Slavery, Slave Trade, The Triangular Trade

Historical Context Essay

Christine Pagnoulle (Université de Liège)
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From Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century

Human slavery has been a feature of many different civilisations, from ancient times to the present day, providing one of the abhorrent mechanisms by which the unequal distribution of wealth and the demand for labour is resolved across the earth’s surface. Early Athenian society was notably reliant upon the labour of slaves and whilst slavery for Athenians was abolished by Solon in 594 BCE the practice of enslaving the people of other races continued throughout antiquity. Slaves comprised about one third of the population in the fifth to third centuries BCE and their lack of freedom and poor remuneration enabled the leisured Athenian elite to philosophise about the arts, democracy and liberty. Athenian slavey was mainly ended by Lycurgus after the Athenian defeat by Philip II of Macedon at the battle of Chaeronea (338 BCE). Roman society was also dependent on slavery from the second century BCE to the fourth century CE, vast numbers of conquered peoples being put to work in the agricultural and commodity production which sustained the Empire.

In the years following the decline of Rome, slavery continued to be a cultural norm. In the seventh century, Arabs and other Islamic tribes from the Middle East invaded Northern and Eastern Africa and soon turned their African prisoners into a commodity. They sold them both to fellow Muslims and to Christians. This Eastern slave trade lasted until the mid-twentieth century, and it is estimated that about 10 million women and 4 million men were sold, a figure which does not take into account the millions who died as they were marched to the market places. In Northern and Eastern Europe, Viking raiders in the ninth and tenth centuries preyed upon German, Celtic, Romance and Slav populations, sometimes working through Russian intermediaries, and sold their captives to Moorish Spain and North Africa.

From the thirteenth century onward, the trade in slaves largely contributed to the prosperity of Mediterranean trading ports such as Venice and Genoa, the Mongols in the East and the Arabs in Africa furnishing their markets. The main geographical source of slaves was what became “Eastern Europe”. Indeed the noun “Slav” is derived from “sclavus”/“slave”. The Ottoman empire was a notable purchaser of slaves from the fourteenth century, relying on slaves to serve as janissary soldiers, to man their ships, produce commodities and run their households, as well as, more luridly, fill their harems. Charshee McIntyre ( The Continuity of the International Slave Trade and Slave System,1990) observes that Venetians would sell “enslaved humans to the harems of Syria and Egypt/Kemet.” She suggests “Venetian merchants invented the institution later applied to the African trade. On the coasts of the Black Sea in the thirteenth century, they established bases of factories, which became thriving markets for the purchase of enslaved humans. These Italian merchants created joint stock companies ... along with a highly organized slave trade, securing captives from the Tartars. They established plantations in Cyprus to cultivate sugar cane.” Since sugar was then exported back to Venice, they had thus set up a triangular trade.

By the fifteenth century the Portuguese had established links with some African kingdoms and had built trading posts along the West Coast of Africa. The Spaniards, then the Dutch, the French and the English soon followed. While the traders also purchased ivory, gold and timber, the commodity Europeans were most interested in was African captives who could be transported and sold as slaves. This trade primarily involved the West African coast extending from the Senegal River to the Congo, with its centre around the town of Ouidah in Benin near the mouth the Niger river, an area called “the Slave Coast”. Along the coast holding pens were created by local African chiefs to hold slaves captured in raids inland, or brought to them by Arab slavers, sometimes travelling great distances to feed the demand of European merchants. Slaves were also obtained by traders purchasing children in times of famine or in exchange for debts. Sometimes criminals were also sold into slavery. European traders were prevented by the disease-ridden and inhospitable nature of the interior from travelling inland but vied for trade along the coast.

In the sixteenth century Spain controlled the slave trade in the Northern hemisphere, and Portugal that in the South – a domination which would continue until they banned the trade in 1836, Portuguese merchants shipping slaves from Angola and other countries south of the river Zaire (Congo) to to work in coffee and cocoa plantations in Brazil. But other European powers competed, notably the Germans, Danes, French, Swedish and British. British involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade was pioneered by Francis Drake and John Hawkins and Elizabeth I granted a monopoly in 1588. However it was after the Restoration in 1660 that Britain became the most important slaving nation. Charles II granted a 1000-year monopoly to the Royal Company of Adventurers Trading into Africa in his first year as restored monarch, rights which transferred to the Royal Afican Company in 1672-1698, after which Parliament opened the trade to all merchants in the British empire on payment of a 10% duty. After 1712 the Ten Percent Act expired and until the slave trade was abolished in 1807 merchants enjoyed the benefits of free trade, control of the trade moving from London to Bristol by the mid 1730s and then to Liverpool by the 1750s, albeit much of the financing of the trade rested with London bankers, insurers and merchants. Across the eighteenth century some 12,000 slave ships cleared British ports, Liverpool alone clearing 20 ships a week in the 1790s. From 1662-1807 it is estimated that 3.4m slaves were shipped in British vessels, 1.17m from the Bight of Biafra alone. About 450,000 of the slaves (13.5%) died in the course of the voyage. (David Richardson, “The Atlantic Slave Trade”, The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Eighteenth Century, ed. P. J. Marshall. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 440-64, p. 451.) British merchants, it should be noted, competed particularly with the French who dominated the trade with Senegal, so the British total is only part of the whole amount which has been estimated at 10-15 million between 1500 and 1800. Slaves were primarily sold to the sugar producing islands of the Caribbean, but also to French and British colonies in north America, and, after the Asiento Treaty of 1713, to Spanish colonies in the south.

