On Anti-Slavery Day, we explore London’s involvement in the Slave Trade …
To the City’s – and indeed the country’s – eternal shame, some of its trade from as long ago as the late sixteenth century onwards was in enslaved persons.
In 1562, John Hawkins took three ships from London or Plymouth (sources differ) to Sierra Leone, where he seized 300 Africans, “by the sword”.
Then, in the “Middle Passage”, he transported them across the Atlantic to the Spanish West Indies, where he sold them – as commodities – in order to purchase sugar, ginger and other goods. And finally, he returned to London and sold his cargo to City merchants for a fortune, completing the repugnant triangle. Hawkins’s venture was backed by the Mayor of London, Thomas Lodge. It was also supported by the Queen, Elizabeth I, although apparently only after she had been – falsely – assured that the enslavement was unforced. She actually described forced enslavement as “detestable”, as something that would “call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertakers”. In 1567, Hawkins wrote to the Queen, requesting her permission for another slaving voyage, in part as follows: “The voyage I pretend is to lade negroes in Guinea and sell them in the West Indies in truck of gold, pearls and emeralds, whereof I doubt not but to bring home great abundance for the contentation of your Highness … . Thus I … do most humbly pray your Highness to signify your pleasure by this bearer, which I shall most willingly accomplish”. In 1619, under Elizabeth’s successor, the Stuart King, James I, the trade in enslaved Africans spread to the English Americas for the first time, with “twenty and odd Negroes” being transported to Jamestown in Virginia, presumably to work on the tobacco plantations there. Many more would soon be sent to toil in the back-breaking sugar plantations on Barbados, St Kitts, Jamaica and elsewhere in the West Indies, under an unforgiving tropical sun. In the late 1640s and 1650s, one London merchant, John Paige, made a fortune transporting enslaved persons from Guinea in West Africa to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, which at that time was technically illegal. Even when the captain of one of his ships, the “Swan”, died in the Bight of Biafra, and the ship, under the command of mate, became “staved upon the seas” and “was utterly lost” at Rio del Rey, he was able to keep his losses within acceptable bounds by selling the nineteen enslaved persons who survived.
The trade in enslaved persons was to continue to grow further, and faster, after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, when Spain was compelled under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht to grant to Britain the “Asiento”, or – exclusive – “Contract … Allowing … the Liberty of Importing Negroes into the Spanish America”. The trade was only finally abolished throughout the British Empire in 1843. By this time, 3351 slaving voyages had begun in London, which had become the fourth largest centre involved in the trade in the world, after Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and Liverpool. Shockingly, given that each vessel could accommodate between 250-600 enslaved persons, those 3351 voyages beginning in London would have transported, in round numbers, anywhere between 850,000 and 2,000,000; of whom, again in round numbers, between 100,000 and 250,000 would have died (assuming an average mortality rate of 13%).
Readers might be interested to know that the Museum of London Docklands in West India Quay houses, among other things, a harrowing permanent exhibition on “London, Sugar and Slavery”, featuring a wide variety of associated artefacts. Also that the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich houses a newly-opened permanent exhibition on “Tudor and Stuart Seafarers”, featuring artefacts associated with maritime exploration and trade, including the slave trade.