Slave Economy

The Slave Economy saw a combination of the trade in slaves, colonisation and industrialisation transform international trade. Slavery was a major driving force behind the alterations to economics of the 17th and 18th centuries. The opportunities for trading goods manufactured in emerging industrial towns and cities in exchange for Slaves and goods in West Africa were great. The demand for tropical crops was high, the opportunity to transport, relatively quickly, Slaves to the new world to produce these crops in high volume led to a triangular trade system that altered British economic relationships.

Background to the Slave Economy

The first African slaves to be sent to the Americas were sent by King Ferdinand of Spain. In 1510 some 200 slaves were sent to work on Spanish settlements. Soon there was demand in the New World for more labour and to satisfy this, the Spanish introduced licenses allowing merchants from several European nations to sell Slaves in their overseas territories. As colonisation of the Americas increased, so too did the demand for slaves. The Spanish and Portuguese developed large Slave economies in South America, the French did the same in North America and the British in the Caribbean and North America. By the end of the 16th century some 200000 African slaves had been transported to work in the Americas. The 17th Century saw an increase. By the end of Transatlantic trading in Slaves, some 12 million Africans are believed to have arrived in the Americas. Of these, 3.25 million were carried from West Africa in British ships. (Note: this does not include the numbers believed to have perished in the Middle Passage).

The Slave Economy resulted in wealth being generated in Great Britain. Several ports and cities grew rapidly as a result of Slavery.

Slave Economy: Guns for Slaves?

The perfect business arrangement is a situation in which the merchant has a cycle of profit. If the merchant can put a chain of sales and profit making events into place, minimising time wasted and having a full cargo load, then profit will be high. In the 17th century such a cycle was possible.

Workforce required

As colonisation of the new world took place, it brought a demand for new, tropical crops. People in Europe craved sugar. The only problem was that very few people wanted, indeed could, work on the sugar farms needed to produce sufficient crops to make journeys financially viable for mercantile fleets. The Spanish and Portuguese had attempted to farm sugar themselves. They suffered from tropical diseases, couldn’t work in the heat and the job was killing off Europeans. Indigenous peoples simply wouldn’t do the work. Slaves had been sent to the new world to work on developing the new colonies. These slaves did not suffer from disease as much as the Europeans. They could work on the production of sugar. Unlike the Indigenous peoples, they had little option but to work.

Slave Economy drives the demand for guns in West Africa

These slaves had been taken from West African nations. The West African area had a history of tribal chiefs selling off undesirables into slavery. A market had existed for some time. The Europeans now exploited this. Tribal leaders were clearly alarmed by changes in the area. The more that the Europeans visited, the less secure they felt. If other tribes were getting support from Industrialised Europe, they needed it too. What these leaders wanted was power. Security over their traditional lands and dominance of neighbours. The solution was simple. Exchange European guns for the Slaves that the African tribes had.

This worked well for both parties. Indeed, as demand for Slaves rose the chieftains became quite adept at rounding up more unwilling Slaves by marauding inland and seizing people. More people being enslaved meant larger Slave Ports, needing more protection, meaning that more guns could be sold to the Africans.

Slave Economy: Slaves for Sugar?

The concept of Triangular Trade shows that the Slaves bought in West Africa would be transported across the Atlantic. In the West Indies they would be sold to Sugar Plantation owners. In the North American colonies they would be sold into a wider variety of economic contexts. Cotton and Rice were the basis of Plantation style crop growth. However there were other uses for Slaves in the more moderate climate of the New England colonies and beyond.

Triangular Trade  excludes some of the slave economy related to produce from the North American colonies. Yes, there was a European market for cotton, for example, this in itself was not sufficient to convey fully laden vessels across the Atlantic back to Britain on each journey though. These North American colonies not only exported cotton resultant from a slave economy back to Europe but also traded extensively with the developing West Indies.

North America – West Indies Trade

For the empire to expand and be most efficient the newer colonies needed raw materials. The West Indies was abundant in land for growing Sugar. It lacked many of the resources needed to build. Trade between North American colonies and the tropical colonies of the Caribbean was therefore vital and mutually beneficial. It illustrates how colonialism, industrialisation and the slave economy could work together in a number of ways.

What set the British colonial empire aside from its rivals was not the quality of its sugar colonies but the involvement of the temperate colonies on the North American mainland.  Unlike the slave colonies created to exploit staple exports, English emigrants to the northern mainland sought to establish independent settlement.  These colonies lacked staple products and residents financed imports by exploited opportunities the empire provided providing for shipping and merchanising and compensating for the lack of European market for the timber or temperate agricultural products by exporting to the sugar colonies which, in turn, concentrated on the export staple.

C Knick Harley. Slavery, the British Atlantic economy and the Industrial Revolution. University of Oxford, Department of Economics.

Further Reading on the British Empire

Making of the United Kingdom

Making of the United Kingdom unit homepage – Glorious Revolution – The British in Ireland, 1688-1691 – Settlement of Ireland – Jacobite Opposition – Glencoe Massacre – Darien Scheme – Act of Union – Migration to the Americas

Economic Consequences of Empire

Economic Consequences of Empire – Unit homepage – Royal African Company – Triangular Trade – Lifting of the RAC monopoly – Plantations – The Slave Economy – Opposition to the Slave Trade in North America – Slave Resistance – East India Company – Expansion of trade in East India – Bank of England – South Sea Bubble Bursts

How did the Empire affect working lives and consumer habits in Britain?

Empire and consumerism – Involvement of the British population in the slave trade and the ‘slave ports’ – Emergence of consumerism

How did the Empire affect British politics and changing ideas?

Politics and changing ideas – Coffee houses and developing political activism – growth of ideas of a racial hierarchy and the impact on settled minority communities

Common questions about the British Empire

Questions about the British Empire – When did the British Empire start? – When did the British Empire end? – What countries were in the British Empire? – Why did Britain want an empire? – What was life like in the British Empire? – Was the British Empire a force for good or bad? – What is Is perfidious Albion? – How was the British Empire controlled?

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