Thursday, February 22, 2007

Britain and the slave trade

This post owes a great deal to Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (Picador, 1997). See here for a time-line of slavery and abolition. See here for an excellent website on slavery and abolition.

Here are a couple of typically bland items from the 20 November 1762 issue of Felix Farley's Bristol Journal.
‘Arrived at Virginia, the Hector Chilcott, last from Angola, with 512 slaves.’
‘Tuesday died in Queen-square Mr King, Commander of a Ship in the African Trade.’
In 1698 the Royal African Company lost its monopoly and the trade was thrown open. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht awarded Britain the contract (asiento) to import slaves to the Spanish Indies. The government sold the privilege to the South Sea Company. A torchlight procession through London greeted the news of the grant. In addition to its requirement to carry 4,800 slaves annually for 30 years it had to pay the Spanish king thirty-three and a half pesos in silver for each captive delivered safe and sound. The South Sea Company agreed to buy in Africa the slaves required from the Royal African Company; take them to Jamaica where the ‘weakest’ would be eliminated; then carry the prime slaves to the Spanish market. The new South Sea Company established factories at Barbados and Port Royal, Jamaica for the shipment of slaves onwards to the Spanish ports (Cartagena, Panama, Veracruz, Buenos Aires, Havana).
The South Sea Company survived the Bubble of 1720. Between 1715 and 1731 it sold about 64,000 slaves to the Spaniards. In 1720 nearly 150 ships were engaged, mostly from Bristol and London, but a few also set out from Liverpool and Glasgow. The Royal African Company also revived its fortunes.

By the early eighteenth century Bristol had overtaken London as the main base for dealing in slaves. Between 1721 and 1730 the British carried over 100,000 slaves to the Americas: of these nearly 40,000 went to Jamaica, over 20,000 to Barbados, about 10,000 to mainland colonies such as South Carolina and nearly 50,000 to British Caribbean colonies. Between 1723 and 1725 about 56 ships a year left London; 34 left Bristol and 11 Liverpool. Between 1728 and 1732 Bristol was sending nearly 50 ships to Africa, sending well over 100,000 slaves on them. Merchants from Bristol were also pioneers in the business of carrying slaves to Virginia and in moving slaves from one North American colony to another.

Bristol’s pre-eminence lasted barely 20 years. In 1726 Defoe called Liverpool ‘the Bristol of this part of England’. The Mersey basin was deeper than the Avon and Frome, the rivers on which Bristol was built. The first recorded slave ship was the Liverpool Merchant of 1700 which carried 220 slaves to Barbados. By 1740 it was sending 33 ships a year to Africa. Thereafter the total grew. The Isle of Man was a warehouse of smuggled goods which enabled Liverpool merchants to evade duty. (They also provisioned for the journey in Kinsale in order to avoid tax.) While Bristol merchants tended to remain faithful to safe old anchorages in the Gold Coast and Angola, the Liverpool merchants struck out anew to seek Africans in Sierra Leone, Gabon and the Cameroons. In 1753 four families had private carriages in Liverpool; three were owned by slave merchants. Unlike Bristol, the Liverpool slavers were the founders of dynasties: the Leylands, the Cunliffes, the Bolds and the Kennions. Penny Lane is thought to have been named after the slave trader James Penny. The facade of the Liverpool Exchange carried the heads of Africans with elephants in a frieze and one street was commonly known as ‘Negro Row’.

See here for Liverpool's 2007 commemoration of the slave trade.

Jamaica had by now over overtaken Barbados as the prize colony. In 1712 her production of sugar already exceeded that of Barbados. The richest planter, Peter Beckford, owned at his death (1735) nine sugar plantation and was part owner of seven more. His son William, Wilkeite MP for the City, was the most powerful businessman in the City and was twice Lord Mayor.

The plantations
From a Board of Trade report presented to George I in 1721 it is possible to build up a picture of Britain’s colonies and plantations. What emerged clearly was that the Caribbean islands (St Kitts, Barbados, Jamaica) were of greater commercial value to Britain than mainland North America. North America provided 26 % of Britain’s imports and took 49% of her exports; the Caribbean 74% and 52%. However the white population of the West Indies was only 32,000 as opposed to 234,000 in North America.

