Trans- Atlantic slave trade history
The Royal African Company of London was initiated by King Charles II in his ambition to expand the slave trade of England. King Charles II together with the duke of York invested their own funds into the company to establish it. Miers (45) explains that it was “Initially it was known as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa company and was only involved in gold trading and was created by the Stuart family and London merchants once the former retook the English throne in the English Restoration of 1660.
The company was given a monopoly over the English slave trade by a charter issued in 1660 and was given the mandate to capture any English rival ship carrying slaves.” The company later collapsed since it could not meet the due huge demands of slaves in England among other issues.
“England first got involved in slave trade in the 16th century; a move pioneered by John Hawkins an English man whose business was to deport Africans from the west coast of Africa to the West Indies” (Walter 72).
At first, trading directly with other European countries was common in Virginia, but the Navigation Act of 1660 brought such relations to an end and only English-owned ships could enter colonial ports. It was at this time that the Royal African Company was formed to supply Virginia planters with labor since England had realized there was a lot of wealth in the trade.
The Royal African Company transacted basically for gold and slave and the majority of which were transported to English colonies in the American. “Its headquarters was located in Cape Coast Castle, modern-day Ghana; it also maintained many forts and factories in other locations such as Sierra Leone, the Slave Coast, the River Gambia, and additional areas on the Gold Coast” Weeden 63).
The Royal African Company failed to maintain its monopoly in 1698, although it continued with the slave trade until 1731, it was taken over by the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa in 1752. In the 1680s it was exporting approximately 6,000 slaves per year (Blackburn 212). Some slaves were identified with the corporation’s initials, RAC, on their torsos, while others the Duke of York initials, DY.
This trade’s profits made a major contribution to the increase in the financial power of those who controlled London “The British greatly benefited from this lucrative enterprise and approximately 1.5 million, people were enslaved by the them, London was the biggest trading centre because of its transport links provided by river Thames and the London docks (Alpers, Campbell & Salman 256).
Britain as a country enormously benefited from the trade since slaves were exchanged for cutlery and, military supplies, which they would then exchange in West Indies to get raw materials for their industries and the products sold at huge profits.
According to Bryan (106), “There can be little doubt that such a system of trade substantially boosted the development of Britain’s commerce and manufacturing.” However, there were different lines of slave trade such as the Pacific and the Atlantic; England was mostly involved in the Atlantic slave trade.
The slave trade was also known as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; it was the biggest and it mainly dealt with Africans. It lasted from the 16th century to the 19th when slave trade was abolished (Carlos 330).
The trade involved many countries like Portugal, Brazilian, Britain, French, Spain, the Dutch land, and North American, while the slaves were mostly from west and central Africa who were captured during trade at the coast while others were kidnapped from their homes or raided at their homes. “They were sold to North and South American merchants to work in their sugar, coffee, cocoa and rice plantations while others in the gold silver mines” (Drescher 77).
Curlin (169) notes that more than 12 million Africans were enslaved under this trade which is referred to as maafa by Africans (literally meant ‘great disaster’), and the trade involved four continents, four centuries and millions of people. “The first documented arrival of Africans to Virginia where slaves were deported was in 1619, when a Dutch trading vessel docked in Hampton. There were 20 Africans who were traded to the English as much-needed workers to cultivate tobacco, the new cash crop of Virginia” (Engerman 79).
The institution of slavery slowly crept into Virginia legislation and by 1660 it was fully established in Virginia, since tobacco was extremely labor-intensive, and more and more workers were needed and also the sale of Africans to Virginia planters seemed a rather promising venture, which was really flourishing (Brown 51).
Nevertheless, Kwaku (4) states that slavery can be traced back to Africa itself, where Africans practiced slavery and was a part of their traditions. Africans sold slaves to Arabs before the arrival of the European who took the trade to a higher level. The Atlantic buy and sell of slaves happened in two systems: “the first and the second Atlantic systems”.
“The initial channel involved sale of slaves to South America colonies of the Portuguese and the Spanish colonials, but it only accounted for a small percentage of the Atlantic trade about 3%. Later after the division, the Portuguese colonies were targeted by the Netherlands and Britain, weakening the trade” (Martin 98). The second system involved enslavement of Africans to work in the Caribbean colonies of Brazil and North America.
The slave trade was triangular; the starting point was Europe goods were transported from Europe to Africa they were given to African leaders, kings and merchants in exchange of slaves, this goods included guns, medicine, ammunition and other factory manufactured goods. The slaves were then transported to America through the Atlantic and the final part was returning of goods from America to Europe for manufacturing these goods were sugar, tobacco ,coffee, rum and moll assess. However Brazil, the biggest market for slaves then, produced these commodities in the South Americas, and exchanged with the Africans, hence engaging in the triangular-trade (Maugham 56).
