The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes

We have to interrupt our series on the Bill of Rights to share this with you. This astounding animation by Andrew Kahn and Jamelle Bouie shows all of the slave ships that left Africa for the Americas between 1546 and 1860. Larger dots are larger ships.

You see that until about 1600, almost all of the ships went to the north coast of South America and the Caribbean islands. Then Brazil becomes a destination, and that’s really how it continues right through the end: Brazil and the Caribbean like some horrible magnets drawing slave ships. Conversely, from today’s Senegal to Angola, the west African coast literally has the life  sucked out of it as dots fly and fly for centuries from its shores.

Surprisingly, through the 1600s the main and almost only destination for slave ships going to today’s United States is what is now the Washington, DC/Chesapeake Bay area. Only a fraction head directly for the Carolinas. After 1750, the already heavy traffic picks up even more, and the Atlantic is almost blotted out by slave ships. Now slave ships are heading directly to the Carolinas, and, unexpectedly, the number of slave ships heading to French Canada picks up tremendously. The American Revolution slows things down remarkably—it was Britain running the bulk of the slave trade at this point, and its focus on the war meant a big loss in profits from the slave trade. But a thin stream of ships still heads relentlessly to the sugar islands of the Caribbean. As soon as the war ends, the traffic resumes at its original density.

Then it’s 1808, and the U.S. withdrawal from the slave trade shows in the complete lack of ships heading to the Atlantic seaboard. Even the number heading to the Caribbean falls, and Brazil is left as an insatiable market for the hundreds and hundreds of ships leaving Africa.

A lull in the 1820s is followed by an upswing in the 1830s and 40s, and then the traffic trails off to a few sporadic seasons, and then we end in 1860. Nearly 16,000 ships carrying human beings to slavery have crossed the ocean. Brazil would not abolish slavery until 1888, the last of the Latin American nations to do so.

Many, many thanks to Kahn and Bouie for doing this work and putting it in a form that is instantly clear and powerful. Viewing this resource leaves you with a sick feeling, and a strong sense of never being able to make up for all those lives lost. But we can and must work every day to undo the damage of black slavery in our own countries by ending the racism that is its strongest legacy. And we can work to end the slavery of Africans and Asians that is ongoing today.