Your 60-second guide to the transatlantic slave trade

TV drama Roots, a historical saga of how Kunta Kinte was transported to America as a slave, shocked and enthralled viewers in equal measure back in 1977. Now the series has been remade, and is airing on BBC Four. Here, Dr Christer Petley, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Southampton, gives you a 60-second introduction to the transatlantic slave trade and how it was eventually abolished… This article was originally published in January 2014


Q: What was the transatlantic slave trade?

A: It was the forced migration of millions of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to work as slaves in the Americas. This was a brutal form of commerce that treated people as items of property, and was at its height between 1700 and 1850.


Q: Roughly how many people were trafficked?

A: At least 12.5 million enslaved Africans were trafficked across the Atlantic, but the horrendous conditions on the crossing – often referred to as the Middle Passage – meant that more than one in every 10 slaves died before reaching the Americas.

Q: Where did African slaves go?

A: Most of the slaves who were forced to cross the Atlantic went to Brazil and the Caribbean. Only about one in every 20 made landfall in North America: the region that became the United States.

There, rather than arriving via the slave trade from Africa, slaves were more commonly born into slavery on the plantations where they were forced to work.

Programme Name: Roots - TX: 08/02/2017 - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Kunta Kinte (MALACHI KIRBY) - (C) A+E - Photographer: Unknown

London-born actor Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte. Roots, a remake of the 1970s drama about the American slave trade, will air on BBC Four in February and March 2017. (BBC/A+E)

Q: How many slaves lived in the United States?

A: The slave population grew to around half a million by the time of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), when the United States separated from Britain. By the time of the American Civil War (1861-5), there were about four million slaves in the United States.

Q: What work did American slaves do?

A: Slaves did a variety of work, but most were put to work on plantations.

Slavery was particularly widespread in the Southern states, where cotton became the most important crop. Produced through back-breaking work, cotton could make plantation owners rich and was traded from the US South to booming industrial towns in North America and Britain.

Q: What, typically, did a slave experience?

A: Slavery relies on violence and fear. Punishment and the threat of punishment, including whippings, were a significant part of everyday life for enslaved men, women and children.

Living conditions were typically rudimentary, and slaves found themselves undernourished and susceptible to illness. Arduous manual agricultural work dominated the daily activities of American slaves, often leaving them exhausted.

Uncertainty was also part of the common experience of slaves, and the removal or sale of family members was a continual threat hanging over them. Slave narratives are an important way for historians to read sources that show the institution from the perspectives of its victims.

Q: Where did resistance to slavery originate?

A: Slaves were never the passive victims of slavery. Everywhere that slavery existed, so too did resistance.

Slaves found whatever time they could to socialise, developing their own cultural traditions and ways of coping with the horrors of slavery. Many attempted to escape, and some were successful.

By the 19th century, abolitionist movements in Britain and in the United States were also campaigning against slavery.

Q: When and how was slavery abolished?

A: Abolitionist campaigns helped to end the transatlantic slave trade and slavery during the 19th century. The British ended the slave trade in 1807 and phased out slavery in their colonies during the 1830s.

In the United States, slavery came to an end as a result of the American Civil War. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 made the end of slavery in the South an official Northern war aim, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1865, finally made slavery illegal in America. By that time, slavery had been part of North American society for around 200 years.


Roots starts on BBC Four, Wednesday 8 February, 9pm