Britain and the Slave Trade
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
The Slave Trade is an area of history that we often associate with the United States.
However, despite our tendency to misremember our role in the mass trafficking of humans, the Slave Trade is very much a part of British history and culture. A legacy which still endures today.
So, to help you educate yourself on this crucial topic (yet another area missed out by the school curriculum) we've put together this simple guide.
What was the slave trade?
The term ‘Slave Trade’ is defined as the procuring, buying, selling, and transportation of human beings as slaves, and refers primarily to the trafficking of Black Africans from the 16th to 19th centuries. This destructive practice is often referred to by different names, including: the Atlantic Slave Trade, Transatlantic Slave Trade, or Euro-America Slave Trade.
It is estimated that a staggering 12 to 13 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic over a period of approximately 400 years by European slave traders, many of whom were British. Slaves were transported by ‘slave ships’, which voyaged from their home ports in Europe to trade goods for a full cargo of slaves. Those enslaved were often prisoners of war, had been convicted of small or petty crimes, or were simply kidnapped at random. These ships, in which slaves were kept in horrendous and crowded conditions, would then travel across the Atlantic Ocean to ports in the New World where the slaves were sold, and the ships returned to Europe with the goods they traded in exchange.
It is thought that approximately 1.5 million people lost their lives during this transportation process. It is very difficult to accurately estimate the number of those enslaved and transported as slave traders rarely kept accurate records of these statistics. Tragically, there are virtually no records to indicate the number of those enslaved individuals who died at the hands of slave traders before they were able to be transported – although some historians have estimated that this number could be almost as high as those who were transported.
British involvement in the Slave Trade
In economic terms, Britain was one of the most ‘successful’ slave-trading countries in the world. In fact, Portugal and Britain alone were accountable for approximately 70% of all Africans transported at the peak of British involvement. Under King Charles II a Royal Charter named The Royal African Company was established, in order to gain a monopoly of slave trading ports in West Africa over the Dutch who had previously been dominant in the region.
Britain was most prominent from the 1500s to the early 1800s, until 1807 when the slave trade was abolished in Britain. The complete abolition of slavery itself followed in Britain in 1834.
National Archives estimate that around 3.1 million Africans were transported by Britain to British colonies in the Caribbean, North & South America, and other countries in the ‘New World’. These enslaved people were then often forced to work in plantations producing raw materials such as sugar, rum, cotton, and tobacco.
Who benefited from the Slave Trade?
There were approximately 20,000 British Slave owners and slave ship owners, all of whom gained significant financial benefits from the slave trade. They profited through trading slaves for goods, as well as utilising enslaved people as labourers. Notable slave owners include: John Hawkins, John Gladstone, Edward Colston, and William Beckford.
As slaving was a lucrative trade, the port cities that were most heavily involved in the trading of enslaved people gained enormous economic benefits. For example, London, Bristol, Glasgow, and Liverpool all grew as slave trade activity increased, with profits building fashionable houses and contributing to increased wealth.
Factory and plantation owners gained not only the benefit of extremely cheap labour through the purchase of slaves, but also had a growing market for the goods that were being sold in exchange for slaves in Africa. This helped to finance the industrial revolution and growth of the British economy.
British portrayals of history often emphasise Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery at the expense of acknowledging its influence in fuelling it. Within British Culture, there seems to a collective sense of forgetfulness surrounding the influence Britain had on the Slave Trade.
This is an example of historical revisionism, whereby our knowledge of history comes from the perspective of the ‘victors’ and less from the victims of human atrocities such as the slave trade.
Legacies of the Slave Trade
There are many lasting physical and cultural legacies of the slave trade that have undoubtedly shaped Britain, and are still very much visible in today’s society.
With the abolition of colonial slavery in 1833, the British government paid over £20 million to slave owners as compensation for the loss of their “property”. This equates to nearly £17 billion in today’s money and accounted for 40% of the Treasury’s annual spending, making this the largest bailout in British history until the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash.
This sum of money was only repaid fully by taxpayers in 2015. The wealth that this pay-out provided to rich slave trading families is still visible today, with many prominent individuals and companies having links to this financial compensation:
David Cameron (former Prime Minister)
Greene King (British pub retailer/brewer)
George Orwell and Elizabeth Barrett (prominent authors)
Lloyds of London, Barclays, HSBC (British banks).
There are physical reminders of the wealth that Slave Trade bought to Britain, from the rural stately homes built by slave traders to the large port cities where enslaved people were transported.
Racism as we know it today partly originated from the attempt to justify the enslavement of African people by designating them as ‘inferior’ to Europeans. Culturally, the British Slave Trade has contributed to hierarchical racism that remains prominent in both politics and wider society. The enslavement of African people for a span of almost 400 years has left the major legacy of enduring racism throughout the world.
We’re not always taught about these parts of our history, and their enduring effects on British politics and society. This makes it all the more important to expand our knowledge on the events of the Slave Trade in order to combat the legacies that it has left behind.
Articles and Books
BBC History, Slavery and the Building of Britain (by James Walvin 2017)
The Guardian and The Observer, Britain’s role in the Slave Trade
The National Archives on Slavery
Videos and Documentaries
For further insight into British culture and its involvement with other nations, visit our British History and Revisionism section.