Commerce in History: the slave trade

Thinking people still get hot under the collar when the subject of the trade in slaves looms. But then, more nonsense is spoken about the slave trade by otherwise intelligent and educated people than one would care to admit. For those determined only to be ‘politically correct’, the trade was perfectly simple, evil of course, and typical of the many important countries which indulged in it. It consisted (for them) of wicked whites landing on the coast of West Africa, driving inland with fire and sword, kidnapping young black people from their homelands, chaining them up, and driving them back to the waiting ships with a whip ever ready in case of complaint. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the first place, coastal African tribesmen would have taken very badly to any kind of invasion made by white people, unless they knew exactly what the white intruders were in Africa for.

   European trade in slaves began in the 15th century, possibly when the seafaring Portuguese took slaves from coastal villages, ‘re-settling’ them in Portuguese haciendas or in the new settlements in Brazil. The trade could not develop on the huge scale it did until there was increasing demand for labour in commercial agriculture – principally cotton, tobacco and sugar in the Americas – north and south.

This labour was best unpaid; fed, cheaply housed and watered by owners. Rapidly the area between the Gold Coast and the Niger delta became known as the ‘slave coast’. The demand became bigger and bigger, and the trade was extended further east and south, to Angola and even East Africa. European nations started building what they called ‘factories’ which were trading posts where traders calling themselves ‘merchants’ did their business. Slaves were bought from tribal chiefs. If this had not been so, there would have no slave trade, because there were countless millions of tough, fighting black people and only a handful of traders. The latter would not have lasted a single day in North Africa if the chiefs had not found the sale of their own subjects profitable and easy.

The slaves were exchanged for cloth, metals, drink and firearms with munitions. Neither money nor gold coins were of any use to the chiefs. A triangular trade grew quickly: slaves were shipped in inhuman conditions to the Americas and the Caribbean. There they were exchanged by the ‘merchants’ for sugar, tobacco or cotton (ready for the European market). Here what was required to pay for the slaves was collected and made ready for the sea – captains.

It is not generally known that the slaves themselves were generally prisoners of war taken in the innumerable wars fought between the tribal chiefs. These chiefs were pleased to hand the prisoners over because they would have been killed or starved to death in any case.

Arists' impression of the interior of a slave running ship / a-piramide-de-kukulkan,

Arists’ impression of the interior of a slave running ship / a-piramide-de-kukulkan,

Each young black man or woman was branded by the traders, put in chains, and taken in the foulest conditions imaginable by sea in wooden ships infested with lice and rats, on a seven or eight week voyage to the coasts and islands of the Americas. The slaves were chained to shelves specially designed to take the maximum quantity; they were virtually unable to move their limbs. If the sea – captain was unusually merciful, groups would occasionally be taken up on deck and washed by pumping seawater over them from hoses. Not all the captains were merciful.

Though one would have thought it was in the best interest of the captains working for the traders counting their loot in European offices to keep the slaves in the best conditions possible, ready for sale, this is not the case. Death rates were high, around 15 to 18% of the ‘cargo’. The figures, available officially in the records of major European countries, speak for themselves: about 275,000 slaves of both sexes were taken in chains to other lands in the 16th century; 1.3 million in the 17th, reaching a peak in the 18th century of around 6 million, and then another high point in the 19th  – 1.9 million.

Now I shall state things that will not make me popular, and will increase those obscene comments to which any blogger must become accustomed: the slave trade was dominated in the 18th century by Great Britain, who sailed over a million slaves from Africa to the Americas in the 18th century. Portugal came second, with over 700,000, and then France, with over 400,000. These are official and certainly under-estimated figures. But there was also a flourishing slave trade across the Sahara Desert carried on by Arab merchants for new markets in Syria, Egypt and Turkey. The biggest slave market in the whole Mediterranean was Tripoli.

The slave trade had a noticeable effect on tropical Africa itself, and in Britain. Many African communities and tribes became very rich in materials as a result of it.  Weapons and munitions were used to attack other tribes and thus take more prisoners. By the mid-eighteenth century strong states like Dahomey and Assante were raiding for slaves hundreds of miles from home. The loss of manpower in Angola was disastrous for the economy. Sparse populations had to live at below subsistence level, while chiefs grew wealthy beyond their dreams.

