The slave trade and the British economy

Today, we view the history of slavery in terms of its horrific human impact but in the 18th and 19th Century financial considerations dominated the interests of those involved in the slave trade. Slaves were seen as property and their experience as human beings was not considered.

To understand the extent to which Britain has been shaped by the slave trade it is important to consider the scale and breadth of slavery's impact on the British economy.

In 1700, 80% of British exports went to Europe. Cotton and tobacco trade grew. By 1800, 60% of British exports go to Africa and America. Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow grew from small ports to cities

The British economy was transformed by the Atlantic slave trade. In 1700, 80 per cent of British trade went to Europe from ports on the east and south coasts.

By 1800, 60 per cent of British trade went to Africa and America, sailing from the three main west coast ports - Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol.

Ports such as London, Bristol and Liverpool prospered as a direct result of involvement in the slave trade. Other ports, such as Glasgow, profited from the tobacco trade. Thousands of jobs were created in Britain supplying goods and services to slave traders.

In a period that saw Britain industrialise, profits could be made by exporting manufactured British goods to Africa and then further profits accrued from imported slave products such as sugar, which became very fashionable with the British people.

The slave trade was important in the development of the wider economy - financial, commercial, legal and insurance institutions all emerged to support the activities of the slave trade. Some merchants became bankers and many new businesses were financed by profits made from slave-trading.

The slave trade played an important role in providing British industry with access to raw materials. This contributed to the increased production of manufactured goods.

The graphic below shows the parts of Britain's economy that benefited from the slave trade.

Parts of the economy affected by the slave trade were: shipping and ports, exports and manufacturing, industrial revolution, London and finance, and wealth and income