We will never know the true cost of the human tragedy that was launched with the African slave trade. What we do know is that even drawing a broad outline around its likely dimensions is a disturbing experience.
Current estimates suggest that a total of perhaps 12 million Africans were imported to the New World as slaves. That figure stuns the mind, but it is not complete.
Many scholars believe that roughly one third of all Africans intended for the slave trade died before they were placed on ships. This is not an unreasonable estimate, considering that many of them were captured warriors who would have resisted such a fate. In addition, conditions on the ships were so appalling that it is entirely possible that another third of this huge population died before reaching the New World. The source for these estimates is the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad provided fugitive southern slaves with help in their (illegal) journeys to free states; it was a loosely connected alliance of American anti-slavery activist groups whose brave members risked their lives to help others. Although the term “Underground Railroad” only came into use in the mid-1840s, similar operations had been conducted for years before that. Members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, were prominent supporters of these dangerous campaigns; the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program operates under the National Parks Service to “extol the historical significance of the Underground Railroad in the eradication of slavery and the evolution of our national civil rights movement.” Visit the Network on the World Wide Web at www.cr.nps.gov/ugrr.
The best guess, then—and it is only a guess—is that something like 36 million Africans either met their deaths as a result of the slave trade or were sold into captivity between 1450 and 1850. This shocking number does not, of course, reflect the abuses inflicted on any of the descendants of the original Africans who fell prey to slave traders.