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Britain and the Slave Trade

Here you can find out more about the role Britain played in the slave trade and the people involved.

The first slavers

John Lok is the first recorded Englishman to have taken slaves from Africa. In 1555 he brought five slaves from Guinea to England. William Towerson, a London trader, also captured slaves during his voyages from Plymouth to Africa between 1556 and 1557.

Despite the earlier involvement of Lok and Towerson, John Hawkins (from 1532 to 1595) of Plymouth is acknowledged as the pioneer of the English slave trade.

From 1562 onwards he made three voyages to Sierra Leone from where he transported 1,200 inhabitants to Hispaniola and St Domingue - present day Dominican Republic and Haiti. Hawkins' voyages were the beginnings of the triangular slave trade between England, Africa and the New World of the Caribbean and Americas.

Hand written document specifying the rights John Hawkins had to trade in slaves.
Charter giving John Hawkins the right to trade in slaves. © National Archive

Triangular slave trade

The triangular trade worked to maximise profits. English goods were traded in Africa, from where slaves were carried on the infamous middle passage across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and America. Goods produced in the New World were transported back to England. As Britain acquired more colonies in America and the Caribbean so demand for slaves to work the tobacco, rice, sugar and other plantation crops grew.

English involvement in the slave trade intensified after 1663, when a new patent, along with royal backing, was issued to the Company of Royal Adventurers. Succeeded in 1672 by the Royal African Company (RAC), again it received royal backing, particularly from the Duke of York, later King James II.

Under the terms of the RAC Charter, London was at the centre of English slave trading.  In 1698 the monopoly on London trading with Africa was abolished. Now other ports such as Bristol and Liverpool could trade. These cities became extremely wealthy as a result.

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