Britain’s slave trade involved ships from around the country. The ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol dominated the trade though. London, as home of the Royal African Company benefited greatly from early transatlantic trade. Bristol grew in importance in the early 18th century. Liverpool was the largest port still working triangular trade when the slave trade was abolished. The slave trade brought in much wealth and became embedded into civic life in these areas. Through investments and sale of goods through these ports, most parts of Britain had involvement in the trade.
Why did specialisation in the Slave Trade emerge?
Over 20 ports sent ships on Slaving voyages. Most of these ports sent very few though, a handful for most of these ports. Why was it the case that such a lucrative trade became limited to three major ports? The answer lay in the complexity of the Slave Trade. A ship engaged in a traditional triangular trade route would be likely to be away from her home port for over a year. This meant that the owners needed to have a reasonably sized fleet in order to have regular income. Smaller companies and ports simply couldn’t afford this, or the risk of loss making journeys: a sizeable number of voyages made a loss, it wasn’t a given that profit would be made.
Each stage of the voyage and the trades made required knowledge. Loading in British ports required the company to have a range of suppliers. The orders that they were fulfilling could be quite varied. The stereotype is of guns and cheaply produced metalware but the reality was that these ships were also fulfilling orders for tribal chiefs, rich planters and wealthy Americans. To do this, you need sound administrative staff. The trade in Africa was complicated too. Slaves may or may not be available at the port where the goods were unloaded. Local conditions may have changed. Knowledge of the different ports, African kingdoms and links with the Navy were important. Again, this takes time and money to build up. In the West Indies or North America there were thousands of Plantations. Knowing which ones had a demand for slaves and where to get the produce required for the journey back to Europe is time consuming. The odds are that these will require the ship to dock more than once, involving the risk of runaway slaves, rebellion and attack.
Quite simply, the Slave Trade was a global trade. It incorporated a large number of transactions from all corners of the world. This was a job that needed to be carefully managed. The trade was also highly dangerous due to the risk of Piracy and attacks on the vessel as it docked, disembarked or by slaves during the Middle passage.
Why did Liverpool come to dominate the British Slave fleet?
There are a number of reasons why Liverpool rose to dominate the trade in slaves. It also became a popular port for non slave related commerce. One reason is that the entrepreneurs of Liverpool identified the potential of canals so early. It is no coincidence that people like John Ashton can be found listed as Slavers and significant shareholders in the Sankey Canal. Construction of the canal network in the North West made transport from the Midlands, the mills of Lancashire and later of Yorkshire much quicker and cheaper. This gave it an edge over Bristol.
Liverpool’s rise was partly due to the increased success and specialisms elsewhere. The docks of London were focussing more on Sugar and the East Indies. To the North, Glasgow was established as the centre for importing of tobacco. With these lucrative areas being taken elsewhere the businessmen of Liverpool capitalised on the Slave Trade as it was quite simply the most profitable thing left to trade.
The Port of Liverpool received the largest volume of goods from ships involved in triangular trade (though London received the most benefit financially). Ships that embarked on slaving voyages from Liverpool carried over 1.4 million slaves from Africa to the Americas (Source).
Why did some ports become Slave ports while others did not?
Slaving ships set sail from many British ports. Not all participated though and the trade was dominated by the three goliaths of the British Slave Trade. There are several reasons for the dominance of the three English ports: and similar reasons exist in other Slaving nations where the pattern is similar.
For the transatlantic slave trade to be profitable the ships needed to be able to carry large cargoes. This way they could undertake triangular trade and maximise profit. These vessels carried manufactured goods, weapons, sugar and other food stuff as well as slaves. To do this, they needed to be able to dock at deep water ports. This immediately limits the number of available departure ports.
Location is of importance. On the whole, Slaving ports of the European nations are on the Atlantic coastline. England is unusual in that Liverpool and London are not, though both ports have relatively easy access via the North Sea and Channel respectively. Sea voyages take time. Minimising the distances involved is important.
Other deep water ports had other uses. Either they were managed by the Royal Navy, were better suited to trade with Europe or harboured fishing fleets.
Liverpool, London and Bristol each had local industry that could benefit from the goods returning on the ships. London, for example, had a large market for the Sugar and food that was brought from plantations. Liverpool saw cotton taken to the mills. Bristol has easy access into Southern England and the Midlands and so can distribute goods widely and with ease. They also had manufacturing close to these ports and so the outbound journey could easily be supplied with goods.
Each of these cities had good internal connections. Rivers flow into each. Canals were dug. This enabled commercial ventures from across the country to make use of these ports. Other ports didn’t always have those connections, leading to specialisation.
Is all Slave related activity through these ports?
Far from it. While the vessels that carried the slaves themselves were by and large sailing from these ports, others were involved. This is because of the various demands for goods from the places at which ships were trading. Glass beads were highly sought after in Africa, as an example. This led to Liverpool merchants purchasing glass from Italy and shipping it to Britain. They also needed to ship goods brought to London by the East India Company to Liverpool for trading in Africa, West Indies and North America. These trading routes sometimes saw a simple transfer at docks in the main Slaving ports but often saw the imported goods landing at one port and then being moved to the Slaving port. This could see goods manufactured in Northern Europe land at one of the North Sea Ports and then be transported via ship, canal or road to another port for the next stage of it’s trading route.
Britain’s Slave Ports: Links
This pdf document has data about journeys from each of the ports known to have sent Slave ships.
The National Archives have a pdf document about the Slave Trade in general here.
Liverpool Maritime Museums host the text of a lecture on the port cities involved in the Slave Trade. It is a particularly useful read on the topic.
The British Empire – Making of the United Kingdom – Economic Consequences of the British Empire– How did the Empire affect Great Britain? – Society changes: Political Thought and the British Empire – Questions about the British Empire – British Empire Teaching Resources