The Transatlantic Slave Trade: Economic vs Humanistic, A Historiography

It is perhaps not a large stretch to assume that most citizens of the United States, by the time they graduate high school, have at least heard of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. One need only type the three-word phrase into a search engine to see pages of lesson plans and resource sites for teachers and students alike. The topic seems to be nationally approached, at the very least, in terms of simplified definition and time range. The Transatlantic Slave Trade lasted several hundred years. It describes the global economic phenomenon of the buying and selling of human slaves from the African continent to the Americas and Europe (“Transatlantic Slave Trade”).

It is no surprise, if this basis is what the casual learner receives, that higher education offers more of an in-depth look at the particulars of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its impact on the world and its victims. In the past, or at least during the 1900s, mainstream scholars seemed to write about the period of trade from a strictly critical viewpoint. Slavery is bad, and so any writing about slavery and the global economic leaders’ place in it must reflect that. In the 1970s, however, a work entitled Time on the Cross was released to directly challenge this interpretation (Haskell). Time on the Cross claimed that not only was the institution of slavery overwhelmingly beneficial to the building of American economy, but past scholarly work on the subject painted the alleged harsh treatment of slaves in an over exaggerating light (“Time on the Cross”).

In modern times, Time on the Cross is regarded as being a failed attempt at using math to justify history, and is generally ignored as an academic text. Still, it seems to have set a precedent for 21st century discussion of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Very few modern scholars seem interested in arguing the benefits of slavery in a defensive light. The trend of unapologetically presenting slavery as something irredeemably criminal seems to have, in general, continued on. Still, modern scholars seem stuck between two types of approaches when it comes to reflecting on the Transatlantic Slave Trade: commenting on the economic backbone to nations human trafficking provided as well as the often detrimental social consequences brought on by abolition, and intimate looks into the oppression and resistance of victims of slavery.

Many writings on the use of slave labor to build national economy seem like apologetic admittance. Portraying historical fact–that national economy benefited—without taking any particular pride in the matter. Some scholars waste no time in demonstrating this; the very first line in Van Welie’s Slave Trading and Slavery in the Dutch Colonial Empire claims that slavery was fundamental in building the Dutch colonial empire (Van Welie, 47), and Van Welie claims that admitting this fact with help shed light on previously overlooked, undesirable aspects of Dutch and European history (49). An often ignored point, he claims, is the fact that Dutch colonies continued to use slave labor even after the Dutch Republic had it publicly abolished. Van Welie does not seem overly concerned about hiding his contempt for slavery from the tone of his writing.

Van Welie is not the only one to attempt to shed light onto the misconception that abolishment of slavery meant the immediate releasing of all slaves. As detailed in Kim Butler’s Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, the closing of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in fact led to a system of internal slave trading across North and South America and the Caribbean that resulted in the buying and selling of 200,000 victims of slavery (Butler, 969). Butler claims that even this estimate might represent less than the actual amount of victims, due to the amount of undocumented slave transactions by slave traders and slaver owners fearful of legal repercussions. Like with the Dutch colonies, the use of slave labor in Brazil did not end just because it became illegal to buy and sell slaves. Butler also makes sure to make it clear that victims of continued forced labor were not restricted to Brazil; many victims were taken and sent to the supposedly liberated British colonies across the Caribbean as well (971).

Continued use of slave labor despite abolishment is not the only consequence of abolition written about, such as in the case of Van Der Linden’s Unanticipated Consequences of ‘Humanitarian Intervention’. Van Der Linden goes into detail on the necessity for Britain to convince its neighbors to agree to the abolishment as well (Van Der Linden, 283). Legislation was passed with the eventual blessing of other European nations, but still, as also demonstrated by Van Welie and Butler, “…it turned out to be difficult to block the slave trade” (286). It seems that, for a great while, slavers simply got better at smuggling their human cargo. Van Der Linden, too, acknowledges the increase of domestic slave trades due to the abolition of an international system (288), as well as an increase in cross-Africa and Asian slave trade (289). Connections between the criminalization of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the colonization of East Africa and parts of South Asia are made as well. According to Van Der Linden, it was not until “Britain consolidated its rule in the Sudan and East Africa at the end of the nineteenth century” that there was even a dent in the Arab slave trade (290). Colonization in the name of social justice shows a sort of nationalistic, yet cynical, portrayal of a nation’s campaigning for abolishment.