The Triangular Trade

The Atlantic slave trade was organised in three legs, hence the phrase “triangular trade”. Ships left Europe, usually with three kinds of commodity: weapons, strong spirits, and cheap trade items such as beads which were bartered for slaves. The transportation of slaves from Africa to the plantations in the Americas, was the second or middle leg, referred to as the “Middle Passage”. On arrival in the Caribbean or the Americas slaves were auctioned as “house slaves”, “field slaves”, or “mill slaves”. On the third leg the same ships took back to Europe (or, later, the North American colonies) whatever the planters had produced, usually sugar and rum, cotton, tobacco, cocoa, coffee. Several Western ports, including Bristol, Liverpool, Bordeaux and La Rochelle, grew rich on the profits from the triangular trade. The round trip would take from twelve to eighteen months and profit on capital deployed in the last half of the eighteenth century was around 8-10%.

The actual crossing lasted at least ten weeks. On “tight packers” slaves were chained in the hold in most unhygienic conditions, resulting in a death rate of up to twenty percent. “Tight packers”, as the term suggests, squeezed as many captives into the holds of their ships as possible, knowing that although the mortality rate would be high they would still make more profit than if they “packed loosely”. Traders took out insurance on their cargoes and were entitled to compensation under certain circumstances. This explains the episode that J.M.W. Turner fixed in his painting “The Slave Ship” that shows prisoners being thrown from the slave ship Zong as a typhoon approaches.

Slavery was one of the means by which European nations solved the problem of the shortage of labour in their new colonies, a shortage in part created by the death of so many indigenous people from contracting European diseases against which their bodies had no defense. The European colonists at first solved the problem through exporting indentured labourers and criminals under terms which were very much akin to slavery; however white people not able to survive in tropical climates, especially undertaking work, so the colonists turned to West African slaves, the desperation of whose lives is evident in official testimonies and slave narratives, as well as by the number of slaves who rebelled or ran away. (See the entry on maroons.) By the later eighteenth century the black population in the West Indies amounted to some 85% of the total, a figure which dwarfs by a large margin the circa 33% of slaves in Greek and Roman society, and the crica 20% of slaves in the Ottoman empire.

Importance to the British Economy

Eric Williams in his pioneering study Capitalism and Slavery (1944) maintained that profits from the slave trade were crucially important to the development of capitalism in Britain. This position has been echoed by many since, but more recent scholarship has concluded that the profits from the slave trade amounted to no more than 1% of British domestic investment (David Richardson, p. 461). This said, when the contribution of slave labour to economic production in the American colonies is taken into account, and the indirect expansion of commercial activity consequent on the triangular trade are taken into account, then the effect is much more widespread and the slave trade must be recognised as underpinning all British colonial activity and the development of the domestic market as well. What can be said of the British economy can also be said, with necessary revisions, of other European economies as well.

Anti-Slavery and Abolition

It is evident from the preamble to this essay that from Classical times to the Renaissance, slavery was abhorrent to many individuals but also a recurrent feature of human behaviour. One notes, for example, that John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government (1689) – the foundational statement of many of the ideas which underpin middle-class democracies – allows that those conquered in war have become the property of their captors (vide Chapter 4, “Of Slavery”). Similarly Robinson Cruose in Daniel Defoe’s novel of 1719 is captured and turned into a slave by an Ottoman pirate, and thinks very little of having a slave of his own, Xury, and of passing him on to a Moorish captain. During the Enlightenment, however, the development of universalist ideas of human rights creates a context in which slavery is perceived as cruel and morally wrong. By 1765, William Blackstone, Professor of Law at Oxford, will maintain that the law of Great Britain is incompatible with slavery. Consequently “a slave or a negro, the moment he lands in England, . . . becomes eo instanti a freeman” (Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765). Towards the end of the century, the growing belief in “the rights of man” is reinforced by the moral philosophies of Adam Smith and David Hume which emphasise the moral importance of the empathetic understanding of the other person’s interests. Political rhetoric on behalf of the nascent empire frequently extolled the British as freeborn and free, thus making it evidently contradictory that a free people should spread slavery around the world. The Evangelical movement similarly called for the nation to justify its imperial dominion by living up to the highest moral standards. Anthony Benezet published his first attack on the slave trade in 1759, and a British anti-slavery pamphlet, “Two Dialogues on the Man-Trade”, was issued in 1760. In 1772 Granville Sharp secured a legal decision that confirmed Blackstone’s view that West Indian planters could not hold slaves in Britain since slavery was contrary to English law. The first abolitionist society – the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade – was formed at the instigation of William Wilberforce, associates Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Henry Thornton and others in 1787, and, after a long political campaign in 1807 the British Parliament passed an Act that made it unlawful for any British subject to capture and transport slaves. The Act was not implemented effectively and the West African slave trade continued well into the second half of the nineteenth century.

