The earliest known English slave trading voyages to Africa and America were the London-owned ships Salomon, Swallow and Jonas in 1562. The last known voyage was the Liverpool ship Kitty’s Amelia in 1807. In the intervening 245 years, over 11,000 other slaving voyages left from English ports to Africa for slaves, carrying some 3.3 million enslaved Africans from their homeland to the Americas. The numbers of enslaved Africans carried by English ships represented up to a third of all the Africans forcibly carried to the Americas during the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Initially the largest shippers of enslaved Africans were the Portuguese, who continued to carry slaves from Africa for almost half a century after the English outlawed their slave trade in 1807. But for a century and a half after 1660, the English were the main slave carriers in the western world. The other major carriers of slaves across the Atlantic were the French, the Dutch, the Spanish and, in 1783-1808, the Americans.
The Triangular ‘Trade’
Most of the slavers – the ships that carried enslaved Africans – went from ports in Europe to Africa. Bristol, Liverpool, London and Nantes became major slave trading ports after the middle of the seventeenth century. After loading enslaved Africans at the Atlantic coast of Africa, ships from these ports went directly to the Americas, where they sold the African slaves who had survived the Atlantic crossing. This crossing was known as the Middle Passage. Most European ships ranged in size from 50 to 300 tons. Each carried between 200-450 enslaved Africans. On average, one in six slaves died during the Middle Passage. But in some cases many more Africans died from disease and shipboard rebellion, sometimes more than one in two slaves.
After the surviving enslaved Africans had been sold in the Americas, ships returned to Europe, usually to the same port they had left from. This completed the ‘triangular’ voyage that the Transatlantic Slave Trade is now usually identified with. These voyages normally took between 12 and 18 months, much of the time was spent either in Africa collecting and enslaving Africans or in the Americas selling and recovering payment for them. The goods that slave ships brought back to Europe were sugar, tobacco, precious metals (or bullion), and African goods such as ivory, dyewoods, and gum.
Numbers and losses on the Trans-Atlantic Crossing
The numbers of Africans who died during the trans-Atlantic crossings were horrendous. Such was the greed of the slave traders in their desire to carry as many Africans as possible on each voyage that they packed their prisoners into the holds of the slave ships like sardines in a tin, with often fatal consequences. The records of the High Court of Admiralty reveal some appalling losses. In 1652 the ship Constant Ruth lost 90 out of a cargo of 207 slaves. The Fortune lost 132 out of 320 in 1678. The Hannibal, sailing from Whydah to Barbados in 1693 lost 320 out of 700. The Brownlow in 1749 lost 62 out of 218.
Between 1680 and 1688, 23 out of every 100 Africans taken aboard ships in the service of the Royal African Company died in transit. The high point was in 1682 when losses reached 29 percent of the total number of Africans taken aboard. This percentage loss was also valid for the period between 1690 and 1700. The percentage loss of slaves in transit by slavers shipping out of the French port of Nantes between 1715 and 1741 was approximately 22 percent. During the 1770s and 1780s the losses suffered by the Nantes slave traders were at the rate of approximately 15 percent. Over a period of 46 years statistics show that Nantes slave traders, who bought 243,000 slaves on the coast of Africa, delivered only 203,800 for sale at the end of their journeys.
Evidence taken before the Privy Council in Britain in 1789 disclosed that the average mortality of slaves on the Atlantic crossing was about 12 percent, plus a further 4.5 percent as the average death rate between arrival at the port of destination and sale. Estimates of the number of slaves actually delivered alive by the slave traders to purchasers in the Americas vary widely, and there is no means of arriving with certainty at a total. Estimates range from as low a nine or ten million to as high as thirty million. Losses of life at sea were not however the end of this tragic story. The Privy Council also heard evidence that, during the seasoning of newly purchased slaves on the plantations, the average death rate was 33 percent. Seasoning was a process which lasted between one and three years and involved slaves being ‘familiarised’ with plantation routines and discipline and taught to use tools that they may not have used before.
