Many in the UK and overseas might be shocked to learn of the
British Royals role in the African slave trade. Then more amazed to learn the
antagonists in this plot to steal humans from one continent,
to supply cheap labour to other colonial regions, with only
profit as the motive, were two
English Kings: Charles II and his brother,
historical fact, combined with licensed piracy,
in the form of privateers sent out to steal cargos on the
high seas, somewhat tarnished the reputation
of, for example, Henry
Royal African Company continued purchasing and transporting slaves until
1731, when it abandoned slaving in favour of ivory and
Originally known as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa, by its charter issued in 1660 it was granted a monopoly over English trade along the west coast of Africa, with the principal objective being the search for gold. In 1663, a new charter was obtained which also mentioned the trade in slaves. This was the third English African Company, but it made a fresh start in the slave trade and there was only one factory of importance for it to take over from the East India Company, which had leased it as a calling-place on the sea-route round the Cape. This was Cormantin, a few miles east of the Dutch station of Cape Coast Castle, now in Ghana.
The 1663 charter prohibits others to trade in "redwood, elephants' teeth, negroes, slaves, hides, wax, guinea grains, or other commodities of those countries". In 1663, as a prelude to the Dutch war, Captain Holmes's expedition captured or destroyed all the Dutch settlements on the coast, and in 1664, Fort James was founded on an island about twenty miles up the Gambia river, as a new centre for English trade and power. This, however, was only the beginning of a series of captures and recaptures. In the same year, de Ruyter won back all the Dutch forts except Cape Coast Castle and also took Cormantin. In 1667, the Treaty of Breda confirmed Cape Coast Castle to the English.
Forts served as staging and trading stations, and the company was responsible for seizing any English ships that attempted to operate in violation of its monopoly (known as interlopers). In the "prize court", the King received half of the proceeds and the company half from the seizure of these interlopers.
The company fell heavily into debt in 1667, during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. For several years after that, the company maintained some desultory trade, including licensing single-trip private traders, but its biggest effort was the creation in 1668 of the Gambia Adventurers. This new company was separately subscribed and granted a ten-year licence for African trade north of the Bight of Benin with effect from 1 January 1669. At the end of 1678, the licence to the Gambia Adventurers expired and its Gambian trade was merged into the company.
The African Company was ruined by its losses and surrendered its charter in 1672, to be followed by the still more ambitious Royal African Company of England. Its new charter was broader than the old one and included the right to set up forts and factories, maintain troops, and exercise martial law in West
Africa, in pursuit of trade in gold, silver and Bantu African slaves. Until 1687, the company was very prosperous. It set up six forts on the Gold Coast, and another post at Ouidah, farther east on the Slave Coast, which became its principal centre for trade. Cape Coast Castle was strengthened and rose to be second in importance only to the Dutch factory at Elmina. Anglo-Dutch rivalry was, however, henceforward unimportant in the region and the Dutch were not strong enough to take aggressive measures here in the Third Anglo-Dutch War.
THE IRISH AS WELL - CROMWELL'S CONQUEST OF IRELAND
Ireland as a colonised country was subject to slavery also with over one hundred thousand transported to the West Indies in the aftermath of Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland. This legacy continues to this day, in that Irish surnames are common in the islands of the
In 1784, Limerick became the first Irish port to attempt to promote a slave-trade company. It is doubtful whether direct Irish involvement in the slave trade was ever very substantial. Much more significant was the involvement of Irish merchants in provisioning the West Indian plantations.
In fact, provisioning the Caribbean slave plantations proved to be one of the chief factors in the development of some of Ireland’s major ports. In effect, Irish merchants came to be almost as dependent on slavery as their colleagues in England, as the example of the port of Belfast reveals.
Slavery was not an invention of the middle ages – it had existed for more than a thousand years – but it started to become a more organised trade towards the end of the fourteenth century, when the Europeans began to take people from Africa against their will.
The slave trade, originally developed because of the growing demand for sugar, which lasted in Britain for about 150 years. Irish merchants were part of this trade. By the early eighteenth century, Britain was one of the richest slave trading nations in the world, with large numbers of slaves being transported from African and Asian colonies to Europe and America.
Between 1672 and 1731, the Royal African Company transported 187,697 enslaved people on company-owned ships (653 voyages) to English colonies in the Americas. Of those transported, 38,497 enslaved people died en route. The predecessor "Company of Royal Adventurers" (1662 - 1672) transported 26,925 enslaved people on company-owned ships (104 voyages), of whom 6,620 died during the passage.