The trade was encouraged by many reasons but shortage of labor was the main one. This was due to discovery of the “new world” hence there was a lot of cheap land available and the owners definitely wanted workers because the amount of labor was too much as they practiced intensive planting, harvesting and processing (Eltis 98).
The trade also developed because of the willingness of Africans to sell fellow Africans for goods from Europe. Those convicted also for wrong doing in Africa were sold to slavery as punishment since there were no prisons. Inikori (45) argues that warfare in Africa was also a major contributor of the slave trade, there were many wars taking place at that time, for example the Congo civil war Oyo and Asante empires crisis.
Patterson (10) and Clarke (75) note that although Africans practiced slavery themselves, it was very different from that of the new world. Whereas in Africa slave’s children were not enslaved, in America slavery was through a family legacy, children assumed slavery when born. In Africa they were treated well and in some communities they were considered as adopted and had the permission to marry, in contrary to America where they were not allowed to marry, they were ruthlessly bitten and even branded to show ownership although they were not used for sacrifices like it happened in Africa.
Cheeves (401) notes countries involved actively or passively in the trade were: “Senegal Denanke Kingdom, Kingdom of Fouta, Jolof Empire, and Kingdom of Khasso, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone Ghana, Asante Confederacy and Mankessim of Nigeria, Benin Kingdom of Dahomey, and the Republic of Congo.”
About 1.3 to 2.5 million Africans died during the middle passage and others died immediately on arriving. The number of people who died during the capture and kidnapping of the Africans is countless but it remained higher than those actually enslaved. Notably, majority of the slaves sold were captives from African conflicts which the European fueled to their advantage, this trade undermined individuals’ civil rights and their culture (Cooper, Holt & Scott 120; David 84).
The second part of the slave trade triangular trade was the most important; Reynold (85) refers to it as “the middle passage of African people from Africa to the new world”. Ships departed to Africa with merchandise to trade in Africa for slaves, business took place at the coast since the Europeans feared to get into the interior because of tropical diseases. Voyages were organized by companies or groups of merchants and not individuals because they considered it as a major investment opportunity.
Millions of Africans were imprisoned, enslaved, and removed from their communities, 15% of those captured died at sea during transportation that is about 2 million, and those that died as a result of slavery in America were more than 4 million African deaths (Roberts 92; Robin Law, British Academy, Royal African Company 106).
In the eighteenth century about 6 million slaves were enslaved and Britain accounted for 2.5millon of them being the largest importer then. The duration of the transatlantic voyage varied depending on the weather many took six months; although as centuries went by the more the importers took less time because they were getting experienced and a voyage would even take six weeks (Williams 56; Cateau & Harrington 96).
The slaves in transit were fed once a day and were confined in one place, although some slave holders would let their captives move around the ship daytime but most did not, they tied them throughout the grueling journey. Diseases and starvation were the major causes of death due to poor conditions availed in the ships (Willis & Miers 480).
The longer the voyage took the more slaves would die due to the harsh conditions, the quality and freshness of food disappeared every passing day. “Another cause of death was depression due to loss of freedom, relatives, security, and their own dignity”. (Zuberi 156).
Some slaves would take courage and resist their oppressors most of them refused to eat and this would make them sick and eventually die and hence a loss to the holder. Others would commit suicide by throwing themselves over board, or through other ways. Over the centuries very many Africans committed suicide, which they preferred since they believe they would meet with their families in the afterlife.
A former slave was quoted saying “When we found ourselves at last taken away, death was more preferable than life, and a plan was concerted amongst us, which we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames” (Indrani 321). Notably, it was not just the slaves who suffered, but also the sailors themselves experienced bad conditions and often were recruited through force.
Hogg (76) notes that “It is evident that even the sailors knew and did not like slavery, so at port towns, recruiters and tavern owners would get sailors drunk, and then offer to relieve their debt if they signed contracts with slave ships”. If they did not, they would be imprisoned, sailors in prison had a hard time getting jobs outside of the slave ship industry, since most other maritime industries would not hire “jail-birds,” so they were forced to go to the slave ships anyway”(Michlethwait & Wooldridge 32).
This kind of treatment made many Africans depressed and left them in a severe psychological shock. Indrani (121) explains that “This was compounded by a common fear among the Africans that they had been taken by the Europeans to be cannibalized, to be made into oil or weapon products, or their blood to dye the red flags of Spanish vessels while it was their skills as agricultural laborers’ and their adaptability to tropical climates that were solely needed in the agricultural economy of the European colonies.”
Once the slaves arrived in America or other destinations they were taken to the plantations by their specific owners while others would be sold, as property, even worse there were advertisements for slaves on sale.
