The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest long-distance forced movement of people in recorded history. From the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, over twelve million (some estimates run as high as fifteen million) African men, women, and children were enslaved, transported to the Americas, and bought and sold primarily by European and Euro-American slaveholders as chattel property used for their labor and skills.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade occurred within a broader system of trade between West and Central Africa, Western Europe, and North and South America. In African ports, European traders exchanged metals, cloth, beads, guns, and ammunition for captive Africans brought to the coast from the African interior, primarily by African traders. Many captives died just during the long overland journeys from the interior to the coast. European traders then held the enslaved Africans who survived in fortified slave castles such as Elmina in the central region (now Ghana), Goree Island (now in present day Senegal), and Bunce Island (now in present day Sierra Leone), before forcing them into ships for the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean.
Scholars estimate that from ten to nineteen percent of the millions of Africans forced into the Middle Passage across the Atlantic died due to rough conditions on slave ships. Those who arrived at various ports in the Americas were then sold in public auctions or smaller trading venues to plantation owners, merchants, small farmers, prosperous tradesmen, and other slave traders. These traders could then transport slaves many miles further to sell on other Caribbean islands or into the North or South American interior. Predominantly European slaveholders purchased enslaved Africans to provide labor that included domestic service and artisanal trades. The majority, however, provided agricultural labor and skills to produce plantation cash crops for national and international markets. Slaveholders used profits from these exports to expand their landholdings and purchase more enslaved Africans, perpetuating the trans-Atlantic slave trade cycle for centuries, until various European countries and new American nations officially ceased their participation in the trade in the nineteenth century (though illegal trans-Atlantic slave trading continued even after national and colonial governments issued legal bans).