Africa, the arrival of Europeans and the transatlantic slave trade

Triangular trade and multiple profits

by Dr Alan Rice

'To put the matter simply, African slavery worked, it provided labour at a price Europeans could afford, in numbers they required and all to profitable economic use. Thus it was that Africans were quickly reduced from humanity to inanimate objects of trade and economic calculation.'

James Walvin

The world economy was growing rapidly. More goods were being made and traded than ever before. Slavery was essential to this growth. Slaves were the 'human lubricant of the whole system', James Walvin.

Transatlantic slavery was basically triangular. At one point on the triangle was Europe. Manufactured and luxury goods from Europe such as textiles, guns (and gunpowder), knives, copper kettles, mirrors and beads were taken across to the west African coast. This coast was the second point of the triangle. On the west African coast, the goods from Europe were exchanged for enslaved Africans. Ships forcibly transported enslaved Africans to the Americas – the third point of the triangle. Upon a slaving ship’s arrival in the Americas, the enslaved Africans were landed and exchanged for goods such as sugar, tobacco, rice, cotton, mahogany and indigo. The ship then returned to Europe.

Increasingly slaving ships were not involved in the final journey of the triangular trade. Merchants found it more profitable to trade directly with the Americas using ships more suited to carrying goods. So, from the simple routes of its beginning, the triangular trade became a complex network of different trade routes. This network included important direct trades between Europe and the Americas, North America and the Caribbean and between Africa and Brazil. These routes were additional to the key trade between Europe and Asia developed since the sixteenth century in fine Indian textiles that were produced specifically for African and slave trade markets and were known as the Guinea cloths. Central to all the routes was the development of the plantation system and its dependence on an enslaved African workforce.

Tropical goods

European consumers loved goods from tropical countries. By the 1770s the British alone were consuming an average of six kilos of sugar per head annually. This addiction to sweetness was at the expense of Africans worked to an early death on the plantations of the Americas. The trade developed was massive: £2.75m (£275m in current prices) worth of British exports was shipped to the slave trade colonies annually and £3.15m (£315m) goods imported.

Banking and investment

Big profits were made not just by those directly involved in slaving or plantation economies, but also by banks. These banks were most often based in cities such as Liverpool and London. The foundation of the Bank of England in 1694 in London was crucial to trade regulation and the securing of profits. As trade profits grew, so did the banks and other financial institutions.

From the late 1600s to the 1800s, the providing of insurance, loans and other more complex trading instruments created massive new opportunities for making money. All this helped create modern capitalism. Indeed, it is one of the great ironies of history that a crude labour system like slavery was at the heart of the development of the modern global economy.

'To give just one example, by the late seventeenth century, the New England merchant, the Barbadian planter, the English manufacturer, the English slave trader and the African slave traders (and merchants) were joined in an intricate web of interdependent economic activity.'

Barbara Solow