William Wilberforce

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The slave trade

 Slaves being thrown overboard and drowned from 18th Century slave ship

The European slave trade began in the 15th century, when Christopher Columbus and the later explorers colonized the Americas and Africa. Europeans found the mid-American climate perfect for growing crops such as cotton, tobacco, coffee, chocolate and above all sugar – which had been a luxury until then, but quickly became essential to everyday life.

These crops needed intensive labour, and so colonists started buying slaves from existing African slave traders and shipping them west.

The African slave trade exploded to meet European demand. By 1600, 600 slaves a year were being shipped; by 1700, the number had risen to 4,000. By 1800, 70,000 slaves were being transported every year. All in all, 15 million slaves crossed the Atlantic in 300 years.

The numbers are so high because it was cheaper to buy new slaves than to keep old slaves alive in healthy and safe conditions. Life expectancy on the British islands was seven years. The Church of England had its own slaves, 300 of them, on Codrington plantation in Barbados, which had been left to the church’s missionary society in a will.

To maximize profits, the slaves were crammed into ships like sardines, as the diagram above of a slave ship, the Brookes, shows. The diagram was made after a 1788 law which seriously reduced numbers. The slaves were chained to the floor, with two feet of headroom if they were on or under a shelf. There was intense heat and open tubs for toilets, which only some could reach, so disease was rife and the stench was extreme.

The UK and US both abolished the trade in 1807. Napoleon abolished the French trade in 1815, though France had temporarily abolished slavery in 1793-1801. The Spanish followed in 1820 and Portugal in 1825.


 Letter from a Quaker opposing the slave trade

Witnesses in their own words

Olaudah Equiano, kidnapped from modern-day Nigeria

The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

David George describes life in British North America

I also have been whipped many a time on my naked skin, and sometimes till the blood has run down over my waistband, but the greatest grief I then had was to see them whip my mother, and to hear her on her knees, begging for mercy. She was master’s cook, and if they only thought she might do anything better than she did, instead of speaking to her as to a servant, they would strip her directly and cut away.

James Arnold, slave ship doctor

A woman was one day brought to us to be sold; she came with a child in her arms. The captain refused to purchase her on that account, not wishing to be plagued with a child on board; in consequence of this she was taken back to the shore. On the following morning, however, she was again brought to us, but without the child, and she was apparently in great sorrow. The black trader who brought her on board said that the child had been killed to accommodate us in the sale.

Anthony Benezet records slaves’ attempts to kill themselves en route

They had about 12 negroes who willingly drowned themselves; others starved themselves to death. Philips was advised to cut off the legs and arms of some to terrify the rest (as other captains had done) but this he refused to do. From the time of his taking the negroes on board, to his arrival at Barbados, no less than 320 died of various diseases.

Thomas Trotter, slave ship doctor

The slaves that are out of irons are locked “spoonways” and locked to one another. It is the duty of the first mate to see them stowed in this manner every morning; those which do not get quickly into their places are compelled by the cat and, such was the situation when stowed in this manner, and when the ship had much motion at sea, they were often miserably bruised against the deck or against each other.

 Painting of slaves working on a plantation

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About this module

Read about the life and work of William Wilberforce, who played a key role in the struggle to abolish the slave trade, 200 years ago. 2007 saw the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade, which was achieved through the work of Wilberforce and other abolitionists of the time.

These pages were written by Stephen Tomkins.

Categories: Lives, Biographical,


Module contents

arrow Introduction

arrow Telling the story

arrow The slave trade

arrow Who's who

arrow Slavery today

arrow Quotes

arrow Links

arrow Further reading

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