October is Black History Month in the UK. We’ll be exploring the history of slavery in Britain, from the country’s first steps into the Atlantic slave trade, through its height in the 17th and 18th centuries, to its abolition in the 19th. We begin with the start of the Atlantic slave trade and the first point on the ‘triangle’, where slaves were captured and exchanged for goods.
The first Englishman to definitely have traded in Africans was John Hawkins, who made three voyages to Sierra Leone between 1562 and 1567, transporting a total of 1,200 inhabitants to Hispaniola and St Domingue (Dominican Republic and Haiti). Initially, English interests in Africa lay with produce rather than slaves, however with the introduction and growth of plantation slavery in America slaves became more valuable and the trade began to grow.
The trade grew rapidly in the 17th century, with Portugal and Britain becoming the two most ‘successful’ slave-trading countries, accounting for about 70% of all Africans transported to the Americas. Britain was the most dominant between 1640 and 1807 when the British slave trade was abolished.
From 1660, the British Crown passed various acts and granted charters to enable companies to settle, administer and exploit British interests on the West Coast of Africa and to supply slaves to the American colonies. In 1672 The Royal African Company was formed in order to regulate the English slave trade, operating with a legal monopoly over the 2,500 miles of African coast from the Sahara to the Cape of Good Hope. The company was financed by royal, aristocratic and commercial capital. The monopolies of British companies were however unpopular with other traders and planters, who complained about restricted rights, limited supplies and high prices. Opposition from planters, traders and manufacturers was so strong that in 1698 the monopoly was removed.
In addition to the African companies, other companies set up under Royal charters were involved in the slave trade. For example, the East India Company was involved in the East African slave trade but also collected slaves from the West Coast of Africa for its settlements in South and East Africa and in India and Asia.
The trade would reach its height during the 18th century, particularly following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which concluded the War of the Spanish Succession and awarded Britain the 'Asiento' or sole right to import an unlimited number of enslaved people to the Spanish Caribbean colonies for 30 years.
For the British slave traders during this time, trading African slaves was a three-legged journey called the 'triangular trade'. Firstly, West African slaves were exchanged for trade goods such as brandy and guns, they were then taken via the ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic for sale in the West Indies and North America, and finally, a cargo of rum and sugar taken from the colonies, was taken back to England to sell.
The slaves were acquired from two main sources; British traders or local tribal chiefs. The first source was the smaller of the two with British traders who operated in Africa ambushing and capturing African’s in their home settlements. The second more significant source was undertaken through British ‘Factors’ who lived full-time in Africa and bought slaves from local tribal chiefs. The chiefs would raid a rival village and sell their captured enemies as slaves. With the demand for slaves increasing, Western African powers were lured into the lucrative trade with nations such as the Oyo Empire (Yoruba), Kong Empire, Imamate of Futa Jallon, Imamate of Futa Toro, Kingdom of Koya, Kingdom of Khasso, Kingdom of Kaabu, Fante Confederacy, Ashanti Confederacy, and the kingdom of Dahomey participating. These powers relied on military power and would undertake raiding parties into the interior of West Africa and capture indigenous people.
Once captured the slaves were chained together in lines called coffles and marched to the coast being held in prisons called “factories”. From this point they would then be traded for cloth, brandy, copper, guns, ammunition and the like before being loaded onto ships to be transported across the Atlantic.
There was however resistance to the slave trade, with some African rulers refusing to participate and even occasionally attacking British slave ships and setting the slaves free.
In our next blog we will look at “Middle Passage” - where the slaves were shipped across the Atlantic.
These scenes was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models for Black History Month. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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