In the first decade of the 18th century slaves began to be imported in substantial numbers onto the North American mainland in order to counter an acute labour shortage. Over 3,500 slaves were carried to South Carolina between May 1721 and September 1726. In 1732 there were in that colony probably 14,000 white people and 32,000 blacks: the first time a black majority was registered in an English colony on the mainland. Their task was to clear the cypress swamps and plant and harvest rice. Advertisements for ‘prime slaves’ and ‘strong, stout, hearty negroes’ were soon seen everywhere. From 1723 ships from Newport (RI) carried rum to Africa in exchange for slaves.

In the middle of the 17th century it became clear to English colonists that sugar was commercially the greatest asset to be drawn out of the West Indies. In Britain per capita consumption of sugar rose from c. 2lb per annum in the 1660s to 13 lb per annum in the 1720s. English commerce was integral to the West Indian sugar economy by shipping slaves from West Africa to meet the huge demands for labour on the plantations. Between 1720 and 1729 British vessels took on board some 243,000 slaves in Africa and delivered c. 211,000 to America.
On the sugar islands the shortage and high cost of white labour created the demand. In West Africa local authorities made available a plentiful supply at an attractive price. The numerical balance on the sugar islands shifted dramatically and in 1722 there were 11 slaves to every free white in Jamaica. Conditions were extremely harsh, but it was harsh for all peoples - neither whites nor blacks reproduced themselves demographically.
Approximately one fifth of the population of the thirteen colonies were slaves.

Imports to Africa
The cargo most generally carried was cloth, which the Africans liked to wear untailored, wrapping the cloths around them. Perhaps 85% of English textile exports went to Africa before 1750 and over 40% during the following twenty years. Metal goods were also valued. Cowrie shells from the Maldives served as a unit of currency in west Africa. From the middle of the 17th century weapons were sold as West Africans developed a taste for muskets. Gunpowder was also popular. Alcohol was an increasingly valued commodity. West Africans had their own palm wine but came to enjoy European spirits, with rum replacing brandy by the end of the 17th century.

The slave traders
Over the period 1761-1807 the slave trade yielded an average of just under 10% on invested capital.

The typical slave trader was interested in all kinds of commerce as well as slaves. John Brown of Providence was also concerned with whaling to make spermaceti candles. He had a splendid mansion in Providence and was also a noted philanthropist - he founded Brown University.

Many of the Bristol slavers had houses in Queen Square, the first Georgian square in the city. Successful slave owners and merchants would often buy substantial country properties or invest in art. John Pinney, who owned a slave plantation in Nevis, built this house in Great George Street from the profits. It is now the Georgian House Museum and contains an exhibition showing the lives of the slaves on the plantations.

John Pinney's son, Charles, nearly married William Wilberforce's daughter, Elizabeth, until she came to see that the marriage would have been impossible. Charles became Mayor of Bristol and in 1834 he received £20,000 in compensation for the loss of his estates.

Most slave voyages were financed not by individual merchants but by partnerships, with six or more merchants participating.

All Christian denominations were involved in the slave trade. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had inherited the Codrington estate in Barbados. The slaves had the word 'Society' branded on them. Many Christians justified this involvement on the grounds that they were ‘redeeming an unhappy people from inconceivable misery’.

A typical slave ship would not have been a specialist vessel but a typical wooden cargo vessel. A high proportion of the British slave ships were naval prizes, the rest were built in British shipyards. The typical European slave ship would have been less than 200 tons burden. Such a ship, however, had to be armed because of the danger of pirates - though this decreased as the seas became safer in the 18th century. All ships were insured, often internationally.

Ordinary seamen were usually young men of low achievement and aspirations, who faced a life of poor pay, vile conditions and danger. The former slave trader turned Evangelical clergyman, John Newton declared: ‘There is no trade in which seamen are treated with so little humanity.’ At least a fifth of the crew usually died.
Slave mortality in the crossing fell from perhaps 15 to 20% at the beginning of the century to round 10% or less after 1783. But this varied greatly from voyage to voyage.
Bristol Journal, Sat 15 Jan, 1763: ‘The Oldbury, Watkins, is blown up on the Coast of Africa, with near 500 slaves on board.’
The Somerset Judgement
Most black slaves in England had been brought back by sea captains. Their status was legally uncertain. Some had been legally emancipated. Dr Johnson's servant, Francis Barber, had been freed by his previous owner, Colonel Bathurst; similarly a black valet in the service of Sir Joshua Reynolds. But slaves were often put up for public sale in Bristol and Liverpool.