It was not only merchants and ship captains who were involved in this trade, but also artisans and businesspeople were involved. “Even governors owned slaves as demonstrated by an advertisement listing a “Mulatto Boy” for sale from the estate of a deceased governor” (Collins 25).
In Britain, the first private slave trader was, John Hawkins, who began the trade in 1562, he left England with 100 men and 3 ships, his first point was Sierra Leone where he captured 300 slaves and sold them in Hispaniola, on his return his ship was full of goods like such as hides, ginger and sugar the queen gained interest in him and the two became business partners, the royal family slowly got into the slave trade and on the third voyage Hawkins took along Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh who also developed to be great slave traders. Business was booming and in the 17th and18th century slave’s population in the British Caribbean was approximately 428,000 out of a population of 500,000.
Due to the growth of slave trade, the royal family decided to create a company that would control slave trade and completely abolish the private slave traders; for this reason the Royal African Company was established. Indrani (251) notes that “The Company transported an average of 6000 slaves per annum, between 1681 and 1687, and received yearly grants from parliament of about ? 90,000”. King Charles II was a major a shareholder, and hence continued the Royal family indulgence in slave trade.
“The Royal African Company had agents in Virginia to whom slaves were delivered, they were given a seven-percent commission on sales, some of the major players in trade were John Page, Colonel Nathaniel Bacon and William Sherwood were all prominent Virginians who served as factors, agents or representatives for the Company” (Miers & Klein 102; Spooner 87).
“Private traders were not pleased with this and pardoned the court to be allowed to continue with the trade of ‘human cattle’, however in 1698 parliament gave private traders a go ahead to engage in the slave trade as long as they paid a 10 percent duty on English commodities transported to Africa” (Kitson 87).
Business went bad for the company, since private traders overtook it. Several factors led to the fall of the company some of them were: the Company was not achieving a profit and had to borrow money to pay dividends, the planters were always complaining that the company was not able to supply enough slaves and the demand was overwhelming, hence they argued that the monopoly be abolished so that more slaves could be imported.
Eventually, the Company, “which was always heavily patronized by the Stuart monarchs, fell out of favor when James II was deposed and William and Mary came to the throne” this led to the abolishment of the company because it was no longer valid. Though the company carried on slave trade at small scale levels until 1731; it ditched the trade and started trafficking ivory and gold dust.
“Charles Hayes (1678–1760), mathematician and chronologist was sub-governor of Royal African Company till 1752 when it was dissolved. Its successor was the African Company of Merchants” (Solow & Engerman 214).
Liverpool’s Bristol and London benefited greatly from this trade, it was booming and in the 17th century Liverpool’s first slave ship transported 220 slaves to Barbados and sold them for ?4,239, this was less than ?20 per slave.” In addition, Liverpool had 8 major slave traders who together could transport 25,820 that worked out around 50-550 per ship.”
However, England signed the ‘Treaty of Utrecht’ with Spain in 1733, which granted England monopoly of the Spanish slave trade for 30 years as England promised at least 144,000 slaves at the rate of 4,800 slaves per year. In 1772, Lord Mansfield came to proclaim it unlawful to evict any individual from England, though this did not make any big change because many of the major politicians were deeply involved with slavery.
For example, Richard Pennant who was Liverpool’s Member of Parliament from 1777 to 1790 “had 9,000 acres of sugar fields and than 500 slaves in the Caribbean. Similarly, 3 of 42 councilors in Liverpool were slave ship merchants or big shareholders in the slave trade and between the years of 1786 and 1808, all twenty of the Liverpool mayors had slave ships directly or indirectly held” (Fage 198).
Blackburn (212) says that “The slave trade was abolished in 1808 over a century after the British Empire became occupied in slave trading; the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was put an end within the British territories and also in the United States”. “However, in 1827 Britain declared slavery as unlawful, and in 1833 the British parliament enacted the Emancipation Act to abolish the trade within Europe.” However it was not until 11 years later that in 1838 slavery was eliminated completely in the entire British realm.
The new system however gave some ?20,000, to the planters as compensation although nothing was awarded to any former slaves. Blackburn (212) notes that “the system even made things worse for the former slaves due to the high levies on small farms, high license costs on small businessmen and also agreements meant to constrain the workers to the big fields”, hence they were forced to continue working in arduous conditions on the plantations.
Brown (56) says that “In 1844 there was labor shortage and this led to the introduction of indentured labor from another of Britain’s colonies, India whereby the Indian laborers made conditions worse for former slaves as they undermined any attempts to get better working and living conditions through strikes.”
