Friday, January 11, 2013



Liverpool is often called the 'capital of the slave trade' - I want to examine what this means and to look at the operation of the slave trade. By understanding the detailed operation of the trade we can also see how Liverpool became so important as a slaving port and what it meant for the development of the town and its prosperity.

We know a lot about the operation of the trade because a surprising number of documents survive from the period. These include not only account books, but letters to suppliers, letters between owners and captains, captains and owners, owners and agents, indeed a whole wealth of detailed information. Whilst communication in the 18th century was slower than it is today, those in trade were extremely well informed and had connections throughout the world in which they dealt. For instance, Captain Lawson was instructed 'You will be careful to write to us by every opportunity.' I will use the papers of William Davenport, a Liverpool merchant as my principal guide to how the slave trade operated, supplemented by other contemporary sources.

The Davenport Lead Book. The log books reveal intimate details of the process of slavery

Although Sir John Hawkins and a few others, including Sir Francis Drake, made about a dozen slaving voyages to Africa in the early years of Queen Elizabeth's reign, Britain did not enter the slave trade until the 1650s, some 200 years after it had begun. The impetus to do so was the acquisition of colonies in the West Indies, and particularly Jamaica which was seized from the Spanish in 1655. The developing sugar plantations required a huge labour force and already the use of enslaved Africans was well established. Initially slaving was strictly controlled and a monopoly company, the Royal African Company, was created by Charles II, with his brother, the Duke of York and future King James II, heavily involved. But the company's monopoly was unpopular, particularly with merchants in Bristol who successfully lobbied for its removal in 1698.

Whilst Bristol's merchants were quick to seize the new opportunities, their counterparts in Liverpool were relatively slow. The first 25 years of the new century saw Liverpool send 77 ships to Africa, whilst Bristol sent nearly 400 and London nearly 700. However from the 1730s Liverpool merchants began sending increasing numbers of ships to Africa and by 1750 they were sending more than Bristol and London put together. Whilst both these latter ports continued to participate, from this period onwards Liverpool dominated the trade in enslaved Africans until abolition in 1807. Indeed, Liverpool's share continued to increase and in the last decade or so of the trade, the port was responsible for 80% of all British voyages and some 40% of all European voyages.

During the course of the period 1700 to 1807, Liverpool was responsible for half the British trade which meant that her ships carried approximately 1.5 million Africans into enslavement, more than a tenth of all Africans who were transported over more than four centuries. So the title, capital of the slave trade is not an exaggeration.

The organisation of a trade on this scale was necessarily complex and each individual voyage required a high level of planning and management. I want to take us through this process and show how the merchants of Liverpool managed the trade. I will use the voyage of the Essex as the starting off point but use other voyages as examples, demonstrating also why Liverpool was so successful at this trade and why the port and her merchants came to dominate it.

The Essex was managed by William Davenport on behalf of himself and six other investors in the voyage. Davenport was one of the most active slaving merchants in Liverpool and was responsible for some 140 voyages during a course of his working life spanning four decades.

This arrangement of sharing the investment in a voyage was one long practised by merchants trading abroad in any trade. The risk of losing a ship was a severe blow but if shared could usually be coped with. It was better to invest in say six voyages with five other people than each invest everything in a single voyage. Although the profit was shared, so also was the risk. Each voyage was made up of 64 shares and investors would often have between 6 and 8 shares but it could be smaller. Often the captain of the voyage was a small shareholder - giving him a personal interest in the outcome! Peter Potter, Captain of the Essex, for instance was the third largest shareholder in the ship in 1783.

In the weeks and months leading up to the departure of a ship, Davenport was gathering his cargo of trade goods. These would come from local, national and international suppliers. The main type of goods on any voyage almost always comprised textiles - but each merchant gathered a wide range of different cloths from a variety of sources. Some of the names of these cloths are no longer familiar - romalls, Brunswick - but others such as cambrics, fustians, and chintz are more familiar. One of Liverpool's prime sources was Manchester and the Lancashire towns and so-called Manchester cloths were a regular feature of the cargo. But there was also a need to include more exotic materials, especially the silks and chintzes which were manufactured in India. Some cloths were known by their destination - the Angola cloths carried on board the Enterprize in 1794.

Other important goods were glass beads. These were generally imported from Italy, usually through the port of Livorno of the west coast of Italy. Davenport worked closely with the firm of Thomas and William Earle, who invested in many of his slaving voyages, but also traded extensively with the Mediterranean and brought back many of his cargoes of beads. But he was also buying beads from Silesia in Germany and also on occasions he bought beads from Prague, via contacts in Amsterdam.

During the 1770s beads made up between a quarter and a half of the value of all the cargoes shipped by William Davenport to the Cameroons. He also supplied other traders and in the period 1766-1770 he sold beads worth £39,000 (over £1.5m today).

Another cargo which came from even further afield was cowry shells. These came from the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean and were acquired generally through London and Amsterdam. Cowries were popular in Africa were they were used as a form of currency but were also used as decoration on clothing and other items as a reflection of wealth and status. In 1781, Davenport heard that one of his suppliers had recently received a cargo of 10 tons of cowries and he wrote to them that he was willing to buy any that were left. Within days he had ordered 360 bags at a cost of £689 (£35,000 today).

Other foreign produced goods included trade knives from the Netherlands and guns from Denmark.

