The British Empire: trade and merchant shipping

Britain’s wealth was based on trade and its growing empire in the Americas, Africa and Asia was a source of cheap raw materials and cheap labour. Goods from the Americas, Africa and especially Asia were brought to Britain on merchant ships.

After 1757, when the East India Company took control of most of India, its shipping fleet dominated trade between Asia and Europe. Sailing ships brought tea, spices, porcelain and textiles from China, India and Arabia. As the demand for these luxuries grew, more workers were needed on the ships.

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Men were hired to work as seamen in all the ports where the merchant fleet stopped and ‘coloured seamen’ (the description used at the time) formed a large part of many crews.

At times of war, such as the Napoleonic Wars against the French in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, white sailors were drafted into the Royal Navy. Asian, African and West Indian men took their jobs onboard merchant sailing ships. Their work, often in terrible conditions, was crucial to Britain’s growing wealth.

In the late 19th century, at the peak of the industrial age, steamer ships brought goods such as coffee, tea, sugar, cotton, spices, tobacco, timber and wines from all over the world to Britain’s ports. Those ships then carried manufactured products such as textiles, clothing, machinery and household goods as export goods for overseas markets. Seamen from overseas continued to be hired in large numbers and were the majority on many ships.