The Atlantic Slave Trade and Colonialism The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade began when Portuguese interests in Africa moved away from the legendary deposits of gold to a much more readily available commodity ??? slaves, around the mid-fifteenth century. The plantation economies of the New World were built on slave labour. Seventy percent of the slaves brought to the new world were used to produce sugar, the most labour-intensive crop. The rest were employed harvesting coffee, cotton, and tobacco, and in some cases in mining.
By the seventeenth century the trade was in full swing, and at its height towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was a trade which was especially fruitful, since every stage of the journey could be profitable for merchants – the infamous Triangular Trade. The first stage of the Triangular Trade involved taking manufactured goods from Europe to Africa: cloth, spirit, tobacco, beads, metal goods, and guns. The guns were used to help expand empires and obtain more slaves (until they were finally used against European colonizers). These goods were exchanged for African slaves.
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The second stage of the Triangular Trade (the middle passage) involved shipping the slaves to the Americas. Life aboard the “slave ships” was relentlessly oppressive: Between 10- 20% (around 2. 2 million) slaves died during the transportation. These deaths were due to dehydration, unhygienic conditions, and epidemics of smallpox and over tight “packing” as the slaves were placed together like “books upon a shelf”. Starvation was also one of the causes of death as supplies just simply ran out. Slaves aboard the ships would have suffered sever psychological as well as physical trauma.
Slaves were chained together, often to those who had already died; they were unable to exercise, were fed from communal bowls and provided with minimal sanitation. The brutality aboard was too awful for words captives endured daily beatings, female slaves were raped and maybe the worst of all was the murder of helpless innocent children born aboard the ship they were merely tossed over the side. The third, and final, stage of the Triangular Trade involved the return to Europe with the produce from the slave-labour plantations: cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum.
The number of voyages to Africa made between 1695 and 1807 from each of the main European ports that were involved in the slave trade was: Liverpool: 5,300 London: 3,100 Bristol: 2,200 Other European ports: 450 In the early 1700s most of Britain’s slave merchants were from London and Bristol. However, Liverpool merchants were increasingly involved and from about 1740 were outstripping their rivals. Although London, Bristol and other ports continued to send ships to Africa, Liverpool dominated the trade until its abolition in 1807.
Indeed Liverpool was the European port most involved in slaving during the 18th century. It’s thought that over 40,000 African slaves were transported by Liverpool vessels. By 1792 Liverpool was firmly established as the leading slave port, with 131 sailings in that year alone. There were five main ways that Liverpool made money from slavery, 1. The building and repair of slave ships 2. Slave trading, 3. Slave produced goods ??? cotton, sugar etc 4. Production of exportable goods??? pottery etc 5. Insuring and financing the above operations and industries.
Liverpool’s success did not all come from slavery, but it did bring a lot of money to the town. Towns in northwest and central England supplied Liverpool with goods, and so also benefited from the trade. Although it is estimated that slavery generated a staggering ? 15 million in Liverpool in one year alone. In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century that would have been wealth on a scale only equalled today in the City of London’s money markets. The slaves were not brought directly to Liverpool; they were just one part of a triangle. Manufactured goods were shipped from Liverpool to Guinea.
These cargoes were exchanged for slaves who were then taken direct to the West Indies and sold. Nearly all the leading people in Liverpool, including many of the town’s mayors, were involved with the slave trade. Several Liverpool MPs invested money and supported the trade in Parliament. It was highly unpopular to speak out against the slave trade. William Roscoe and William Rathbone were two of the few who did. Roscoe went further and joined with the Quakers, and the political leaders like Fox and the political reformer, William Wilberforce, to challenge the slavery laws.
In 1787 and 1788 he published tracts and poems attacking the inhumanity and evil of slavery. In his poem The Wrongs of Africa are lines which retain their strength and poignancy to this day: ‘Blush ye not, to boast your equal laws, Your just restraints, your rights defended, your liberties secured, Whilst with an iron hand ye crushed to earth the helpless African; And bid him drink that cup of sorrow, Which yourselves have dashed, indignant, From Oppression’s fainting grasp? (Chandler, 1992) African’s didn’t just sit back and simply watch the horror which was unfolding there was great resistance.
Ships records have uncovered many accounts of slaves rising up against their captors refusing to do what was asked of them, committing suicide, and once captives reached their destination and learned or their fate many attempted escapes. In letters written by the Manikongo, Nzinga Mbemba Affonso, to the King joao the 3rd of Portugal, he writes: “Each day the traders are kidnapping our people – children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated.
We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves. ” Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects…. They sell them. After having taken these prisoners [to the coast] secretly or at night….. As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron. Historian Walter Rodney has argued that at the start of the slave trade in the 16th century, even though there was a technological gap between Europe and Africa, it was not very substantial. Both continents were using Iron Age technology. The major advantage that Europe had was in ship building. During the period of slavery the populations of Europe and the Americas grew while the population of Africa remained stagnant. Rodney contended that the profits from slavery were used to fund economic growth and technological advancement in Europe and the Americas.
Based on earlier theories by Eric Williams, he asserted that the industrial revolution was at least in part funded by agricultural profits from the Americas. He cited examples such as the invention of the steam engine by James Watt, which was funded by plantation owners from the Caribbean. (Rodney, 1981) Eric Williams has attempted to show the contribution of Africans on the basis of profits from the slave trade and slavery, and the employment of those profits to finance England’s industrialization process.
He argues that the enslavement of Africans was an essential element to the Industrial Revolution, and that European wealth is a result of slavery. However, he argued that by the time of its abolition it had lost its profitability and it was in Britain’s economic interest to ban it. (Williams, 1964) By 1835, Europeans had mapped most of northwestern Africa. However, European nations controlled only 10 per cent of the continent. The most important holdings were Algeria, held by France; the Cape Colony, held by the United Kingdom; and Angola and Mozambique, held by Portugal.