The British trade in African slaves began
with Sir John Hawkins's illegal shipment of slaves to the Spanish
West Indies in 1562. In its heyday in the latter half of the
eighteenth century, Britain accounted for half of all the slaves
transported across the Atlantic Ocean. The bulk of the trade
was to the West Indies, Jamaica in particular, amounting to
more than 1.6 million people in total. By the end of the 18th
century, Britain had become the largest and most accomplished
slaving nation in the world. The profits transformed the lives
of people living in Britain; it changed their landscapes (money
was poured into new buildings, houses, schools and universities,
museums, libraries etc), their tastes (turned sugar from a luxury
item to a commodity), and their local economies (banks grew
rich from the profits made by some of Britain's most notorious
slave traders). Eventually this process of transformation would
leave Britain as the world's first industrial power, its slave
economy indivisible from the whole. The changing fortunes of
the sugar industry and the abolitionist campaigns led to the
abolition of the trade in 1807. Slavery itself continued to
thrive, until resistance from slaves and abolitionists alike
succeeded and emancipation was finally granted in 1833. However
merchants would continue to trade in slave commodities like
tobacco and cotton long after abolition, and given their pre-eminence,
goods manufactured in the industrial heartland still found their
way to the African coast to be exchanged for human beings.
Royalty, Parliament and The City of
London has always had connections with the Transatlantic Slave
Trade. From its very beginnings, throughout its expansion and
until its abolition, the fortunes and fates of the merchants and
people of London have been bound up with the trade in human beings.
Almost every aspect of this city's life - it's banks, insurance
companies, listed buildings, schools, museums, libraries, universities
and most obviously its population - are in some way a result of
the capital's involvement with the traffic in slaves from Africa
to the Americas and the Caribbean.
The earliest records of African slaves in this country are from
the 16th century. The first recorded slaving voyage to west Africa
was made in 1562 by Devon born Captain John Hawkins who captured
300 people from what is now Sierra Leone, to be sold as slaves
in the Caribbean. The profit he made from that voyage allowed
him to get backing and approval for further slave trading ventures
from Queen Elizabeth I. In fact, Hawkins was knighted shortly
after his second successful African venture and his coat of arms
below depicted the head of an African woman with a chain around
The financial involvement of the Royal family and the country's
aristocracy were central to the growth of Britain's slave trade
and the slaving company known as the Royal Adventurers into Africa
(1660) counted King Charles II as a backer. A later corporation
- the Royal African Company - founded in 1672, made London the
only English city that would benefit from the slave trade until
1698. The Royal African Company set up and administered trading
posts on the west African coast, and was responsible for seizing
any English ships - other than its own - which were involved in
slaving ventures. This stranglehold of the slave traders and plantation
owners over the City of London was very powerful. 15 Lord Mayors
of London, 25 sheriffs and 38 aldermen of the City of London were
shareholders in the Royal Africa Company between 1660-1690. The
'Guinea' coin (pictured below) was first issued in 1663, and took
its name from the part of the African coast where most of Britain's
gold supply originated. The African Company logo of an elephant
with a castle on its back is visible under the bust of King Charles
II. 'Elephant and Castle' - a very popular name for British pubs
and a stop on the London undergournd - has its origins in this
Bristol and Liverpool soon overtook London's position as the
leading slave-trading port, but the City of London had already
grown very rich indeed, and its links with slavery ran longer
and deeper than anywhere else. By this time London had profited
from the capture and sale of more than 100,000 Africans and the
import of over 30,000 tons of sugar from the Caribbean plantations.
The risky and long-term nature of transatlantic slave trading
meant that new banking houses were needed to offer credit to people
trading in slaves. One bank that provided this service was run
by Alexander and David Barclay and Barclays Bank still carries
their name today. Another bank which rose from the profits of
loaning credit to slavers was Barings Bank, whose founder Sir
Francis Baring, claimed to have made his fortune as a slave dealer
while only 16-years old.
The Bank of England also featured heavily in the slave trade.
As a result of their financial power, it soon became very easy
for the slave traders and plantation owners to influence parliament
directly. A writer for Gentleman's Magazine in 1766 calculated:
' there are now in parliament upwards of forty members
who are either West India planters themselves, descended from
such or have concerns there that entitle them to this pre-eminence '
It was only a matter of time before such concentrated political
and economic power produced William Beckford, Britain's first
millionaire. As the owner of more than 22,000 acres of land in
Jamaica, Beckford sat as a London MP for 16 years. His brothers
were also MPs for Bristol and Salisbury. Families such as the
Beckfords could use their money and influence to buy seats in
Parliament, to corrupt the course of justice and to try to sway
public opinion in favour of slavery.
