The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Colonialism, and Current Human Rights

Steve Carlton-Ford, University of Cincinnati

Published on: February 17, 2021

Source: David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New Haven, 2010). Map of slave volume and direction.

What contemporary and historical factors influence a state’s support of current human rights? Many specific recent influences have been examined in research articles, but two major historical processes and their long-term impact on current human rights have not been sufficiently examined in cross-national perspective: the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade began developing in the late 1400s and continued well into the nineteenth century. Over twelve and a half million individuals, disproportionately young men, were sold into slavery—primarily by other Africans—and shipped across the Atlantic to labor on agricultural plantations (e.g., growing, harvesting, and processing sugar cane) or mining precious metals (e.g., gold and silver). Millions did not survive the middle passage. In the Americas, the reaction to slaves resulted in the development of race-based ideologies and inequalities, such as the Jim Crow laws in the U.S. and color-graded systems of inequality in other states, for example Brazil. In Africa, the process was supported by economic and political institutions that continue to adversely affect current economies, limit political institutions, and disrupt trust in current African states.

While the slave trade developed, European economic and military (including naval) power increased and the states involved (e.g., Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain) converted areas at least nominally under their control into colonies. The process was gradual, completed earliest in the Americas. In Asia, independent private trading companies (most prominently the British East India Company) provided both the economic and military power to secure trade and political control in an arc from the Indian sub-continent across the South China Sea to the Philippines. As European nations consolidated control, these areas became colonies. Although the trans-Atlantic slave trade was the earliest manifestation of developing European economic and political hegemony, Africa was the last area to be colonized. The Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 formalized the “Scramble for Africa,” granting most of Africa to Britain and France and giving the Congo to King Leopold of Belgium as his private domain. By the beginning of World War I, the formal process of allocating colonies was virtually complete.

Colonial rule varied considerably from area to area. Some colonies (such as Australia, Canada, and the U.S.) were settled by large populations of Europeans who created institutions similar to those of the home country. European administrators directly ruled only a few colonies. Most other colonies were ruled by a small of cadre of Europeans who oversaw the adaptation of indigenous legal systems to complete the administrative processes. This indirect rule typically undercut the local political institutions and leaders who were co-opted into the system of indirect colonial rule. As with slavery, colonial rule adversely affects current political institutions and economic performance. Indigenous institutions interacted with the economic regimes (mercantile for Spain and liberal for England) of colonial powers to reverse initial social and economic development; developed areas declined and undeveloped areas flourished.

The impact of the slave trade and of subsequent colonization on human rights has not been given the detailed examination that it deserves. Given that slavery and colonialism have had a long-term impact on current political institutions, economic development, and social conditions, human rights have almost certainly been affected as well. The impact may, however, be mediated by current political, economic, cultural, and military powers—Mann's four social powers. Preliminary analyses indicate that areas (now states) in Africa that were most deeply affected by the trans-Atlantic slave trade generally have poorer human rights records. The same appears to be the case for previously colonized states. It is not clear, however, whether both the slave trade and colonization will have independent effects on current human rights or how much of those effects will operate through current institutions. My next book will explore these issues.