Great Britain and the Transatlantic Slave Trade: The Royal African Company
At first, the English turned up their noses at the very thought of slavery, thinking the notion of human bondage well beneath their civility, though as early as the 1560s, English captain John Hawkins was among a small number of English traders who took slaves from Africa and Latin America. Contrary to the popular British sentiment regarding slavery, the Portuguese had no such reservations and started human trafficking, raiding Africa’s Gold Coast, in the 15th century.
Prompted by the growing need for labor in New World territories -- especially in the Caribbean Island to harvest sugar and tobacco in Virginia -- Great Britain began to see the profitability in the trade and despite objections from the country's humanitarians quickly began making up for lost time and by the close of the 17th century was the world’s leader in human trafficking.
Leading the charge was the Royal African Company, a group of merchants who were granted an exclusive charter by the British Parliament. The group was preceded by the Company of Royal Adventurers, which started in 1660, however, the business dissolved in 1667. Five years later, the Royal African Company came to be and, like its predecessor, was granted exclusive rights to English involvement in the slave trade, much to the dismay of other local merchants. Between 1680 and 1686, the Company transported an average of 5,000 slaves a year, had constructed forts – manned with cannons – along the West African coast to protect their interests, to trade and to provide holding pens for captured slaves awaiting transport.
However, despite their monopoly, the company did not profit financially from the trade, and could not meet the increasing demand for slaves in the New World markets. In the Caribbean, for example, so many slaves died performing the labor-intensive work of harvesting sugar cane that a constant need was created for new
shiploads of workers. Thus, planters began the push to end the Royal African Company’s monopoly and open the trade to all businessmen. That happened in 1698 and the effect on the trade was immediate, increasing to a yearly average of over 20,000 slaves transported by the British, who saw towns such as Bristol and Liverpool become prosperous slave ports, and the starting and ending points for triangular shipping routes that saw British-manufactured goods taken to Africa and traded for human cargo, who were in turn transported to the colonies, and then the ships returned to England with sugar and money. By the 1780s, when Britain shipped over 300,000 slaves to the New World, the national economy was dependent on the slave trade.
David W. Blight, American history professor at Yale, described the effect of the country’s opening of the trade on Great Britain: “After the turn of the 18th century, the Royal African Company ceased to have a monopoly on the trade, and the slave trade on the West Coast of Africa was open to any British citizen who wanted to participate in it. And this is when you begin to see the boom towns -- Bristol and Liverpool -- the economies of which were rooted in the slave trade with West Africa. And eventually, by the 1730s and 1740s, the British are dominating the African slave trade. The vast majority of slaves brought to the whole new world after the 1720s and 1730s came in British ships. So that by the time we're talking about these American colonies in the middle of the 18th century, leading toward the American Revolution, they are part of a British empire that is now deeply involved in the Atlantic slave trade. It has become one of the most important cogs in the whole of the Atlantic trade for the British.”
However, by the end of the 17th century, slave trading had reached an international frenzy. Wrote, Eric Williams, historian and Trinidad Prime Minister: “The Negro slave trade became one of the most important business enterprises of the seventeenth century. In accordance with sixteenth-century precedents its Organisation was entrusted to a company which was given the sole right by a particular nation to trade in slaves on the coast of West Africa, erect and maintain the forts necessary for the protection of the trade, and transport and sell the slaves in the West Indies. Individuals, free traders or 'interlopers,' as they were called, were excluded.
Thus, the British incorporated the Company of Royal Adventurers trading to Africa in 1663, and later replaced this company by the Royal African Company, in 1672, the royal patronage and participation reflecting the importance of the trade and continuing the fashion set by the Spanish monarchy of increasing its revenues
thereby. The monopoly of the French slave trade was at first-assigned to the French West India Company in 1664, and then transferred, in 1673, to the Senegal Company.
The monopoly of the Dutch slave trade was given to the Dutch West India Company, incorporated in 1621.
Sweden organised a Guinea Company in 1647. The Danish West India Company, chartered in 1671, with the royal family among its shareholders, was allowed in 1674 to extend its activities to, Guinea. Brandenburg (Germany) established a Brandenburg African Company, and established its first trading post on the coast of West Africa in 1682. The Negro slave trade, begun about 1450 as a Portuguese monopoly, had, by the end of the seventeenth century, become an international free-for-all.”