“THE 8th August 1444 remains one of the saddest dates in the history of man – white as well as black — and we are still paying for what followed that auction in the meadow outside Lagos (Portugal),” writes Oliver Ransford in his book: The Slave Trade: The Story of Transatlantic Slavery.
He was referring to the first slave auction in Portugal and Europe for that matter.
The obscene profits made at this first auction in ‘trade in human flesh’ encouraged Portugal and later the rest of Europe to compete in this inhuman practice, with Britain taking a leading role.
When the Portuguese lost their monopoly of the slave trade along the West African coast, European powers that included Spain, the British, French, Dutch, Danes, Swedes and Prussians all sought to establish supremacy in this diabolical but extremely profitable trade in humans.
Because of its vast possessions in the Americas, initially Spain took the leading role in supplying slaves to the so-called New World before the British took over.
With this advantage, British ships plied the Atlantic as they were involved in a triangular route with human cargo between British ports, Africa and the Americas.
The triangular slave trade and the profits it generated was behind Britain’s wealth and the major funder of the industrial revolution that transformed the Western European country into a super power.
The British already had a foretaste of the riches that could be gotten from the sale of slaves.
As early as 1562, a Briton called Sir John Hawkins had trespassed on to the Portuguese monopoly, to take a slaving expedition from Guinea to the West Indies.
Just two expeditions were enough to make him the richest man, not only in Plymouth, but in England.
With the Treaty of Utrecht in 1733, Spain surrendered her monopoly of the Atlantic slave trade to England.
So, after securing bragging rights from Spain to supply slaves to America, Britain became a major player in slavery — making millions. Owners of ships made enormous profits in each voyage they made. The British ships never moved empty. In each route they had their human cargo, raw materials or finished goods.
The routes the British ships made later became known as the Triangular Slave Trade.
There were three distinct stages of the triangular route which involved ship movement from Europe to Africa, Africa to the Caribbean and then from the Caribbean back to Europe.
The triangular trade commenced almost as soon as European colonies in the New World began to import African slaves.
Stage one of the slave trade involved ships leaving the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol to West Africa, carrying goods from British factories such as cloth, guns and ironware, among other items. On the African coast, the goods would be bartered with slaves – men, women and children – by African chiefs.
These port cities benefitted immensely from merchants, shipbuilders, metal manufacturers and sailors who directly contributed to the well-being of the slave trading expeditions.
Out of this boom emerged some tycoons who boosted the statuses of these port cities by funding huge charitable projects, which included schools
The next stage involved the transportation of the human cargo to the plantations in the Americas, West Indies or Spanish colonies where they would work after being sold in an auction system.
Each slave, depending on the age and stature, attracted a different price.
The last stage of the triangular voyage would involve raw materials like sugar and tobacco being taken to England for processing into finished goods.
With the money made from the sale of enslaved Africans, goods such as sugar, coffee, rum, wine, olive oil, fish, molasses and tobacco were bought and carried back to Britain for sale. The ships were loaded with produce from the plantations for the voyage home.
The complete voyage would last up to a year and profits would reach up to three-fold. This Slave Trade was the most profitable 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.”
Monies made from the slave business benefitted the Government of England in taxes between 1750 and 1780.
The money made from the Transatlantic Slave Trade triangle was poured back into England and many built mansions and established banks, such as The Bank of England, while funding new industries.
The port city of Liverpool was one of the cradles of the slave trade in the 18th Century.
In a few years, Liverpool, which was strategically placed for the triangular trade route, transformed from a sprawling village into the most important slaving centre in England.
Development in the port city is greatly indebted to the slave trade. Sources say, by 1730, about 15 ships a year left the port city for Africa and the number grew to 50th a year by 1750.
In 1755, there were 89 licenced slave traders in Liverpool. By the 1770s, 100 ships would go on a voyage to Africa for the lucrative triangular route. An estimated £60 000 would be realised in one triangular route by the ship owners.
The American War of Independence between 1775 and 1783 affected the number of ships leaving Liverpool but, after the war, years preceding its abolishment, about 130 ships departed for Africa annually.
It is estimated that three quarters of all European slaving ships during slavery came from Liverpool.
More than three million slaves from Africa were carried by ships from Liverpool.
Practically, everyone in Liverpool had a stake in the slave trade as they benefitted in downstream and upstream industries.
Some were butchers, grocers, chandlers, bankers, businessmen and attorneys, among other professions that benefitted from the slave business directly or indirectly.
So, any legislation passed, deemed to discourage the slave trade, would be ignored in Liverpool since all major politicians were deeply involved with slavery.
For example, Richard Pennant, an MP from Liverpool, owned 8 000 acres of sugar plantations and over 600 slaves in Jamaica.
At one time, three out of 41 councillors in Liverpool were slave ship owners or major investors in the slave trade.
And at another time, for a period of 20 years, all the 20 mayors who held office in Liverpool financed or owned slave ships.
Thousands of English mariners made a living from slave business in the triangular route — about 130 000 with a host of supporting ancillary staff.
Bristol was another port city that grew its wealth on the triangular slave trade.
The Royal African Company (RAC) – consisting mainly of merchants from London – bragged of a monopoly to trade with Africa before 1698.
All the ships from the company traded in gold, ivory, wood for dye, spices and slaves. No other company or merchant would trade with Africa from England except RAC until 1690.
Goods such as old hats and caps, salt, swords, knives, axe-heads, hammers, belts, sheepskin gloves, brass bracelets, iron jugs and guns would be traded for slaves on the African coast before travelling to America with the human cargo.
However, there were some who would trade illegally and risked being fined and their goods confiscated. It was, however, worth the risk as two-fold or three-fold profits would be realised.
Using their international contacts, Bristol merchants entered into the lucrative triangular route.
Though not well documented as to how many ships were involved in the entry into the trade, by 1755, there were 237 licenced traders in Bristol.
This was after the RAC’s monopoly was ended around 1690. This was also after the continued lobbying by the Society of Merchant Venturers in Bristol who wanted to get a share of the African slave trade.
The Society of Merchant Venturers agreed in 1690 to ask the House of Parliament “… for letting in the merchants of this City to a share in the African trade…”
After the grant by the House of Parliament to have others participate in the slave trade, there was a boom in ship building in Bristol. In 1698, Bristol’s first slave ship, called the Beginning and owned by Stephen Baker, sailed from Bristol to the African coast.
The captain purchased a number of enslaved Africans and delivered them to the island of Jamaica in the Caribbean. There they were sold and put to work on the plantations.
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 percent 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 in ship holds.
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 (Petts Wood) provided timber for their shipbuilding business. The East India Company also had ships built at Deptford.
The triangular slave route was hugely supported by the industrial revolution where ships made at that time were powered by engines which made voyaging between Africa, the Americas and Britain faster.
The government of the day supported its companies that were involved in international trade like the RAC and later on other new players who were involved in the trade of humans.
It provided legal framework like the 1799 Slave Trade Act, which restricted the slave trade to these three ports London, Bristol and Liverpool. This made the three port cities extremely wealthy.
The Act placed limitations on the number of people that British slave ships could transport, related to tonnage. It was the first British legislation passed to regulate slave shipping.
It had become a national venture as even citizens in other parts of the country directly or indirectly benefitted from the slave trade.