In addition to the slave ships that sailed from Europe to Africa, many sailed from Brazil, Cuba and the USA, returning directly to the Americas with their African captives. This ‘bilateral’ trade in slaves between Africa and the Americas became especially important after Britain ended its slave trade in 1807. Whether carried in European or American ships, the vast majority of enslaved Africans were sold in Brazil and the West Indies, though sizeable numbers were also sold in other parts of the Americas, including the USA.
Organisation of the England’s Slave Trade, 1600-1800
Sir John Hawkins, one of the maritime ‘heroes’ of Elizabethan England during the ‘Age of Discoveries’, was commander of the earliest English slave voyages in the 1560s. Francis Drake, another Elizabethan ‘hero’, accompanied Hawkins on his third slaving voyage in 1567-8. These early voyages were a mixture of private and public enterprise, and were financed by London merchants and supported by the Queen and members of her court. Motivated primarily by financial gain, they also became part of Protestant England’s emerging conflict with Catholic Spain for imperial power in the Americas. The association of politics with trade was typical of most slave trading activity by European nations during the age of colonisation of the Americas between 1492 and 1650, and was reflected in the creation of crown or state-chartered companies to control trade with Africa. In England’s case, a succession of royal companies were given monopoly rights over the country’s trade to Africa from the late sixteenth century onwards. The most important of these was the Royal African Company founded in 1672 with the Duke of York, later James II, among its patrons. In return for trade monopolies, such companies were expected to protect English interests in Africa by building and maintaining forts on the African coast. Some of these forts remained important trading centres well into the eighteenth century and survive as places of remembrance of the Transatlantic Slave Trade today. However the cost of sustaining forts was a heavy burden for royally chartered companies, most of which found their trade monopolies impossible to defend in the face of competition from private merchants who were able to undercut them and break their dominance of trade.
In the eighteenth century, therefore, when the trade in enslaved Africans reached its peak, the vast majority of slave trading voyages from England and other parts of Europe were financed and organised by private partnerships of merchants whose only motivation was profit. In England, control of the slave trade was taken away from London during the eighteenth century, first by Bristol and then Liverpool after 1750. The investors in voyages from Bristol and Liverpool numbered three to ten or more, and included people from a wide range of backgrounds and seafaring, mercantile and industrial occupations. The increase in the number of European ports involved in the trade after 1700, also helped to expand the area of slave trading activity in Africa to parts of the coast that had been largely overlooked by the earlier chartered companies.
Economics of sugar and slave labour
The scale of slave trading by Europeans was largely determined by demand for enslaved Africans in the Americas. The ‘conquest’ of America by Europeans after 1492, was associated with a decline in the number of indigenous people as a result of disease and other factors. This in turn created a large demand for imported servile labour among new white settlers, who were keen to commercially exploit the abundant and rich natural resources of the Americas. So the Transatlantic Slave Trade grew together with the level of colonisation and commercial development of the Americas by Europeans.
The economics of managing the labour of slaves were clearly explained by Karl Marx:
When his place can be supplied from foreign preserves, the duration of his life becomes a matter of less moment than its productiveness while it lasts. It is accordingly a maxim of slave management, in slave importing countries, that the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost amount of exertion it is capable of putting forth. It is in tropical culture, where annual profits often equal the whole capital of plantations, that Negro life is most recklessly sacrificed. It is the agriculture of the West Indies ... that has engulfed millions of the African race.
Henry Coor worked as a millwright on plantations in four Jamaican parishes for 15 years and had his own gang of jobbing slaves. A Parliamentary committee who was investigating the slave trade in 1791, heard him, as a witness, make the same point:
“It was more the object of the overseers to work the slaves out, and trust for supplies from Africa ... I have heard many overseers say, ‘I have made my employer 20, 30 or 40 more hogsheads per year than any of my predecessors ever did; and although I have killed 30 or 40 Negroes per year more, yet the produce had been more than adequate to the loss’”.
