Legacies: Commemorating the bicentenary of British abolition

Trade and empire

An extract from the Trade and Empire exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery 2007

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Americas provided a means to riches for many Britons, through direct and indirect investment in slaving economies.

This section of the exhibition reflected the workings of this international trade, which fed the growth of the British Empire until the abolition of slavery in 1833 and beyond. In particular, sugar and cotton plantations provided fantastically lucrative investment opportunities in the Caribbean, Latin America and the American south. The notorious sweet tooth of the British people meant there was a tremendous demand for sugar. By the 1770s sugar imports were far higher in monetary value than any other single commodity brought into the country.

This demand for tropical goods came at the expense of large numbers of enslaved Africans, transported in appalling conditions that claimed the lives of around 15% of the human 'cargo'. Once working on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, around a third of enslaved Africans did not survive to see their fourth year because of the harshness of the conditions.