Slavery was abolished in British possessions in 1833 (though initially former slaves were required to continue working for the same masters for six to twelve years, a period called “apprenticeship”). In the French overseas territories slavery was abolished in 1848, in the Dutch colonies in 1863, in the United States after precipitating the Civil War (1861-5), in what was left of the Spanish empire in 1880, and in Brazil in 1885. The abolition of slavery led to a dire need for manpower and the importation of Asian indentured labourers (See separate entry). On the island of Saint Domingue (or Santo Domingo), as early as 1791, Toussaint Louverture led the slave uprising that would be comforted by the news of the National Assembly’s decision to abolish slavery. Despite the French Republic turning against those whose freedom it would not acknowledge for economic reasons, and despite Louverture being taken prisoner and dying in jail in the French Jura, the colony became independent in 1804 under its former name of Haiti.

Literary Responses

An early literary response to the transportation of slaves is provided by Aphra Behn’s romance Oroonooko, or the Royal Slave (1688) that vividly presents the appalling conditions African captives were kept in. Eighteenth-century accounts of the Middle Passage can be found in reports that captains derived from their logbooks. These include the writings of John Newton, a slave trader who became a clergyman in the Church of England, and who is best known for the hymn “Amazing Grace” and for Thoughts about the African Slave Trade (1788), a key text of the abolitionist campaign. Women writers figured prominently amongst writers against slavery, notably Ann Yearsley with her “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade” (1788); Helen Maria Williams, “On the Bill which was Passed in England”, (1788); Hannah More, “Slavery, A Poem”, “The Black Slave Trade” (1788) and “The Sorrows of Yamba” (1800); and Amelia Opie, “The Negro Boy’s Tale” (1802). Male British poets, including William Cowper, William Blake and Robert Southey, also expressed sentimental compassion, particularly for the lot of young slaves. There were also books written by those who had been victims of the slave trade and of slavery. The most remarkable and celebrated of these were Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) and Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vasso, The African, written by himself (1789).

During the nineteenth century, a number of slave narratives appeared, the most famous of which is The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. To Which Is Added, the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African published in London in 1831. At this period anti-slavery feelings were more frequently expressed in literary works produced in the United States, where slavery remained a vital political issue, than in Britain. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was an early classic of the genre. In a variety of dramatic and melodramatic forms, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a vigorous life on the American stage and beyond. Beecher Stowe also edited The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. A Northern Slave (1850), about a deeply Christian runaway slave. In Britain, the popularity of poems such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” continued the tradition of politically engaged sentimental verse which has been began by women poets in the 1780s.

These were contemporary testimonies. In the late twentieth century literary works on slavery and slave trade began to reconstruct the past. The speaker in the first section of Caryl Phillips’ Higher Ground (1989) is a Black helper in an English slavetrading fort on the West African coast. Charles Johnson’s novel Middle Passage (1990) is a fictional, magical-realist depiction of a slave ship’s crossing, and Phillips’ next novel, Cambridge (1991), concerns an African slave who was tried and executed for murder in the eighteenth century. The name has in fact been given to him by his white and Christian owners - “I, Olumide, who had become black Tom, then David Henderson, and now Cambridge”, (Cambridge, p.167). The way slaves’ names are “stolen” and changed in complete disregard of the feelings of those who have to “wear” them is one of the points the novel illustrates. Crossing the River, Phillips’ 1993 novel begins with a father’s describing the desperate transaction he has been involved in. He speaks haltingly of “A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children. . . . Three children only. I jettisoned them at this point, where the tributary stumbles and swims out in all directions to meet the sea. Bought two strong man-boys and a proud girl. I soiled my hands with cold goods in exchange for their warm flesh. A shameful intercourse.” (Crossing the River p.1) The book closes with somewhat similar words: “A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my beloved children. Bought two strong man-boys and a proud girl. But they arrived on the far bank of the river, loved.” (Crossing the River p.237). The central section entitled “Crossing the River” is the logbook of the slave ship The Duke of York on the first and second leg of her triangular voyage in 1752-3. Yet as the last words indicate the novel also vindicates the achievements of those who crossed over, and can never go back, since “There are no paths in the water. No signposts. There is no return.” (Crossing the River p.237). At least two works have been directly inspired by the episode painted by Turner (see above): David Dabydeen’s poem “Turner” (1994) and Fred D’Aguiar’s novel Feeding the Ghosts (1997). The latter is based on the account of slave who survived such an ordeal as D’Aguiar read about in Liverpool’s Maritime Museum. In Part III and IV of A Harlot’s Progress (1999), a novel inspired by a series of engravings by William Hogarth, David Dabydeen’s presents “Mungo’s” ordeal on a slave ship. Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (1992) explores moral dilemmas on an eighteenth-century slave ship (Booker Prize winner 1992). Ama (2002, Commonwealth Writers Prize) is a novel by Manu Herbstein that tells the story of a young African woman captured and enslaved in 1775. In 1996 Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang published a collection of poems entitled Cape Coast Castle in which he repeatedly breaks the silence about the slave trade that he feels affects many of his fellow West African authors.