That’s not to ignore the humanistic side of scholarly research on the Slave Trade. Butler, to use as a transitional piece, uses the continued slave trade as a vehicle to demonstrate the extraordinary bravery of the Brazilian rebels still victim to the system. Butler does not want it to seem as though continued victims of human trafficking were simply passive and accepting. Due to the lack of documentation of these trades, of course, intimate knowledge of many of the victims is lacking (Butler, 974). Still, the slaves who could would pay for their own freedom or attempt escape when they were able (975). Additionally, Butler claims, when physical resistance was impossible some communities turned to cultural resistance (978).

Others write on the resistance shown in African American communities and families, as well, though not every story told has a happy ending for the resisters, as detailed by Kenneth Marshall in his article Powerful and Righteous with his implication of two African slaves committing suicide to escape bondage (Marshall, 24).

Interestingly and as just an aside, both Marshall and Brenda Stevenson in her article The Question of the Slave Female Community and Culture in the American South go out of their way to name accounts from women who were nobility or royalty before captured and sold off to America. Marshall relates the written account of an African princess named Phillis and her experience on a slavers ship, and how it relates to others’ experiences as human cargo (Marshall, 25). Stevenson comments on several women who’d been nobles in their home nations, and how their culture helped them in servitude as slaves (Stevenson, 75). Though Marshall makes it clear that Phillis’ experience is one of the few remaining stories of African women on the ships, one can’t help but notice the manipulation the authors are doing to make these stories of oppression settle heavier; by presenting the life stories of noble women specifically, readers feel the impact of knowledge that anyone could be victimized. Even African royalty, and even royal women.

Sowande’ Mustakeem, also like Marshall, writes on the experiences of the victims of slavery while crossing the Atlantic in cargo ships. According to Mustakeem, despite the active purchase of healthy-looking Africans sickness was a common problem in the Transatlantic Slave Trade that very often resulted in death (Mustakeem, 475). It did not help that limited provisions on the journey meant that the African captives were also often malnourished (Mustakeem, 480). Marshall elaborates on the captives’ suffering on-ship in his description of the conditions of the hold the Africans were actually kept in, which were hot and cramped and they were all packed in in such a way to incapacitate and demoralize them (Marshall, 32).

Still, slave resistance as a whole, rather than individual origin stories or accounts of the horrific conditions faced by captives on the slave ships, seem to be the focus of many scholarly works about the Transatlantic Slave Trade. One article in particular, written by Karen Bell, suggests in an ironic twist that though many accounts of individual captives during their journeys to the Americas are lost, documentation of their resistance is able to give modern historians at least some insight into their lives (Bell, 158). On a further ironic note, instances of cultural resistance to forced American integration was possible for some communities of slaves and their dependents due, in part, to the demographics of the Africans captured; often slavers would buy many slaves from the same markets, making it sometimes possible for Africans from similar ethnicities to stay together and reinforce cultural traditions. Similarly, new traditions and comradery could be shared among communities of slaves based on the shared experiences of being slaves (Ibid.).

More traditional forms of slave resistance, not just cultural resistance, is also occasionally noted by scholars. Also sometimes noted by scholars is the difficulty in pinpointing not the resistant actions of slaves at the time of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but the context behind their resistance and their motivation for change, assumptions on which tend to be oversimplified or come from a place of European arrogance (Kyles, 498). It is suggested that the combination of original African identity mixed with the adopted African American identity helped forge the type of resistance an individual slave or slave community might participate in, but even that is difficult to confirm due to a persistent general lack of knowledge in many slave origins (499-500).

A minority of modern scholars, when writing on slave resistance, sometimes mention the opposite side of that; African American slaves who side with their white owners and attempt to turn in the slaves they believe are going to try to resist. In one documented case, a slave in fact received his freedom for warning his master against an attack and protecting him from the resisters (Kyles, 503). Though this account is not presented with any sense of encouragement from the author of the article, but as a sort of example of the types of power moves slave masters would do to keep resisters in line. Overall, it is suggested that the slaves’ ability to resist or type of resistance did not come from their African cultural background, but their ability to adapt, like any human, to their environments (506).

Modern scholars of the Transatlantic Slave Trade do not just write on the consequences of abolition and the personal accounts of slaves, but the overall majority of modern focus seems to be on these topics. Wide-spread racism, especially in North America, has continued to be a widely discussed controversy. One could argue that it is this persistent controversy that has spurred academics into the research that they do; a common argument, after all, is that Americans cannot live in a racist country if the leader of the country himself is of African descent. This socially relevant argument can be paralleled to arguments that slavery ended immediately just because the Transatlantic Slave Trade was abolished—a fact that has been disproven in several papers by several academics. Understandable, too, is the focus on the resistance shown by victims of the slave trade.

