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Britain and the Trade

Slaving Pioneers

The sea captain John Hawkins pioneered English involvement in the Atlantic slave trade in the 16th century. Hawkins was the first Englishman to deport Africans from the west coast of Africa for sale in the West Indies. From the 17th century, Britain joined the Portuguese, Dutch and French in this large-scale, global commercial enterprise, becoming masters in the trade in human cargo.

Charter establishing Royal African Company - opens new window
The King Grants the Right
to Trade in Africa (255KB)
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Account of limits and trade, Royal African Company - opens new window
The Royal African Company
trades for commodities
along the West African coast (236KB)
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The Royal African Company

King Charles II encouraged the expansion of the slave trade. He granted a charter to a group of men, the Royal Adventurers, who later became the Royal African Company (RAC). The king and the Duke of York backed this enterprise by investing private funds. The charter stated that the Company 'had the whole, entire and only trade for buying and selling bartering and exchanging of for or with any Glossary - opens new windowNegroes, slaves, goods, wares, merchandise whatsoever'. The king therefore gave full support to this system of trading.

The first Royal African Company ships sailed from Liverpool and Bristol to develop their commercial activity along the West African coast. Over the next two centuries, these two cities grew from the profits of the slave trade.

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London and the Slave Trade

All over Britain families benefited from the Atlantic slave trade. Bristol and Liverpool were the most important ports. Approximately 1.5 million enslaved people - about half those taken by the British from Africa - were carried in ships from Liverpool. London was also one of the main trading centres (particularly in earlier years of the slave trade) because of the transport links provided by the River Thames and the London docks. Merchants based in Blackheath, Deptford and Greenwich handled some 75% of sugar imports.

A number of Londoners closely involved with the Atlantic slave trade developed their businesses in this prime location. For example, Ambrose Crowley, an iron merchant, produced manacles and irons for tethering slaves on ships. John Angerstein, a Blackheath merchant and founder of Lloyd's of London, owned estates in Grenada. The Pett family, master shipbuilders in Deptford, built many of the ships that were involved in the Atlantic trade. Woodlands from their estate (today's Petts Wood) provided timber for their shipbuilding business. The East India Company also had ships built at Deptford.


Cape Coast Castle ordnance list (extract) - opens new window
Royal African Company
and the Arms Trade
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Guns for Slaves

The slave trade had a major impact on Britain's economy. Ships loaded with goods left Britain for the West African coast. There, commodities were bartered for all manner of tropical products, including humans. Military supplies were regularly shipped to forts in West Africa. Royal African Company schedules reveal a methodical record-keeping system for exchanging brass rods, cutlery and guns manufactured in Birmingham. The historian F. W. Hackwood argues that the West African slave trade was the chief supporter of the gun industry in Wednesbury and Darlaston, and gunsmiths in the Midlands produced most of the 150,000 guns which British ships exchanged annually for Africans.


Commenda Fort accounts dated 14 Dec 1714, showing items sold or bartered - opens new window
The Trade in Guns, Slaves
and Elephants' Teeth
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The Triangular Trade

Ships rarely travelled empty. British shipbuilders constructed specially built vessels for the slave trade. Ships designed to carry human cargo from Africa would be converted to hold raw materials such as rum, tobacco, molasses and sugar, collected from the West Indies. To complete the cycle known as the 'triangular trade', these raw materials were then brought back to England to be turned into manufactured goods. These goods were then sold on at considerable profit in Britain and Europe. There can be little doubt that such a system of trade substantially boosted the development of Britain's commerce and manufacturing.


Map showing the The Triangular Trade - opens new window
The Triangular Trade
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References and Further Reading

Blackburn, R., The Making of New World Slavery, London, 1997

Clarkson, T., History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament, London, 1808

Curtin, P. D., The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, London, 1969

Curtin, P. D., Death by Migration: Europe's Encounter with the Tropical World in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, 1989

Dresser, M., Slavery Obscured: The Social History of the Slave Trade in an English Provincial Port, London, 2001

Elder, M., The Slave Trade and the Economic Development of 18th-century Lancaster, Halifax, 1992

Hackwood, F. W., A History of Darlaston, near Wednesbury, Handsworth, 1908

Knight, D., Gentlemen of Fortune: The Men who Made their Fortunes in Britain's Slave Colonies, London, 1978

Martin, S.I., Britain's Slave Trade, London, 1999

Tattersfield, N., The Forgotten Trade, London, 1991

Thomas, H., The Slave Trade, London, 1998

Walvin, J., Black and White: The Negro and English Society 1555-1945, Aylesbury, 1973

Walvin, J., Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire (2nd edn), London, 2001

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