The first African slaves had been taken to Portugal, then to Madeira and finally to Sao Tome. After 1523, however, African slaves began to move in a westerly flow - to the Americas. Once sugar had been firmly established in Brazil in the 1540s, the future direction of the slave trade was sealed. The first blacks shipped to the Americas were those already accustomed to Spain or Portugal or the Atlantic islands. Henceforth, Africans were shipped directly across the Atlantic. By the end of the sixteenth century, about 80 per cent of slaves exported from West Africa went to the Americas. This was confirmed in 1576 by the Portuguese settlement of Luanda, which quickly became their main African slave-trading base. Thereafter, Africans were shipped from a region "that was to provide America with the most slaves of any area of Africa over the next three centuries"...
In Brazil, the enslavement of native people began more slowly and lasted longer, but never proved satisfactory, especially for work in the sugar industry. Indians died, drifted away or simply failed to work as the Portuguese settlers required. But both the Spaniards and the Portuguese knew that other peoples - Africans - had already proved their worth as slaves in the sugar industry of the Atlantic islands. Though some regions of Brazil saw a survival of enslavement of native peoples, it was Africans who, in time, came to dominate the sugar industry. Africans and sugar cultivation were thus wedded together, as were slavery and Africans.
Parts of the American settlement did not require labour on such a scale, but sugar did. Whatever the legal or moral objections to slavery, both the Portuguese and the Spanish turned towards African slavery. This was especially true of the Portuguese in their Brazilian sugar industry. European immigrant labour was non-existent; they would not, or could not, uproot and migrate to the uncertainties and dangers of the Americas, and local Indian labour was inadequate for a variety of reasons. Africans, however, were readily available, courtesy of the Portuguese slaving presence on the African coast, and at what contemporaries regarded as an acceptable price.
The wealth disgorged by Spanish America (often on a fabulous scale) provided the money to buy African slaves, who poured into Mexico and Peru, where they were used in a wide range of urban occupations, such as in mining, agriculture and ranching. By the mid-seventeenth century the slave population of Mexico was 35,000 (less than 2 per cent of the population) but in Peru it stood at 100,000 (between 10 and 15 per cent of the population). However, it was in Brazil and the Caribbean that demand for African slaves took off in spectacular fashion. The sugar plantations and mills of Brazil and later the West Indies devoured Africans. By the early seventeenth century, some 170,000 Africans had been imported to Brazil and Brazilian sugar now dominated the European market. In this the Dutch were crucial, capturing key slave-trading posts from the Portuguese in Africa, gaining a temporary toehold in Brazil itself, but also providing money, financial expertise and markets."
When the Dutch were finally pushed out of Brazil, they sought new areas to develop the sugar craved by the markets served by Amsterdam. Thus, Dutch money, expertise, technology and slaves moved from Brazil to the West Indies. Dutch finance and know-how (especially their sophisticated credit arrangements) enabled British and other settlers in the islands to buy the Africans needed to work in their fledgling settlements. With this invaluable Dutch help, the English in particular were able to brush aside the fading power of Spain in the Caribbean. They were uncertain, at first, how best to develop their newly secured lands, trying a range of agricultural crops and labour systems - notably tobacco. Barbados offers the best example of what happened.
The initial settlement was on smallholdings, worked by white indentured servants from Britain. But the arrival of sugar saw the emergence of large-scale sugar plantations (the landscape was dotted with windmills used for crushing the cane) and the widespread use of African slaves. By the end of the seventeenth century, Barbados, a small island, no larger than the Isle of Wight, was home to 50,000 slaves. A similar pattern unfolded close by on the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Altogether, the Caribbean islands had, in a relatively short period, absorbed more than 450,000 Africans, Brazil 500,000 to 600,000, and Spanish America between 350,000 and 400,000.
But even these figures began to pale with the development, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, of the two islands which came to dominate the Atlantic sugar industry and consequently the slave trade: Jamaica and St Domingue (later Haiti). The English seized Jamaica in 1655 from the Spanish and, like their neighbours on the smaller islands, the pioneering settlers created a string of small-scale agricultural settlements. When the settlers turned to sugar (aided by migrants from Barbados), they developed a society characterised by large-scale plantations and large slave holdings. Much the same pattern evolved in St Domingue. Africans soon came to dominate the islands' populations, outnumbering local whites to such an extent that whites and colonial governments began to fear for social and racial tranquillity (i.e., white dominance and control). Moreover, Jamaica produced sugar on a phenomenal scale: the 500 tons of 1669 rose to 6,056 tons by 1704.16 St Domingue's rapid expansion was even more impressive. By 1780 its sugar industry was the best in the world and the slave population stood at almost half a million. Exports from the island formed a substantial slice of France's trading wealth, but it was built at a terrible price and exploded in revolutionary and racial fury in the 1790s.
The Dutch had been vital in the early English and French settlements in the Caribbean, but the commercial and military rise of those two nations (enemies from first to last) effectively displaced the Dutch in the Atlantic. The Atlantic slave trade was now dominated by English and French slave ships. Between them, in the eighteenth century, they shipped more than 4 million Africans into the Americas, the very great majority destined to work in sugar. By then, slaves were employed everywhere throughout the Atlantic economy, from the myriad domestic chores in the homes of local whites through to sailor's tasks on the Atlantic ships, but sugar dominated - in Brazil and the Caribbean - and therefore the Atlantic slave trade. It was all made possible not solely by African slave labour, but by the use of plantations. The plantation had become a critical institution in developing the Americas; it made it possible for Europeans, through their African slaves, to bring profitable cultivation to vast reaches of the Americas. What happened in North America was, however, slightly different.