John Newton, the slave trader turned abolitionist, wrote that he had been informed by a consignee to whom he delivered slaves in Antigua in 1751:
That calculations had been made, with all possible exactness, to determine which was ...the more saving method of managing slaves: whether, to appoint them moderate work, plenty of provision, and such treatment as might enable them to protract their lives to old age? Or, By rigorously straining their strength to the utmost, with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless and unable to do service, and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places? He further said, that these skilful calculations had determined in favour of the latter mode, as much the cheaper, and that he could mention several estates in the island of Antigua, on which it was seldom known that a slave had lived above nine years. Over half a century later, a survey made on eleven plantations in the parish of St. Thomas in Jamaica over the period 1817 to 1829, showed that the average life span of slaves born in Jamaica was approximately 26 years, while slaves who had been born in Africa was about 53 years. The effects of slavery are dramatically illustrated by the population statistics. During the period of approximately 150 years from the English colonisation of Jamaica, to the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, “upwards of a million slaves had been introduced into the colony”. Taking away the approximately 200,000 believed to have been re-exported, would make the number absorbed approximately 800,000 to which must be added the children born to slave women during this period. Of this number, when the slave trade was abolished in 1808, the number of surviving slaves in Jamaica was stated to be 324,000.
By the time slavery was abolished in 1834, the total number of surviving slaves had been reduced to approximately 311,000 but the number of free persons of African and partly African descent was estimated to have increased from 9,000 in 1805 to 42,000. Therefore, the decrease in the total number of surviving persons of African and partly African descent, even without taking into account the many children born to slave women, would appear to have been well over 400,000 or more than fifty percent. However, no sooner had slavery been abolished than the population began to increase. The census taken in 1844 showed that there were approximately 361,700 persons of African and partly African descent, an increase in the decade following abolition, of about 8,500 people.
Sugar and Slavery
In England’s case, involvement in the slave trade was intermittent in the eighty years after Hawkins’ first voyages, largely because England had few permanent colonies in Americas before 1640 and was prohibited from supplying slaves to those of other nations. The introduction from Brazil of sugar cane cultivation in the tiny English colony of Barbados in the West Indies in 1645 transformed the situation, however, and over the following century and a half, the numbers of enslaved Africans carried by English ships to the Americas grew rapidly in response to rising demand for sugar in England and the spread of sugar cultivation to other English colonies in the West Indies such as Jamaica. This story was repeated in other parts of the Americas colonised by the Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Enslaved Africans were also employed in producing other crops, notably coffee, rice and tobacco, as well as gold and silver, most of which was shipped to Europe. The large and growing demand for servile labour in America to produce these commodities was reflected in the price of enslaved Africans, which rose from under £20 per person in 1670 to over £50 per person by 1800. The English ‘sweet tooth’ therefore caused death and misery for increasing numbers of Africans after the sugar revolution in Barbados in the 1640s.
Profitability of the trade
Some slaving voyages proved immensely profitable to those who invested in them. After raiding African villages and taking his captives to Spanish America for sale, John Hawkins returned to England in the 1560s with substantial quantities of Spanish treasure. Some of the later voyages of English slave traders proved equally rewarding and provided returns of 50-100 per cent or more, on investments. Such profits, in turn, are thought to have financed the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Africa’s loss of people through the slave trade therefore certainly enriched British society. Cities such as Bristol, Liverpool, London and Nantes undoubtedly became wealthier as a result of their involvement in the slave trade and trades in slave-produced goods.
Whether, however, the slave trade was generally as lucrative as Hawkins and some other traders discovered, is a subject for debate. The methods that Hawkins used to obtain slaves in Africa, eventually gave way to trading in slaves, and Africans were also driving hard bargains with European and American buyers. Enslaved Africans also resisted their enslavement, and many died before they reached their destination. Other factors added to the costs and uncertainties of slave trading voyages, which meant that profits varied greatly and unpredictably.
It can be misleading, therefore, to see the high profits of some voyages as being typical of the slave trade as a whole. Nevertheless, it is clear that many Europeans profited from the slave trade – in some cases, very considerably so – while for Africa and Africans it was primarily a source of social disorder, economic exploitation and human misery.