ENGLISH MINT GOLD SUPPLY
From 1668 to 1722, the Royal African Company provided gold to the English Mint. Coins made with such gold are designed with an elephant below the bust of the king and/or queen. This gold also gave the coinage its name, the guinea.
Thus much of the gold
reserves in the UK originated from slave trading.
COMPANY MEMBERS AND OFFICIALS
At its incorporation, the constitution of the company specified a Governor, Sub Governor, Deputy Governor and 24 Assistants. The Assistants (also called Members of the Court of Assistants) can be considered equivalent to a modern-day board of directors.
- James Stuart, Duke of York, the future King James II – Governor of the company from 1660 to 1688; and its largest shareholder
- Edward Colston (1636–1721), merchant, philanthropist, and Member of Parliament, was a shareholder in the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692; from 1689 to 1690 he was its Deputy Governor, a senior executive position, the basis on which he is described as a slave trader.
- Charles Hayes (1678–1760), mathematician and chronologer, was sub-governor of the Royal African Company in 1752, when it was dissolved.
- Malachy Postlethwayt, director and propagandist of the company.
WEST INDIA COMPANY
By 1650, the Dutch had come to dominate
North Sea trade. They had the biggest mercantile fleet of any European power and the Dutch West India Company established several trading posts on the
Gold Coast and, further east, the Slave Coast. Mercantile competition led to the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54), which was fought entirely at sea, was immensely costly in lives and ships and resolved nothing. The situation was still in a state of turbulence in 1660 when the English monarchy was restored by Charles II. Within months, it was decided to put trade with West Africa on a surer footing by forming a chartered company.
Part of the impetus for this initiative came from two swashbuckling royalist adventurers during the British Civil War, Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Sir Robert Holmes. The former was a cousin of
II, the latter came from an Anglo-Irish family. Both were mercenaries who thrived on military action. During their colourful military and naval careers they had served as royalist captains, seeking to bolster the funds of the king in exile by privateering raids.
During a voyage to Gambia, Rupert had become enthralled by stories of the gold-rich kings of the interior and he used his influence with James, Duke of York, Charles’s brother and future
James II of England, to establish a company with the power and resources necessary to drive out the Dutch and establish favourable trading relations with the local rulers. Holmes was despatched with a naval expedition to clear the way for the company. When he arrived at Gorée, close to Cape Verde, he calmly informed the Dutch governor that the entire coast from there to the
Cape of Good Hope was the preserve of the King of England. He then proceeded to establish his own posts on the Gambia and make trade connections. His return, ostentatiously flashing his wealth (much to the disgust of Samuel Pepys, who took objection to his ‘gold laced suit’), gave the green light to merchants eager to participate in the new company. Thus in 1660, the Company Of Royal Adventurers Of England Trading Into Africa came into being. Its principal sponsors were Prince Rupert and James, Duke of York, who soon became the governor.
Three years later, a fresh charter was issued further defining the RAC’s (Royal African Company) remit. The new concern was a joint stock company – i.e. investors purchased shares and enjoyed returns based on the value of those shares, which was established by the profits of each trading expedition. Several courtiers and merchants invested in the Royal African Company, which possessed three main attractions: it had the king’s backing (Charles was a major shareholder); the company’s ships and trading posts enjoyed the protection of the royal navy; and the stories of ‘mountains’ of Guinea gold promised spectacular returns.
The acquisition of gold was the company’s principal concern and, in 1665, £200,000 of its annual revenue came from precious metal. By contrast, £100,000 was derived from trade in ivory, hides, dyewoods and pepper. However, the 1663 charter added slaves to the company’s list of commodities, thus, as well as taking over the forts on the Gold Coast, the RAC extended its interests eastwards to the Slave Coast. There were both supply and demand reasons for this development. On the one hand, the rulers of expanding African states had an ongoing supply of war captives to dispose of. On the other, the West Indian plantations, and particularly Barbados, had an insatiable need for workers. In 1665, a quarter of the company’s income (about £100,000) came from the slave trade but this proportion gradually increased. By 1690, the RAC was the main supplier of slaves to the New World, while Dutch merchants had the largest share of the gold trade.
Trade rivalry with the Dutch was both a cause and a result of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67). Despite the king’s reluctance, the Duke of York and his friends, frustrated by Dutch competition, were eager to gain a monopoly for the English company. At the end of 1663, a naval expedition was sent to West Africa led by none other than Sir Robert Holmes. He has been accused of starting the war and, though hostilities would have broken out anyway, he certainly threw petrol on the flames. He rampaged along the coast from the Gambia to the Volta estuaries, sinking some ships, taking others as prizes and capturing trading posts.
