Contact, Conquest, and Adaptation

Contact, Conquest, and Adaptation

HIS379: The Atlantic World

Contact, Conquest, and Adaptation

“The crucial differences which distinguish human societies and human beings are not biological. They are cultural” (Ruth Benedict). When Europeans first sought out new lands to expand their trade and gain wealth and prosperity, they found societies full of complex and diverse cultures. Upon discovering Africa, Europeans had to learn to adapt and accept enormous cultural differences and make decisions that put survival and religious views over humanity.

The first European trade routes to Africa were set up by the Portuguese in the early fifteenth-century with the goal of finding gold and alternate sea routes to Asia. When those early explorers returned, they brought with them the gold they had been seeking, but also African slaves. What the explores had discovered was a society where slavery was ingrained in a culture of tribal hierarchies. For the next couple of centuries, the Portuguese had established successful trading routes and had eventually secured the rights to the trading through the Treaty of Tordesillas, which gave Spain and Portugal papal support to all territorial claims in the New World and Africa. This helped them thrive while the economies of other European nations failed. Motivated by wealth, prosperity, and religion, the French, English, and Dutch banded together to take advantage of the expanded trading of Africa and newly discovered areas of America (Benjamin, 2009). The cultural differences the Europeans had discovered in these lands, especially Africa, was vastly different than they were accustomed to.

Upon first arriving in Africa, the Europeans were fascinated yet appalled by the Africans and their culture. To the Europeans, the African people, with their dark skin and lack of clothing except to cover their private areas were seen as uncivilized. As stated by Jordan (2012) “It was important, if incalculably so, that the English discovery of black Africans came at a time when the excepted standard of ideal beauty was a fair complexion of rose and white. Negros not only failed to fit this ideal but seemed the very picture of perverse negation” (p.6). The physical appearance of the Africans and the uncivilized nature compared to the European’s created a lasting perceptual societal hierarchy where Europeans saw themselves as a superior race over the Africans.

The experience for Africans during the European discovery and the subsequent slave trade was fearful and chaotic. Africans who became prisoners from tribal wars or were kidnapped by rival tribes were taken to the African coast to be sold to the European slave traders. From there they were crammed into ships and sailed to the New World to be sold at auctions. Slave traders often made 2-3 times the price of what they paid for a slave in Africa. At the auctions the Africans were examined like livestock and sold to the American settlers (“Primary Sources from the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” n.d.). During the 15th-century, there were approximately 100 million people living south of the African Sahara Desert. During the time of the Atlantic slave trade (15th- 19th-century), almost 20 million of them were captured and sold as slaves. Many of these slaves were sent to the new American colonies to do hard labor (Stockwell, 2012).

Many of the Europeans who settled into the New World were unfamiliar with slavery, however, the desire to survive and prosper seemed to override their ethics. Many settlers in the southern colonies were given large sections of land, but with no work force to produce crops. For those Englishmen that lacked the financial means to buy passage to the New World, they became indentured servants and they signed labor contracts to work on the plantations. For the plantation owners, this was a costly and temporary solution.

The purchasing of African slaves became an excuse for survival for the plantation owners. They were isolated in the New World without a labor force to help them prosper. Unlike indentured servants who had contracts and were paid wages and land plots, slaves were cheap and because they weren’t under a contract, they could work on the plantations their entire lives. Although the English settlers weren’t accustomed to slavery in the Old World, it became an excused necessity that ultimately became a dependence (Fields, n.d.).

This cultural adaptation to the European lifestyle was about religion as it was about financial means. To the Christian Europeans, slavery was an normal part of life acceptable by God and by taking African slaves, they believed they were doing them a favor by removing them from their heathen lifestyles. In a transcript written by Francisco de Aucinbay to the Spanish council, he declared “The negros are not harmed because it is very helpful to see these wretches to save them from Guinea’s fire and tyranny and barbarism and brutality, where without law of God, they live like savage beasts. Brought to a healthier land they should be very content, the more so they will be kept and live in good order and religion from which they will derive many temporal and, which I value most, spiritual advantages” (Benjamin, 2009, chapt. 7).

The cultural indifference the Europeans experienced during early explorations in Africa combined with their judgmental Christian ideologies created this view of superiority that made it acceptable to look upon Africans as sub-human. Furthermore, slavery was part of the African culture before their arrival, so incorporating it into trading became appropriate and lucrative. Even for the Europeans who weren’t accustom to slavery, the establishment of plantations in the New World and the need to survive and prosper, although inhumane, made it acceptable.


Benjamin, T. (2009). The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History, 1400-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fields, B. (n.d.). Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America. Retrieved from

Jordan, W. D., & Omohundro Institute of Early American History &, C. (2012). White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press.

Primary Sources from the Transatlantic Slave Trade (n.d.). Retrieved from

Stockwell, M. (2012). The American story: Perspectives and encounters to 1877 [Electronic

version]. Retrieved from