In the eighteenth century, the town of Greenwich was one of Britain's
major ports and business centres, prosperous, wealthy and home
to some of the captains and merchants who grew rich from the slave
trade. For example Thomas King of the slave trading firm Camden
Calvert and King lived in Greenwich. This powerful company was
the largest in London - at one time a fifth of all slaving ships
that set sail from London were theirs. In the late 1780's they
chose to diversify their 'business' and they won a license to
transport convicted people to Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand.
Thomas King was also a member of the Royal Blackheath Golf Club,
which was the first official golfing club in Great Britain. Its
membership was exclusively Masonic and disproportionately connected
to local slave trading interests, from the plantation owner turned
banker Francis Baring, to the slave trader turned Lloyds bank
founder, John Julius Angerstein (founder of the National Gallery).
Also members, were the Greenwich iron merchant Ambrose Crowley,
who manufactured shackles and collars and the West India merchant
William Innes. The golf course was seen as an ideal place to share
ideas and make slave trading alliances. Greenwich was also home
to some of the greatest resistors of enslavement and anti-slavery
campaigners, who strongly influenced public opinion and exposed
the terrible truths of slavery to an awakening European conscience.
Former enslaved Africans such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius
Sancho, both Greenwich based for much of their lives, campaigned
tirelessly through their narratives and letters against the institution
of slavery. Olaudah Equiano, stolen from his home in what is now
south-eastern Nigeria at the age of ten, first published his narrative
in 1789 (and subsequently in nine British editions during the
course of his lifetime).
Prior to its demolition in 1815, the Duke of Montague lived here.
The Duke's singular interest in African people led him to sponsor
Francis Williams (the free-born Jamaican who he sent to an English
grammar school and afterwards to study Mathematics at Oxford)
and Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, also known as Job Ben Solomon, a slave
whose transcriptions of the Koran (three times in its entirety
from memory), are still kept in Oxford. Montague House was also
where Ignatius Sancho (the 18th century Black writer and composer)
was employed as a butler and where through 'unwearied application'
he taught himself to read.
Like its later rival Liverpool, Bristol was able to use its position
as an Atlantic port to become a major player in the slave trade.
For 50 years in the 18th century it was Britain's main slaving
port growing in wealth and population to become the country's
second city. The slave routes carried local goods all over the
world, including the African coast, the profits shaping the face
of a beautiful and 'respectable' city.
The house above was built and owned by John Pinney (1740-1818).
Pinney earned his fortunes from his sugar plantations on the Caribbean
island of Nevis. He became even richer through the sugar company
he set up with his friend, the anti-abolitionist pamphleteer,
James Tobin. Pinney and Tobin owned ships and loaned money to
plantation owners, and took over both the plantations and slaves
of those who could not pay their debts. On his death, Pinney left
a fortune (at the time) of £340,000. The photo of the bridge
below was built in 1999 as a memorial to Pero, a slave to John
In 1552, the merchants of Bristol obtained a Royal charter which
established them as the Society of the Merchant Venturers of the
City of Bristol, which sought exclusive control of overseas trade.
The Merchant Venturers were a powerful lobby, responsible in the
18th century for ensuring that Bristol had its share of the trade
in African slaves, and defending the trade on the grounds that
the city's prosperity depended on it. By the late 18th century,
another lobby, the West India Society, whose members included
some Merchant Venturers, took up the cause of defending planter
This statue of Edward Colston was built in 1895, and idealises
him as a revered Bristol benefactor. It does not acknowledge his
role as a member of the Court of Assistants to the Royal African
Company, which had the official monopoly on the slave trade until
1698. Colston was also a prominent sugar merchant with interests
in the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. He endowed many of the city's
educational institutions, almshouses and hospitals, and restored
a number of churches.
Bristol's slave trade fostered strong links with the American
colonies, which survived after the War of Independence. Queen
Square, a fashionable part of Bristol, already home to many prominent
slave traders and plantation owners, became the sight of the United
States first overseas consulate in 1792.
Thomas Clarkson was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire on 28 March
1760. Known later as the moral Steam-Engine (by Samuel
Taylor Coleridge), Clarkson was hugely influential in Britain's
abolitionist movement and was very much the 'wheels' behind Wilberforce's
political campaign. He worked tirelessly to gather information
about the cruelty of enslavement, which he presented at local
meetings and to local communities. He gathered 1500 petitions
to lobby Parliament signed by a million and a half people in Britain
and encouraged boycotts against products made under slavery. Around
300,000 people refused to buy sugar, which had been produced in
the British West Indies. Clarkson also travelled with a chest
full of African goods to show that Africa was a place of culture,
learning, and sophistication. He wanted to demonstrate that Africans
were equal human beings and that slavery should end. He showed
people the 'Brookes' model which depicted the inside of a typical
slave ship, using the dimensions of the ships to illustrate the
cramped, squalid and inhumane conditions of the 'Middle Passage'
Atlantic crossing, and the barbarity of treating human beings
as cargo. He also put forward the alternative of an economically
beneficial trade with Africa, using the labour of free men in
to produce goods for export, such as spices and precious metals.