The Second Anglo-Dutch War was a total disaster for England, made worse by the plague visitation of 1665 and the Great Fire of London the following year. Most of the fighting took place in the
Sea, where a series of bruising naval battles proved immensely costly in ships and men to both sides, but culminated in a humiliating Dutch raid on the naval base at Chatham in June 1667. In the
Caribbean, France joined with Holland in wresting prosperous tropical colonies from English control and, though the Dutch ceded New York to the English, at the time this was not regarded as an important concession.
Meanwhile, in West Africa, Holmes’s audacious attack was revenged in spades. Admiral Michiel de Ruyter recaptured all the lost trading posts with the exception of Cape Coast Castle (which now became the Royal African Company’s headquarters). The losses and the disruption of its mercantile activities bankrupted the company which, to all intents and purposes, ceased trading after 1665. The RAC maintained its technical rights but could only protect them by granting licences to private traders. In 1669, it relinquished its interest in the Gambia to a newly formed Company of Gambia Adventurers. By this time, the steady development of plantation
agriculture in the West Indies had made the slave trade the most lucrative form of commercial activity. Ships from many nations jostled with each other for a slice of the action. The principal countries involved were England, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden and Brandenburg. By the end of the century, on the Gold Coast alone there were 100 or so foreign depots within a 400-kilometre stretch of coast.
By 1672, the Royal African Company had sufficiently recovered to resume its place as a major commercial entity in the region. Recapitalised and with merchants, rather than courtiers taking up most of the stock, the RAC entered into a contract to supply 5,600 slaves per year to the Caribbean mainland and island plantations, and to Virginia.
In the 1680s, the company was transporting about 5,000 enslaved people a year to markets primarily in the Caribbean across the Atlantic. Many were branded with the letters "DoY", for its Governor, the Duke of York, who succeeded his brother on the throne in 1685, becoming
II. Other slaves were branded with the company's initials, RAC, on their chests. Historian William Pettigrew has stated that this company "shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade", and that investors in the company were fully aware of its activities and intended to profit from this exploitation.
TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE
The transatlantic slave trade was essentially a triangular route from Europe to Africa, to the Americas and back to Europe. On the first leg, merchants exported goods to Africa in return for enslaved Africans, gold, ivory and spices. The ships then
traveled across the Atlantic to the American colonies where the Africans were sold for sugar, tobacco, cotton and other produce. The Africans were sold as slaves to work on plantations and as domestics. The goods were then transported to Europe. There was also two-way trade between Europe and Africa, Europe and the Americas and between Africa and the Americas.
Britain was one of the most successful slave-trading countries. Together with Portugal, the two countries accounted for about 70% of all Africans transported to the Americas. Britain was the most dominant between 1640 and 1807 and it is estimated that Britain transported 3.1 million Africans (of whom 2.7 million arrived) to the British colonies in the Caribbean, North and South America and to other countries.
BRITAIN FACING UP TO HIDDEN SLAVERY HISTORY - COMPENSATION
PAID: A little known fact, is the enormous cost of abolition of slavery for the taxpayer – the British government spent £20 million, a staggering 40% of its budget in 1833, to buy freedom for slaves. That’s equivalent to approximately £20bn today, making it one of the biggest ever government bailouts. The cost was so high, the vast loans the government took out to fund it were only just paid off in 2015.
This is mind-boggling stuff, but if you’re thinking you can’t put a price on freedom, brace yourself for bad news – the money didn’t go to the slaves, but to their owners. That’s right: the British taxpayer, until 2015 was paying off debts that the government racked up in order to compensate British slave owners for their loss of ‘property’. Records show that ancestors of former Prime Minister David Cameron and authors George Orwell and Graham Greene all profited at the time from these massive pay-outs, as did Prime Minister William Gladstone, who helped his father claim for £106,769. That’s a payment of around £83 million in today’s money, to just a single family.
Previous works about Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade are relatively few and far between – especially compared to the preponderance of stories about the US. There’s Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, a 2006 film about abolitionist William Wilberforce – although Romero points out it doesn’t include the participation of black abolitionists and runaway slaves in the movement, and the film was accused of “prettifying” the subject at the time of its release. There’s Amma Asante’s 2013 movie Belle, which features the Zong insurance case, where the owner of a British slave ship tried to claim for lost ‘cargo’ – read human lives – after ill slaves were thrown overboard.