In Britain however the slave trade greatly benefited the economy by stimulating shipbuilding, providing capital for fast-growing industries and making Glasgow, Bristol and Liverpool into major international ports.

Nothing like this dreadful trade could last, and it was in Britain and the United States that the eighteenth century first saw movements made against it. In 1787 Wilberforce and Clarkson formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and acquired the support of British Prime Minister William Pitt. Pitt was joined by the Leader of the Opposition, Charles James Fox, but strangely enough when a bill for abolition was presented (in 1791) it was defeated in Parliament. Interested industrial lobbies were hard at work, because the slave industry was powerful. British people, even of a charitable mind, seemed to see slavery as a kind of property, which was taboo to touch. Only when there was a glut in sugar and consequent fall in prices did the sugar traders begin to have second thoughts. Perhaps cheap labour was more efficient than free slave labour? After all, the former required little capital outlay and if a slump came it could be laid off. How could you ‘lay off’ slaves?

Still, Britain had to wait until 1807 for the slave trade to be made illegal for British merchants; Denmark had already done this in 1804, and was soon followed by the United States and others. But the status of existing slaves, still at their unpaid work on the plantations, was not affected until 1833. This was the year Britain abolished slavery throughout her Empire, and what is more made slave trading by ship a capital offence. Nearly seven hundred thousand slaves were freed in the West Indies, nearly half this number living in Jamaica.

Britain and America were the only countries which strictly enforced the new laws against the slave trade, and both countries used powerful professional navies effectively to do so. This legal aggression could have an adverse effect, however, as many captains of ships still brazenly sailing with a hold full of slaves were most capable of throwing the entire ‘cargo’ to the sharks if someone spotted a British or American man o’ war on the horizon. The alternative was death by hanging for the entire crew, and confiscation of a valuable ship.

Even odder was the fact that abolition actually increased the export of slaves to parts of North and East Africa! Seyyid Said moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1840, to expand the clove-growing plantations there, manned by slave labour. Arab traders, apparently not in the least bothered, went as far as the Great Lakes of Central Africa to seek slaves. They were also exported to North Africa using the Nile and Sahara routes. There were still open slave markets operating in northern Nigeria. The Sultan of Zanzibar was finally ‘persuaded’ by the British to end the slave trade, in 1873, but in parts of North and East Africa the trade flourished until it finally came to an end –in the twentieth century. There had been nearly five centuries of this trade, seen by many merely as ‘just another branch of commerce’.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. Stratton Scott December 8, 2018 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    I can’t speak to other thinking people who abhor the idea of slavery, but for me it has nothing in particular to do with “evil whites”. Slavery has a very long history intertwined with human history since (probably) not long after the switch to agriculture. That doesn’t change the fact that it is evil. The Atlantic slave trade was wrong, and many of those involved should have been morally sophisticated enough to know that. Some of the guilty happened to be white – some not. It makes little difference except in that part of studying history where the beliefs and attitudes of the time related to “color” or “race” are relevant – which of course at that time, they mostly were!

    I think your work and writing is good and interesting – and not just this article. I’ve enjoyed exploring and learned as well … however, FWIW, I think your opening remarks are essentially establishing a “straw man” opponent. The idea of the over-politically-correct, white-bashing, almost-communist, liberal psuedo-intellectual is a stereotype with little basis in fact. It is a convenient boogey-man; much as the greedy, selfish, racist, rich, and corrupt ultra-capitalist that is secretly trying to turn America into a fascist state is also 99.9% myth and convenient boogeyman.

    Certainly people like you describe exist, as do people that fit any given stereotype. But they are a very, very tiny minority (perhaps a loud one, of course). But, most thinkers I know or have studied – and who deplore the Atlantic slave trade from this time – do so because they abhor slavery tout court and feel that many from the European/N. American (the “whites” I suppose) were at a point in _their_ history that there should have been more opposition and opprobrium.

    Slavery is wrong, period. But at many (most?) points in history, it must be said that the various cultures involved would have had little to no exposure to thinking of it as wrong or evil. Kudos to you for doing and promoting the study of history. The world could use so much more of that!

    • Dean Swift December 8, 2018 at 6:37 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much for such an amazing and loving comment. I’m the son of the author, he passed away two years ago. Thanks again and I hope he can read it from up there. Bless you.

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