The Connection Between The African Slave Trade And The Development Of The British Empire

In 1562, the Rev. Richard Hakluyt transported his cargo of “300 Negros … unto the Island of Hispaniola”. His voyage was one of the earliest examples of English slave trading. He neither expressed moral ambivalence nor was he proud of his transaction. During the Tudor reign, England was far from being an imperial power and its contacts with the islands of the West Indies in general consisted of plundering Spanish settlements. The lucrative trade in African slaves in Spanish ports in the West Indies was obviously alluring to explorers like Hakluyt and privateers like John Hawkins. A century later, England firmly established a foothold in the Caribbean and subsequently launched an empire whose power and wealth became the envy of other nations. The English success at empire building is attributable to slavery and Atlantic commerce. The historiography of slavery and the slave trade is replete with debates regarding racism, religion, morality and politics. As seen through twenty-first century eyes, the enslavement of human beings to perform free labor is abhorrent and morally reprehensible. Nonetheless, yet it was practiced by white civilized nations, England, Spain, France, Holland, Portugal and Sweden for hundreds of years.

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This research paper endeavors to explain the causal relationship between the African slave trade and slavery and the development of the British Empire. In addition, it will explore the nature of slavery and the slave trade as practiced by the English in order to understand better how England achieve hegemony in the lucrative slave trade by the 18th century? At the time of Oliver Cromwell’s acquisition of Jamaica, and until the Restoration was in place, there existed ambivalence in England about retaining islands in the Western Caribbean. It meant an expense to the state, and to settle meant sending white settlers from what appeared at the time, an underpopulated realm. By the second half of the 17th century, England had colonies in North America: Nova Scotia, New York, East and West Jersey, Carolina and Pennsylvania. In the Caribbean, it possessed Jamaica, Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts) and soon after, Barbados and the Leeward Islands. An option for settlement was to transport convicts and vagrants, thereby ridding England of undesirables, and also sending indentured laborers. Opposition to possessing colonies in the Caribbean diminished with the establishment of large plantations and their reliance on free labor performed by enslaved Africans. The Crown saw financial advantage in its involvement in the lucrative triangular Atlantic trade, that is the sale of English manufactured goods transported on English ships and traded on the western coast of Africa for black slaves, followed by their transport on the same English ships to the West Indies for sale to English plantation owners. Charles II was very interested and an active participant