By 1917, due to the British interests Indians were transported to the Caribbean islands that is, 148,000 to Trinidad while another 248,000 to Guyana. Jamaica was as well affected by the British human transportation with around 40,000 of them being transported. The only country not involved was the Barbados.
It evident that the slave trade led to the enlargement of the populations of Europe and America while that of Africa lingered behind. Revenues from slavery were used to build Europe and America’s economies and especially the industrial revolution was funded by the profits from agricultural activities which were done by the slaves.
Scholars have argued that Britain’s industrial development is owed to slavery and that Britain thrives on slavery wealth. Some also have claimed that by the time it was completely abolished its importance was long gone and its abolishment was an advantage for Britain, some though think differently and argue that slavery was useful to the end.
In 1787, the first anti slavery movement was formed “The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.” The first countries to petition against slavery were Cuba and Jamaica, United States followed suit and later on Britain, Portugal and in some other parts of Europe.
Brown, (125) explains that “The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was the leading movement in Britain that called for abolition of slavery, the movement was joined by many and began to protest against the trade, but they were opposed by the owners of the colonial holdings”. Denmark was the pioneer in outlawing slave trade by use of the parliamentary legislation in 1792, that in 1803 its effect was realized.
In 1807, Britain prohibited the trade but not the act of slavery itself hence, while the slave trade was outlawed, slavery was still relevant in Britain empires.
Bryan (365) notes that “Wilberforce himself was convinced that the institution of slavery should be entirely abolished, but he also knew there was little political will to do so by the politicians.” On the other hand Davies (90) adds that “The Emancipation Bill was taken to parliament, it was supposed to officially abolish slave trade in Britain if passed, and it garnered support and got its ultimate commons appraisal on 26 July 1833. Slavery was to be put an end while farmers would be well remunerated; slaves on farm agricultural estates were required to remain for additional six years.”
Those who petitioned for abolition argued that slavery made Africans to go into constant wars so that they could capture prisoners who would be sold as slaves to meet the ever growing demand for slaves. People avoided details of the middle passage issue because it would have caused great animosity and only talked about the massive deaths it caused and hence the need to an end of slavery. They also argued that despite the conditions at sea the whole ordeal of slave trade was grueling and had to stop immediately.
The trade also led to the birth of the black social identifies and European superiority, which led to the slow development of the African race. They however agreed that the trade was important for the stability of the economy which was obviously not important than human rights. The deliberation over slavery continued for decades before abolition was completely realized.
Davies (86) observes that “The Royal Navy, which then dominated the world’s seas, sought to bring to an end other nations from filling Britain’s place in the slave trade and affirmed that slaving was equal to piracy and was liable to be punished by by death.” They forced other nations to quit the trade to so as to protect their economy and also make their colonies uncompetitive.
Other European countries were left with no option but to stop and when that happened the British navy took its supremacy to the west coast so as to secure the sea and they were stationed there for the next 50 years. Action was taken for African leaders who refused to stop slave trade activities. Antislavery treaties were signed all over Africa by 50 leaders (Boddy-Evans 10; Carlos & Kruse 291).
In conclusion England’s involvement in the slave trade as viewed from the National Gallery in London, slave trade was a respected occupation whereby as Bryan,( 87) notes that “many of the London merchants who were taking almost 3/4 of the sugar imported from the West Indies lived in South London in Blackheath”.
It can be said Europe and America are built on funds made through the sale of African’s ancestors because they labored and toiled on the plantations to many of the banks in this countries today and so are the their families. Slavery is not over but entrenched as a fundamental in the development of London’s wealth.
Carlos (258) explains that “In 1998, UNESCO designated August 23 as International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Since that occurrence, a number of events surrounding the recognition of the effect of slavery on both the enslaved and enslavers have come to pass”. Some African countries have called the former slave masters to confession for acts of slavery, with some countries taking a step to apologize but pressure from other countries such as the United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States prevented them from doing so. The countries feared that they would be asked to pay compensation.
Carlos (65) further notes that “Apologies on behalf of African nations, for their responsibility in trading their fellow countrymen into slavery, also remains unattended issue but on November 27, 2006, British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a partial apology for Britain’s role in the African slavery trade”. Nonetheless, African rights advocate deprecated it as “empty rhetoric” and it did not address the issue like it should. The apology was just mere talk and they say he should have not even said it.
Clarke (43) notes that “On August 24, 2007, Ken Livingstone (then Mayor of London) apologized publicly for London’s role in the slave trade whereby he said that “You can look across there to see the institutions that still have the benefit of the wealth they created from slavery”, he said pointing towards the financial district, before breaking down in tears. He said it was still haunted by the memories of slavery. Jesse Jackson extolled Mayor Livingstone, and said that reparations were to be made (Howard 47).
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