And what’s even more shocking is that supposedly freed slaves were in fact committed to six to 12 years of further service as unpaid ‘apprentices’, meaning slave owners were compensated to the tunes of millions – and continued to get free labour. It wasn’t until 1838 that these admittedly wildly contentious apprenticeships were abolished too, and slaves in the British Empire were truly emancipated.
When journalist-turned-playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero read about this bailout, she was so stunned, she knew she had to write a play about it – and help put the story in the public consciousness. “What blew me away was here I was, a working woman, a descendent of the transatlantic slave trade, and I helped pay off this massive loan,” says Romero, whose parents came to the UK from Trinidad and Barbados in the 1960s. “That added urgency to what I wanted to write – I just thought I’ve got to get this out there.”
Her play, 'The Whip', was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Romero fictionalises various real-life characters from the battle to get the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 through the House of Commons, the deals and compromises that had to be made, as well as the role that women, working people, and runaway slaves played in the campaign. It includes a character inspired by proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and another based on Mary Prince, a former slave who became the first black woman in Britain to petition Parliament, and to write a memoir.
A trading system known as the “triangular trade” was created to obtain sugar and other goods. Ships left Bristol, Liverpool and London carrying textiles, gunpowder, silk and other goods. These were then traded in Africa for slaves. The slaves were taken to the Caribbean and America to work on plantations, where they were exchanged for sugar, cotton, spices and rum. These goods were then taken back to Britain and sold.
Over 30 million people were taken from West Africa and sold into slavery
They were transported in horrific conditions often beaten and mutilated, with one in five failing to survive the journey. Those that did survive could only expect to live another 2 to 4 years, so bad were the working conditions in the plantations. Many slaves tried to escape or rebel, and even suicides were a daily occurrence.
Many people were horrified by the brutality of the slave trade and wanted to stop it. This led the people who supported it to develop theories to justify what they were doing. They claimed that some slaves had caught a rapidly spreading disease, the symptoms of which made the slaves run away! Blacks were naturally lazy, people were told, which is why they hated working on the plantation. Defenders of the slave trade also said that blacks were less intelligent than whites; they were “sub-human” and had tails. These ideas were backed by church leaders, writers and academics and soon a large number of myths about black people were spread about Europe. “The African slave in America was happier than in his own
civilization”— slavery supporter quoted in CLR James “The Black Jacobins”.
Ships involved in the colonial trade were first required to be registered in 1696. Registers survive from 1786 in BT 6/191-193 and BT 107 (indexes in BT 111). Only four volumes for Liverpool, 1739-1774, have survived for ships registered before 1786 because of a fire at Customs House. These registers are held by the Merseyside Maritime Museum.
Prior to clearing from a British port, the master first had to obtain a pass from the Admiralty. These licenses and those relating to travelling in convoy are in ADM 7. At the port, the master of the ship had to provide the collector of customs with a written list of the cargo to calculate duty. The details were written up in Port Books (E 190). Other records may have been collected at the various customs houses (the records of customs out ports are in CUST series), however many have been lost due to fires, riots and war. In addition to customs duty, between 1698 and 1713 British merchants involved in the Africa trade had to pay 10% tax on goods exported to Africa. This tax was levied to maintain the African Company’s forts etc. The duty ledgers are in T 70/349-356.
CAMPAIGN TO ABOLISH THE SLAVE TRADE
Anti-slavery campaigners lobbied for twenty years to end the trade and the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in Britain on 25 March 1807. It was declared that from the 1 May 1807 ‘all manner of dealing and reading in the purchase, sale, barter, or transfer of slaves or of persons intending to be sold, transferred, used, or dealt with as slaves, practiced or carried in, at, or from any part of the coast or countries of Africa shall be abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful’. Slavery was abolished in 1834 but in reality for many of those enslaved it continued until at least 1838 through
Researchers looking at the campaign for abolition will find material in a wide variety of regional collections and personal papers. As the campaigns were organised in different towns and cities across the country, it is well worth searching for sources in local collections.
The formal abolition campaign was launched in 1787. The campaign in Parliament can be followed in printed parliamentary debates and in Parliamentary Papers. A full list can be found online at Hansard. It is often worth checking parliamentary papers for any large event involving the slave trade as it is likely it was mentioned, if not discussed, in Parliament.
