The course of human history is marked by appalling crimes. But even the hardened historian is filled with horror, loathing and indignation on examining the record of African slavery. How was it possible? How could it have gone on for so long, and on such a scale? A tragedy of such dimensions has no parallel in any other part of the world.
The African continent was bled of its human resources via all possible routes. Across the Sahara, through the Red Sea, from the Indian Ocean ports and across the Atlantic. At least ten centuries of slavery for the benefit of the Muslim countries (from the ninth to the nineteenth). Then more than four centuries (from the end of the fifteenth to the nineteenth) of a regular slave trade to build the Americas and the prosperity of the Christian states of Europe. The figures, even where hotly disputed, make your head spin. Four million slaves exported via the Red Sea, another four million through the Swahili ports of the Indian Ocean, perhaps as many as nine million along the trans-Saharan caravan route, and eleven to twenty million (depending on the author) across the Atlantic Ocean.
Of all these slave routes, the "slave trade" in its purest form, i.e. the European Atlantic trade, attracts most attention and gives rise to most debate. The Atlantic trade is the least poorly documented to date, but this is not the only reason. More significantly, it was directed at Africans only, whereas the Muslim countries enslaved both Blacks and Whites. And it was the form of slavery that indisputably contributed most to the present situation of Africa. It permanently weakened the continent, led to its colonization by the Europeans in the nineteenth century, and engendered the racism and contempt from which Africans still suffer.
For two hundred years, 1440-1640, Portugal had a monopoly on the export of slaves from Africa. It is notable that they were also the last European country to abolish the institution - although, like France, it still continued to work former slaves as contract laborers, which they called libertos or engagés à temps. It is estimated that during the 4 1/2 centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Portugal was responsible for transporting over 4.5 million Africans (roughly 40% of the total). During the eighteenth century however, when the slave trade accounted for the transport of a staggering 6 million Africans, Britain was the worst transgressor - responsible for almost 2.5 million. (A fact often forgotten by those who regularly cite Britain's prime role in the abolition of the slave trade.)
The great slaving companies were formed in the second half of the seventeenth century, when the Americas, and other parts of the world which the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and various papal edicts had reserved to the Spaniards and Portuguese, were redistributed among the nations of Europe. The whole of Europe - France, England, Holland, Portugal and Spain, and even Denmark, Sweden and Brandenburg...