Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

The economic basis of the slave trade

by Dr Alan Rice

'Captive Africans and their descendants paid with their blood and sweat for the phenomenal expansion of human possibilities in the Atlantic world.'
Robin Blackburn

Expansion in the Americas

The transatlantic slave trade transformed the Americas. Three factors combined to cause this transformation. Large amounts of land had been seized from Native Americans and were not being used. Europeans were looking for somewhere to invest their money. Very cheap labour was available in the form of enslaved Africans. The Americas became a booming new economy.

In 1510 King Ferdinand of Spain sent 200 Africans to his American colonies to work in enslavement. Throughout the sixteenth century the Spanish and Portuguese developed trade in enslaved Africans to provide a continual supply of labour for their expanding new economies.

In response to demands for more African labour the Spanish Crown developed a system of licences ('Asientos') which allowed merchants from Portugal, Holland and Britain to supply them with enslaved Africans.

By the end of the sixteenth century European slave traders had transported over 200,000 people from Africa to the colonies in the Caribbean and the Americas. The Portuguese began developing their own colonies in Brazil. They soon saw that their sugar plantations needed a large number of workers and they decided enslaved Africans could best provide this labour.

Within 40 years these plantations were wholly dependent on African slave labour. Many people were making enormous profits from this new economy: investors based in Europe, local plantation owners as well as slave traders.

By the mid-seventeenth century the British, French and Dutch had begun to develop slave trades of their own. These were in competition with the Portuguese and went against the control that Spain had put in place through its system of licences.

The pursuit of profit

The link between sugar and slavery established in Brazil spread to the British and French colonies in the Caribbean. In colonies such as Barbados, Jamaica and Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti) outstanding profits were made on the backs of the enslaved African labour force.

From 1500 to 1860 it is estimated that around 12 million enslaved Africans were traded to the Americas (3.25 million in British ships). Profits made on these voyages were often very large.

For instance, in the seventeenth century, the Royal Africa Company could buy an enslaved African with trade goods worth £3 and have that person sold for £20 in the Americas. The Royal Africa Company was able to make an average profit of 38% per voyage in the 1680s.

Although average profits on successful slave voyages from Britain in the late eighteenth century were less at around 10% this was still a big profit. The love of sugar that developed in Britain and other European populations meant the demand for sugar could only be met by the expansion of the slave trade to keep the plantations busy.

Conditions were terrible for enslaved Africans on these plantations. At its worst (in Brazil for instance) so many enslaved workers died that whole populations needed to be replaced each decade.

Slavery was the oil in the machine of these transatlantic economies. By the 1760s annual exports from the West Indies alone to Britain were worth over £3m (equivalent to around £250m today).

Individuals made large profits: for instance the merchant Thomas Leyland, three times mayor of Liverpool, made a profit of £12,000 (about £1m today) on the 1798 voyage of his ship Lottery.

Plantation workers were subjected to harsh routines during the eighteenth century, such as 24 hour working during the peak harvesting period. Some of these routines were later imposed upon European workers during Europe’s Industrial Revolution.

Investment in the Industrial Revolution

Professor David Richardson has discussed how 'slavery was integral to British industrialisation'. Certainly, the enormous profits made on the backs of enslaved African plantation workers provided the large sums of money needed for the rapid industrial expansion that took place in Britain.

For the north-west of England, there was a development even more important than the growth of sugar plantations. This was the growth of slave-labour cotton plantations in the American South.

There was a rapid expansion of cotton production after the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793. This expansion enabled the development of a new industrial economy throughout the north

west region.

The growth in the enslaved worker population in the southern states of America from less than half a million in 1789 to nearly four million in 1860 shows the importance of the transatlantic cotton trade to those states.

Britain was the most important international consumer of American cotton. By 1860 over 88% of the cotton imported into Britain came from the labour of enslaved Africans in America. Industrialists in Manchester must take significant responsibility for their part in making the system of slavery in the American South last so long.

The Caribbean Historian Eric Williams asserts:

'It was this tremendous dependence on the triangular trade that made Manchester'.

Manchester merchants made big profits at the expense of exploited labour at home and abroad. These merchants were involved in all three sides of the triangle. They bought cotton imported from the southern slavery states of America. They provided finished cottons in exchange for enslaved Africans. They also provided clothing for the enslaved workers on the plantations.

As Robin Blackburn put it:

'The pace of capitalist advance in Britain was decisively advanced by its success in creating a regime of extended private accumulation battening upon the super-exploitation of slaves in the Americas'.