Introduction: Database of Slave Arrivals in Europe by the Atlantic Ocean 1425-1785

Filipa Ribeiro da Silva and David Richardson


In the last fifty years, historians have taken major strides in tracking the historic movement of enslaved Africans from their home continent to other parts of the world. We now have plausible estimates of the flows of enslaved Africans across the Sahara towards the Mediterranean and the Middle East over the last millennium as well as of Africans into the western Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Gulf from the late Middle Ages onwards. The quality and depth of the evidence relating to such forced migrations, however, pales in comparison with that unearthed in relation to what was ultimately the largest and most concentrated forced trans-oceanic migration in human history, namely the transatlantic traffic in captive Africans. The most recent estimates suggest that some 12.5 million Africans were forcibly removed from their homeland to the Americas between 1500 and 1867. This figure was probably equal to the number of captives who 'left Africa by all other routes combined from the end of the Roman Empire to 1900'.1 Underpinning the estimate of the transatlantic slave trade is a database of some 35,000 transatlantic slaving voyages, the first version of which was published in 1999 and which is now freely available on-line.2 The result of a remarkable international collaborative research effort, the slave voyages website has transformed our understanding of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences. It has also reminded us, however, that the Atlantic slave trade grew out of earlier movements of enslaved Africans by land and by sea into societies bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Indeed, most of the Africans forcibly taken to the Americas in the first three decades or so after the Columbian landfall in 1492 may well have been people who had previously entered the Iberian peninsula as captives via the Atlantic Ocean. It was only from the mid-1520s onwards that captives were taken on a regular basis directly from Africa to the Americas.

The transhipment of enslaved Africans through Europe to the Americas should be seen as part of a much larger flow of captives into the Mediterranean world that dates back to antiquity and that was to continue for more than two centuries after the first direct shipment of Africans to the Americas in the 1520s. In the Mediterranean, Africans worked alongside other enslaved peoples drawn from northern, south-eastern and eastern Europe as well as from Asia Minor and beyond. It is difficult to estimate the number of slaves entering the Mediterranean world by all routes from the time of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires onwards, but the number almost certainly ran into millions. What we do know, however, is that slaves of all races and colours were employed in both domestic and commercial settings through the lands bordering the Mediterranean by 1500; that in the sixteenth century and beyond important slave markets existed at Lisbon, at Seville, at Venice and at Kefe in the Crimea on the northern shore of the Mediterranean as well as at Tunis, at Tripoli, at Benghazi, and at Cairo on its south shore; and that at that time significant proportions of the populations of such cities and their hinterlands comprised slaves, many of them of African descent.3 The last was, moreover, to become an important feature of European cities such as Amsterdam, London, Bristol, Nantes, Le Havre, La Rochelle, and Liverpool, which at various points from the early seventeenth century onwards followed Lisbon and Seville in becoming centres of transatlantic slaving activities.

Though the overwhelming majority of the captives taken from Africa to the Americas by ships outfitted in Europe never saw Europe itself, some captives were shipped directly to Europe via the Atlantic while others reached Europe via the Americas. A recent atlas of the transatlantic slave trade has suggested that up to 50,000 entered Europe directly from Africa via the Atlantic Ocean during the era of the Atlantic slave trade.4 This may be a conservative estimate since the historian Saunders estimated that some 50,000 Africans entered Portugal as slaves in the first half of the sixteenth century alone and we know from the work of other scholars, some of which informs the database being introduced here, that slaves continued to arrive in Portugal in sizeable numbers for at least another two centuries after 1550.5 Moreover, Portugal was not the only European state to admit slaves from Africa or slaves of African descent. Evidence from European cities other than Lisbon points towards many tens of thousands of people of African descent living in Western Europe between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some were evidently free Blacks but others were enslaved, having come as such in ships from Africa or with their owners from the Americas.6 Their presence was to be an important factor in provoking the debates that were to culminate in the emergence of anti-slavery politics in Europe from the late eighteenth century onwards. Though the flow of Africans as slaves to Europe via the Atlantic was small in comparison with the transatlantic slave trade as a whole from the mid-sixteenth century, its impact on the cultural and social history of early modern Europe was ultimately important, therefore, and deserves to be better understood. Such understanding requires, among other things, data on the scale, geography and timing of arrivals of enslaved Africans in Europe by sea as well as on the origins of those entering Europe as slaves. This database represents the start of a process aimed at clarifying such issues.


