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London and the transatlantic slave trade

The Elizabethan slave trade
17th-century expansion
18th-century peak
The horror of the slave trade
The rights of Africans in Britain
The abolition campaigns
Final balance sheet
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The Elizabethan slave trade

Hawkins and the trade

Sir John Hawkins
View full size imageSir John Hawkins. © NMM

Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic trade in enslaved people from West Africa to the Americas began during the reign of Elizabeth I. 

John Hawkins - a merchant adventurer and later a naval administrator - was the first English trader. In 1562, while on a voyage to Hispaniola (Haiti), Hawkins added the transportation of captured Africans to his family’s trading interests in West Africa.

Royal support for Hawkins

Elizabeth I, 1533-1603.
View full size imageElizabeth I, 1533-1603, supported Hawkins and profited from slavery. © NMM

A number of important people supported the venture, including:

  • Benjamin Gonson, the Treasurer of the Navy
  • Sir Thomas Lodge, who was Lord Mayor of London and the Governor of the Russia Company. 

Elizabeth I also backed the voyage, expressing a hope that the Africans would not be enslaved without first giving their free consent. She believed that capturing Africans against their will 'would be detestable and call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertakers'.

The first slaving expedition

A map of the West Indies, c.1590.
View full size imageA map of the West Indies, c.1590. © NMM
Hawkins took three ships from London to Sierra Leone in West Africa. Despite whatever assurances he gave to Elizabeth I, Hawkins seized some 300 Africans 'by the sword, and partly by other means'. Many were taken from Portuguese boats. 

Hawkins then crossed the Atlantic, selling the Africans into slavery in the Spanish West Indies. He returned to England with tropical produce such as ginger, sugar, pearls and hides, which he then sold to City merchants. Hawkins made a fortune in the process.

Hawkins’ second slaving voyage

John Hawkins
View full size imageJohn Hawkins. © NMM
Such was the success of his first slaving voyage that Hawkins undertook a second in 1564-65. This time, Elizabeth I lent Hawkins a royal ship, the 700-ton Jesus of Lubeck. A group of wealthy London merchants and noblemen backed the expedition, expecting a healthy return on their investment.

Hawkins went back to Sierra Leone. He took about 400 captives through a combination of force, negotiation with African rulers and seizure from Portuguese vessels. Again it was highly profitable, producing a return of 60% on the original investment. 

Hawkins made huge sums selling the enslaved Africans to the Spanish and then selling tropical goods in England. As a result he was knighted.

Hawkins’ third and unsuccessful voyage

Sir Francis Drake, 1540-96.
View full size imageSir Francis Drake, went on a slaving voyage in 1567-8. © NMM

A third slaving voyage in 1567-68 was a disaster.  Hawkins sailed with six ships, including two royal vessels.  Between 400 and 500 Africans were captured. Hawkins also seized a Portuguese slave ship. 

On the return voyage, bad weather forced the ships into a port in Mexico. A Spanish fleet trapped the English adventurers there and the Spanish captured both the queen’s ships. 

Only Hawkins’ ship and that of the young Francis Drake returned safely. All the English cargo was taken and the profit from the expedition was lost.

The trade in enslaved people and war with Spain

English ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588
View full size image English ships and the Spanish Armada, August 1588. © NMM

Hawkins’ activities irritated the Spanish.  They objected to the English breaking their monopoly of West Indies trade. 

This growing dispute was one of the reasons for the long war between England and Spain from 1584 until the Peace of London in 1604. 

During the conflict, English ships continued to target Spanish colonies in the Americas. This disrupted Spain’s commerce, including its trade in enslaved people. However, Hawkins’ failure brought an end to organized English involvement in the trade for some years.


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