Ports of the Transatlantic slave trade

TextPorts conference, April 2000

Conference paper given by Anthony Tibbles at the TextPorts conference, Liverpool Hope University College, April 2000.


In this paper I want to look at the European ports which were involved in the transatlantic slave trade. I want to examine the characteristics of the trade, why particular ports became involved and what the consequences were for them. What made a so-called slave port? Why did some ports specialising in slaving? Did the nature of the slave trade encourage such specialisation? I shall be concentrating on the pre-nineteenth century period when slaving was still an officially countenanced activity (whilst acknowledging that the trade continued for more than six decades after it was first made illegal and that nearly a quarter of all those Africans enslaved were transported in this later period).

The main European ports involved in the slave trade

So which ports were involved? The main slaving nations were the Western European powers with coasts on the Atlantic Ocean. They were the politically and economically dominant states of Western Europe in the early modern period, which crucially had colonies and economic interests in the Americas: Spain and Portugal, England and France, the Netherlands and Denmark. In the first couple of centuries, the Iberian nations were not surprisingly the most active, servicing their developing American empires. But the demand particularly for sugar from the mid-seventeenth century onwards and the rapid colonisation of the Caribbean by the northern European powers, led by the British and French, saw the trade dominated by these same nations until the early nineteenth century. The Iberians then returned to the forefront during the period of the so-called illegal trade. Indeed, contrary to what is often said the Portuguese, not the English, were responsible for shipping the greatest number of Africans across the Atlantic.

But what about the ports? The point is often made that virtually every port sent a ship into slaving. In England one can come up with a list including not only the obvious ones like Liverpool, London and Bristol but also Plymouth, Exeter, Bridport, and locally Chester and Poulton. In reality, though, the half dozen or so ships that somewhere like Chester or Poulton sent is insignificant compared with the dominant involvement of Liverpool (5300 voyages), London (3100 voyages) and Bristol (2200 voyages) which between them accounted for over 90% of the British trade. And the process of domination seems to have accelerated at the end of the century with Liverpool not only outstripping its English rivals but the European competition. In the two decades preceding abolition, Liverpool was responsible for 75% of all slaving voyages across Europe.

The same situation is true elsewhere. Again in France we can come up with a list of nearly 20 ports which were involved with the trade at some point but there were four principal slaving ports: Nantes, Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Le Havre. Over the period, Nantes sent 45% of all the ships in the French trade the other three sending 11% of the trade each and the rest shared between the other ports. In Spain, Seville was initially the port for all Indies trade including slaving but this was transferred to Cadiz in 1720 and after 1765 other ports were allowed to participate but few apart from Barcelona were much involved in slaving voyages. In Portugal the principal participant was Lisbon. A similar pattern of specialisation emerges in the Netherlands. In the first half century of slaving a number of ports were involved with Amsterdam at the head (36%), the Zeeland ports (28%), followed by Rotterdam and ports in the Zuiderzee, Friesland and Groningen. However, in the last 75 years of the trade, the so-called years of free trade when the monopoly of the West Indies Company was lifted, the Zeeland ports of Flushing and Middleburg accounted for 78% of all Dutch voyages and only Amsterdam and Rotterdam had any significant involvement with 10% each.

Reasons for the dominance of relatively few ports

A pattern thus emerges that just a handful of ports in each country was responsible for the vast majority of their nation’s slaving activity. This is not to argue that the slave trade was somehow a peripheral activity carried on at the margins, but to recognise that the organisation of the trade was concentrated in relatively few places.

Geographical location

So, what was important? Geographical location - most important slave ports had easy access to the Atlantic, they also had good port facilities for the deep sea vessels which were essential to cope with the weather conditions of the tropics and the Atlantic. Several of the ports had existing trading links with the Americas - not only in the early days with Lisbon and Cadiz, but London, Liverpool, Bristol and Nantes all had begun trading in tropical goods, particularly sugar, before they became heavily involved in slaving.

Access to trade goods

Access to trade goods was essential. A wide variety of goods was in demand on the West African coast including textiles, guns, alcohol, metal goods, beads and cowries. Some of these items were available locally from local manufacturers; others could be supplied from connections with a wider hinterland. Here geography was important - we forget just how important rivers and canals were for the transportation of goods in the eighteenth century. But a significant proportion of trade goods also came from further afield, in fact frequently from the other side of the world - such as the textiles from India and cowries from the Indian Ocean.

If we look at Liverpool, it produced very little in the town itself but it had good connections, principally through rivers like the Mersey and Weaver and through the growing canal network to Manchester, Lancashire, and beyond to Yorkshire, and south to the growing industrial Midlands. Thus textiles came from Lancashire and Yorkshire, copper and brass goods from Warrington, North Cheshire and Staffordshire, guns and ammunition from Birmingham. But the town’s merchants also had to develop wider links to obtain some goods - there was a strong demand for East Indian cloth in West Africa. Liverpool merchants had no direct access to Eastern markets because of the monopolistic position of the East India Company, which was not broken until after the slave trade had been abolished. They, therefore, had to obtain such goods from London and sometimes Amsterdam. Another sought-after commodity was glass beads. In the 1770s, they constituted between 25% and 50% of the value of the cargo of the average slaver. William Davenport, one of the port’s most active slave traders, was obtaining beads from Italy and brought in £39,000 worth in just 4 years.

