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How African slaves created a prosperous new Britain

SHIPPING AT DEPTFORD: The Royal Dockyard at Deptford, south east London, played a significant role in the slave trade.

ALTHOUGH OTHER Englishmen had been involved in selling human lives in Africa before John Hawkins, popular histories of Britain’s slave trade begin with his first voyage to West Africa in 1562.

He captured 300 people from what is now Sierra Leone to be sold in the Spanish Caribbean. The profit he made from that voyage enabled him to get backing and approval from Queen Elizabeth I for further slave trading ventures. The financial involvement of the Royal family and the country’s aristocracy were central to the growth of Britain’s slave trade and in 1660 the company known as the Royal Adventurers into Africa counted seven knights of the realm, four barons, five earls, a marquis, two dukes, King Charles II and his Queen amongst its backers.

A later corporation, the Royal African Company made London the only English city that would benefit from slavery until 1698. Bristol and Liverpool were soon to overtake London’s position as the leading slave-trading port, but the City of London had already grown rich, and its links ran longer and deeper than anywhere else. By this time London had profited from the forced removal of more than 100,000 Africans and the importation of over 30,000 tons of sugar from the Caribbean plantations.

ELIZABETH 1: Financed one of England’s earliest slave trading expeditions

The stranglehold of the slave traders and plantation owners over the City of London was powerful -15 Lord Mayors of London, 25 sheriffs and 38 aldermen of the City of London were shareholders in the Royal Africa Company between 1660-1690.

The risky and long-term nature of transatlantic slave trading required new banking houses that could offer credit for periods of between one and a half to three years. One bank that provided this service was run by Alexander and David Barclay. Their bank still carries their name. Another bank which arose from the profits of credit to slavers was Baring’s, whose founder Sir Francis Baring claimed to have made his fortune as a slave dealer whilst only 16-years old.

The Bank of England was also involved in the slave trade. Sir Richard Neave, who was the director of the bank for 48 years, was also the chairman of the Society of West India Merchants. Neave’s son-in-law, Beeston Long became governor of the Bank of England and like his father-in-law was the chairman of the Society of West India Merchants.

As a result of their financial power, it soon became very easy for the slave traders and plantation owners to influence Parliament directly. A writer for Gentleman’s Magazine wrote in 1766:

“…there are now in Parliament upwards of 40 members who are either West India planters themselves, descended from such, or have concerns there that entitle them to this pre-eminence.”

Slavery produced another phenomenon in British society: the first millionaire, William Beckford. Owning more than 22,000 acres in Jamaica, Beckford sat as a London MP for 16 years. His brother Richard was an MP for Bristol and another, Julines sat as MP for Salisbury.

Families such as the Beckfords used their money and influence to buy seats in Parliament, corrupt the course of justice and sway public opinion in their favour.

In Liverpool, the Heywood brothers, Arthur and Benjamin, made their initial fortunes in the slave trade. The bank they founded on their profits, Arthur Heywood and Sons & Co., would be absorbed in turn by the Bank of Liverpool, Martin’s Bank and Barclay’s Bank.

Another old high street bank with connections to the slave trade can be traced back to the launch of Thomas Leyland’s banking house in 1807. Leyland was one of the three richest men in Liverpool.

Between 1782 to 1807 he trafficked almost 3,500 Africans to Jamaica alone. He served as Mayor of Liverpool in 1798, 1814 and 1820. In 1901 Leyland and Bullin’s Bank would become part of the North and South Wales Bank, which in turn would be absorbed into the Midland Bank in 1908, which is now HSBC.

Several other Liverpool mayors and members of Parliament were also involved in the slave trade. Thomas Johnson, a slaver since 1703, was an MP from 1701 to 1723. His son-in-law Richard Gildart and cousin James Gildart were, between them, Mayors of Liverpool on five occasions from 1714 to 1750.

Despite the prominence of Liverpool, Bristol and London, most British ports profited from some involvement in the slave trade. Some, like Glasgow, benefited from the importation of slave produce. Others, like Whitehaven and Lancaster from direct trafficking in human lives. Between them, these two ports accounted for more than 43,000 enslaved Africans being taken out of Africa.

Black Londoners and the slave trade

A number of Black abolitionists came to prominence in late 18th century London.

The best known was Ignatius Sancho. Though born on a slave ship, he became a playwright, composer, writer and grocer. His grocery shop was just off Whitehall. His book Letters (published in 1782) was a bestselling work and gave an insight into the life of a black family in 18th century London.

BESTSELLING AUTHOR: Ignatius Sancho’s book Letters, published in 1782 proved very popular

More central to the fight against slavery was Olaudah Equiano. This abolitionist, who had been captured by slavers at the age of 12, settled in London and published his autobiography in 1789. Together with another writer Ottobah Cugoano and other black activists, Equiano was one of a group known as the ‘Sons of Africa’ who pushed for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and greater civil rights for black people in Britain.

There was also Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince; a West Indian Slave, published in London to great acclaim in 1831. She had run away from forced servitude shortly after arriving in England in 1828. Her account is one of the few to shed light on women’s experience of enslavement.

Robert Wedderburn, another Jamiacan, served many jail sentences and is believed to have died in jail in 1732 as a result of his revolutionary, anti-slavery writings and sermons.

Free and enslaved labour at sea

Given the huge manpower needs of the Royal Navy and British merchant fleets during the 18th century, it was inevitable that African labour, free and enslaved would be drawn upon.

“The numbers of Negro slaves employed in navigating the trading vessels in these seas seems to me to increase so much as to require the attention of the British Legislator, as it throws so many English seamen out of employment” Governor Parry of Barbados wrote to the Colonial Office in 1786.

Another observer wrote that many blacks, picked up in the West Indies or on the American coast “without hurting commerce,” were to be found on board our ships of war, where, when not incapacitated by climatic conditions, they made active, alert seamen and “generally imagined themselves free.”

*[Footnote: _Admiralty Records_ 1. 585—Admiral Donnelly, 22 Feb. 1815.]

* The National Maritime Museum will be marking International Slavery Remembrance Day on 23 August.
For details of all events, please visit or call 020 8312 6608

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