Throughout human history, there have been many world events that have seen a multitude of deaths and widespread destruction.
The ten entries on this list are ranked according to the number of deaths.
While some of the events spanned just a few years, others occurred over centuries.
The Atlantic slave trade or transatlantic slave trade took place across the Atlantic Ocean from the 16th through to the 19th centuries. The vast majority of slaves transported to the New World were Africans from the central and western parts of the continent, sold by Africans to European slave traders who then transported them to North and South America. The numbers were so great that Africans who came by way of the slave trade became the most numerous Old-World immigrants in both North and South America before the late eighteenth century. The South Atlantic economic system centered on making goods and clothing to sell in Europe and increasing the numbers of African slaves brought to the New World. This was crucial to those European countries which, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were vying with each other to create overseas empires.
The first Africans imported to the English colonies were also called “indentured servants” or “apprentices for life”. By the middle of the seventeenth century, they and their offspring were legally the property of their owners. As property, they were merchandise or units of labor, and were sold at markets with other goods and services.
The Portuguese were the first to engage in the New World slave trade, and others soon followed. Slaves were considered cargo by the ship owners, to be transported to the Americas as quickly and cheaply as possible, there to be sold to labor in coffee, tobacco, cocoa, cotton and sugar plantations, gold and silver mines, rice fields, construction industry, cutting timber for ships, and as house servants.
The Atlantic slave traders, ordered by trade volume, were: the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, and the Americans. They had established outposts on the African coast where they purchased slaves from local African tribal leaders. Current estimates are that about 12 million were shipped across the Atlantic, although the actual number purchased by the traders is considerably higher.
The slave trade is sometimes called the Maafa by African and African-American scholars, meaning “great disaster” in Swahili. Some scholars, such as Marimba Ani and Maulana Karenga, use the terms “African Holocaust” or “Holocaust of Enslavement”.
Millions of Africans were shipped from places like this to a life of slavery in the Caribbean, Brazil and America. Now, more than a dozen Caribbean countries are uniting to seek compensation from Britain, France and the Netherlands.
9. Late Yuan Warfare Transition to Ming Dynasty – (Death Toll Estimate: 30 Million)
The Yuan dynasty was founded by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, around 1260. Yuan literally translates as ‘Great is the Heavenly and Primal’, though there proved to be nothing either great or heavenly about it.
The dynasty turned out to be one of the shortest-lived in the history of China, covering just a century until it fell in 1368. Chaos reigned during the twilight years of the Yuan Dynasty, and the lands were marked by warring tribes, outlaws, political struggle, famine, and bitterness among the populace. After all this carnage, the Ming Dynasty took control. Their reign is described by some as “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history.”
8 An Lushan Rebellion (Death Toll Estimate: 36 Million)
Around 500 years before Yuan, the Tang Dynasty was in control of China. An Lushan – a general in the north of China – sought to take control, and declared himself emperor (creating the Yan Dynasty). The An Lushan rebellion lasted from 755 until 763, when the Yan Dynasty was finally defeated by the Tang empire. Medieval warfare was always a bloody affair – and this rebellion was no exception. Millions died and the Tang Dynasty never fully recovered.
Jump forward a thousand years and the Chinese are at it again – this time with some help from the French, the British, and some American mercenaries. In 1850, the Qing Dynasty is now in charge of China. They had suffered some major problems before the rebellion, with natural and economic disasters causing havoc – not to mention the Europeans bringing opium addiction to China. So up stepped Hong Xiuquan, who amongst other things claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom – and the carnage began. The Taiping Rebellion happened at roughly the same time as the American civil war, though the latter conflict proved to be far less bloody.
6 Great Chinese Famine Death Toll Estimate: 43 Million
Another century later and we’re now in a Communist-led China. The period 1958 to 1961 is also know as ‘the great leap forward’ – and it’s a sombre lesson in what can happen when a government attempts to change a country too quickly.
Although droughts and poor weather conditions led to the famine, the disaster can quite easily be seen as a consequence of the government’s attempts to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a modern communist society. Chinese peasants describe this period as the ‘three bitter years’, which is something of an understatement. Several decades later the Chinese economy became the largest in the world – but at quite a price.
5 Soviet Crimes (Death Toll Estimate: 49 Million)
Under the Soviet Union, from 1917 to 1953, millions of Russians died at the hands of revolution, civil war, famine, forced resettlement and other crimes. One man can take most of the blame: Joseph Stalin.
His desire to build a new and better country at any cost – and to keep hold of the power he had gained – was a direct cause of the majority of casualties under Soviet rule. It is hard to fathom how, in 1948, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
4 Mongol Conquests (Death Toll Estimate: 60 Million)
If there is one man who could be said to have more blood on his hands than anyone else in history, it is Genghis Khan. Under the leadership of Khan (and successors after his death), the Mongol empire grew into the largest land empire the world has ever seen – at its peak covering 16% of the Earth. The Mongol army swept across Asia, killing its rivals with great ferocity for the best part of two centuries. The death toll would certainly have been much higher if the Mongols had continued to progress west and into Europe.
Aside from all the killing, it wasn’t all bad under Mongol rule – with religious tolerance given to most faiths, as well as tax breaks for the poor.
3 World War 1 (Death Toll Estimate: 65 Million)
Although other wars had come close quite a few times, this was the first truly global war. The causes of the ‘great war’ are varied and rather complicated, but suffice it to say that in 1914 when the various European empires began to get too big for each other, they decided to form two vast alliances and fight it out for dominance.
Europe became divided, and dragged the rest of the world into its rapidly widening sinkhole. Outdated warfare tactics were deadly to the soldiers involved: these young men would often be ordered to walk very slowly towards the opponent’s machine-gun fire. When the war finished in 1918, Europe and the world began to count the cost of so many lost lives. Most agreed that this madness could never happen again…
2 World War 2 (Death Toll Estimate: 72 Million)
Having taken a break from fighting for a few years, ‘total war’ broke out again in 1939. The two teams divided again into vast forces, and called themselves the Allies and the Axis. During the short break before the war, each country had decided to build some new killing machines – taking to the skies and to the sea, and developing more efficient land-based vehicles as well as automatic weapons their soldiers could now carry. And as if this wasn’t enough, a certain country decided to build a big bomb.
The Allies eventually ‘won’ the war, though 85% of the death toll came from their side, with the Soviet Union and China seeing the greatest casualties. The majority of deaths also came outside of the combat zone, and can therefore be attributed to war crimes.
1 European Colonization of the Americas (Death Toll Estimate: 100 Million)
When Christopher Columbus, John Cabot and other explorers in the 15th century found a new continent, it must’ve seemed like the dawn of a new age. Here was a new paradise that adventurous Europeans could call their new home. There was, however, one problem: this land already had an indigenous population.