Clarkson worked with Josiah Wedgwood who deigned china and ceramics
decorated with the anti-slavery emblem Am I Not a Man and a
Brother or Am I not a Woman and a Sister to spread
the abolition message.
William Wilberforce was
a son of a wealthy Hull merchant who was committed to abolishing
the slave trade and slavery. As a member of the British Parliament,
he used his oratory skills, influence and moral authority to pass
bills against the slave trade. After some political setbacks, Wilberforce's
campaign adopted modern techniques of lobbying, such as collecting
petitions signed by millions, holding mass outdoor meetings, and
handing out tracts and pamphlets to the public. Motivated primarily
by a religious faith in his opposition to slavery, he seized the
slavery cause and jumped on the moral bandwagon. Wilberforce's opposition
to slavery did not extend to freeing slaves; in 1792 and again in
1807, he denied supporting the immediate emancipation of slaves,
as he felt that Africans were not 'ready' for their freedom.
Liverpool is arguably the city in Britain that was most complicit
in the slave trade. By 1750, 10 of Liverpool's 14 most prominent
banks were owned by slave traders. By 1787, 37 of the 41 members
of the Liverpool council were involved in some way in slavery.
Further, all of Liverpool's 20 Lord Mayors who held office between
1787 and 1807 were involved. Today their names are engraved in
one of the huge bronze plaques, which dominates the Liverpool
Town Hall's main committee room. This 18th century building speaks
volumes about the city's trade links, a close inspection of its
carvings revealing elephants, lions, crocodiles and African faces.
Liverpool employed more than half of the ships involved in slavery
and by the mid 18th century imported annually from Africa more
than half of the slaves purchased by all ships in Britain. Its
net proceeds from the African trade in 1783-93 were said to be
£12,294,116. The profit was accrued on the basis of 878
voyages and the sale of 303,737 slaves. A large part of this profit
was returned to a small number of prominent Liverpool men who
held both political and economic power. Thomas Johnson. was a
slave trader who was part owner of slaving ships such as Liverpool
Merchant and Blessing. Despite his shameful earnings
from the enslavement of Africans, he was described as "the
founder of the modern town of Liverpool", served as Mayor
of Liverpool in 1695, and an MP from 1701 to 1723, and was even
knighted in 1708. Two streets, Sir Thomas Street and Johnson Street,
were named after him.
In 1793, and in response to demand, merchants constructed the
'Goree Piazzas', two massive warehouses at the end of what is
now The Strand. They housed the vast quantities of colonial goods
that flowed in and out of the port, and according to legend the
iron rings set into their walls were used to secure slaves. In
truth few Africans were ever brought to Liverpool, but the Goree
did owe its name to the tiny island off Senegal that served as
a marshalling point for millions of slaves en route to the Americas.
The famous Royal Liver Building occupies some of the Piazzas original
Liverpool proved remarkably resistant to abolition. When abolitionist
Thomas Clarkson visited Manchester in 1787, he left with over 10,000
signatures on his petition. The same year in Liverpool he barely
escaped with his life. Liverpool found ways to legally trade with
Africa after abolition, but it remained sympathetic to slaving interests.
During the US Civil War Merseyside docks constructed 35 vessels
for the slave holding South, including the notorious commerce raider
CSS Alabama (pictured).
Despite not being as involved as Liverpool or Bristol, Lancaster
ships also participated in the slave trade. Two or three mayors
of Lancaster were also ex slave ship captains. Most of the African
men and boys who were brought to the UK were brought as servants.
It became the fashion to have a 'Negro servant', and Samboo was
one such person. He arrived in Britain in 1736. He was the captain's
servant or a 'cabin boy'. There have been many stories about Samboo's
death, but the most likely is that he caught a fever which brought
him to an early death. He died in this house, known as 'Upsteps
Cottage', at the time, a brew house.
He is buried in 'Samboo's field'. At the time, Africans were
not allowed to be buried on sacred grounds. The grave stone reads:
Full sixty years the angry winter's wave,
Has thundering dashed this bleak and barrren shore,
Since Sambo's head laid in this lonely grave,
Lies still and ne'er will hear their turmoil more.
Full many a sandbird chirps upon the sod,
And many a moonlight elfin round him trips,
Full many a summer's sunbeam warms the clod,
And many a teeming cloud upon him drips.