Leif Svalesen was one of the three divers who explored the wreck of a Danish slave ship called Fredensborg that sank in a storm off the southern coast of Norway in 1768. In 2000 he published The Slave Ship Fredensborg, an amazing account of the slaves’ journey to the “New World” based on found artefacts and on the ship’s logbook which was published by Indiana University Press.

An increasing interest in reviving the memory of the Transatlantic slave trade is also evident in a number of recent cultural events. Popular testimony to this new awareness is provided by the success of films such as Sankofa and Amistad. Sankofa was directed by Ethiopian/American Haile Gerima in 1993, and is about an African American model who, as she visits Cape Coast, is dragged back in time and forced to experience life as a slave. Stephen Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) powerfully tells the story of captives who had rebelled when on board a Cuban vessel in 1839 and were tried in Massachusetts.

Drama productions are perhaps even more telling signs, particularly in the United States. They range from local performances of collective productions (such as Middle Passage, which “brought together students, community members, actors from South Africa and the spirits of the ancestors” in what was called “A Ritual of Healing” at the University of Louisville in April 2004), to large-scale opera productions such as Margaret Garner.This co-production, with music by Richard Danielpour and libretto by Toni Morrison, premiered at the Michigan Opera Theatre in May 2005. It tells the story of a fugitive slave in 1856 who, as she was about to be caught, decides to kill her children rather than let them become slaves. Dessa Rose (2004), a musical adapted from the novel by Sherley Anne Williams by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, was produced by the Lincoln Center Theatre at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in NYC. It is based on the lives of two women in antebellum Alabama, a pregnant slave who led an uprising, and an abandoned white woman who tried to help her. This popular form echoes earlier musicals or folk operas, such as Madison, by Theodor Ward and Irving Schlein in the 1940s, based on the slave revolt led by Madison Washington aboard the Creole, an episode already dramatised by Frederick Douglass in his novella, The Heroic Slave (1852). Another contemporary opera is Mary Bullard and Curtis Bryant’s Zabette on the plight of a category of slaves in Georgia in the mid-nineteenth century and was produced in Atlanta, by Georgia State University’s School of Music in 1999. Wynton Marsalis’s jazz opera Blood on the Fields (1997) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.

Issues relating to the slave trade and slavery have also been explored by playwrights. There have been a number of successors to Eugene O’Neill’s tour de force The Emperor Jones (1920) and these have included The Piano Lesson and The Darker Face of the Earth. Set in the 1930s, August Wilson’s Pulitzer winning play of 1990, The Piano Lesson, deals with the recurring question of how one heritage (including some unbearable memories) can best be accommodated in the present. Rita Dove’s verse drama The Darker Face of the Earth (1994 and 1996) retells the story of Oedipus, set on a pre-Civil War plantation in South Carolina and was first produced in Oregon in 1996.

While playwrights and poets continue to return to the historical experience of slavery, a physical return to Africa as part of an exploration of “roots” and as a healing process has become more common. Sons and daughters of the Black Diaspora, including Richard Wright, Kamau Brathwaite, Maya Angelou, and Benjamin Zephania, have made important visits to and journeys in West Africa. The slave castles of Senegal and Ghana in particular have become the focus of attention in a process of reintegration and repossession. In some instances, festivals, rites, and rituals have become part of the performance of return.

(I wish to express my gratitude to James Gibbs, UWE, to my colleague and friend Benedicte Ledent, and to the contributors to the forum on slavery monitored by Steven Mintz.)

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Citation: Pagnoulle, Christine. "Slavery, Slave Trade, The Triangular Trade". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 11 March 2005; last revised 29 April 2005. [, accessed 22 April 2024.]

1020 Slavery, Slave Trade, The Triangular Trade 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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