Slavery in Great Britain: History & Timeline

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Slavery was a major part of the world for centuries. In this lesson, we are going to check out Great Britain's role in developing the slave trade as well as its role in bringing it to an end.

Great Britain and Slavery

Historians may never know exactly how many slaves were taken out of Africa from the 16th to 19th centuries. Estimates run between 12 and 15 million, but with poor records and many people killed in the process, the numbers could actually be higher. One nation to participate heavily in the slave trade was Great Britain. As the British rose to become the most powerful world empire, they set the global tone for the debate on slavery. From beginning to end, the British defined what slavery meant to the modern world.

Origins of British Slavery

The concept of slavery had existed in British societies since at least the arrival of the Romans, but it was different than slavery as we think of it. The international slave trade really kicked off with the coming of European colonialism to the Americas. The Portuguese, who were busy colonizing the African coast while the Spanish were exploring the Caribbean and Mexico, had taken control of existing slave markets in that part of the Americas. From there, the Portuguese expanded and started bringing boatloads of slaves into their Brazilian colonies.

The wealth that was starting to emerge in trade across the Atlantic caught Britain's attention. At first, the British were mostly interested in the products coming out of Africa, like gold, ivory, iron and spices. In the mid-16th century, however, John Hawkins got permission from Queen Elizabeth I to start capturing Portuguese slave ships. It was Britain's first time getting into the slave trade.

John Hawkins
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Slavery Grows

Hawkins soon started directly participating in the African slave trade, and over the next several years the British interest in slavery increased rapidly. At this time, many of these slaves were brought back to Britain, where they served as butlers and maids.

The slave trade really took off, however, when Britain got involved in colonizing the Americas. Their first successful colony was founded at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. At first, it seemed like Virginia would be a failed colony, until a man named John Rolfe brought tobacco from the Caribbean. Tobacco thrived in Jamestown. A few decades later, the British expanded into Caribbean islands like Barbados and Jamaica, and found a new cash crop in sugar cane. With this, it was clear: British wealth wouldn't come from finding cities of gold; it would come from agriculture.

But who would work all of these farms? At first, working class British citizens sold their labor to pay for the voyage to the Americas in an arrangement called indentured servitude. A wealthy landowner would pay for the trip, and in exchange the worker would essentially be theirs for 4 to 7 years. For a time, the British also tried sending criminals to their colonies as a form of free labor. In particular, 17th century English kings had a habit of arresting the Irish as dissidents and criminals and sending them to work on Caribbean sugar cane plantations.

As the colonies grew, however, this became a problem. Wealthy landowners didn't want their colonies filled with criminals, and indentured servitude was getting a bad reputation in Britain. People were promised a life of opportunity in exchange for 4 to 7 years of labor, but ended up being abused, violated and beaten. So, fewer people agreed to become indentured servants.

Slaves were critical to the development of the British colonies
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By the mid-17th century, the British started seeing slavery as a better alternative to indentured servitude. The British put serious effort into buying, transporting and selling as many slaves to the colonies as they could. This was the real origin of what we call the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the massive enslavement and transportation of people from West Africa into the American colonies. The Portuguese imported more slaves than any other empire, but the British were right there on their heels.

Layout of a slave ship
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End of the Slave Trade

After 200 years of enslaving and selling people, the slave trade finally began to lose its luster. In the late 18th century, the French colony of Haiti broke into a slave rebellion so extreme that it became an independence movement, and France lost the colony. In the newly founded United States, slavery was already becoming a divisive issue that set northern and southern people against each other. In addition, new attitudes in the early 19th century led British lawmakers to reexamine the morality of slavery - something they had never done before.

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