But still he sleeps - till the awakening sounds,
Of the Archangel's trump new life impart,
Then the Great Judge his approbation founds,
Not on man's colour but his worth of heart.
There are almost always flowers on Samboo's grave.
The mass enslavement of African peoples made a vast contribution
to Britain's rise as the first industrial nation. The networks
of exchange that developed between the great Atlantic ports, the
slave depots in Africa and the plantations of the Caribbean required
the support of large parts of the British economy. Slavers needed
ships, crews needed provisions, and to pay for the slaves on the
African coast the traders required adequate barter goods. Liverpool,
home to 3/7 of the European slave trade, developed accordingly.
On top of its docks and shipyards, it became home to 13 rope manufacturers
(used in ships rigging) and a major force in glass making, supplying
the jewellery popular in west Africa, and bottles for the colonial
market. A multitude of trades became directly involved with the
trade, and grew consequently. This catalogue from a Bristol hardware
store gives some idea of varied goods bound for the trade.
All European traders made similar deals. What marked Britain
out was the scale of its production. The slave routes provided
the money, the cheap raw materials and an incentive to transform
methods of production, and ultimately society. Slave related industries
would spread beyond the Atlantic ports and London, becoming an
important and integrated part of the economy.
In land Birmingham boomed thanks to the demand for fetters, chains
and padlocks, and trade goods such as guns, pots and kettles.
It became famous for making cheap, very low quality goods, known
derisively as Brummagem ware, made especially for the African
market. Slavery sustained the local gunsmiths, producing over
150,000 weapons each year for trade with West African rulers.
This in turn fuelled a cycle of violence in which complicit kingdoms
(like Dahomey in the 17th and Asante in 18th Century) used their
weapons to subjugate neighbouring peoples, selling their captives
on to the Europeans. As guns sparked tribal wars, so the flow
of slaves increased, and cities like Birmingham grew and prospered.
Another local speciality was the 'manilla', a brass or copper
bracelet widely used as currency in West Africa. The pictured
example, found buried in Africa, was manufactured in Birmingham
at some time in the 18th century. Sent by the hundreds of thousands
they proved a lingering hangover from the slave trade, and only
ceased to be legal tender in British West Africa in 1949.
When abolition proposals came before parliament the manufacturers
of Birmingham, who feared financial ruin, were among its fiercest
opponents. This record of an anti-abolitionist petition put before
Parliament in 1789 shows the city's determination to preserve
its 'Africa Trade' .
Cotton, perhaps above all else, was the motor of the industrial
revolution. The popularity of cotton cloth, in Europe as well
as West Africa, had long been exploited by Britain's East India
Company. A multitude of weavers and dyers in India fed a trade
that led back to London, then on to West Africa where 'Guinea
Cloth' (an Indian design of cheques and stripes) was highly sought
after. In 1700 the government banned imports of Indian cloth to
protect the silk and wool trade, but this only led to the creation
small cottage industry, fed by the slave picked cotton of New
England. It was tiny by Indian standards, employing a small number
of people often working in their own homes. Yet over the 18th
Century it was transformed into Britain's largest and most dynamic
industry, turning Lancashire towns like Manchester from rural
backwaters into vast industrial cities, with the slave trade as
a vital impetus. Innovation provided larger and more efficient
mills, and improvements in transportation carried finished cloth
by road and canal to Liverpool. By 1770 over 90% of cotton exports
went to the colonial market, largely to Africa, which in turn
kept the cotton plantations of the Americas in labour. In just
20 years between 1750 and 1770 cotton exports multiplied 10 times
over as the Revolution transformed the country and peoples lives,
turning farmers into factory workers and villages into cities.
As India came increasingly under British control in the early
19th century, colonial administrators set about deindustrialising
the country, flooding it with cheap imported cotton. Britain was
by now the undisputed Workshop of the World, and by keeping
Africans in chains and Indians in poverty, helped create the modern
Although Britain abolished
slavery in 1833 its cloth trade remained dependent on slavery. 70%
of its cotton came from the plantations of the southern United States,
and the disruption of the Civil War caused a major crisis in industrial
centres known as the 'Cotton Famine' (1861-4). Tens of thousands
of mill workers lost their jobs without cotton supplies to process,
and it is estimated that as many as ½ million people experienced
starvation within 40 miles of Liverpool. This voucher from the 'Cotton
Town' of Blackburn was used to claim food in the soup kitchens that
sprung up to provide for impoverished cotton workers. In spite of
their terrible condition, the cotton workers of Lancashire pledged
support for the North in the American Civil War, and received a
personal message of thanks from President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.