History of the british slave trade-liverpool united kingdom Essay Example

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The Rise to Wealth Of the Port of Liverpool

Common consensus has agreed that the slave trade greatly benefited, or was even the single most important factor of, the enormous wealth accrued by the Port of Liverpool.

In this essay we shall examine both sides of the argument, since the factor of the slave trade did increase the wealth of merchants in the port at a time when the city of Liverpool was already experiencing explosive growth.

One thing that must be kept in mind while studying Liverpool and the slave trade is that few accurate documents from the 18th and 19th century exist today, and researchers examining the proportion of slave trading find themselves unable to disentangle slave merchants from sugar merchants since diverse investments were made during that period from merchants and shipping companies.1 Moreover, due to mounting distress on the part of the public in terms of the abhorrent conditions the African slaves were subjected to, shipping documents were often altered to keep the slave trade activities hidden. It will never be known exactly how many Africans were transported or how much money was made in the trade by individual companies.

While there is no doubt that the flourishing slave trade that greatly increased Liverpool’s wealth (as well as Bristol, Glasgow and London), there is some argument that Liverpool could have managed quite well without the slave trade.

A large part of Liverpool’s problem in the 18th century was the lack of a safe harbor due to the strong tides and the topography of the inlet. The year 1712 saw an expansion of the port’s capabilities by the construction of the first commercial wet dock. The pool, which only accommodated a few ships, was drained and filled to build streets on reclaimed land.2 The building of four more docks, expanded Liverpool’s capacity and enabled growth of the port through a flourishing trade with Manchester. It was at this point that Liverpool was involved in trade with the English colonies in America, Norway, Germany, Holland and other sites, including the British Isles.

Just prior to the advent of the slave trade, Liverpool was founded on the salt trade, as well as trade in sugar and tobacco. For the salt trade to flourish, coal was needed for processing the salt, so coal was also a successful product. The salt trade, however, was what opened the doors to Liverpool’s involvements elsewhere; crude brine salt was made in Liverpool in the early 1600’s and exported to Newfoundland. From there, fish was traded for the brine salt and the ships set off for the West Indies, where the fish was exchanged for rum, tobacco and sugar.3

In addition to this trade (which did naturally go hand-in-hand with the slave trade), the River Mersey was made navigable, allowing goods to be transported to and from nearby towns. Roads were also improved during this period, making it possible to engage ground transport to and from Liverpool. All of these were factors leading up to Liverpool’s initial wealth and the possibility of flourishing in the slave trade.

Liverpool was able to obtain textiles from Lancashire and Yorkshire, copper and brass from Staffordshire and Cheshire, and guns from Birmingham, all good exports for the purchase of slaves.

Prior to the mid 18th century, Liverpool was the third largest port, behind Bristol and London. In a few short years, Liverpool would be England’s primary slave trading port.4

Also taken into account was the growth of the sugar industry in Liverpool; some of the sugar trade was dependent on slaves to work the large plantations, but there was also enormous output from smaller farms that didn’t require slaves. Nonetheless, Liverpool’s sugar production went from 760 tons of raw sugar in 1704 (after 27 years in the industry already) to 16,600 tons by 1785.5 While this may be an argument supporting slave trade as essential to the growth of the sugar industries, it is reported that after the abolition of slavery the sugar trade still increased at the same rate.

The first ship from Liverpool to carry slaves was the Blessing in 1700, carrying 200 African slaves to be sold in Barbados. From there, it estimated that some 40,000 slaves were shipped through Liverpool before abolition ended the slave trade.6

Through “triangular trade” methods, a ship was loaded in Liverpool with local goods such as cotton and woolen fabrics, firearms, iron alcohol and tobacco. From Liverpool, these goods were shipped to Africa where they were traded for African slaves, ivory and gold. In turn, the slaves and other cargo were shipped to America or the West Indies where the slaves were sold for currency. Even with a thriving slave trade, it is reported that in all, only 10% of Liverpool’s outbound shipping was for slave trading.7 It is therefore assumed that Liverpool was not directly dependent on the slave trade, but upon closer inspection, a ship full of slaves will bring home more money than one with textiles, etc. Rather than tonnage, the financial gain for slaves is undeniable. This money would, of course, be reinvested into Liverpool’s economy for the purposes of expanding other companies, refineries and factories.

How did it all begin? Upon the discovery of America and the West Indies, Europeans invested in land in order to establish plantations of cash crops such as tobacco, cotton and sugar; these were commodities that could not be obtained back in Europe. In order to turn a profit, cheap labor was required. At first the Natives of the two areas were used, but due to illness, overwork and ill treatment, these first workers died out and left enormous labor shortages. The Irish and the English were recruited to be brought in as laborers, with the English being offered free passage and land after working with a plantation owner for a set number of years. This attempt was unsuccessful.8

African workers replaced the earlier native workers due to trade already existing in Africa and an already active slave trade in Africa itself, where slaves were made from other ethnic groups as prisoners of war, payment of debt or punishment for crimes. In general, the European and American plantation owners thought Africans to be of better quality as workers than their white or Native counterparts due to their endurance.

