Introduction

A typical slave auction in the New World (watercolour by Henry Byam Martin, courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-115001)
Image: A typical slave auction in the New World. Although these slaves appear to be sold together as a family, this typically was not the case. In fact, many families were broken up and never reunited (watercolour by Henry Byam Martin, courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-115001).

Enslavement was forced on Africans in many places, including the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, South America, and Canada. From the 1400s to the 1800s, slavery primarily relied on the capture and free labour of Black or African peoples. They were forced to be slaves, could expect to remain slaves for life, and any children they had could expect to be slaves for life.

The African continent is home to many ethnic groups who built civilizations and competed with each other for trade. When Europeans looked for ways to open the New World in the west, the demand for captured Africans workers increased dramatically. Kidnapping trips to the interior removed many Africans from their homes. The demand was high for labourers in places like the islands off Africa's west coast, South American mines, and plantations of the Caribbean and North America. Owning slaves was also a sign of wealth in Europe and the various colonies, even the Middle East and China.

Slave "castles" housed the captured Africans until slave ships arrived to collect them. Africans from diverse societies, with different languages and religions, were shackled together. Purchasers from Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Britain, and France selected the healthiest and strongest men, women, and children who could survive the crossing to the New World. The death rate en route typically was 40%. As many as 20 million Black people were taken from Africa during this time. This African Holocaust devastated societies within Africa and crippled African identity elsewhere.

Rosemary Sadlier


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