The slave trade

Until the 18th century, few people thought there was anything wrong with slavery. Both African rulers and European traders were happy to trade in enslaved people.

The video below explores the origins of the Atlantic slave trade.

The beginning of the slave trade

The slave trade began with Portuguese and Spanish traders capturing African people, and transporting them to the American colonies which they had conquered in the 15th century. Around 350,000 Africans were taken as enslaved people to the Americas in this way during this period.

Britain and the slave trade

Portrait of Sir John Hawkins, first English sea captain to sell enslaved people
Sir John Hawkins

In the 16th century, English pirates started selling enslaved people to the Spanish colonies - Sir John Hawkins was the first English sea-captain to do this. Other nations looked to his example and soon joined in.

Treaty of Utrecht

In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed. Spain gave British slave traders the contract, known as the Asiento, to trade 144,000 enslaved people a year to Spanish South America. After 1700, the numbers of enslaved people being transported increased greatly.

Around six million Africans were taken as enslaved people to the Americas, at least one third of them on British ships. It has been estimated that overall, about 12 million Africans were captured to be taken to the Americas as enslaved people.

Where were enslaved people taken?

Map of the slave trade, showing the percentage of slaves taken to different countries.Map of the slave trade, showing the percentage of enslaved people taken to different countries
  • Over 55 per cent of enslaved people were taken to Brazil and Spanish South America.
  • About 35 per cent were taken to the West Indies.
  • Fewer than 5 per cent of enslaved people were sold in North America.

In 1770, approximately 100,000 enslaved people were shipped from Africa to the Americas. British ships carried about 50,000 of these people.

In 1790, the figure for enslaved people carried to the New World was 74,000. British ships carried about 38,000 of these people, French 20,000, Portuguese 10,000, Dutch 4,000 and Danish 2,000.

British trading ships took part in the slave trade up until its eventual abolition in 1807.