The slave trade in Europe, morals set aside on account of economic benefits

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The Slave Trade expanded on a dramatic scale post eighteenth century, however there were clear benefits to many European powers and the nations of Africa itself from the fifteenth century onwards. It is also true that the benefits were felt more greatly for some during this period, namely the Portuguese and the British.

The Portuguese were the first to have their influence in Africa, as Pope Nicholas IV gave Portugal a trade monopoly there in 1454. This gave them an early dominance in the slave trade, which expanded further under the terms of the Treaty of Alcáçovas (1479). Furthermore, the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) later confirmed the Portuguese right of access to these ports. The accession of these allowed the Portuguese to convert these parts of Africa into trading posts, thus helping to develop African-Portuguese trade relations. Indeed, it can be argued that the Portuguese African exploration was driven by King John I’s search for gold and ivory- of which Portugal held a monopoly from the fifteenth to early sixteenth century.

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It has been argued by Thomas that ‘African slaves began to perform many functions in Portugal’ employed ‘as stevedores or as builders, in hospitals or in monasteries’. This evidences a clear advantage of the slave trade in Portugal as the trade accompanies a rise in employment, whilst the construction of hospitals in particular is a benefit for many.

Furthermore, some slaves were used in sugar plantations. However, Thomas has stated how ‘Portuguese sugar plantations had never fulfilled their promise. Now Madeira seemed the best alternative’ . Madeira had surpassed the sugar developments that of Portugal. Additionally, Thomas goes on to state how ‘most planters by then (1500) were Portuguese’, showing how the use of sugar plantations in Madeira helped to offer employment in Portugal. Moreover, in the 1490s sugar plantations were established on the islands of São Tomé and Principé. São Tomé had soon developed into being the largest producer of sugar for Europe. Therefore, when Brazil became a Portuguese colony in the 1530s, the demand for slaves to work on the plantations established there increased, benefitting Portugal’s economy.

Additionally, during the sixteenth century: ‘the demand for slaves increased and, as the cost of licenses rose, the financial resources of the Portuguese and their access to African slave markets led to their increasing dominance in the trade’. This dominance was consolidated between 1580 and 1640 when the Crowns of Spain and Portugal were united.

After Portuguese dominance early on, the Spanish soon came to dominate the slave trade up until the late seventeenth century. To ensure that the Spanish profited from the slave trade, in 1518 the Spanish government introduced the asiento to supply the new colonies with slave labour. The asiento was a licence to supply a given number of slaves and was sold to the highest bidder. As the proceeds of which would go to the Spanish Crown- thereby providing the crown a good source of income.

The merchants buying the licences could buy slaves in Africa and sell them in the Spanish Americas, due to the rapid decline of the native population. As Spanish ships could not legally go to Africa, Spanish licence holders had to arrange delivery of the enslaved Africans by Portuguese traders. Good relations between Spain and Portugal meant arrangements for the purchase and sale of slaves were easily made. These positive trading links allowed both economies to flourish.

Merchants could use or sell shares of the asiento for profit, although the benefit was limited ‘high taxes and interference by the Spanish government, as well as competition from illicit slave traders’, exposing the difficulties for merchants to benefit from the lucrative Spanish-American trade. The Spanish crown opted for the system of asiento as, theoretically, the sale of slaves destined for America came under their control- indeed, during financial hardship the crown raised the price of licenses per slave from two ducados to thirty ducados between 1513-1561. However, as the price of licenses increased, the Portuguese became more dominant in the slave trade, having access to the African coast and possessing the financial resources to supply slaves on a larger scale at fairer prices.

Many historians have argued that it is the British who received the greatest benefits from the Atlantic slave trade. Whilst this view is certainly plausible, it is clear that British benefits were hard-fought, with many of their greater benefits not seen until after the beginning of the eighteenth century.

The first Englishman known to have traded Africans, John Hawkins, made three expeditions to West Africa (1562-69) in the aim of finding slaves which he could then sell to Spanish settlers in the Caribbean. However, it has been suggested that Hawkins attempt at success was ‘very difficult especially because of the actions taken by African rulers to use the European intruders for their own purposes’. Contrastingly, Rodriguez has stated how Hawkins had returned from his first two expeditions with profit, the second one in particular with ‘massive profits’, and how the ‘success of (his) maritime expeditions inspired many contemporaries.

Britain in 1618 saw the first private joint stock company to trade in Africa for profit, known as ‘The Guinea Company’. Nevertheless, it has again been claimed that The Guinea Company and ‘all of its trading voyages ended in disaster, with the ships lost at sea or the traders attacked on shore’. This paved the way for Charles I to provide another group of English traders with an exclusive right to regulate commerce in West Africa for thirty-one years, though again ‘none of the expeditions were particularly successful’.

