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A Free Reading Passage on the Slave Trade for AP U.S. History

Cate O'Donnell

3 min read

May 11

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The slave trade is a referenced topic in the Labor, Slavery, and Caste in the Spanish Colonial System topic in Period 1 of AP U.S. History. You could reference this example on your AP U.S. History test.



Slave Trade by John Raphael Smith
Slave Trade by John Raphael Smith/public domain


Portugal and Spain were key players in the transatlantic slave trade, a harrowing enterprise that reshaped global demographics and left deep, enduring scars on several continents. This brutal commerce began in the 15th century when Portuguese explorers, initially searching for gold and a sea route to India, established trading posts along the west coast of Africa. Here, they discovered another lucrative commodity: human beings.


The procurement of slaves involved several methods. Initially, European traders bartered with African leaders who sold prisoners of war or criminals as slaves. However, as demand soared, this escalated into raids and widespread violence, with European traders and their African allies capturing individuals directly from villages and communities. The Spanish, following the Portuguese lead, capitalized on these practices as their New World colonies demanded an ever-increasing labor force.


The transatlantic slave trade saw the forced relocation of millions of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. This journey, known as the Middle Passage, was notoriously deadly due to horrific conditions aboard the ships. The term “Middle Passage” refers to the middle leg of the triangular trade route used by European merchant ships. This route started in Europe with ships carrying manufactured goods to Africa, where they were traded for enslaved Africans. The middle leg involved the transport of these captives across the Atlantic to the Americas, where they were sold into slavery. The final leg brought goods produced by slave labor (such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton) back to Europe.


Enslaved Africans were packed tightly below decks and suffered from malnutrition, disease, and abuse during the Middle Passage. It is estimated that approximately 15% of the Africans who embarked on these voyages died before reaching the New World, with death tolls sometimes reaching as high as 20% on particularly brutal passages.


Over time, the mechanisms and scale of the slave trade evolved. The 16th and 17th centuries saw the systematization of the trade with the introduction of the asiento system by the Spanish Crown, which awarded contracts to merchants, granting them the license to trade slaves in Spanish colonies. This further increased the scale of the trade as a part of the global economy.


Economic incentives continued to drive the trade, with enslaved Africans being used to cultivate lucrative crops such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton. The profits from these plantations were immense, reinforcing the continuation of the trade despite growing ethical and legal challenges. The transatlantic slave trade not only provided a critical labor supply for the burgeoning plantations in the New World but also enriched European economies, creating a vicious cycle that was difficult to break.


The abolition of the slave trade by Portugal, Spain, and other European nations in the 19th century came gradually, influenced by economic shifts, moral campaigns by abolitionists, and political changes. Despite the official end of the slave trade, the legacy of this dark era continues to affect the socio-economic and political landscapes of nations across the globe, reminding us of the profound human cost of economic exploitation.



PRINTABLE READING PASSAGE ON THE SLAVE TRADE

Would you prefer to share a printable passage with your students? Click the image below to grab it!



The Slave Trade Free Reading Passage


Do you want to watch a video about the slave trade?





Labor, Slavery, and Caste in the Spanish Colonial System



Period 1



AP U.S. History



The Slave Trade



#slavetrade

Cate O'Donnell

3 min read

May 11

6

0

0

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