Back in Liverpool, the slave trade had the benefit of employing large numbers of the lower classes in terms of ship building and outfitting, as well as dock working and manufacturing. What statistics survived the mid to latter 18th century indicate that the employment rate in Liverpool grew at the same time as the rise in slave trade. 9

Old maps give an idea of the growth of Liverpool in the 18th century; a map made in 1728 shows one glass house and one sugarhouse as well as a copper plant. By 1765, the map of Liverpool boasted “three glasshouses, two silk mills, two breweries, one sugar-house and one salthouse, at least 13 roperies, three white roperies, one dye-house, one pot-house and about 12 ship/boat-builders’ yards.”10 One thing worth noting is that these increases in manufacturing took place before the height of the slave trade, which would not come for another thirty years.

The data is not clear regarding the direct relationship of the merchants with the slave trade; as mentioned before, few records of slave trading have been found due to its highly controversial standing.

During the mid 1700’s, a booming business in the shipbuilding industry took place, directly related to the slave trade; by 1792, considered a “good year” for the slave trade,11 the local copper works had 35 furnaces and supplied the copper and brass needed for outfitting ships to carry slaves.12

There seem to be several issues at hand regarding Liverpool and its part in the slave trade. First, Liverpool was not founded on slave trade; rather, the city invested in improving its port and shipping routes through expanding canals and roads between itself and its neighbors. This increased trade to be exported by ship, since Liverpool was the only port in its area with the facilities and capabilities to handle large amounts of goods.

Nevertheless, we must look at the circumstantial evidence of the slave trade’s positive impact on Liverpool’s economy, since the relationship with the slave trade was indeed a factor that lined the pockets of many a merchant but also contributed to the local economy through those same merchants’ expansion of industry and contributions to charity.

In a 2002 Mother Jones magazine article, Verlyn Klinkenborg summed up the situation eloquently with this statement: “A successful voyage — one in which the majority of slaves survived and reached the sales block in good health — performed the miracle of turning Manchester cloth or Sheffield steel into human beings. The human beings were then turned into several kinds of sugar, coffee, cotton, and bills of exchange, which, in Liverpool, were converted once again into the opulence of an increasingly opulent city.”

Looking back from modern times, it is wondered how human trafficking could be so cold-bloodedly executed and so much suffering tolerated by a “civilized” society. Here is one opinion offered in 1910: “Thus the good kindhearted patriotic traffikers [sic] grew rich by inflicting the miseries of captivity, slavery and torture on thousands of their fellow creatures inasmuch that several of the principal streets have been marked out by the chains, and the walls of the houses cemented by the blood of Africans.”13

Dorothy Wane’s last words in the above paragraph repeat what the actor George Frederick Cooke (1756 – 1812) blurted out to an audience who had booed and hissed at him for coming onstage drunk in 1772: “I have not come here to be insulted by a set of wretches, every brick in whose infernal town is cemented with an African’s blood».14

If we take a look at estimates of Liverpool’s population growth, it is obvious that the slave trade helped Liverpool become a critical location for many different types of industries, required to generate the revenue required for the slave trade.

In 1624 there were 4 marriages, 36 christenings and 21 burials recorded. In 1700 there were 24 marriages, 131 christenings and 125 burials in the books. 15 During the last half of the 18th century, the population of Liverpool swelled from 6,000 to 77,000.16

In 1748, a huge infirmary was opened to serve not only the town, but also “all parts of this nation and Ireland.”17 Seven of the original eleven original trustees were slave traders, according to Liverpool Memorandum Book of 1752. Horton goes on to list the installations of Seaman’s Hospital, a Lunatic Asylum and a Public Dispensary followed, adding to the charitable facilities, all results of the enormous amounts of money to be made in successful slave trading.

The above report is only a fraction of the new charities that were built and dedicated in Liverpool during its half-century involvement in slave trading. Still, some argue that slave trading would not have been possible at all had it not been earlier prosperity and accumulated wealth enjoyed by Liverpool merchants involved in cash crops and textiles.

During the time the slave trade was flourishing, abolitionists were making headway to ban slavery and the slave trade. At the height of the debates came statements of how Liverpool would suffer gravely from economic ruin if the abolitionists should be successful.

In Langmore’s report, the example of Thomas Leyland is used to demonstrate the diversity of thinking during the height of the slave trade. Leyland was a Liverpool merchant who owned four ships engaged in the slave trade in the 1790’s. He also had interests in Europe and North America as well as a long-standing trade with Ireland. Seeing abolition looming near, Leyland diversified and invested as a banking partner with the abolitionist William Roscoe in 1802. The dissolution of the partnership occurred four years later, for unknown reasons but thought to be due to Roscoe’s adamant stance against slavery. Leyland then invested in another partnership, which eventually became Midlands Bank; the abolition and end of the slave trade did not affect Leyland’s fortunes, since he did not rely solely on the slave trade for his income.

The slave trade was always a risk; the transaction could take up to a year to complete due to the long distances of the voyages, and even then, there were no guarantees that the voyage would successfully bring enough alive and healthy slaves to fetch a large sum of money. However, Langmore reports that some merchants saw as much as a 300% profit from successful voyages.

