Beginning in the colonial period, African Americans provided most of the labor on which European settlement, development, and wealth depended, especially after European wars and diseases decimated Native Americans.
African workers had extensive experience in cultivating rice, cotton, and sugar, all crops grown in West and North Africa. These skills became the basis of a flourishing plantation economy. Africans were also skilled at ironworking, music and musical instruments, the decorative arts, and architecture. Their work, which still marks the landscape today, helped shape American cultural styles. They brought with them African words, religious beliefs, styles of worship, aesthetic values, musical forms and rhythms. All of these were important from the beginning in shaping a hybrid American culture.
III THE SLAVE TRADE Portuguese traders brought the first African slaves for agricultural labor to the Caribbean in 1502. From then until 1860, it is estimated that more than 10 million people were transported from Africa to the Americas. The great majority were brought to the Caribbean, Brazil, or the Spanish colonies of Central and South America. Only about 6 percent were traded in British North America.
The Portuguese, Dutch, and British controlled most of the Atlantic slave trade. Most Africans taken to North America came from the various cultures of western and west central Africa. The territories that are now Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria were the origins of most slaves brought to North America, although significant numbers also came from the areas that are now Senegal, Gambia, and Angola. These areas were home to diverse linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups. Most of the people enslaved were subsistence farmers and raised livestock. Their agricultural and pastoral skills made them valuable laborers in the Americas.
To transport the captured Africans to the Americas, Europeans loaded them onto specially constructed ships with platforms below deck designed to maximize the numbers of slaves that could be transported. Africans were confined for two to three months in irons in the hold of a slave ship during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean called the Middle Passage. The meager diet of rice, yams, or beans and the filthy conditions created by overcrowding resulted in a very high death rate.