Granville Sharp, then a junior clerk in the Ordinance Office (grandson of an Archbishop of York) took up the case of James Somerset, who had been brought to England by his master, Charles Stewart of Boston, in 1769. He escaped in 1771, was recaptured, then put on board the Ann and Mary, whose captain was John Knowles, bound for Jamaica, where he was to be sold.

The case came before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield on the Court of Kings Bench. Mansfield decided that there was no legal definition as to whether there could or could not be slaves in England. After procrastination, he decided the case on the ground that slavery was so odious that nothing could be suffered to support it except positive law. Somerset therefore was freed. There was general rejoicing among the many blacks present at the hearing. However in 1779 Mansfield stated that his judgment went no further than to determine that the master had no right to compel the slave to go into a foreign country. Little changed in the Caribbean and Africa, yet the judgment affected public opinion. 1779 saw the last known sale of a slave in England (in Liverpool).

Opposition grows
In 1774 John Wesley, who had seen slaves sold in Georgia, published his Thoughts on Slavery:
‘I would to God it [the slave trade] may never be found more: that we may never more steal and sell our brethren like beasts; never murder by thousands. Oh, may this worse than Mohammadan, worse than pagan abomination be removed from us for ever. Never was anything such a reproach to England, since it was a nation, as the having a hand in this infernal traffic.’
He struck a new note in his prediction that the time for repentance would soon come for England.

In 1780 with the war with Britain coming to an end, Pennsylvania abolished slavery; though the law applied only to future generations and delayed freedom for any slave until they had reached the age of 28. Between 1780 and 1804 similar acts of gradual or qualified emancipation were carried through in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Upper and Lower Canada.

In 1783 William Cowper’s poem Charity denounced the slave merchant who ‘grows rich on cargo of despair’.

In June 1783 a Quaker anti-slave-trade petition was presented to the Commons. It argued, in a fusion of Christian and Enlightenment thought, that the trade was inconsistent not only with Christianity, but also with humanity, justice and the natural rights of mankind generally.

The case of the Zong
This was a Liverpool slave ship. Its master was Luke Collingwood, its owners William Gregson and George Case, Liverpool merchants. In September 1781 it sailed with 442 slaves from São Tomé off the west coast of Africa. In between Jamaica San Domingue (Haiti) the ship lost its way, water became short, and many slaves died or became ill. Collingwood called together his officers and said that if the slaves on board were to die naturally the loss would be that of the owners of the ship; but if on some pretext affecting the safety of the crew they were to be thrown alive into the sea it would be the loss of the underwriters. Therefore 133 slaves, most of whom were sick and not likely to live, were thrown into the sea.

When the ship returned home the insurers disputed the captain’s claim. The owners therefore brought a suit against the insurers, demanding to be paid £30 for each slave, and were backed in King’s Bench; the underwriters then petitioned the Court of the Exchequer. In allowing the case to go to another court, Lord Mansfield remarked that the jury had to decide whether the slaves were thrown overboard from necessity
‘for they had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard)'.
By this time Collingwood was dead. The barrister for the owners argued that
‘So far from the charge of murder lying against these people, there is not the least imputation - of cruelty. I will not say - but [even] of impropriety’.
However Granville Sharp tried to prosecute the murderers in the Court of Admiralty but failed. The Solicitor-General, John Lee, deplored his ‘pretended appeal to humanity’, and declared that a master could drown slaves without ‘a surmise of impropriety’. But public opinion was turning. Sharp now had the support of most of the bishops, most notably Beilby Porteus, bishop of Chester. 1783 was the last year in which the Liverpool Quaker timber firm of Rathbone and Son supplied timber for the African trade. Even in Liverpool, therefore, opposition to the trade was building up. This was four years before Wilberforce took up the cause of abolition.