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The Slave Trade

Liverpool and the Slave Trade

At the heart of the institution of slavery was the TRIANGULAR TRADE. This trade started with ships being loaded in Bristol or Liverpool with goods such as salt, cloth, weapons, hardware, beads and rum. These ships, known as slavers, would then sail south to the west coast of Africa, to modern day Sierra Leone, Senegal and Nigeria. When they landed in Africa, the captains traded these goods with African chiefs who gave the slavers able bodied men and women in return.

The slaves were loaded into the holds of the ships and transported across the Atlantic to America. This part of the trade was known as the middle passage and about 25% of the slaves died during the voyage. They were crammed together in the hold with no room to move, no sanitation and they were kept in chains. those who died were hastily thrown over the side into the sea. The voyage ended in the slaves being sold to the plantation owners of the West Indies, and the southern states of the USA.

When the slavers had emptied their holds of slaves were then filled with sugar, molasses, tobacco, rum and cotton. The ships now sailed back to Bristol and Liverpool where the whole process began again. Many fortunes were made in Bristol and Liverpool and at least one Prime Minister's family fortune was built on the triangular trade.

It has been estimated that perhaps as many as 10 million Africans were supplied to America from Africa over period of 400 years.

The triangular pattern of the slave trade helped it to grow quickly. The money made from selling the products of slave labour in Europe was invested in further slave trading voyages. These then supplied plantations with more slave labour with which to produce more crops such as sugar, coffee, tobacco, rice and later, cotton.

Background to the Slave Trade
slave ship
A reconstruction of the cramped space slaves travelled in

Between 1700 and 1800, Liverpool in north-west England was transformed from not much more than a fishing village into one of the busiest slave-trading ports in the world and thence into a general trading port and city without peer in the 19th and 20th Centuries.
An estimated 15 million Africans were transported as slaves to the Americas between 1540 and 1850. Ships from Liverpool accounted for more than 40% of the European slave trade. The town and its inhabitants derived great wealth from the trade. It laid the foundations for the town's growth. It is no exaggeration to say that the grand buildings which grace Liverpool's waterfront and inner heart today were built with the blood money of slavery. In order to understand how and why Liverpool flourished in this way, it is necessary to explain something about the nature of the Slave Trade.
After the European discovery of the Americas and West Indies, land was distributed to Europeans who founded plantations to grow commodities much sought after back home. These included sugar, tobacco and cotton. In order to produce goods at a profitable rate, cheap labour was required to work the plantations. At first, the native people of America and the West Indies were used as slaves but overwork, disease and ill-treatment led to serious labour shortages. Attempts were then made to obtain labour from Ireland and England. English servants could gain free passage and the promise of land, by agreeing to be bound to an employer  for a set number of years, but few took up the offer.

Why Slaves From Africa?

Europeans were trading in Africa as well as the New World. Slavery already existed in Africa, where tribes enslaved people from other ethnic groups, as prisoners of war, in payment for debt or as a punishment for crimes. African slaves started to be shipped to the plantations in the Americas. To meet the increasing demand from European traders, there was a marked increase in the numbers of wars, raids and kidnapping of individuals, particularly on the west coast. Landowners in the Americas quickly concluded that African slaves were more suitable than the English or Irish. The reasons usually stated for African slaves being preferred is that they could easily be bought from traders on the West African coast and were more immune to disease than indigenous Americans or imported white slaves. Although there is some truth in these arguments, the main reason was that Africans made good slave labourers because many of them were skilled artisans. However the hard life of a slave meant nearly one-third of all slaves dying within three years, creating a constant demand to replace them. Thus started a notorious period in British and American history: that of the Slave Trade.

A Slave Ship
The struggle to end the transatlantic slave trade and slavery was achieved by African resistance and economic factors as well as through humanitarian campaigns.

The most prominent abolitionists, notably Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, were great publicists. Wilberforce (1759-1833) led the British parliamentary campaign to abolish the slave trade and slavery.

portrait of a man sat at a desk writing with a quill
‘Portrait of William Roscoe’ 

Opinion in Europe was also changing. Moral, religious and humanitarian arguments found more and more support. A vigorous campaign to achieve abolition began in Britain in 1783 and also developed in North America and the Caribbean, often led by the Black churches. In Britain, Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) was another prominent campaigner who was principally responsible for collecting evidence against the trade. Clarkson was a founder member of the society for effecting the abolition of the slave trade in 1787. In Liverpool, William Roscoe was one of the best known abolitionists. He wrote poetry and pamphlets in favour of abolition. Opinion in Liverpool was generally pro-slavery and like other abolitionists, Roscoe tended to work behind the scenes rather than openly declaring his views. An active counter campaign was mounted by those who profited from slavery. The West India lobby of plantation owners and their supporters in the British Parliament fought abolition. Although ultimately unsuccessful, they gained 20 million pounds compensation for plantation owners for the loss of their slaves. Ex-slaves were not compensated. Despite the abolition of slave trading by Britain and other countries from 1807 onwards, illegal trading continued for a further 60 years. About a quarter of all Africans who were enslaved between 1500 and 1870 were transported across the Atlantic in the years after 1807. Much of this illegal trade was to the sugar plantations of Cuba and Brazil.

For more information about Liverpool and the Slave Trade visit

Liverpool Museums

International Slavery Museum

Slave Trade publications

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