At least 10 million Africans were enslaved and transported to Europe and the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries as part of the Atlantic slave trade. The brutal trade was spurred by a strong demand for labor on plantations in the Americas. Eventually, it became an integral part of an international trading system in which Europeans and North Americans exchanged merchandise for human cargo along Africa’s western and west central Atlantic coasts.
1502 First reported African slaves in the New World.
1640-1680 Beginning of large-scale introduction of African slave labor in the British Caribbean for sugar production.
1791 The Haitian Revolution begins with a slave uprising in the French West Indian colony of Santo Domingo. The revolution will eventually lead to the establishment of the black nation of Haiti ten years later.
1793 Waves of white refugees pour into United States ports, fleeing the insurrection in Santo Domingo.
1794 France emancipates all slaves in the French colonies. In the United States, Congress passes legislation prohibiting the manufacture, fitting, equipping, loading or dispatching of any vessel to be employed in the slave trade.
1795 Pinckney’s Treaty, also known as Treaty of San Lorenzo, establishes commercial relations between the United States and Spain.
1800 The United States enacts stiff penalties for American citizens serving voluntarily on slave ships trading between two foreign countries.
1803 Denmark is first to ban the slave trade.
1804 The Republic of Haiti is declared on January 1, 1804 by General Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
1807 Britain, the principal slave-trading nation, bans the Atlantic slave trade.
1807 The United States passes legislation banning slave trade that will take effect the following year.
1810 British negotiate an agreement with Portugal calling for gradual abolition of slave trade in the South Atlantic.
1815 At the Congress of Vienna, the British pressure Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands to agree to abolish the slave trade. However, Spain and Portugal are permitted a few years of continued slaving to replenish labor supplies.
1817 Britain and Spain sign a treaty prohibiting the slave trade. British naval vessels are given right to search suspected slave ships. Still, loopholes in the treaty undercut its goals and the slave trade grows with the slave economies of Cuba and Brazil expanding rapidly.
In the Le Louis case, British courts establish the principal that British naval vessels cannot search foreign vessels suspected of slaving unless permitted by their respective countries. The ruling hampers Britain’s efforts to suppress the trade.
1819 The United States and Spain renew commercial agreements in the Adams-Onis Treaty.
Congress passes legislation stiffening laws against American participation in the slave trade.
Britain stations a naval squadron on the West African coast to patrol for illegal slave ships.
1820 The United States deems slave trading an act of piracy and punishable by the death penalty.
The U.S. Navy dispatches four vessels to patrol the coast of West Africa for slavers. This initial campaign lasts only four years before the Americans recall the cruisers and break off cooperation with the British.
1824 Great Britain and the United States negotiate a treaty recognizing the slave trade as piracy and agree to work together to suppress it. But the U.S. Senate undercuts the treaty’s force in a series of amendments and Britain refuses to sign.
1825 The Antelope, a slave ship sailing under the Venezuelan flag is seized in U.S. waters with a cargo of 281 Africans. Ship’s owners try to reclaim ship and slaves. The Supreme Court hears the case and issues a unanimous opinion declaring the slave trade a violation of natural law. But 39 of the slaves are returned to ship’s owners.
1831 A large-scale slave revolt breaks out in Jamaica and is brutally repressed.
1833 Britain passes the Abolition of Slavery Act, which emancipates salves in the British West Indies starting in August of the following year.
1835 The Anglo-Spanish agreement on the slave trade is renewed and enforcement tightened. British cruisers are authorized to arrest suspected Spanish slavers and bring them before mixed commissions in Sierra Leone and Havana.
1836 Portugal bans the slave trade.
1837 Britain invites the United States and France to create an international patrol to stop slaving. The U.S. declines to participate.
1838 In the British West Indies, most colonial assemblies have introduced legislation dismantling apprenticeships, which followed the emancipation of slaves. Laws against vagrancy and squatting attempt to keep the social and labor system of the plantation economy intact, with varying results.
1839 Nicholas Trist, U.S. Consul in Havana, recommends that the administration dispatch a naval squadron to West Africa to patrol for slavers, warning that the British would police American vessels if the United States did not.
The Amistad is seized off Long Island and taken to New London.
J.M.W. Turner’s “The Slave Ship,” goes on display in London. The piece was inspired by a recent incident in which a captain threw slaves overboard during an epidemic. As insurance companies only covered slaves drowned at sea, profit-minded captains often cast the sick or dying into the ocean.
1841 Nicholas Trist is dismissed as U.S. Consul in Havana amid allegations he connived to sell U.S. vessels to Spanish slave traders or at least failed to stop the illegal transactions.
1860s The Atlantic slave trade was abolished over a 30-year period ending with Portugal’s 1836 ban on slave trading. But legal abolition did not end the still profitable trade. It continued illegally well into the 19th century. As long as there remained a market for slaves in the Americas, mostly in Brazil and Cuba, the trade would continue until the 1860s.
Mystic Seaport Museum contributed to this timeline.