One could argue that it is intellectually dishonest and socially irresponsible to continue to write about a historically marginalized people as though they have never been anything but helpless and oppressed, especially when modern social activism often resorts to acts of passive and active resistance against the oppressive. On a stretch, a claim could be made that by not documenting acts of negative consequence or resistance, past historians are guilty of large-scale victim blaming slaves—if no acts of resistance are shared, then it is impossible to say whether the marginalized group truly felt marginalized. It is this type of justification that no doubt led to works such as Time on the Cross, and subsequent modern studies, to be written.


Bell, Karen B. 2010. “Rice, Resistance, and Forced Transatlantic Communities:: (Re)envisioning the African Diaspora in Low Country Georgia, 1750-1800.” The Journal of African American History 95 (2): 157–82. doi:10.5323/jafriamerhist.95.2.0157.

Butler, Kim D. 2011. “Slavery in the Age of Emancipation: Victims and Rebels in Brazil’s Late 19th-Century Domestic Trade.” Journal of Black Studies 42 (6): 968–92.

Haskell, Thomas L. 2016. “The True & Tragical History of ‘Time on the Cross.’” The New York Review of Books. Accessed Feb 27.         history-of-time-on-the-cross/.

Kyles, Perry L. 2008. “Resistance and Collaboration: Political Strategies within the Afro-Carolinian Slave   Community, 1700-1750.” The Journal of African American History 93 (4): 497–508.

Marshall, Kenneth E. 2004. “Powerful and Righteous: The Transatlantic Survival and Cultural Resistance of an Enslaved African Family in Eighteenth-Century New Jersey.” Journal of American Ethnic History 23 (2): 23–49.

Mustakeem, Sowande’. 2008. “‘I Never Have Such a Sickly Ship Before’: Diet, Disease, and Mortality in 18th-Century Atlantic Slaving Voyages.”The Journal of African American History 93 (4): 474–96.

Stevenson, Brenda E. 2007. “The Question of the Slave Female Community and Culture in the American South: Methodological and Ideological Approaches.” The Journal of African American History 92 (1): 74–95.

“Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery | Economic History Services.” 2011. December 20.

“Transatlantic Slave Trade.” 2016. Public. UNESCO.                sciences/themes/slave-route/transatlantic-slave-trade/.

Van Der Linden, Marcel. 2010. “Unanticipated Consequences of ‘Humanitarian Intervention’: The British Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade, 1807-1900.” Theory and Society 39 (3/4): 281–98.

Van Welie, Rik. 2008. “Slave Trading and Slavery in the Dutch Colonial Empire: A Global   Comparison.” NWIG: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 82 (1/2): 47–     96.

One thought on “The Transatlantic Slave Trade: Economic vs Humanistic, A Historiography

  • March 7, 2016 at 10:51 pm

    Very good progression from Time on the Cross to the modern historiography, but push all of this a bit more—why is there this humanistic vs economic divide, and why is slavery figured as only irredeemable in the scholarship? You hint at this, but make it explicit. Is it only because of the legacy of Time on the Cross, or is it because this is where the scholarly consensus has come down, that the humanistic concerns outweigh the economic benefit? Can slavery be an economically beneficial system while also being humanistically immoral? Would any of your authors argue that it wasn’t economically beneficial while also being wrong?

    Be careful of partial sentences, you drop them in occasionally: i.e. “Portraying historical fact–that national economy benefited—without taking any particular pride in the matter.” isn’t a complete sentence. Slave Trade does not need to be capitalized. Book titles are italicized and articles/book chapters are in quotation marks. Try to avoid one-sentence paragraphs like that starting “Others write on the resistance” as they make the whole piece a bit choppy.

    Why are your authors so concerned with showing the extent and foundational economic importance of slavery? Is there a connection there between your authors with economic and humanistic focuses, either in the question they’re asking or in the ways they go about trying to answer it? Just because they reach different answers doesn’t necessarily mean that their questions are different. Why do Van Der Linden, Butler and Van Welie all focus on the use of slave labor after the end of legal slavery?

    What differentiates your humanistic and economic writers? You hint at this in your discussion of Marshall and Stevenson’s methods; do using different kinds of sources lead scholars to different kinds of questions or answers? Could Marshall and Stevenson answer Van Der Linden, Butler and Van Welie’s questions with their sources and vice versa? Why do scholars focus on these kinds of sources if they can’t answer all of these questions? What does focusing on a particular set of questions say about a scholar’s priorities?

    Your last two paragraphs are very good, and hint at some much broader themes that could be brought out more in the body of your essay. Many of the pieces you’re writing about were published pre-Obama, but that’s not to say that they weren’t informed by their own particular historical moment. What do the concerns of all these pieces say about the historical moment in which they were written?

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