Fortunes from the Triangular Trade

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Among the events Karl Marx identified as signalling the “rosey dawn of the era of capitalist production” was “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins.” From the day John Hawkins sailed in October 1562 from Sierra Leone with some 400 procured slaves bound for Hispaniola, British traders made huge fortunes from such hunting.
Even greater profits were to be made from the Triangular Trade that developed between the west coast of Africa, the Caribbean and major British ports.
One side of the Triangle was ‘King Sugar’ because it produced the greatest profits, at its peak accounting for about 15 percent of the value of all goods imported into the UK in 1772-74. The cost of persuading the slave lobby to agree to abolition of the trade in 1833 was a total compensation of £20 million of taxpayers’ money, worth £2.6 billion today. Even if only half the money had been invested in UK companies, it would be worth £150 billion today.
A large number of British companies that still exist today are historically associated in some way with slavery. London’s merchants, from the very beginning, backed and profited from ventures such as Hawkins’, and the proceeds helped the City of London develop and expand.
The forerunners of British banks such as Lloyds, Barclays, RBS, HSBC and so on greatly benefitted from their association with slavery, as did those that grew into today’s finance companies such as Barings, Kleinwort Benson and Man Group, lawyers such as Freshfields and insurers like RSA. Merchant Booker Group and brewer Greene King can also trace their roots back to the wealth produced from slavery. But it is not just major British companies that can trace their roots back to such savagery.
University College London’s website, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, contains the details of some 61,000 individuals associated with the slave trade and plantation economy of the colonised Caribbean, and the merchants, agents and lawyers who helped sustain them. It provides details of wills which can help trace how fortunes made and compensation awarded was handed down in the years following abolition.
The website includes inventories of estates, showing the individuals who had stakes, the number of slaves each employed and the amount of compensation received. Finally, it contains short biographies of some of the most prominent figures of Victorian Britain who benefitted. Dukes, earls, rear admirals, lord lieutenants and governors appear throughout the database.
Tracing the degree to which individuals today can be linked to slave wealth is a complex business, but some connections are clear. Former Tory prime ministers David Cameron and Sir Anthony Eden are, or were, clear beneficiaries. The website shows how slave wealth is imbedded into the very fabric of British society.
Former slave-owners and their agents either founded or bequeathed sums to colleges, schools, gentlemen’s clubs, philanthropic initiatives such as religious institutions, cultural and scientific associations and so on. They bequeathed their collections of art and artefacts to a whole range of galleries, colleges and universities. And they left behind scores of country houses.
But the wealth derived from slavery did not only form the basis of charitable endowments. It was also invested. Profits from slavery were sunk into railways, canals, roads. And the trade itself transformed cities such as Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. Bristol tripled in size between 1700 and 1800, and port activity associated with slavery more than doubled.
At its peak, the city’s trade with the West Indies was worth twice as much as all of its other overseas commerce combined. Liverpool ballooned in decades from a small 16th century hamlet to become a bustling city and port. The number of ships entering the port multiplied four times between 1709 and 1771. And, like Bristol, much of its population was engaged in serving the industries associated with slavery.
The cotton that was shipped in from the slave plantations in the US went straight to the burgeoning textile industries of Lancashire.
Glasgow’s history is also embedded in slavery. Although the city’s port did not engage in shipping slaves to the same degree as Bristol and Liverpool, its importing of tobacco from the slave plantations of the West Indies and the southern states of the US ensured that the industry in the city in the late 18th century was the biggest in the world. Hence the names of streets such as Jamaica, Tobago and Antigua.
As Williams argued, British capitalism and plantation slavery developed hand in hand. It is time that fact, and the creation of the racism that justified it, was confronted full-on.