The Slave Trade
The British weren’t the first, nor the last European nation to participate in the Atlantic slave trade. Nor was England the only nation of the British Empire to participate. The first British ship to transport slaves was captained by John Hawkins during the reign of Elizabeth I in 1562. There were no English colonies in North America at the time, Hawkins sold the Africans he had captured or purchased to the Spanish colonists in the New World. Over the next six years, he made six such voyages, from England to the African coast, whence to the Spanish possessions, and then back to England.
Hawkins’s profits were enormous, a fact noted by other English merchants and trader-captains, and the Spanish appetite for forced labor ensured paying customers. Gradually slavery took hold in the British Colonies in America, notably in Virginia beginning in 1619. As the British gained possessions in the West Indies, sugar cane became a valuable crop. The merchants added another leg to the voyages. Ships left England laden with goods to pay for the Africans, transporting them to the sugar plantations. There they were exchanged for sugar and molasses. The molasses often was shipped to the English colonies, where it was exchanged for tobacco and other products of the growing English settlements, which were returned to England. The ships dispatched from the ports of the Empire never sailed with empty holds.
Trading stations were established on the African coast and the British ships acquired their cargoes by trading for them, usually with other African Chieftains who captured members of rival tribes and villages. By the 1700s specially designed slave ships were being produced by British shipyards. These vessels had maximized deck space and smaller holds, designed to carry human cargo lying on the deck. The voyage from the African coast to the Americas or the Caribbean was known as the Middle Passage and took weeks depending on the winds and weather.
In 1672 the Royal African Company was chartered and London acquired a monopoly on the British slave trade. The loss of the highly lucrative trade caused Bristol and Liverpool to lobby for the charter to be amended and it was in 1698, allowing smaller British ports to participate. There was competition from merchants in other countries but by the end of the French and Indian War in North America, British ships carried more than half of the 80,000 Africans transported across the Atlantic to slavery each year. Some British ship owners realized profits of more than 50% for each voyage. Nearly half of the textiles produced by the British city of Manchester were destined to be used as barter for slaves on the African coast.
The money realized from the slave trade was used to establish the Bank of England by merchants and landowners made wealthy from their involvement. The British Empire abolished the slave trade and used Royal Navy’s ships to discourage smuggling beginning in 1807. Slavery remained in place throughout the British Empire until the 1830s, when it was finally abolished. During the British Empire’s participation in the slave trade, an estimated 11 – 12 thousand ships departed from British and other Empire ports for the purpose of carrying slaves to the British possessions in North America, as well as to Spanish and Portuguese colonies during times of peace.