The Triangular Trade

People, Labour, Goods

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 4


If you have studied history in a British school, you were likely taught about Britain's role in the abolition of slavery. Less was probably taught about Britain's role in extending the so-called slave trade.


The transatlantic trade of enslaved human beings, a triangular exchange of people and goods between Europe, Africa and the Americas, is said to have been 'pioneered' by Englishman John Hawkins (1532-1595).


While the English had engaged in the capture and enslavement of Africans as early as 1556, it is Hawkins who is recognised as the architect of this triangular trade.


In 1562, Hawkins led an expedition to Sierra Leone where he 'got into his possession, partly by the sword, and other means the number of three hundred Negroes'.


Hawkins subsequently transported the three hundred Africans to the Spanish colony of Hispaniola, where in exchange for his human cargo, he received three shiploads of hides, ginger, sugar, and pearls. Hawkins' expedition was so lucrative that Queen Elizabeth I is said to have received him personally. She would go on to sponsor his subsequent journeys, providing ships, supplies and weapons.


This would mark the beginnings of British immersion in the transatlantic trade of enslaved human beings - with an estimated 72,000 Africans being captured over the next century.


In 1660, English Parliament passed the Navigation Act, which decreed that colonial imports and exports were only to be transported by English ships. That same year, King Charles II granted a royal charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, which would in 1672 be reformed as the Royal African Company.


With private investments from both King Charles II and the Duke of York (later King James II), the royal charter gave the Company: ‘the whole, entire and only trade for buying and selling, bartering and exchanging, of, for or with, any Negroes, slaves, goods, wares, merchandise whatsoever’.


The Royal African Company would go on to ship more enslaved Africans than any other enterprise in the history of the transatlantic slave trade. Despite this morbid record, the Royal African Company could not meet the increasing demand for slave labour in the so-called New World.


The Royal African Company's inability to keep up with demand led to increasing demands for British slave-trading to be made available to all Brits. In 1698, the monopoly was lifted, and its effect was immediate. Over the next century, the British captured over 2.4 million Africans.


British people from all walks of life benefited from the transatlantic trade of human beings. Bristol and Liverpool were dominant trade ports, with approximately 1.5 million people carried into slavery onboard Liverpudlian ships. London was also a major trading centre, with Blackheath, Deptford and Greenwich handling roughly 75% of sugar imports. Scottish, Welsh and Irish slavers also benefited greatly from the trade of enslaved peoples. An enormous amount of wealth was generated for the British economy by the slave trade.


Some prominent British profiteers include:

  • Jon Angerstein: a London-based slave-owner who helped develop insurance business Lloyd's of London


  • The Pett family: shipbuilders from Deptford, many of whom's ships were used to transport enslaved peoples


  • John Locke: a prominent English philosopher, widely regarded as the 'Father of Liberalism', and a major investor and beneficiary of the English slave trade


  • Edward Colston: Bristol-based slave trader, both privately and with the Royal African Company, Colston also served as a Member of Parliament

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