Hidden Connections: Slavery and the Rise of the Slave Trade

The discovery of the Americas and creation of colonies bring the need for cheap labour

Slavery – the ownership and control of one human being by another, to the point of total obedience – is one of the grimmest phenomena of history, and has been present in many times and places across the globe. People from all ethnic groups have been slaves and slavemasters.

However, today in the West, the main historical example that comes to mind is the Atlantic trade in black slaves between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the abiding image of the slave ships carrying Africans across the Atlantic in packed and utterly inhumane conditions – a journey that all too many did not survive.

The Atlantic trade in African slaves began in 1444, when the Portuguese began to ship slaves from West Africa to Europe, and for the next century the main markets for these slaves were in Europe and the Atlantic islands.

However, the discovery of the Americas in 1492, led to the creation of new colonies with a great need for cheap labour and from the mid sixteenth century European ships were carrying African slaves to Brazil,
the Caribbean and North America in steadily increasing quantities. 

‘Hibernia attended by her Brave Volunteers, exhibiting her commercial freedom’
'Hibernia attended by her Brave Volunteers, exhibiting her commercial freedom'.

(William Hincks, 1780, National Library of Ireland)

This lithograph celebrates the removal in 1779 of trade regulations which had restricted Ireland’s trading with the West Indies and Africa. A scantily clad and muscular slave offers some of the benefits to Ireland, and free trade did give Ireland the right to enter the slave trade directly.Hidden Connections: click to view previous articleHidden Connections: click to view next article