. State sponsored enterprises like Western Design and the Royal African Company [see Appendix B] were established. During the early stages of the empire, the English practiced what the other powers like Spain did, that is, protectionism on a state level called mercantilism. It was a monopoly system which excluded participation by non-English merchants in the Atlantic trade. Goods could only be transported on English ships to African shores, then these same ships could load their human cargo and proceed to English colonies. This exclusive economic system and the demand for products of the plantations like sugar and tobacco, and more importantly, the reliance of an inexhaustible supply of African enslaved people in the colonies “transformed not only how colonials understood the empire and their place within it”, but also how the empire was understood in England. Slavery and its historiography are not free of controversies, polemics and arguments both from religious and humanitarian sources. When Richard Hakluyt transported his enslaved Africans to Hispaniola, as the historian Michael Craton points out, they were “viewed as curiosities but not necessarily as inferior beings”; however, a profound shift in attitude was occurring among the English. It would seem that the “economic advantages of enslaving the blacks led to a deterioration in racial attitudes” and within a short time the justification grew stronger that the dark-skinned enslaved person was inferior. Bartolomé de las Casas, a plantation owner and historian in Hispaniola, in 1550 had argued in favor of African slaves to save the Indigenous People from forced labor. In the Spanish tradition and law, the enslaved black man was simply unfree and not morally inferior as the English later considered him. Las Casas saw slavery grow and the requirements of the plantation consume quantities of African slaves. Similarly, the demands of the sugar plantations in Barbados, the Leeward Islands and Jamaica was so great, that the plantations consumed vast numbers of enslaved Africans, negating in the process the slaves’ humanity. John Atkins, a ship’s surgeon talks about the black slaves he saw as if they were animals void of emotion: The bulk of them are country People, stupid as is their distance from the Converse of the Coast-Negroes, eat all day if Victuals is before them; or if not, let it alone without Complaint, part without Tears with their Wives, Children, and Country, and are more affected with Pain than Death; It might be argued that the African represented “the other” in English, French, Dutch eyes. The choice to enslave Africans was made easy by the sheer number made available to the white slavers by the African captors’ eager to trade in exchange for European manufactured goods. Yet it has to be acknowledged that racism was playing an important role. The official English church was silent on the question of Christian morality and slavery. The Puritan preachers in the New World, especially in Plymouth, from their pulpits spoke of the Native People as the work of Satan and that Providence was busying Itself ridding the land through disease to make room for Pilgrims. Is there any question that the Puritan attitude toward non-white persons was not dehumanizing? Moreover, an Englishman’s identity rested in large part on the property he owned and slaves were bona fide chattel and property. If the black man was not at the start considered inferior or sub-human, then at each step of the process, from capture to captivity in Royal African Company forts, throughout the horrors of the middle passage, his appearance at the slave market in the New World, he was dehumanized. What had been evolving was a British empire and it had evolved hand in hand with African slavery and the slave trade, so much so that the historian Joseph E. Inikori sees in the “Atlantic economic order … the nucleus of our contemporary world economic order” and of the central factors “slavery was the dominant factor and colonial domination was the main mechanism in the expansionary phase. ” Inikori argues that “African slavery in the growth and development of Atlantic commerce between 1650 and 1800 … formed the basis of the Atlantic system”. The production of bullion, sugar, coffee, cotton, tobacco, rice, etc. was made possible through the agonizing labor of African slaves. The impact of African slavery and slave trade beyond the production commodities that found their way to Europe, was immeasurable. The travail of the enslaved in the British West Indies was the generator of great wealth, power and prestige for the British. It was arguably the sustaining force on which the British empire evolved. Inikori points to the irreparable damage was done “since it gave rise to an extremely damaging division of labor between western Africa and the rest of the Atlantic economies in which the violent production of captives for export became virtually the only function performed by western Africa in the Atlantic system. ” Inikori makes other interesting observation regarding the transportation of Africans to the America: The most remarkable feature in the population of the Spanish Islands in the West Indies is the small proportion of negroes. If the whole of the Islands be taken into the calculation, there were in 1789, seven whites to one negro, whilst in the British & in the French Islands there were at that period about 10 negroes to 1 white. The social system that evolved in the British West Indies was simply one based on the color of skin. While in England property was paramount, in Jamaica race was the hierarchical structure of society. White skin was akin to freedom, power and dominion; black skin meant slavery and inferiority. Both in the colonies and in England it was recognized that the slave trade was a fundamental contributor to empire building and prosperity, consequently the state involved itself directly in the promotion of slavery in the colonies.

The decision to keep Jamaica and foster lucrative trade began with Charles II’s charters establishing the Company of Royal Adventurers into Africa and two other enterprises. The impetus for profiteering and making colonies profitable came from the Stuarts. The desire to take trade away for other competing European powers, expressly Holland and France, resulted in the monopoly of British trade and commerce which was established through the prerogative of the king. English society came quickly to the understanding that African slavery and the slave trade were in the national interest and moral considerations were not given a second thought. Besides, the enslavement of Africans was viewed as essential to the smooth and successful functioning of the empire. With the Treaty of Utrecht 1713 the English gained the coveted asiento, the right to trade in goods and slaves in Spanish America. Britain by this time had attained hegemony in the Atlantic triangular trade and in the African slave trade. Yet, in the perilous reliance on slave labor in the West Indies one sees an imperial ideal in which white supremacy had evolved. Furthermore, a brutal legal and social system which supported this white supremacy developed which shaped the plantation owners’ understanding of empire. Slavery had existed since Biblical times and it exists today in places like India where the Global Slavery Index indicates the existence approximately 9 million slaves. The African slave trade was practiced by the Dutch and Genoese beginning in the 16th century, then the French attained a leadership role in the trade. By the late 17th and 18th century the English had perfected a system unmatched by any other trading nation. The English’s expertise in the slave trade contributed immensely to the strength of the British Empire. The system the English traders had developed was described in favorable terms in Parliament by James Penny in 1789. His dubious description is one of an Atlantic crossing in which the passengers, the enslaved persons, are cared for and have good ventilation and food: the Number of Slaves he usually took on Board ir. as from 500 to 600 … the Slave Ships at Liverpool are built on Purpose for this Trade, and are accommodated with Air Ports and Gratings for the Purpose of keeping the Slaves cool … on Board, they are comfortably lodged in Rooms fitted up for them which are washed and fumigated with Vinegar or Lime Juice every Day … The Men Slaves are fettered when they first come on Board, from prudential Motives, but during the Passage, if they appear reconciled to their Condition, their Fetters are gradually taken off … The Women, Youths, and Children are always at Liberty, and are kept in separate Apartments … The Whole of the Slaves are brought upon Deck every Day, when the Weather permits, about Eight of the Clock … If the Weather is sultry, and there appears … the least Perspiration upon their Skins, when they come upon Deck, there are Two Men attending with Cloths to rub them perfectly dry, and another to give them a little Cordial a warm Mess is provided for them, alternately of their own Country Food and of the Pulse carried from Europe for that Purpose, to which Stock Fish, Palm Oil, Pepper, & are added; after that, Water is handed them to drink, and the upper Decks are swept clean. They are then supplied with Pipes and Tobacco. Both Sexes sometimes will smoak … They are amused with instruments of Music peculiar to their own Country, with which he provided them; and when tired of Music and Dancing, they then go to Games of Chance Elizabeth Donnan offers this contradictory description: On the ship itself the men and women were crowded between decks, with little air and less ventilation except such as filtered through narrow ventilators. There they were kept at least fifteen or sixteen hours a day – on good days, that is – without modern system of sanitation, and without running water, naked, and with chains about their ankles. Two men were chained together, as a rule, the right ankle of one to the left ankle of the other. And, thus crowded and bound hand and foot, they were allowed a space barely larger than a grave – five feet six inches long, sixteen inches broad, and two to three feet high, nor high enough to sit up in. The image of the cross section of a British slave ship supports this description.

