1.11 Britain and the Slave Trade

Trade Empires and Early Capitalism

Of the other European states, the British were the most successful at imitating the Dutch. In 1667 the British king, Charles II, officially designated the royal treasury as the coordinating body of British state finances and made sure that officials trained in the Dutch style of political economy ran it. The British parliament grew increasingly savvy with financial issues as well, with numerous debates emerging about the best and most profitable use of state funds.

In 1651, both to try to seize trade from the Dutch and to fend off Britain’s traditional enemies, France and Spain, Parliament passed the English Navigation Acts, which reserved commerce with English colonies to English ships. This, in turn, led to extensive piracy and conflict between the powers of Europe in their colonial territories as they tried to seize profitable lands and enforce their respective monopolies. Ultimately, the British fought three wars with the Dutch, defeating them each time and, among other things, seizing the Dutch port of New Amsterdam in North America (which the English promptly renamed New York). Britain also fought Spain in both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ultimately acquiring Jamaica and Florida as colonies.

In terms of trade, the major prize, at least initially, was the Caribbean, due to its suitability for growing sugar. Sugar quickly became the colonial product, hugely valuable in Europe and relatively easy to cultivate compared to exotic products like spices, which were only available from Asian sources. In Europe, sugar consumption doubled every 25 years during this period and it was ultimately the profits of sugar that helped bankroll the British growth in power in the seventeenth and, especially, the eighteenth centuries. The only efficient way to grow sugar was through proto-industrialized plantations with rendering facilities built to extract the raw sugar from sugar cane. That, in turn, required an enormous amount of back-breaking, dangerous labor. Most Native American slaves quickly died off or escaped and hence the Atlantic Slave Trade between Africa and the New World began in earnest by the early seventeenth century.

The Slave Trade between Africa and the New World was, quite simply, one of the worst injustices of human history. Millions of people were ripped from their homeland, transported to a foreign continent in atrocious conditions, and either worked to death or murdered by their owners in the name of “discipline.” The contemporary North American perception of the life of slaves, that of incredibly difficult but not always lethal conditions of work, is largely inaccurate because only a small minority of slaves were ever sent to North America. The immense majority of slaves were instead sent to the Caribbean or Brazil, both areas in which working conditions were far worse than the still abysmal working conditions present in North America. The average life of a slave once introduced to sugar cultivation was seven years before he or she died from exhaustion or injury, and sugar was the major crop of the Caribbean and one of the major crops of Brazil. In sum, most slaves were sent to be worked to death on sugar plantations.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book