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Origins of the Slave Trade

From WEH Lecky, A History of England in the Eighteenth Century, Volume IV, Chapter 5 (1878)

Of all the many forms of suffering which man has inflicted upon man, with the exception of war, and, perhaps, of religious persecution, the slave trade has probably added most largely to the sum of human misery, and in the first half of the eighteenth century it occupied the very foremost place in English commerce. The first Englishman who took part in it appears to have been John Hawkins, who sailed in 1562 with three ships to Sierra Leone, where he secured, 'partly by the sworde and partly by other meanes,' some 300 negroes, whom he transported to Hispaniola. The enterprise proving successful he made a much more considerable expedition in 1564 to the coast of Guinea, the English 'going every day on shore to take the inhabitants with burning and spoiling their towns,' and the achievement was so highly considered at home that he was knighted by Elizabeth, and selected for his crest a manacled negro. It is a slight fact, but full of a ghastly significance as illustrating the state of feeling prevailing at the time, that the ship in which Hawkins sailed on his second expedition to open the English slave trade was called The Jesus. The traffic in human flesh speedily became popular. A monopoly of it was granted to the African Company, but it was invaded by numerous interlopers, and in 1698 the trade was thrown open to all British subjects. It is worthy of notice that while by the law of 1698 a certain percentage was exacted from other African cargoes for the maintenance of the forts along that coast, cargoes of negroes were especially exempted, for the Parliament of the Revolution desired above all things to encourage the trade. Nine years before, a convention had been made between England and Spain for supplying the Spanish West Indies with slaves from the island of Jamaica, and it has been computed that between 1680 and 1700 the English tore from Africa about 300,000 negroes, or about 15,000 every year.

The great period of the English slave trade had, however, not yet arrived. It was only in 1713 that it began to attain its full dimensions. One of the most important and most popular parts of the Treaty of Utrecht was the contract known as the Assiento, by which the British Government secured for its subjects during thirty years an absolute monopoly of the supply of slaves to the Spanish colonies. The traffic was regulated by a long and elaborate treaty, guarding among other things against any possible scandal to the Roman Catholic religion from the presence of heretical slave-traders, and it provided that in the thirty years from 1713 to 1743 the English should bring into the Spanish West Indies no less than 144,000 negroes, or 4,800 every year, that during the first twenty-five years of the contract they might import a still greater number on paying certain moderate duties, and that they might carry the slave trade into numerous Spanish ports from which it had hitherto been excluded. The monopoly of the trade was granted to the South Sea Company, and from this time its maintenance, and its extension both to the Spanish dominions and to her own colonies, became a central object of English policy ... A distinguished modern historian, after a careful comparison of the materials we possess, declares that in the century preceding the prohibition of the slave trade by the American Congress, in 1776, the number of negroes imported by the English alone, into the Spanish, French, and English colonies can, on the lowest computation, have been little less than three millions, and that we must add more than a quarter of a million, who perished on the voyage and whose bodies were thrown into the Atlantic.

These figures are in themselves sufficiently eloquent. No human imagination, indeed, can conceive, no pen can adequately portray, the misery they represent. Torn from the most distant parts of Africa, speaking no common language, connected by no tie except that of common misfortune, severed from every old association and from all they loved, and exchanging, in many cases, a life of unbounded freedom for a hopeless, abject, and crushing servitude, the wretched captives were carried across the waste of waters in ships so crowded and so unhealthy that, even under favourable circumstances, about twelve in every hundred usually died from the horrors of the passage. They had no knowledge, no rights, no protection against the caprices of irresponsible power. The immense disproportion of the sexes consigned them to the most brutal vice. Difference of colour and difference of religion led their masters to look upon them simply as beasts of burden, and the supply of slaves was too abundant to allow the motive of self-interest to be any considerable security for their good treatment. Often, indeed, it seemed the interest of the master rather to work them rapidly to death and then to replenish his stock. All Africa was convulsed by civil wars and infested with bands of native slave-dealers hunting down victims for the English trader, whose blasting influence, like some malignant providence, extended over mighty regions where the face of a white man was never seen.

It has been frequently stated that England is responsible for the introduction of negro slavery into British America; but this assertion will not stand the test of examination. The first cargo of negro slaves introduced into North America is said to have been conveyed by a Dutch vessel to Virginia in 1620. Slavery existed in New York and New Jersey when they were still Dutch; in Carolina, Maryland, and Pennsylvania when they were still subject to proprietary governments. Its encouragement only became an object of the colonial policy of England at the time of the Peace of Utrecht, but before that date it had been planted in every British colony in North America, had become eminently popular among the colonists, and had been sanctioned by many enactments issuing from colonial legislatures...

A few isolated protests against slavery based on religious principles were heard, but they had no echo from the leading theologians. Jonathan Edwards, who occupied the first place among those born in America, left among other property, a negro boy. Berkeley had slaves when in Rhode Island, and appears to have felt no scruples on the subject, though he protested, with his usual humanity, against 'the irrational contempt of the blacks.' The article in the charter of Georgia forbidding slavery, being extremely unpopular among the colonists, was repealed in 1749; and it is melancholy to record that one of the most prominent and influential advocates of the introduction of slavery into the colony was George Whitefield. In Georgia there was an express stipulation for the religious instruction of the slaves; it is said that those in or about Savannah have always been noted in America for their piety, and the advantage of bringing negroes within the range of the Gospel teaching was a common argument in favour of the slave trade. The Protestants from Salzburg for a time had scruples, but they were reassured by a message from Germany: 'If you take slaves in faith,' it was said, 'and with intent of conducting them to Christ, the action will not be a sin but may prove a benediction.' In truth, however, but little zeal was shown in the work of conversion. Many who cordially approved of the slavery of pagans questioned whether it was right to hold Christians in bondage; there was a popular belief that baptism would invalidate the legal title of the master to his slave, and there was a strong and general fear lest any form of education should so brace the energies of the negro as to make him revolt against his lot. Of the extent to which this latter feeling was carried, one extraordinary instance of a later period may be given. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel sent missionaries to convert the free negroes in Guinea, on the Gold Coast, and in Sierra Leone; but it was itself a large slave-owner, possessing numerous slaves on an estate in Barbadoes. In 1783 Bishop Porteus strongly urged upon the managers of the Society the duty of at least giving Christian instruction to these slaves; but, after a full discussion, the recommendation was absolutely declined.

In the American States slavery speedily gravitated to the South. The climate of the Southern provinces was eminently favourable to the negroes; and the crops, and especially the rice crop - which had been introduced into South Carolina from Madagascar in 1698 - could hardly be cultivated by whites. In the Northern provinces the conditions were exactly reversed. We can scarcely have a better illustration of the controlling action of the physical on the moral world than is furnished by this fact. The conditions of climate which made the Northern provinces free States and the Southern provinces slave States established between them an intense social and moral repulsion, kindled mutual feelings of the bitterest hatred and contempt, and in our own day produced a war which threatened the whole future of American civilisation.

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