The database

Our database of slave arrivals into Europe via the Atlantic (hereafter, Slave arrivals Europe) is modelled on the transatlantic slave voyages database (hereafter slave voyages), in which the unit of analysis is the voyage (with each voyage having a unique ID) and in which there are related fields of information providing details of the ship (name, etc), its ownership and command, the voyage itinerary and schedule, the numbers of captives embarked and disembarked, and the sources of information upon which the voyage history is based.7 As from the earliest versions of slave voyages, slave arrivals Europe is based on a mixture of primary archival research, principally in this case in Portugal, and previously published data, much of it written, too, in Portuguese. This choice of sources reflects an assumption that much of the early slave trade by sea into Europe was largely focussed on Portugal, the premier transatlantic slave-trading nation of sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. 8 We have also included in slave arrivals Europe data found in the slave voyages website when the voyage resulted in the delivery of some or all of its captives to a European port. Though drawing on slave voyages for some information, slave arrivals Europe contains fewer fields of information than slave voyages, largely because the range of voyage evidence relating to slave arrivals in Europe has so far proved more limited than that for transatlantic slave voyages. Like the slave voyages database, however, slave arrivals Europe includes both raw and imputed fields of information. The former contain original evidence reported in the sources consulted, whereas the latter amalgamate raw data into larger groupings, such as regions of embarkation and disembarkation of captives in order to facilitate analysis of historical patterns. As with slave voyages, too, the imputed year of the voyage is that of the reported or assumed arrival of the ship with captives at its principal point of destination. In slave voyages, the destination was usually in the Americas; in slaves arrivals Europe it is at a port or place of disembarkation in Europe. The last was often, though not always, the place from which the ship had originally commenced its voyage. For a full list of the fields of information in slave arrivals Europe see the appendix to this introduction.

Though essentially modelled on slave voyages, slave arrivals Europe differs in three important respects from its transatlantic counterpart. First, the range of captives found on board ships entering Europe tended to be much wider than that found in slave voyages. This reflects the fact that while a sizeable proportion of the voyages in slave arrivals Europe delivered substantial numbers of slaves to market directly from Africa – and might thus be legitimately described as 'slaving voyages' – many brought relatively small numbers of captives as part of a more general return cargo to Europe. In such cases, slaving activities were not necessarily the primary motive behind the voyage concerned. This explains our preference for using the term slaves arrivals rather than slave voyages to describe the database. Second, because we are concerned with slave arrivals in Europe rather than with slaving voyages to Africa per se, we also include in the database evidence reporting arrivals via the Atlantic of captives from places other than Africa. Among such arrivals were captives of African origin who reached Europe via the Americas as well as captives taken from the Indian Ocean and from the American indigenous population. The diversity of peoples taken from outside Europe into slavery in Western Europe and the circumstances under which they lived and worked deserves, we believe, closer attention.

Finally, because the sources upon which the database rests sometimes present problems of interpretation, especially in terms of the scale, timing and number of captives boarding or disembarking ship, we have included within the database observations intended to clarify the nature and quality of the data reported. These observations take various forms. In the case of voyages common to slave arrivals Europe and transatlantic slave voyages, we note in particular where, in the absence of raw or original data, we rely on imputed numbers of slave embarkations and/or disembarkations taken from slave voyages. Those wishing to seek explanations of how such imputed data were calculated are referred to the slave voyages website ( for advice. In other cases we have imputed numbers of slaves carried by other means, as explained in our observations, or as in the cases where the principal source of evidence is the work of Leonor Freire Costa or Jorge Fonseca (for which see the Bibliography of Sources), we have made assumptions about slave arrivals and voyages based on the historical context described by the authors of the works in question. Even if one discounts these indirect means of assessing slave arrivals, our database still provides evidence on actual arrivals in close to 150 of the 364 voyages that it currently contains. These are spread across the whole period covered by the database between 1425 and 1785 but with particularly heavy concentrations in the years 1510 to 1528 and 1756 to 1762. Further research may enable is to reduce the gaps in the reporting rate of slave arrivals to voyages in due course, but even as it currently stands the ratio of actual slave counts to voyages in slave arrivals Europe is, at about 40 per cent, at least as high, if not higher, than in the transatlantic slave voyages database.


