The slave trade

The Slave Trade

The Start of the British Slave Trade

In 1562, John Hawkins returned to England from the Americas carrying ginger, hides, pearls and sugar, having sold the 300 enslaved Africans in Hispaniola – modern day Dominican Republic & Haiti. Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed with the success of the first voyage that she supported Hawkins’s further expeditions with the use of two of her ships, which would have been the most technologically advanced vessels of the time: the Jesus of Lubeck and the Minion.

Hawkins’s second expedition returned 60% profit for his investors. In the same year, Queen Elizabeth I awarded him a knighthood.

By the time Liverpool’s first slave ship, the Liverpool Merchant I, sailed from the dock in 1700, English settlers had established colonies on St. Christopher (St. Kitts), Barbados and Jamaica. King Charles II had established the Royal Africa Company in 1672 in order to meet the contract to transport and sell 5000 Africans per year in the Caribbean. In 1698, British parliament permitted private traders nationally to engage in the trade.

Once landed in the Americas, the captives were sold at auction after being inspected, as chattel, by prospective buyers.

It is estimated that more than 12 million African people were taken as slaves during the transatlantic slave trade, and countless more died in the process.


John Hawkins

John Hawkins, c. 1590

Image courtesy of National Maritime Museum, London



John Hawkins coat of arms

John Hawkins’s Crest
Hawkins gained the crest on being knighted by Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1588. He was said to be unashamed of the source of his wealth, and his crest bears the image of an African in bondage.

Image courtesy of


Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle, Ghana
The fort was captured from the Danish by the English in 1664. It was extensively rebuilt by a committee of merchants for the British colony in the late 18th century. It was one of many slave-holding forts along the West African coastline.

Image courtesy of Eliot Elisofson Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute


Slave inspection

Slave Inspection
This scene illustrates a description of slave trading in Cuba by a British naval officer, Richard Grant, who visited Havana in 1837. He described the slave market and the barracones, and reported on a "Spanish gentleman who had purchased eight slaves, and was selecting others . . ."

Image courtesy of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and University of Virginia


The Journey

Africans would be transported on ships, below decks, in chains, with barely enough room to sit up or turn over. The aim of the slave ship captains was to cram in as many people as possible, with the bare minimum of food and water to keep them alive, in order to maximise profits. The journey would take three months, and many died from disease, injury and starvation.

Life on the Plantations

Those strong enough to survive the journey through the ‘middle passage’ were put through the process of ‘seasoning’. This was a process meant to destroy the individual’s sense of freedom. The captives were prevented from speaking their languages, practising their religions, or expressing their cultural values. The newly enslaved people were subjected to extreme violence, with individuals being singled out in order to break the spirit of the people and ensure obedience. Slave laws were put into place in an attempt to prevent uprising and resistance among the enslaved Africans, who were put to work on sugar plantations in Jamaica and Barbados, cotton plantations in America, and tobacco plantations in St. Kitts.

Life on the plantation meant working on a forced labour camp. Unlike the previous indentured system of slavery on the islands, experienced by the Irish and very poor English, the enslaved Africans had no hope of ever being free. They were outside the protection of the law because they were considered property. Any African children born to enslaved parents were automatically considered the property of the master, and each individual could be bought and sold as often as deemed necessary.

To instil fear and create the slave society, discipline and punishment were inhumane and violent.



Leaflet Advertising a Slave Auction in Charleston, South Carolina, 1769
Charleston (names after King Charles II) was established in 1680 as the British capital of culture and wealth in the colonies in the southern states of North America. The 13 British colonies in North America gained their independence from British rule in 1776 after winning the American War of Independence.

Image courtesy of The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Maryland


A plantation

A Jamaican Plantation c. 18th Century

An eyewitness impression of the Worthy Park Sugar Plantation in the Jamaican parish of St. Catherine, from ‘The History of Worthy Park, 1670 – 1970’. The sugarcane plantation is still in operation supplying sugar for the production of Jamaica rum.

Image courtesy of University of Toronto Press


A Treadmill

‘An Interior View of a Jamaica House of Correction’, c. 1835

The man on left is being flogged, and at the bottom centre a woman is having her hair cut off. This illustration shows a scene during the Apprenticeship Period (1834-38), after the Emancipation Act of 1834 and over 20 years after the Abolition Act.

Image courtesy of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and University of Virginia


‘A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to the Gallows’, 1773

This illustration was based on a 1773 eyewitness description in Suriname, West Indies. An incision was made in the victim's ribs and a hook placed in the hole. In this case, the victim stayed alive for 3 days until clubbed to death by the sentry guarding him, whom he had insulted.

Image courtesy of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and University of Virginia