Slavery and the British: James Walvin Reviews Current Ideas about the Vast Network of Slavery That Shaped British and World History for More Than Two Centuries

By Walvin, James | History Today, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Slavery and the British: James Walvin Reviews Current Ideas about the Vast Network of Slavery That Shaped British and World History for More Than Two Centuries


Walvin, James, History Today


THE ENFORCED MOVEMENT of more than eleven million Africans onto the Atlantic slave ships, and the scattering of over ten million survivors across the colonies of the Americas between the late sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, transformed the face of the Americas. It also enhanced the material well-being both of European settlers and their homelands. The cost was paid, of course, by Africa: a haemorrhage of humanity from vast reaches of the continent, the exact consequences, even now, unknown. Though they were not its pioneers, by the mid-eighteenth century the British had come to dominate Atlantic slavery, a fact which in turn helped to shape much of Britain's status and power.

Historians have become increasingly interested in the concept of an Atlantic world: a world that embraced the maritime and littoral societies of Europe, Africa and the Americas, and one in which slavery played a crucial role. The Atlantic system developed a gravitational pull that drew to it many more societies than those formally committed to African slavery. Even the economies of Asia were ultimately linked to African slavery. European ships, bound for the slave coast of Africa, brimmed not simply with produce from their home towns, their hinterland and from Europe, but also with goods transhipped from Asia. Firearms from Birmingham, French wines, Indian textiles, cowrie shells from the Maldives, food from Ireland, all were packed into the holds of outbound ships, destined to be exchanged for Africans.

The bartering and trading systems on the coast fed a voracious demand for imported goods that stretched far deeper into the African interior than Europeans had seen or visited. In return, the traders who settled on the coast, and the transient captains, gradually filled the holds of their ships (suitably re-arranged for human cargoes) with Africans.

European, American and Brazilian traders flitted nervously up and down the west African coast, always anxious to make a quick exchange and quit the dangers of the region for the welcoming currents that would speed their Atlantic crossing to the expectant markets of the Americas. We have details of some 26,000 voyages throughout the recorded history of the slave trade. Once described as a `triangular trade', it was in fact a trading system of great geographical complexity, with routes cutting from Brazil to Africa, from North America to Africa and back, between Europe and the Caribbean -- and of direct routes from the slave colonies back to the European heartlands. Ships criss-crossed the north and south Atlantic Caribbean, ferrying Africans and goods needed by all slave societies, finally hauling the vast cargoes of slave-grown produce back to European markets, to sate the appetite of the Western world for tropical and semi-tropical staples. This trading complexity was compounded by commercial transactions with native peoples on the frontiers of European settlement and advancement across the Americas.

This vast network, lubricated by slavery, drew together hugely different peoples from all over the world. Africans in the Caribbean dressed in textiles produced in India, used tools made in Sheffield, and produced rum drunk by indigenous native peoples of the Americas. Tobacco cultivated by slaves in the Chesapeake was widely consumed, from Africa itself to the early penal colonies of Australia.

Though Africans were present in many of the early European settlements in the Americas, the drift towards African slavery was slow. Europeans tried a host of agricultural and social experiments in the Western Hemisphere before the mid-and late-sixteenth-century Brazilian development of sugar cane cultivation. Sugar had long been grown on plantations in the Mediterranean (it came later to the Atlantic islands), before being transplanted into the Americas in the late sixteenth century. But sugar plantations, even in their early form, were labour-intensive, and there was not enough labour available among local peoples, or migrating Europeans. …

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