It is unlikely that the total number of Africans who entered Europe via the Atlantic in the period covered by the slave arrivals Europe database will ever be completely known. Insufficiency of data combined with issues of interpreting those which can be found, as noted above, mean that any calculation of the possible sum of such arrivals is bound to subject to significant margins of error. But geographical patterns of slave arrivals in Europe, as shown by the database, allied to reported levels of such arrivals in 1510-1528 and 1756-1762, when the available data are the most dense, offer one way to make a preliminary estimate of the overall magnitude of African slave entries via the Atlantic into western Europe in the three and a half centuries after 1425, the earliest date of entry into the database.

The evidence suggests that most of the enslaved entering Europe direct from Africa boarded ship at places in West Africa, with, in comparison with the Atlantic slave trade, unusually high proportions tending to come from Upper Guinea, including Mauritania (notably before 1530) and Senegambia. Culturally, therefore, the mix of African captives entering Europe via the Atlantic differed somewhat from those taken into slavery in the Americas. Relatively few captives from Upper Guinea tended to be shipped to the Americas compared to captives from the Gulf of Guinea and West-central Africa.9 In terms of disembarkations in Europe, the evidence currently available suggests that Portugal was by some margin the most important single destination for captives, with Spain being the second in importance, notably in the sixteenth century, when the Canary Islands and Cadiz were both important points of entry into the Spanish speaking world for enslaved Africans. Outside of Iberia, France received some shiploads of African captives in the later seventeenth century and, on the evidence of African population numbers in certain cities, may, with Britain, have seen a continuing modest influx of captives of African origin or descent thereafter, principally, it would appear, via the Americas rather than directly from Africa. The routing of African captives to Europe via the Americas probably emerged as an increasingly important pattern across the whole of western Europe by the eighteenth century as slave populations in the Americas grew, though it is evident that some major shiploads of slaves from Africa continued to enter Portugal and Spain as late as the mid-eighteenth century. Unlike the sixteenth century, however, when ships owned in Iberia monopolized such entries from Africa, Dutch ships in the seventeenth century and then British ships in the eighteenth century became participants, too, in the trafficking of slaves into Portugal and Spain. This reflected broader trends in the Atlantic slave trade, with the first the Dutch and then the British making inroads at times as slave suppliers into the Atlantic trading empires of the Iberian nations.

The predominance of the Iberian states as points of entry of enslaved Africans into Europe cannot be attributed purely to the weight of Portuguese and Spanish source materials used to construct our database. Rather it may be seen as reflecting historical links by the Iberian peninsula with slavery in general and enslaved African labour in particular that dated from earlier periods and which, in the case of Portugal at least, continued, according to some scholars, to be an important part of the nation's labour market beyond the sixteenth century. 10 The fact that ships owned in Britain delivered probably sizeable numbers of slaves direct from Africa to Cadiz as well as Lisbon in the late 1720s and early 1730s suggests that in Spain, too, enslaved Africans continued to be prized as labourers in that country well into the early modern period.

