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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The transatlantic slave trade started in the 1500s, as Portugal and Spain took Africans to South American colonies. European ships loaded with goods, guns, and trinkets headed to West and Central Africa to acquire slaves.

map of the transatlantic slave trade


By the late 1600s, English and Dutch ships carrying human cargo were crossing to the West Indies, and later the Chesapeake.  The traders reloaded with rum and sugar in the Caribbean, and tobacco and hemp in Virginia and Maryland, to sail back to Europe.