The origins of slavery

Whose idea was it in the first place to enslave Africans and make them work in the Americas?


No one man can claim this dubious honour. Instead we have to look to a commodity, because the origins of the African slave system in the Americas lie in the story of sugar.


Europeans had long cultivated sugar cane on plantations in the Mediterranean and, later, on Atlantic islands like the Azores, the Canaries and Cape Verde. So when they arrived in the New World at the end of the 15th century, it seemed natural to introduce the same systems there. But the settlers found that the indigenous Indians, at least those who hadn’t been wiped out by imported diseases, were neither numerous or resilient enough to provide the labour required.

The Portuguese had a solution. When their sailors first established trading links with coastal west Africa, they found an existing African slave system that could be turned to their advantage.

By the mid-16th century, when sugar plantations introduced to Brazil required a cheap source of labour, the Portuguese settlers looked not to the native Indians but across the Atlantic to the slaves they could easily ship from Africa. Slowly but surely, as larger boats carried bigger cargoes back to Europe and returned with ever-larger quantities of slaves, Africans became the labour force of choice.

The abundance of fertile land in Brazil, European capital and an influx of cheap slaves combined to produce vast quantities of sugar, a commodity in great demand in Europe and one that yielded phenomenal wealth. Naturally, that shining economic example dazzled Europeans elsewhere in the Americas.


The Spanish enthusiastically adopted similar systems in their Caribbean colonies, as did the British in Barbados and Jamaica. In North America, too, where tobacco became the most important crop, the supply of cheap African slaves became vital to economic growth.
By 1619, more than 150 years after the Portuguese had first purchased slaves on the African coast, European ships had transported a million Africans to work as slaves on plantations across the Americas.
Answered by: Dan Cossins, freelance journalist