Within England, goods came from different parts of the country. Birmingham supplied guns - known as trade guns. Reinhold Rucker Angerstein, a Swedish visitor to England in the mid-1750s, commented 'The ones manufactured in Birmingham with English iron as raw material are considered to be rather unreliable and only suitable for the Guinea trade.' But in the course of the 18th century, some 20 million guns were exported to Africa and not unnaturally contributed significantly to the turmoil there.
Slave Manilla

Closer at hand, copper and brass were supplied in the form of manilas (horse-shoe shaped rods of metal) in places like Wigan, Cheadle, Warrington and Holywell in North Wales. Angerstein visiting the hammer and rolling mill in Holywell remarks 'The copper used is smelted by Mr Patten's works in Warrington... neither the hammer or the rolling mill were in operation because the workers were busy drawing down copper to rods for the Guinea trade... The Negroes of Guinea use the rods as ornaments and wind them around arms and legs. Forty tons of copper a year are worked up at this mill, mostly for the Guinea trade.'

Another important commodity was alcohol, such as brandy, which came from local distilleries, and also rum, which had often been produced in the West Indies.

As perhaps can be seen from the origin of many of these goods, Liverpool was well placed geographically to obtain them. Use had always been made of the river system to transport goods but the rapidly increasing canal system augmented this significantly. Liverpool thus had easy access not only by the Mersey and Weaver but the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, the Sankey canal and the Trent and Mersey. For instance, Davenport instructed that his bags of cowries should be delivered 'by the canal to Liverpool, the same as the Bellona cowries'.

This easy access to the goods that were required for trading in Africa was undoubtedly one of the reasons for Liverpool's success. But also of crucial importance was knowledge of what would sell in Africa and also what would sell on which parts of the African coast. Merchants increasingly prepared a cargo to sell specifically on one part of the coast, knowing what was required and what was fashionable. One comes across such phrases 'a choice cargo... very suitable for' or 'specially chosen for' time and time again in the instructions. Potter's instructions begin 'we have shipped a well assorted cargo for the Windward Coast of Africa...'

Another Liverpool captain David Tuohy is told to go to Grand Bassa 'your cargo being calculated for that purpose.'

We know that Africans were very particular about some of the goods and the merchants also knew this very well. Davenport is forced to write to one of his supplies that they have sent the wrong item 'the photals are not the proper pattern and by no means will suit us, the kind we want must be colours mostly red, on blue ground with red and blue stripes as they were for Old Callabar and you must well know this pattern.'

And the sons of the Duc de Rochefoucauld learnt in Leicester that the majority of the stockings produced there were sent to Spain and Africa.

'They are all different: for the last market, their quality is coarser: they are blue, with large white or yellow clocks representing two flowers. Mr Peares assured us that if they weren't precisely to this pattern they wouldn't sell.'

This came from experience but also from contacts with individuals in Africa. An African agent, Egboyoung Offeong, wrote from Old Calabar in 1783

'... we want more iron bar and romalls [cloth] and powder and ordnance and shot as them be the finest thing for our trade... Send round white and round green and round yellow beads...'

As the cargo was being gathered, so were the crew. The most important person was the captain - indeed the outcome of the voyage and its profitability depended on the experience and skill of its master. This was recognized at the time and was one of the reasons why Liverpool ships were more successful at places like Bonny where knowledge of the trade and the skills of negotiation were crucial. After the Dolben Act all captains had to have served as chief mate or surgeon on two voyages or three as a mate to qualify for appointment. The average age on appointment was 30, and very few were under 25. Most captains made fewer than 4 voyages - they recognized the dangers - about 25% of them died, mostly on the African coast.

The Captain was supported by his officers - a chief mate, a second, third and often fourth mate. Many ships also carried a surgeon, and maybe an assistant, to look after the enslaved Africans. This became increasingly common and was required legally after the Dolben Act of 1788. The average age of surgeons was 26. Every year two thirds of the surgeons entering the trade were first-timers and 1 in 3 died - probably because they were exposed to serious diseases for the first time.

Other important positions included the carpenter who generally spent the voyage out to Africa building the accommodation for the enslaved in the holds. Some vessels also had an armourer who looked after the guns and other weaponry, both to protect the crew from their cargo but also privateers and enemy ships in time of war. A cook, steward and cooper were also employed and often one or more boys, making their first voyage to sea.

A number of vessels also had Africans on board as members of the crew. Peter Potter had Adam Jema, a young black boy. Intriguing Captain James Irving had three 'Portuguese Blacks' when he left Liverpool for Africa.

Crew frequently deserted either on the African coast or once they had arrived in the Caribbean and found alternative work and voyages to return home. Peter Potter was able to recruit two seamen to replace some of those who died. John Smale took four obviously experienced Africans on board the Hawke - Cudjoe, Quashey, Liverpool and Joe Dick, all 'Fantye men.' The payment included 'gold advanced you on the African coast', clothing, brandy and cash paid during the voyage and on arrival in Liverpool. They were paid the same wages as their white counter-parts.

At the outset of the voyage, the captain was presented with a letter of instruction from his owners setting out exactly what he was required to do - where he was to trade in Africa, what cargo he was expected to acquire, the terms of trading, and then where he was to take his cargo, the agents and places where he should deal and what he should bring back on the final leg of the voyage. (

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