Enslaved Africans played a role in abolition with regular and persistent resistance. Search
the National Archives catalogue, limiting the record series to ‘CO’, and using key words such as ‘slave AND rebellion’ and ‘slave AND uprising’. The abolitionist campaign after 1791 was greatly affected by the slave revolt in Saint Domingue and, after 1793, by the war with revolutionary France. Records relating to both events can be found in The
British National Archives in series such as T 81, T 64, CO 137, CO 245, ADM 1, WO 1, FO 27 and FO 72.
The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in Britain in March 1807. But the international campaign against slavery (as distinct from the trade) continued and it was not until 1833 that legislation was passed in the British
Parliament starting the process for the abolition of slavery itself.
THE BRITISH ROYAL NAVY
The Royal Navy played a key role in Britain’s efforts to suppress the slave trade, including seizing ships believed to be involved in the illegal trade. These ships could then be tried at Mixed Commission Courts and vice-Admiralty courts.
Prior to the 1807 act that abolished the British slave trade, the Royal Navy was inevitably involved in the trade itself, as a function of protecting the national interest at sea.
The Royal Navy was little different to any large organisation today, with individual officers and men holding differing opinions about slavery. One or two of the more successful naval officers owned plantations in the Americas, and it was also not unknown for officers to have personal slaves on board their ships, although the practice was officially forbidden by the Admiralty.
Contradictorily, the Royal Navy had its own enslaved Africans in its dockyards in Jamaica and Antigua and as part of its job it escorted slave ships down the African coast and fought major battles for control of the valuable 'sugar islands' of the West Indies.
The slave-based economy of the British West Indies was flourishing, and its share of the world coffee and sugar production was sustaining Britain as she turned her face toward war.
While the 1807 act made trading in slaves illegal, there had been little consideration about how best to enforce the legislation. A quarter of all Africans who were enslaved in the period 1500-1870 were transported across the Atlantic after 1807. The Atlantic slave trade was not extinguished in a few years, as many had hoped.
The Foreign Office had to persuade other nations to enter into treaties prohibiting the slave trade and empower British naval officers to arrest the slavers. As defects in the treaties became plain, yet more diplomatic manoeuvring was needed.
Ultimately, it took nearly 60 years of untiring diplomacy and naval patrolling to finally abolish the Atlantic slave trade.
By the 1850s, around 25 vessels and 2,000 officers and men were on the station, supported by nearly 1,000 'Kroomen', experienced fishermen recruited as sailors from what is now the coast of modern Liberia.
The prospect of prize money paid to naval officers and men for captured ships, and 'head money' for released slaves may have made the duty more bearable, but it is likely that only a few senior officers saw any profit in the campaign.
Rewards may well have cemented the humanitarian impulse, though one cannot doubt the evangelical zeal with which many officers and men alike took up the task of anti-slavery patrolling.
The pursuit and capture of slave ships became celebrated naval engagements, widely reported back in peace-time Britain with its expanding print culture, and was often memorialised in souvenir engravings.
The night-time fire-fight of 6 June 1829 between the schooner 'Pickle' and the slaver 'Voladora' was well-known, as were the exploits of the schooner 'Monkey' against Spanish slave brigs off the Bahamas later that month.
HMS 'Buzzard' successfully chased and engaged the slaver 'Formidable' in 1834, the 'Electra' brought down a Carolina slaver with its human cargo in 1838, and 'Acorn' captured the rogue 'Gabriel' in the summer of 1841, to name just a few of the many sensationalised actions.
An expectant public could follow vivid accounts in the newspapers, while many of these 'battles' were also reported at home in
water colours and oil paintings, which helped sustain the positive reputation of the Navy, while also maintaining public interest in Britain's suppression activities.
Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example against 'the usurping King of Lagos', deposed in 1851.
Lines between the politics of slavery suppression and British expansionist ambitions become blurred. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers.
The Royal Navy's role in the suppression of the transoceanic slave trades represents a remarkable episode of sustained humanitarian activity, involving patient diplomacy and problematic wrangling over treaty arrangements, dangerous and exacting naval operations, and intense political debate at home questioning the cost and purpose of the patrols.
Yet any retrospective, historical self-congratulation may be tempered with an awareness of the facts. Britain was the pre-eminent slave trading nation during the 18th century and illegal British slave trading continued for many years after the passing of the 1807 act.
One can be certain that the high ideals of abolition and the promotion of legitimate trade were equally matched by economic and territorial ambitions, impulses which brought forward partition and colonial rule in Africa in the late 19th century.