In 1792, one report listed Liverpool as having 9 shipbuilding and 3 boatbuilding yards, adding that a ten-fold increase in rents by the corporation landlord in the previous thirty years.18 Much of the new labor in the shipyards involved the outfitting of ships for carrying slaves, including the installation of devices to prevent slaves from jumping overboard. Langmore reports that one slave trader named Robert Bostock who, in 1791, refers to the construction of his new ship designed to hold 210 slaves.

Even with all of the evidence available, it cannot be concluded that Liverpool’s wealth was based solely upon the slave trade. It should be evident by now that the advent of the slave trade dovetailed with the enormous amount of work already being conducted in Liverpool to make access easier with greater range and scope, along with the trade interests of goods on the European continent and locally in the British Isles.

The decline of Liverpool’s economy upon the passage of abolition also is not directly related to one single factor. Other factors were at were wars, the North American colonies building their own shipyard facilities and manufacturing plants, and the desire of early 19th century merchants to buy cheaper ships manufactured in the colonies.

One indication of Liverpool’s occupation in the slave trade and its dependence upon that trade for its “perks” is shown in the lull of the African trade in 1775, one year before America declared its independence; ship owners attempted to lower the wages of the crews working on the slave ships and this was met with violence so extreme that troops had to be called in from Manchester to quell the riots.19

It seems though, that the fluctuations in the slave trade affected the working class more than anyone else, either way. In the Act 1788, the number of slaves that could be transported was dramatically lowered. Roughly 10,000 tradesmen were laid off work (1 in 8) and it is possible that this was the reason why so many anti-abolitionist petitions were filed by tradesmen during this time.20

Looking at all of the trades, it would seem that the Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars disrupted more business from Liverpool than did the abolition. This is an easy assumption to make, based upon the industries that were or were not affected by these intense and mixed events.

In conclusion, we can surmise that some but not all of Liverpool’s wealth was from the slave trade; supporting trade was always occurring on the British coast, and after abolition the ship building industries were able to shift from building slave ships to building navy ships; the sugar trade continued to flourish even when the slave trade ended, but it seems the Liverpool pip-makers suffered the greatest damage from abolition, since a report from that period states that pipes were shipped all over the world, but “chiefly to Africa.”21

The benefits of the slave trade to Liverpool are unquestionable, but the slave trade was not the single deciding factor of Liverpool’s wealth during the 18th Century. Had it not been for the already thriving salt and sugar trades along with the local trading of textiles, coal, metals, Liverpool would not have been able to fund the necessary changes to the port that rose to the occasion of the advent of the slave trade.


Horton, Steve. Without the key role played by local refineries in the refining of rock salt it is unlikely that the port of Liverpool would have expanded at the rate it did in the eighteenth century.” How far do you agree with that statement? Mike Royden’s Local History Pages. 2002, 18 November 2005 http://www.btinternet.com/~m.royden/mrlhp/students/salt/salt.htm

King, Neville H. Liverpool’s Place In The History Of Sugar Refining. Sugar Refiners and Sugarbakers, Bryan Mawer, Feb. 1997, 15 November 2005. http://www.mawer.clara.net/liverpool.html

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Liverpool’s Heart of Darkness. Mother Jones Magazine, July/August 2002, 19 November 2005. http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2002/07/liverpool.html

Langmore, Dr. Jane (University of Greenwich). Cemented by the Blood of a Negro? The Impact of the Slave Trade on Liverpool. Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery Conference 15 October 2005, 16 November 2005. http://www.hslc.org.uk/downloads/langmore.rtf

Liverpool & the Slave Trade — an Introduction. BBC Local History online (n.d.), 17 November 2005. http://www.bbc.co.uk/liverpool/localhistory/journey/american_connection/slavery/intro.shtml

The 18th Century.
Merseywise.com, The Mersey Partnership. 2005, 16 November 2005.

Wane, Dorothy. The History Of Liverpool. December 25, 1910, 17 November 2005.

1 Dr. Jane Langmore, Cemented By the Blood Of a Negro? The Impact Of the Slave Trade on Liverpool. Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery Conference 15 October 2005

2 Merceywise.com, The 18th Century. The Mersey Partnership, 2005.

3 Horton, Steven. 2000, “Without the key role played by local refineries in the refining of rock salt it is unlikely that the port of Liverpool would have expanded at the rate it did in the eighteenth century.” How far do you agree with that statement? Mike Royden’s Local History Pages,

4 Horton.

5 King, Neville H. 1997, Liverpool’s Place In the History Of Sugar Refining, Sugar Refiners and Sugarbakers Database (compiled by Brian Mawer).

Liverpool and the Slave Trade: An Introduction. BBC.co.uk. (n.d.)

7 BBC.

Liverpool’s Slave Traders. BBC h2g2, 16 April 2004.

9 Langmore.

10 Langmore.

11 BBC.

12 Langmore.

13 Wane, Dorothy. The History Of Liverpool: Written Christmas 1910.

14 Wade.

15 Wade.

16 Horton.

17 Langmore.

18 Langmore.

19 Langmore.

20 Langmore.

21 Langmore.