It is beyond the scope of this introduction to the slave arrivals Europe database to try to explore the position of slave labour within Iberian labour markets through the eighteenth century or to explain the presence of the British as suppliers of slaves to such markets around 1730.11 The centrality of Portugal to slave arrival patterns in Europe via the Atlantic from the late fifteenth century onwards, however, provides a basis for projecting arrivals into Europe as a whole by this route in the period covered by our database. Vital to this projection are the concentrated documentary evidence of slave arrivals into Lisbon in the periods 1510-1528 and 1756-1762 noted earlier. For the first period we have documented slave arrivals for some 74 voyages, with a mean number of slaves per voyage of 103.2, and for the second we have the same for 53 voyages, with an average of 20.4 slaves per voyage. Behind both sets of figures there is a wide spectrum of slaves per voyage. The largest and smallest numbers of slaves per voyage in the first period were 400 and 10 respectively, while in the second period they were 336 and one. Overall, the two sub-sets of data underline the fact that some ships arrived in Lisbon with large numbers of slaves on board throughout the period covered by the database but they also suggest that the proportion of such voyages tended to diminish through time, reflecting perhaps an increasing trend after the early sixteenth century towards the entry of African captives at Lisbon on ships coming from the Americas rather than just directly from Africa. Even in the mid-eighteenth century, however, slaves continued to arrive in Lisbon on ships entering the port from Africa.

In addition to reflecting broader trends in patterns of the slave arrivals in Lisbon and Europe more generally through time, the two sub-sets data for 1510-1528 and 1756-1762 allow us to make some estimate not only of annual slave arrivals in Lisbon in these two periods but, given Lisbon's prominence as a European entry point for African captives, the overall number of such captives who may have entered western Europe via the Atlantic in the early modern period. In making such calculations, we recognize that the 127 voyages contained in our two sub-sets of data were not the only ones to terminate in Lisbon with slaves in the two periods in question. For 1510-1528, there are records for at least nine other voyages ending in Lisbon with slaves likely on board. Adding these to the original 74 voyages for 1510-1528 and assuming they each delivered 103 slaves (that is, the mean for the original 74 voyages) produces an estimated total import figure at Lisbon of 8,676 slaves in 1510-1528. This translates to an estimated average annual import of 457 slaves, which, given that other voyages entering Lisbon with slaves in these 19 years may have escaped detection, we may round up to 500 slaves per year. This may still be a conservative estimate; projected across the whole first half of the sixteenth century, it would suggest that 25,000 slaves entered Lisbon in that period, a figure half that proposed by Saunders for Portugal as a whole for the same years.

For the period 1756-1762, the database reveals that, in addition to the 53 voyages for which slave entry figures are known, at least another two ships appear to have entered Lisbon with slaves. Both were included in transatlantic slave voyages, but, rather than landing their slaves in the Americas, seem to have taken them to Lisbon. The actual number of slaves they carried is unknown, but imputed arrivals for the two were 471 slaves. Adding these to the 1,082 reported for the other 53 voyages entering Lisbon with slaves in 1756-1762 gives a total of slave arrivals at the Portuguese capital of 1,479 in these seven years, or some 210 slaves a year. This was less than half the estimated average annual arrival of 1510-1528, suggesting some relaxation of demand for slaves at Lisbon in the intervening period. Precisely when, and if, such a change occurred cannot be determined from the currently available data on slave arrivals, but it may not be without significance that sizeable shiploads of slaves continued periodically to arrive in Lisbon as late as the middle two quarters of the eighteenth century. Unlike the period 1510-1528, when some of the captives entering Lisbon may have been reshipped to the Americas (as seems to have been the case at Cadiz, too, at that time), there seems little likelihood of this pattern continuing in later years, not least around 1760. If this argument is correct, then the possible decline in local demand for slaves at Lisbon may have been less noticeable than our two-sub-sets of data on slave arrivals suggest.

The exact number of slaves entering Lisbon by sea will never be known, but if one assumes that annual arrivals were around 350 a year – a figure more or less intermediate between the averages we have calculated for 1510-1528 and 1756-1762 - this would suggest some 126,000 slaves disembarked at the Portuguese capital in the 360 years between 1425 and 1785, the period covered by this database. Bearing in mind that Saunders computed that 50,000 slaves arrived in Portugal in the first of the sixteenth century alone, this may be still considered a conservative figure. A less conservative approach, based on a projection, say, of the 1510-1528 annual average across the whole period, would suggest that up to 180,000 slaves entered Lisbon between 1425 and 1785. Assuming that the actual import of slaves into Lisbon lay somewhere between these two totals, then a tentative estimate would be that some 150,000 +/- 16.67% (or 125-175,000) captives landed at Lisbon in that period. If correct, this would make Lisbon at least equal tin terms of slave imports to St John's (Antigua), Port-au-Prince (Haiti), and Willemstad Curacao), and some other leading ports of slave disembarkation in the Americas in 1500-1867.12

