Details Discovered About the First Transport of Slaves to America

Andrei Tapalaga
Depiction of the first transport of slaves towards AmericaWikimedia Commons

It wasn’t long after the first European settlers moved to America that they also started slavery just like in Europe, but on a much bigger scale. The exact information about when the first slaves were brought to American land as well as who started slavery within America was unclear until 2018 when two popular historians by the name of David Wheat and Marc Eagle found evidence about the first 18 means of transport carrying slaves towards America.

Start of the Slave Trade in America

The first European settlers to colonize America arrived in 1492, and at the beginning of the 1500s, more and more Europeans started to move over to this “newly discovered” continent that showed a lot of promise. At the time, slavery within Europe was quite common, however never comparable to the numbers later presented within America.

It is imperative to understand that these were not the first transports over the Atlantic, the two historians have discovered transports of slaves taken from Spain and delivered to the Caribbean and other smaller Spanish colonies over the Atlantic ocean.

At the time, Spain had control of most African colonies as a European country, therefore they also had a monopoly over the slave trade in Europe. In 1518, due to demand coming from the settlers within America, Charles I of Spain decided to authorize the sale of Africans as slaves to the Spanish colonies within America.

Therefore in 1518, for the first time, 18 ships were sent straight from Africa to North America. At first, the ships only contained around 30 to 40 slaves, but as demand increased over the years, during the 1520s the ships would carry as many as 300 slaves to America.

“By the mid 1520s, we’re seeing 200 — sometimes as many as almost 300 — captives being brought on the same slave ship [from Africa].” (Quote by Profesor David Wheat)

Both historians state that it is very difficult to trace back from which African colonies the slaves from the first transport came from, as Spain had control over so many. Most of the slaves that were brought to America were used for intensive labor on farms and towards building infrastructure for the European settlers.

In the early 1520s, the slave trade within America started to become more predominant, with other European colonies settled in America wanting to buy slaves from the Spanish colonies. The one aspect when looking at the atrocities of the slave trade within America which people don’t pay much attention to is the conditions in which the slaves were transported over the Atlantic.
Plans of a ship fro transporting slaves engravingThe Granger Collection, New York

One of the most common routes taken was from Angola, Africa, to Brazil in South America. This journey via ship in the 14th century took around 35 days. In this period of time, these slaves were cramped up on the ship below deck, served only one meal a day, and not given much freedom to move or stretch.

Some of the slaves would even throw themselves overboard in the middle of the ocean filled with sharks and other predatory fish as they were not able to bear the travel conditions.

“This is also some of our earliest examples of enslaved people throwing themselves overboard, people dying of malnutrition.” (Quote by Profesor David Wheat)

The Fate of the Slaves

The high demand for slaves during the 1520s was not only due to a large number of European settlers coming over to America but also because many of the slaves were dying due to either the European diseases brought by the settlers or the colonial violence which was quite frequent.

Besides being punished to the life of a slave, these would be caught in the middle of sword and disease, the carelessness and violence of European colonies who only focused on capitalizing as much as possible from being the first to settle onto American land.

Sadly there aren’t any first-hand accounts of slaves describing what life was really like during that period of time, but it was surely nothing less than hell on earth for them. Professor Marc Eagle from Western Kentucky University states that a large number of slaves coming into America during the 1520s also gave way to slaves revolting against the settlers which started large-scale brutality onto the enslaved population.

Some of the records found by him suggest that brutality became something quite casual, which in the eyes of the settlers, was used to “keep the enslaved population under control.”

Some may simply go to blame Charles I of Spain for allowing this to happen but in reality, everyone within Europe who allowed slavery to take place should be to blame. People were too afraid to fight for equality because they would get their heads chopped off (literally) as freedom of speech was “forbidden” and being a saint was only good on paper.

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