Background information

The workings of the trade

The transatlantic slave trade is often described as the triangular trade, which summarizes the movement of goods first from Britain to West Africa, then across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, and finally back to Britain. Copper, cloth, glassware, ammunition, guns and manilas went from Britain to West Africa; people were then transported from Africa to the Americas; and raw sugar, rum, rice, coffee, tobacco and cotton from the plantations were then shipped from the Americas back to Britain. The reason the trade was so phenomenally profitable was that the ships were able to sail full on each leg of the journey, maximizing the returns at every stage. However, the triangular trade concept oversimplifies the commercial exchanges involved. There was a ?fourth leg?, which involved importing goods from Asia to Britain (especially cotton from India) to then sell on in Africa. The web of economic ties across the world made this a global enterprise.

?Three continents came to be inextricably linked in the years after the European settlement of the Americas; the money, commercial expertise and migrating instincts of maritime Europe, the land and economic potential of the Americas ? and the peoples of Africa?

Walvin, 2001

The beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade

1441 is the point deemed to mark the beginning of the trade in human cargo from Africa that led to the transatlantic slave trade. Prince Henry the Navigator sent a Portuguese trading expedition to Africa with an interest in gold. They returned with ten Africans as a gift for Prince Henry. In 1444 he then went on a slaving expedition, capturing 235 Africans as slaves and taking them back to Lagos in Portugal. Although the first enslaved Africans were in the Americas as early as 1502, with the European presence in Mexico, the growth of the trade across the Atlantic did not really develop for another 100 years.

Sir John Hawkins
Portrait of Sir John Hawkins
British involvement in this human trade began in 1562 when John Hawkins, a British privateer, became the first Englishman to capture and enslave African people. He ignored the commercial agreements that the Portuguese had established with African traders and burned down villages and towns to get slaves. Over the five year period 1664-69 he made four voyages to the Sierra Leone River and took a total of 1200 Africans across the Atlantic to sell to the Spanish settlers in the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

British involvement in the slave trade

The British were much later than many other European countries in establishing colonies the Americas. But as they began to get a foothold in the early 1600s, first on the east coast of America and later in the Caribbean, so their demand for labour increased. Initially they relied on the indigenous people to work as their labourers, then gradually they imported more and more white indentured labour (often poor agricultural workers from Ireland and the south-west of England) and transported prisoners. The success of tobacco in Virginia, and then sugar in Barbados and later Jamaica, meant a continual demand for more labour. The indigenous peoples were almost annihilated in the process. The British followed the precedent of other European countries and began to use African slave labour in their colonies. The first Africans were landed in Virginia in 1619 to expand the tobacco plantations. The tropical crops of tobacco and sugar became so profitable that the demand for more labour became almost insatiable.

While many European countries had been involved in establishing the transatlantic slave trade, by the 1730s Britain had become the biggest slave-trading country, and from 1690 - 1807 British ships transported about 2.8 million enslaved Africans.

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