Translating this figure into an estimate of slave arrivals into Europe generally via the Atlantic requires some assessment of Lisbon's share of all voyages entering European waters with slaves in our period. Slave arrivals Europe reveals that Lisbon was not the only entry point for captives into Portugal, though it was by some margin the most important one. Moreover, it also shows that throughout most of the period covered by the database ships carrying slaves entered ports outside Portugal, with Spanish ports, notably Cadiz, Seville and the Canary Islands (the last considered here an integral part of European Spain) being particularly prominent. A simple numerical count shows that, of the 364 voyages in the database, no less than 73.4 per cent delivered their slaves to Lisbon, while a further 11.4 per cent did so to some other Portuguese port, and the remaining 15.2 per cent to a port outside Portugal. Applying these ratios to our median estimate of slave arrivals into Lisbon suggests that in total some 173,000 slaves may have entered Portugal by sea between 1425 and 1785, with a further 31,000 entering other European ports, giving an overall figure of slave arrivals in Europe by the Atlantic of some 204,000 before 1786. This is four times greater than the recent Eltis and Richardson projection of oceanic-based slave imports into Europe from Africa.

As with the slave voyages database, the slave arrivals Europe database is likely to provoke debate on issues other than the overall scale of slaving activity. Just as patterns of slave imports by ethnicity has provoked on-going debate on the impact and legacy of slavery in the Americas, so the disproportionate share of slaves from Upper Guinea may help to focus debate on the cultural implications of slavery in Western Europe. Equally, the early and continuing prominence of Lisbon's role in European slave imports can be seen as both underscoring the Mediterranean roots of transatlantic slavery and anticipating the pivotal role of Luso-Brazilian cities such as Recife, Salvador and Rio de Janeiro were to play as both outfitters of slaving voyages and importers of enslaved Africans from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. In each case we are reminded of the exceptional longevity and intensity of Portuguese involvement in the articulation of slavery in the Atlantic Basin. Portugal was not, as we have seen, the only country in western Europe to import enslaved Africans, but it was, on the evidence so far collected, by far the most important. In this respect, slave arrivals Europe provides new insights into the deep roots within Portugal of the nation's identification with the growth of African slavery within the Atlantic world and its reluctance in the nineteenth century to end it.


APPENDIX. Fields of Information:

This database has 35 fields of information centred on voyage itineraries and schedules, ships and their owners, numbers of the enslaved, and sources of information and observations relating to them. Within the groupings of voyage information there are fields based on both raw and imputed data, the latter being intended to identify, among other things, the principal regions of slave embarkation and disembarkation where this is possible.
The complete list of fields of information is as follows, grouped according to the plan described above.

Voyage and schedule

Voyage identification number (ID)
Voyage year (imputed)
Date the voyage began
Date of arrival in Africa
Date of departure from Africa
Date the vessel arrived with slaves in Europe
Date the voyage ended
Place where the voyage began
Region (or country) where the voyage began
Ports or places of call en route outbound
First place of slave purchase
First region of slave purchase (imputed)
Second place of slave purchase
Second region of slave purchase (imputed)
Third place of slave purchase
Third region of slave purchase (imputed)
Places of call before returning to Europe
Places where slaves landed before reaching Europe
Regions of slaves landing before Europe (imputed)
First place of slave landing in Europe
First region of slave landing in Europe (imputed)
Second place of slave landing in Europe
Second region of slave landing in Europe (imputed)
Principal place of slave landing in Europe (imputed)
Principal region of slave landing in Europe (imputed)
Place where the voyage ended
Region where voyage ended (imputed)


Name of the vessel or ship
Name of the master or captain
Owners of the vessel


Total slaves embarked
Total slaves disembarked in Europe


Sources of information used (see Bibliography of Sources and Abbreviations for notations used)
Slave voyages database reference (unique ID of voyages from where voyages included in the transatlantic slave voyages are also found in this database)
Observations on sources (see text in Introduction for explanations).