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British Involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Boarding the slave ship

For well over 300 years, European countries forced Africans onto slave ships and transported them across the Atlantic Ocean.

The first European nation to engage in the Transatlantic Slave Trade was Portugal in the mid to late 1400's. Captain John Hawkins made the first known English slaving voyage to Africa, in 1562, in the reign of Elizabeth 1. Hawkins made three such journeys over a period of six years. He captured over 1200 Africans and sold them as goods in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. 

To start with, British traders supplied slaves for the Spanish and Portuguese colonists in America. However, as British settlements in the Caribbean and North America grew, often through wars with European countries such as Holland, Spain and France, British slave traders increasingly supplied British colonies

The exact number of British ships that took part in the Slave Trade will probably never be known but, in the 245 years between Hawkins first voyage and the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, merchants in Britain despatched about 10,000 voyages to Africa for slaves, with merchants in other parts of the British Empire perhaps fitting out a further 1,150 voyages.

Historian, Professor David Richardson, has calculated that British ships carried 3.4 million or more enslaved Africans to the Americas. 

Only the Portuguese, who carried on the trade for almost 50 years after Britain had abolished its Slave Trade, carried more enslaved Africans to the Americas than the British (the most recent estimate suggests just over 5 million people).

Estimates, based on records of voyages in the archives of port customs and maritime insurance records, put the total number of African slaves  transported by European traders, to at least 12 million people.

The first record of enslaved Africans being landed in the British colony of Virginia was in 1619. Barbados became the first British settlement in the Caribbean in 1625 and the British took control of Jamaica in 1655.

The establishment of the Royal African Company in 1672 formalised the Slave Trade under a royal charter and gave a monopoly to the port of London. The ports of Bristol and Liverpool, in particular, lobbied to have the charter changed and, in 1698, the monopoly was taken away.

British involvement expanded rapidly in response to the demand for labour to cultivate sugar in Barbados and other British West Indian islands. In the 1660s, the number of slaves taken from Africa in British ships averaged 6,700 per year. By the 1760s, Britain was the foremost European country engaged in the Slave Trade. Of the 80,000 Africans chained and shackled and transported across to the Americas each year, 42,000 were carried by British slave ships.

The profits gained from chattel slavery helped to finance the Industrial Revolution and the Caribbean islands became the hub of the British Empire. The sugar colonies were Britain's most valuable colonies. By the end of the eighteenth century, four million pounds came into Britain from its West Indian plantations, compared with one million from the rest of the world.

Who benefited from the Transatlantic Slave Trade?

In the Transatlantic Slave Trade, triangle ships never sailed empty and some people made enormous profits.  This Slave Trade was the richest part of Britain's trade in the 18th century. James Houston, who worked for a firm of 18th-century slave merchants, wrote, "What a glorious and advantageous trade this is... It is the hinge on which all the trade of this globe moves."

Between 1750 and 1780, about 70% of the government's total income came from taxes on goods from its colonies. The money made on the Transatlantic Slave Trade triangle was vast and poured into Britain and other European countries involved in slavery, changing their landscapes forever. In Britain, those who had made much of their wealth from the trade built fine mansions, established banks such as the Bank of England and funded new industries.

Who profited?

  • British slave ship owners - some voyages made 20-50% profit. Large sums of money were made by ship owners who never left England.
  • British Slave Traders - who bought and sold enslaved Africans.
  • Plantation Owners - who used slave labour to grow their crops. Vast profits could be made by using unpaid workers. Planters often retired to Britain with the profits they made and had grand country houses built for them. Some planters used the money they had made to become MPs. Others invested their profits in new factories and inventions, helping to finance the Industrial Revolution.
  • The factory owners in Britain - who had a market for their goods. Textiles from Yorkshire and Lancashire were bought by slave-captains to barter with. One half of the textiles produced in Manchester were exported to Africa and half to the West Indies. In addition, industrial plants were built to refine the imported raw sugar. Glassware was needed to bottle the rum.
  • West African leaders involved in the trade - who captured people and sold them as slaves to Europeans.
  • The ports - Bristol and Liverpool became major ports through fitting out slave ships and handling the cargoes they brought back. Between 1700 and 1800, Liverpool's population rose from 5000 to 78,000. 
  • Bankers - banks and finance houses grew rich from the fees and interest they earned from merchants who borrowed money for their long voyages. 
  • Ordinary people - the Transatlantic Slave Trade provided many jobs for people back in Britain. Many people worked in factories which sold their goods to West Africa. These goods would then be traded for enslaved Africans. Birmingham had over 4000 gun-makers, with 100,000 guns a year going to slave-traders.
  • Others worked in factories that had been set up with money made from the Slave Trade. Many trades-people bought a share in a slave ship. Slave labour also made goods, such as sugar, more affordable for people living in Britain.

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