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11.5: Britain and the Slave Trade

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  • Of the other European states, the British were the most successful at imitating the Dutch. In 1667 the British king Charles II officially designated the royal treasury as the coordinating body of British state finances and made sure that officials trained in the Dutch style of political economy ran it. The British parliament grew increasingly savvy with financial issues as well, with numerous debates emerging about the best and most profitable use of state funds.

    In 1651, both to try to seize trade from the Dutch and to fend off Britain's traditional enemies, France and Spain, parliament passed the English Navigation Acts, which reserved commerce with English colonies to English ships. This, in turn, led to extensive piracy and conflict between the powers of Europe in their colonial territories as they tried to seize profitable lands and enforce their respective monopolies. Ultimately, the British fought three wars with the Dutch, defeating them each time and, among other things, seizing the Dutch port of New Amsterdam in North America (which the English promptly renamed New York). Britain also fought Spain in both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ultimately acquiring Jamaica and Florida as colonies.

    In terms of trade, the major prize, at least initially, was the Caribbean, due to its suitability for growing sugar. Sugar quickly became the colonial product, hugely valuable in Europe and relatively easy to cultivate (compared to exotic products like spices, which were only available from Asian sources). In Europe, sugar consumption doubled every 25 years during this period and it was ultimately the profits of sugar that helped bankroll the British growth in power in the seventeenth and, especially, the eighteenth centuries. The only efficient way to grow sugar was through proto-industrialized plantations with rendering facilities built to extract the raw sugar from sugar cane. That, in turn, required an enormous amount of back-breaking, dangerous labor. Most Native American slaves quickly died off or escaped and hence the Atlantic Slave Trade between Africa and the New World began in earnest by the early seventeenth century.

    The Slave Trade between Africa and the New World was, quite simply, one of the worst injustices of human history. Millions of people were ripped from their homeland, transported to a foreign continent in atrocious conditions, and either worked to death or murdered by their owners in the name of "discipline.” The contemporary North American perception of the life of slaves, that of incredibly difficult but not always lethal conditions of work, is largely inaccurate because only a small minority of slaves were ever sent to North America. The immense majority of slaves were instead sent to the Caribbean or Brazil, both areas in which working conditions were far worse than the (still abysmal) working conditions present in North America. The average life of a slave once introduced to sugar cultivation was seven years before he or she died from exhaustion or injury, and sugar was the major crop of the Caribbean and one of the major crops of Brazil. In sum, most slaves were sent to be worked to death on sugar plantations.

    The slave trade was part of what historians have described as the “triangle trade” between Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Slaves from Africa were shipped to the New World to work on plantations. Raw goods (e.g. sugar, tobacco, cotton, coffee, etc.). were processed and shipped to Europe. Finished and manufactured goods were then shipped to Africa to exchange for slaves. This cycle of exchange grew decade-by-decade over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

    Map of the triangle trade, with people and goods exchanged around the Atlantic.
    Figure 11.4.1: The “triangle trade” led to tremendous profits in Europe, horrendous human suffering, and the eventual depopulation of much of West Africa over the centuries.

    The leg of the triangle trade that connected Africa and the Americas was known as the Middle Passage because slave ships went directly across the middle of the Atlantic, most traveling to Brazil or the Caribbean as noted above. Slaves on board ships were packed in so tightly they could not move for most of the voyage, with slave ship captains calculating into their profit margins the fact that a significant percentage of their human cargo would die en route - over a million slaves died during the Middle Passage in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a result.

    Figure 11.4.2: Illustration of a slave ship’s human cargo under conditions that often saw more than 10% of the slaves on board perish.

    The current data (available on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which was created and is maintained by professional historians of the Slave Trade) suggests that well over twelve million people were enslaved and transported to the new world from the sixteenth century through the early nineteenth. That number is lower than the actual total, since roughly 20% of transported slaves were in undocumented (i.e. smuggled and technically "illegal" from the standpoint of the slave-trading states) voyages. Thus, the real number is probably closer to fifteen million. In turn, over 90% of slaves were sent to the Caribbean or Brazil, because the sugar crop, as well as coffee cultivation and mining in Brazil, demanded constant replacements as slaves perished from exhaustion or injury.

    The topic of slavery is vast; it was a huge economic engine and a major part of life in the entire New World. It shaped the demography and the culture of every American society, and its sheer scale dwarfs every other pattern of slavery in world history. That said, of its various aspects, the one that probably casts the longest shadow in terms of its historical significance is the fact that the Atlantic Slave Trade was the first time in history that slavery was specifically racial in character. Because it was Africans who were enslaved to work in the Americas under the control of Europeans, Europeans developed a range of racist theories to excuse the practice from its obvious immorality. In fact, the whole idea of human "race" is largely derived from the Slave Trade - biologically, "race" is nothing more than a handful of unimportant cosmetic differences between people, but thanks to the history of the enslavement of Africans, Europeans in the early modern period led the charge in describing "race" as some kind of fundamental human category, with some races supposedly enjoying "natural" superiority. That conceit would obviously cast a perverse shadow up the present.

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