed and mistreated slaves themselves.

Social change – this was true at the time and there were a few revolts and rebellions to free the slaves.

Political change – this was true for the abolitionists who were important in changing policies surrounding slavery.

Remembrance – this is especially important as there are still many forms of racism today, whether there are different opportunities, pay cheques etc. related to race. The UN declared 2004 the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition, as this was to tackle modern day attitudes, racism and slavery.

Who is making these demands?

The abolitionists and slaves were the immediate claimants and victims of the slave trade. They wanted political change in an era where citizens had fewer rights, even less so as a slave.

Millions of Reparations are just one organisation making demands about the Atlantic Slave Trade which caused the dislocation of millions of people, of which, were subject to violence, abuse and more.

Reparations for the Slave Trade

In the 1960s and 1970s there was an organised movement to get reparations for the Slave Trade, this was partially possible due to the empowerment of citizens. Reparations was related to the Civil Rights Movement of the Black Africans for more rights, to vote, work and live in the US as before they were denied these rights.

The impact of slavery still implicated the modern day citizens in the US after the abolition. There were deep routed feelings of discrimination in the South, where most of the slaves worked on plantations. It was the Second World War, where soldiers fought side by side against any enemy who was systematically selecting and killing Jews. This highlighted the injustice of the American system and how it was not too different.

In the 1980s and 1990s the fight for reparations reached its head, where Japanese Americans were provided some recompense for the dislocation and discrimination they faced some 40 years before.

Millions for Reparations and National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) were the front runners in getting reparation payment for the slave trade. The aims were as follows;

  • To punish the white community for the sins of slavery committed by ancestors.
  • To provide the black population with restitution for the unpaid slave labour.
  • To redirect national income that was previously denied to the blacks as a result of slavery and post emancipation discrimination.
  • To provide the black community with the share of national wealth and income which it would have accumulated had it not been enslaved.

The victim in this case is the African American population who are descendants of slaves. The claimant is the organisations working towards reparation payments and the respondent or perpetrator is the white community and US government who facilitated slavery.

The Africa Reparations Movement (ARM-UK) was created in the UK in 1993. This organisation also sought to get reparations from the Slave Trade. This movement soon became a global one with organisations and demands for reparations spanning outside of the USA.

Like the Slave Trade creating networks around the world in the 15th to 19th century, the reparation movement created a sense of solidarity for people who recognised themselves as African.

Organisation of African Unity (OAU)

In 1992 the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) began to investigate the possibly of asking for restitution from the nations who advocated and used slavery. It was a central, unifying body as a collective voice for the African diaspora.

This resulted in the Abuja Proclamation which outlined the demands of the movement. It also outlines how slaves, descendants of slaves and the African nations feel towards the Slave Trade.

Abuja Proclamation (1993)

  • Outlines how they are not just looking for financial compensation, but also service to the victim
  • Returning stolen property from the slaves and their descendants from the state.
  • There is an unprecedented moral debt the global community owe to the African state which has not yet been paid.
  • The African population have been the most ‘humiliated and exploited people in the last four centuries of modern history’
  • Nations would not be where they are today if it was not exploiting the slave labour.
  • The claim for reparations is engrained in international law, including the abuse of human rights towards the slaves.
  • The European and US states which used slavery, to discontinue their dissent and racist attitudes and begin building bridges.
  • More representation in powerful economic, political and trading positions in global councils.

The Proclamation outlines how there has been irreparable damage to the African states and the African diaspora who were dispersed globally with enslavement. It also addresses the damage down by colonialism and neo-colonialism both politically, socially and environmentally.

After Britain ended slavery in 1807 and in 1838 in its colonies, it began to expand its reach by abolishing slavery in other nations. Although this may seem as beneficial to the impoverished regions in Africa, it coincided with extending the reach of British colonies. As a result of British colonialism, the European nations began fighting for valuable parts in the continent of Africa, including French and German forces, beginning the ‘scramble for Africa’. Many of these parts existed until the end of the Second World War, and others until the 1960s and 1970s.

Following the Abuja Proclamation, the GEP (Group of Eminent Persons) was created to lead the African reparations movement. It was formed of 12 people of varying attitudes and ancestry.

What is being demanded?


After abolition there were ideas to provide the now freed slave 40 acres’ and a mule in order to start their life. However, this idea was scrapped. In recent times and during the Civil Rights Movement, there were calls for a Republic of New Africa, a separate state from the United States. It would be comprised of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. These states were selected as this is where a lot of slaves were brought and enslaved.


One of the most prominent reparation for the Slave Trade has been the monetary value of the unpaid slave labour. African campaigners demanded US$ 77,700 billion in monetary compensation from governments in North and South America, as well as Europe. They also make claims against institutions and religious groups which also facilitated the Slave Trade. Although this figure has largely been ignored, it demonstrates the issue of trying to calculate the cost of human lives and living.


One demand has been to provide various reliefs to benefit communities who were left impoverished by the Slave Trade. Slavery meant that not only were 12 million able bodied individuals unable to work in their local communities to develop it, it also meant it released uneducated people into society with no promise of education. Another proposition has been tax reliefs, training funds or scholarships for the descendants of slaves in order to pay back to the community and provide a sense of empowerment.


Some demands of repatriation include a power shift, i.e. more political representation and ability to shift policy. Slavery has caused not only the sense of inferiority, but also has prevented political representation, which has hindered development.

Recognition and Blame

One request from the ARM-UK has been to admit guilt and to have a formal apology from the UK Government. It also wants artefacts taken from the continent of Africa to be repatriated, such as the Benin Bronzes and Ivory in the British Museums today.

Responses to Reparation Demands

  • Although slavery is regarded as bad now, it was not when it existed. How can current descendants take the blame for previous public opinion?

Slavery was regarded as permissible and acceptable before the 19th century, and it has existed in Ancient history. Some would even go so far as to deny the slave Trade was a crime against humanity as it is placing today’s standards on historical standards.

  • Slavery is a bad thing, but, it happened decades ago.

The Slave Trade happened centuries ago, and the Holocaust was recent history. Therefore, reparation for the Holocaust seems the just thing to do as it was living history, but the Slave Trade was a global affair and centuries ago. None of the victims are alive today as slavery was abolished so long ago.

  • As slavery has no living victims, why should the modern citizen take the blame?

People now had nothing to do with slavery so why should they pay reparations through taxation? People now have no direct connection to slavery and not everyone’s ancestors would have been slave drivers or sympathisers. Some go further and say that their ancestors did not have a connection to the slave trade as they have recently emigrated.

  • The reparations argument is based upon the predisposition that descendants of slaves suffer from economic consequences

David Horowitz (2001), reparations critic, says that the reparations paint all black people with the same brush and does not recognise that slave owners were also black. Horowitz goes so far as to say that reparation payments are racist as they assume all white people are perpetrators

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