This is a graphic depiction of the capacity of callousness on the part of the British to willingly have a hand in profiting from this kind of human misery and suffering. In light of the centuries of human misery perpetrated by Europeans eager for profit, prestige and power, one has to ask: What happened to the European commitment to morality which was founded on Christian values? In the 18th century Enlightenment an indignation to torture, brutality and public executions took hold, yet the plight of the black slave went largely unheeded until the end of the century. One can only imagine the little Negro village in the interior of Africa and the sudden surprise attack. Shackled, iron collars on necks, women, children and men marching hundreds of miles to the coast to an ocean never before seen. Put in stockades, what terror! Were they going to be eaten? Then the transatlantic crossing under horrible condition followed under horrible conditions. Those who survived the voyage, in neck irons, would then be taken to a West Indian port to be sold as chattel as one would sell a horse or another beast of burden. The Rev. R. Walsh chronicles some of the horrors of the middle passage. His eyewitness account is most graphic: The height, sometimes, between decks, was only eighteen inches; so that the unfortunate human beings could not turn around, or even on their sides, the elevation being less than the breadth of their shoulders; and here they are usually chained to the decks by the neck and legs. In such a place the sense of misery and suffocation is so great, that the Negroes, like the English in the black-hole at Calcutta, are driven to frenzy … a horrid din and tumult among them was heard … opened the hatches and turned them up on deck … horror … manacled together, in twos and threes, many in different stages of suffocation, many of them were foaming at the mouth, and in the last agonies. Many were dead. Many destroyed one another, in the hopes of procuring room to breathe; men strangled those next to them, and women drove nails into each other’s brains. When the weather cleared and hatches were opened: The stench below was so great that it was impossible to stand more than a few minutes near the hatchways. Our men who went below from curiosity, were forced up sick in a few minutes. I am informed that very often … the stronger will strangle the weaker; and this was probably the reason why so many died. In the case of rebellion or mutiny, the punishment came swiftly: hanging on the mast. Disease was a common effecting both human cargo and the crew. It was generally anticipated that 20% of both would be lost on a voyage. If a shortage of water should occur, the solution was to throw some of the human cargo overboard. The British had developed a streamlined, factory approach to the slave trade. Ships designed to maximize the number of slaves that could be transported were build on the docks of Liverpool and Bristol which were beehives of activity related to the slave trade. These English towns had grown in proportion to the success of the triangular trade and now were bustling, wealthy cities.

By the last third of the 18th century, there were forty factories on the African coast belonging to the leading nations in Europe engaged in the African trade. Of these ten belonged to the English, three to the French, fifteen to the Dutch, four to the Portuguese, and four to the Danes. The slave trade was such a profitable business that long after the abolition, ships loaded with enslaved Africans arrived at ports in the New World. A slave could be sold in Cuba for thirty times what he had cost in Africa. Even if the trade was outlawed and the risks were great, the lure of profit generated an active market.

10 December 2020

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