The beginning of the slave trade

Map showing the geography/distances of the slave trade as well as the relationships between the places.
  • In the 16th and 17th centuries, Portuguese traders took slaves from Africa to work in the Portuguese colony of Brazil and the Spanish colonies of South America. As many as 350,000 Africans were taken in this way as slaves to the Americas.
  • In the 16th century, English pirates started selling slaves to the Spanish colonies. Sir John Hawkins was the first English sea-captain to do this, starting in 1562.
  • In 1625, the British captured Barbados in the West Indies and in 1655 they secured Jamaica. English slave traders started supplying African slaves to the English colonies.
  • In 1672, the Royal African Company was set up to trade African slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies.
  • In 1713, Spain gave British slave traders the contract, known as the Asiento, to trade 144,000 slaves a year to Spanish South America. This contract was part of the Treaty of Utrecht.

From 1768 to 1776, William Colhoun was a chief mate on slave ships that sailed from Glasgow to West Africa, the Carribean and the British colonies of Maryland and Virginia. Below is one of a series of letters he wrote to his sister Betty, who was back in Glasgow. In this letter, he promises his sister a young slave girl as a servant.

I have a very fine girl about twelve years of age. I have had her eighteen months with me and she is very smart and will learn anything... Betty will accept her in her home...she can speak good English.

Letter from William Colhoun
Credit: Glasgow Archives
Mitchell Library