Crucially, the outcome of the American demand for British wares can be viewed in the rising value of such trade through the 17th century. Through data on London’s exports, it is shown that they increased from an average value of £163,000 in 1663-9 to £410,000 in 1699-1701. This illustrates an increase from 8% to 15% of total exports from the metropolis, confirming clear economic benefits to Britain of the Atlantic slave trade pre-eighteenth century.

It can be shown that the role of the three main companies, The Guinea Company, the Royal Adventurers & the Royal African Company, served other benefits to the British aside from economical. It has been stated by Kent that these three companies brought over many African children and youth to Britain, ‘where landed and mercantile elites kept them as servants, pets, or exotic showpieces designed to provide striking testimony to their wealth’. This shows the benefits to the elites of a more lucrative lifestyle and an attempt to show off to their prosperity.

When observing the Dutch and their benefits from the slave trade, there are certainly some scholars who are very vocal in the Dutch failings- Emner is one of the blunter of these historians. Emner opens with a very abrupt opinion of the Dutch relation with the slave trade. He states: ‘Did the Netherlands, then, benefit in any way from this inhuman trade? The simple answer is ‘no’. He argued how a small group of traders, brokers and insurers and a number of shipbuilders and shipping companies generated profit from the slave trade, but the greater majority of Dutch peoples enjoyed very limited and indirect benefits.

However, some benefits were evident. For example, the Dutch East India Company needed more than 4,000 men annually, ensuring a higher level of employment throughout the period. Also, it is acknowledged that without the slave trade ‘coffee and sugar would… have been more expensive’, a benefit more felt on a consumer level.

On a larger scale, it can be stated that the period of the 1620s & 1630s were periods of initial success for the Dutch, as a series of trading posts and colonies were established. This would provide obvious economic benefit to the Netherlands. However, this success was not long-lasting as the Dutch West India Company went bankrupt in 1636.

It is key that given that the return on investments in the Dutch slave trade may have averaged approx. 5%, those ‘investors and entrepreneurs whose principal motive in the slave trade was profit were sorely disappointed’, correlating their ‘relatively minor role in the overall Atlantic slave trade’.

A key benefit to Africans was the use of conversion to Christianity. It is argued that ‘the new religion had distinct attractions for some Africans, especially those who saw it as a political ideology that would gain them new allies in their own contests for power within Africa’. This evidences a key benefit of the slave trade to Africans, as they desired this new religion for their own advancement.

However, due to the large shipping of slaves out of Africa, it is key that many economies on inland states were hurt by loss of population from raids. Manning states how the rising demand of slaves pre-1650 led to a severely disproportionate gender ratio in many African nations. Indeed, Manning claims how the losses in population ‘was enough to depopulate restricted areas of the Savanna and to leave the adjoining source societies with sex ratios as high as 115 men per 100 women’. This depopulation had profound effects on African societies. As Africans were captured and became enslaved, the very fabric of their community was ever-changing, causing gradual decline in some states. For example, Manning goes on to argue how the Portuguese established their best African alliance in Kongo, but ‘their involvement in the slave trade led to the progressive dismemberment of the kingdom’.

Conversely, it is also accurate to assert that the coastal kingdoms of Africa benefitted from the proceeds of their sales, a stance shared by Inikori & Engerman. Further to this, market production of the agricultural commodities which were required to meet the needs of the slave ships and foodstuffs was stimulated, causing some expansion of coastal populations as some captives were retained for their business needs. Indeed, ‘these port towns or city-states typically grew as enclave economies’.

Furthermore, it is key to examine the Occidental trade, as this would not just affect isolated areas of the western coast- but would begin to affect social conditions across the whole continent. The mid 17th century saw many northern European powers strive for maritime strength, which led to a quest for booty, commerce and slaves. ‘New maritime power relationships and technology combined with changes in European demand’ resulted in a rapid expansion in the New World sugar plantations, with a commensurate demand for African labour. The fact that the number of slaves exported in 1690 had nearly doubled that of 1640 (without a price increase) infers that Africans decided to supply their slaves in order to match the new European demand for economic benefits.

It is certainly arguable that all nations involved in the slave trade received some benefits. However, it is also clear that these were felt more by some. It has been testified how ‘the English slave trade was much more profitable that that of other countries. If it is at all possible to make a connection between the slave trade and economic growth, then it is to England that we should look’. It is true that the British dominance towards the end of the seventeenth century does support this view. It is also true that African nations (especially those along the West coast) benefitted from the slave trade. However, it can be argued that this was felt more by the elites through their sales of slaves, although the minor port towns also prospered. Crucially, the benefits to the Portuguese through their accession of sugar plantations were widespread.


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