The Slave Trade Changed Cultures and Societies
The Atlantic slave trade decreased the population in large portions of Western Africa and resulted in largely negative cultural changes for the societies that lost the most members. The arrival of millions of Africans in the Americas diversified the region’s population and culture.
Slave traders shipped over 12 million Africans across the Atlantic. Most captives came from communities along the west coast of Central and Northwest Africa. Their forced emigration led to largely negative cultural changes in the areas they left. Their arrival in the Americas increased cultural diversity. And despite the efforts of whites to resist the spread of African culture, over time, African culture integrated into the new cultures and societies that developed in the Americas.
Changes in African Culture and Society
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, Africa’s share of the worldwide population fell from 17% in 1600 to 85% in 1900. This remarkable drop resulted in political instability as groups who lost fewer members to the slave trade managed to gain power over groups who lost more people to the slave trade. Economic instability also increased as poverty increased in depopulated areas that lost productive working-age adults. The whole continent of Africa suffered as the continent became dependent upon Europeans. In the second half of the 19th century, Europeans conquered most of Africa during the Scramble for Africa.
The cultural impacts of demographic changes: Most captives sent to the Americas came from communities along the west coast of Central and Northwest Africa. As a result, those areas suffered the most cultural disruption and change.
- A gender imbalance developed: Plantation owners in the Americas preferred enslaved men to work back-breaking jobs required on plantations. As a result, two-thirds of enslaved people sold from Africa in the Americas were men. As a result, some African communities had substantially more women of marriage and childbearing age than men.
- An age imbalance developed: Slave traders also preferred younger adults who were stronger and more likely to survive the horrendous journey across the Atlantic. Plantation owners also liked younger captives because they were healthier and could be worked harder. Younger women were also able to have children.
- Polygyny increased: With more women than men left in Africa, polygyny—when a man marries more than one woman—increased. According to the Pew Research Center, the world’s highest polygyny rates today are in West Africa, where 11% of marriages identify as polygamous. The country with the highest rate is Burkina Faso, at 36%.
- Gender roles changed: Fewer men meant women had to assume additional work and duties traditionally performed by men, such as work in agriculture or the military. For example, the West African Kingdom of Dahomey formed an all-female army regiment. It lasted until 1894, when the French colonized the Kingdom and shut it down. Areas that lost the most men to the slave trade also have higher female labor force participation today than other portions of Africa
Africans' cultural impacts in the Americas
As soon as Africans arrived in the Americas, their cultures blended with indigenous and European cultures to produce cultures unique to the Americas.
Language: Enslaved Africans spoke various languages when they arrived in the Americas. However, within a generation, most Africans lost fluency in the language of their ancestors. Instead, many Africans began speaking different creole (mixed) languages that combined enslavers’ European languages with African—and sometimes indigenous—languages.
- The Caribbean islands had the largest population of enslaved Africans resulting in the highest numbers of creole speakers. This region still has the largest population of creole speakers in the Americas. In modern Haiti, there are more than 10 million Haitian creole speakers. The language is French-based, with influence from several West African languages as well as Spanish, English, and Portuguese.
- The state of Louisiana in the United States also developed a large population of creole speakers whose language combined spoken French and Spanish with West African and indigenous languages. Thousands of people still use creole in areas of rural Louisiana.
Religion: Traditional African religions fused with Christianity into new syncretic belief systems that combined practices from both. Santeria in Cuba and Vodun in Haiti mixed traditional polytheistic and animist beliefs with Catholic traditions and the worship of saints. African Christianity also incorporated traditional African worship practices like drumming and dancing.
Music: Traditional African beats and rhythms shaped the development of music in the Americas. Once sung to communicate in ways that enslavers could not understand, African beats and rhythmic patterns influenced the later development of blues, jazz, hip-hop, gospel, rock-n-roll, reggae, and samba.
Food: African ingredients and cooking styles have been incorporated into cuisines across the Americas.
- Rice and okra, both used in traditional African cooking, are found in popular dishes such as gumbo in the Southern United States. Originally a meat stew in Africa, gumbo in America developed to include sausage or seafood.
- Across the Caribbean islands, modern diets include the same ingredients brought by their enslaved ancestors—cassava melon, cornmeal, plantains, and yams. Jerk chicken is a popular Caribbean dish but has also become popular globally. It combines African and indigenous American cooking practices like dry rubbing with ingredients like scotch bonnet peppers.
Traditional African foods found their way to America in a variety of ways:
Some Indigenous Cultures Survived and Shaped the Americas
Despite the loss of millions of indigenous American lives and attempts to exterminate their cultures, native people managed to keep some of their cultural traditions alive. These traditions became a part of newly emerging cultures in the Americas.
European conquest of the Americas nearly eliminated the cultures of native peoples through cultural and social genocide as European promoted their own cultures and suppressed indigenous cultures and social systems. Those that resisted were often violently punished or even killed. Despite this, Indigenous people across the Americas managed to keep many of their cultural traditions alive. Over time, in places with larger populations of native Americans, some of their cultures blended with European cultures to create new blended cultures.
Textiles and jewelry: Indigenous communities developed various textile and jewelry styles. As early as the 19th century, many of these styles became popular with people of European ancestry in the Americas. Today, indigenous designs have become mainstream.
- Molas: One of the most recognizable textiles in the Americas is a mola—a traditional handmade textile with a geometric design made by indigenous women of the Guna tribes in Panama and Columbia. Molas were not originally textiles but paint applied to the body. Only once European colonization began did molas make their way onto fabrics. Molas became increasingly popular as tourism increased in areas with Guna tribes. Today Guna artisans make a variety of mola artwork for tourism and popular culture.
Turquoise: Many native American tribes, like the Navajo, believe keeping turquoise stones can bring good fortune. Fort thousands of years, they and other tribes have used the stone to make jewelry. The bright blue color of turquoise has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the American Southwest.
Holidays: Natives retained many traditional holidays, which often celebrated their gods, nature, or ancestors—important concepts in indigenous American societies. The survival of many traditions required mixing them with similar Christian traditions or celebrations.
Inti Raymi in Peru: The Inti Raymi is a traditional religious ceremony that originated in the Inca Empire to celebrate the Inca sun god Inti. The festival occurred in the capital city of Cusco during the winter solstice on June 21, which also happens to be the Inca new year.
Many indigenous Incas continue to celebrate Inti Raymi. Celebrations include music, the wearing of traditional clothes, and the sharing of food. The main celebration still happens in Cusco, Peru. In some areas, the festival has become connected with and celebrated during the Catholic celebration of Saint John the Baptist, which falls a few days after the southern winter solstice on June 24.
Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead): Day of the dead is a Mexican celebration traditionally held on November 1 and 2 to honor deceased ancestors. Scholars are unsure of the origins of the customs. Some believe it started before the arrival of the Spanish. Others believe it is a much more recent creation. Most likely, it resulted from the combination of traditional Mesoamerican practices like the Aztec ceremony of Quecholli, where objects like food on altars near the burial grounds of soldiers to help them find their way to the afterlife, and the Christian Allhallowtide practices of remembering the dead. While traditionally practiced in Mexico, the Day of the Dead is becoming popularized in the United States.
Foods: Indigenous people’s foods remain one of their most enduring legacies. Many crops that natives had domesticated for thousands of years crossed oceans and impacted diets and cuisines across Afro-Eurasia. In the Americas, indigenous people continued to cook with their indigenous recipes. Many of the most popular meals across the Americas today originated from those ancient recipes.
Important indigenous foods and dishes:
- Corn tortillas
- Yerba mate tea