Slavery in Latin America

Contributor: Roxann Penny. Lesson ID: 12362

Slavery has been a scourge (literally!) in many countries for thousands of years. Most notable were the African slaves that were sold to western countries. Learn about the Latin American slave trade!



learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Did you know that over 12 million African slaves were shipped to Latin America to work on slave plantations? Discover their story and form your own impressions of this controversial practice!

Slavery in Latin America spanned the course of four centuries, or over four hundred years.

With the massive expansion of Colonial power and wealth into new territories, slave labor was in high demand. African slaves were forced to work under harsh conditions in the tropical climates of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Millions of slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean from West Africa to Latin America and the Caribbean during the height of the African slave trade. There, they were forced to work on slave plantations producing sugarcane, cotton, and tobacco, among other crops. These crops were then exported to European countries for sale. This entire trade process was known as the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Trans-Atlantic Voyage, and the Triangular Trade.

Take a look at the map below. It illustrates the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Can you tell why it was also called the Triangular trade?

trade triangle

Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons

Watch the following animated story from the Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development, Barbados, about a young boy kidnapped into slavery and his Trans-Atlantic journey from Africa to Barbados. Before you begin, you should know that the video is a bit lengthy, so you may want to grab a cozy blanket and allow yourself some extra time to view The Passage:


When you are finished watching the animation, discuss the following questions with your instructor:

  • How do you think the boy in the story felt when he was captured?
  • What do you think the Trans-Atlantic journey was like for the slaves?
  • How do you think his life changed after becoming a slave?

The inhumane conditions of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade have been well documented. It is estimated that several million slaves were displaced from their villages in Western and Central Africa. Slave traders were not concerned with the dignities or the individual rights of the people they enslaved. Their main priority was accumulating as much profit as possible. Slaves were treated like a commodity (a product of sale) rather than as human beings.

Although slaves were sold throughout North America and Europe, the majority of slaves were brought to the Portuguese, French, and Spanish colonies of Latin America and the Caribbean. The fertile soil and tropical climate of these colonies were well suited for growing sugarcane, tobacco, and cotton. Sugarcane was especially profitable because it was not only used to make sugar, but also rum. The images below show slaves harvesting sugarcane on a plantation:

  • What do you observe in the pictures?
  • What do you imagine a typical day harvesting sugarcane was like for these slaves?

Life on a slave plantation was brutal. Slaves were often beaten and horribly mistreated by their slave owners. However, there were a few notable differences between slaves in South America and those in Europe and North America. Take a look at some of the differences:

  1. In some parts of Latin America, slaves were allowed to marry, and were allowed to learn to read and write.
  2. Slaves were managed by "administrators" who kept records of them and managed the day-to-day operations of the plantations.
  3. In Brazil, there were three categories of slave labor: urban, mining, and plantation. Urban slaves were able to earn a small wage, as well as learn to read and write.
  4. In some parts of Latin America, a female slave could earn her freedom if she had ten or more children.

Despite the seemingly lenient or easier treatment of slaves in Latin America, slavery was still a horrific experience for the men, women, and children who were enslaved. For example, the life expectancy, or how long a slave was expected to live, was only twenty-three years for a slave in Brazil.

Slavery in Latin America continued late into the 19th century. Most of the slave trade conducted during this period was illegal since most European countries had outlawed slave trafficking. However, even after the abolition of slavery, the negative impacts of the slave trade lasted for many generations.

Continue to the Got It? section of this lesson to assess what you have learned about slavery in Latin America.

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