Although Nantes was some 50 miles from the sea, its position at the confluence of the Loire and the Erdre rivers gave it access to an important hinterland, including Paris. But it was also the main import port for the French Indies Company which gave it easy access to Indian cloths. Good international trading connections were needed for other items - it got guns from England and beads and cowries came through Amsterdam. But Nantes had one significant advantage over Liverpool: it had its own textile industry producing fine quality printed cloths which were much in demand in West Africa. These indiennes, produced from 1759 onwards, became an important local industry. By 1780 there were a dozen factories, employing 4,500 workers, all producing cloth almost exclusively for the trade to Africa. Nantes also produced alcohol - the local eaux de vie - as well as swords and knives.

Mercantile initiative

Another factor was mercantile initiative. Liverpool was a rapidly expanding port in eighteenth century with a new merchant class developing, often looking for new openings, quick profits and thus willing to take risks. Slaving was risky but it was also potentially very profitable. Similarly in Nantes many of the merchants who came into slaving were looking for success; few came from “old money” and many, in fact, saw it as a way of getting the wherewithal to obtain ennoblement. Few merchants, though, invested solely in slaving and the diversity of their portfolios could be an advantage, often one enterprise supporting another. John Ashton, one of the Liverpudlians listed amongst the Company of African Merchants in 1752, was also a promoter and investor in the Sankey Canal, which helped improved Liverpool’s connections to its Lancashire neighbours. Guillaume Grou bought a country property where he grew vines and then produced brandy, for the slave trade.

But in some cases there appears to have been an element of necessity. Liverpool was slow compared with Bristol after the monopoly was lifted in entering the trade in a big way, only doing so in the 1730s and 40s. There is some evidence that in the early eighteenth century, Liverpool was being pushed out of some trades - by Glasgow in tobacco, Bristol and London in sugar - and thus its merchants tried embracing the more risky slave trade as one way of establishing a niche. Similarly, many of the Lancaster merchants who took to the slave trade were ambitious young men who lacked openings in the traditional trades.

Concentration of the slave trade in a few specialist ports

There is no doubt that slaving became a specialist trade. A slave voyage was quite complex to organise and the balance of trade goods was crucial. Knowledge and experience were the keys to success. Merchants gave their captains detailed letters of instruction with very specific instructions. The range and relatively quantities of goods was also vitally important. The relationship between merchants in Europe and African traders was quite sophisticated and personal contacts developed and helped sustain it. Often ships carried quite small parcels of goods and sometimes there were specific requests. The investment was also high - by the late eighteenth century it was costing £10-12,000 to outfit a vessel, a very significant sum. The return on that investment was also relatively slow not only because of the length of the voyages, but it frequently took 3-6 months to obtain a cargo of enslaved Africans on the west African coast. This is partly why many vessels chose to return to Europe without waiting for a cargo in the Caribbean and came back with bills of exchange, which were negotiable.

This experience paid off. Lancaster which briefly entered the slave trade, most actively in the period 1755-1767, found it was unable to compete successfully enough with Liverpool and its merchants moved back into their traditional trades. Nantes was also able to beat off competition from its most important French rival, Bordeaux. This was partly because of preferential tariff arrangements but also because Bordeaux was already very successful, dominating the direct Caribbean trade. Further, the specialisation of Nantes, resulting from its East Indian connections and indiennes cloth, gave it that all important edge in competing.

The pattern seems to be that having established a dominant position, the major slave ports like Liverpool, Nantes and the Zeeland ports, tightened their grip towards the end of the eighteenth century. This concentration may have been helped by one or two other factors. Legislation in Britain and France was beginning to regulate the trade more than before and it must have been somewhat more irksome to organise. The campaigns of the abolitionists (begun in earnest in the 1780s) may also have had some effect perhaps in dissuading some of the minor ports and potential new entrants who may have been more susceptible to the distasteful aspects of the trade and there may also have been a realisation that the abolitionist movement would ultimately succeed. Why not get out before you were forced out?

The legacy of the slave trade in the architecture of the ports

There are also certain similarities between the slave ports. Partly this results from their prosperity but some of it is also more specific. Although slaving was not the only trading activity for these ports, it was crucially important and brought them wealth and success. Several of the main slaving merchants had impressive town houses or had apartments in such buildings that were almost palatial inside. They were concentrated in the Ile de Feydeau and one can still see the eighteenth century grandeur when visiting today.

That is perhaps less true of its British counterparts. But London still has its eighteenth century squares and if one rubs below the surface in say somewhere like Portman Square one finds slaving and slavery without too much trouble. Many of the inhabitants here were absentee West Indian landowners including William Beckford 'the uncrowned king of Jamaica’, Lady Home, a Jamaica heiress, Erle Drax, with Barbadian interests and others like Sir Peter Parker, Lord Maynard and Admiral Rodney, a stout defender of slavery both at sea and later in the House of Lords.

And we know from contemporary descriptions of Liverpool and Bristol, beginning with writers like Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe in the early eighteenth century, that both were fine towns architecturally and physically. One perceptive visitor was Francis La Rochfoucauld who was in Liverpool in 1785. Although only 19 he was well-travelled.

"The chief business is the trade in negroes ...In looking at this beautiful town, its port and its walk, I certainly saw all the signs of great wealth. ...however commodious the port is, almost to the point of luxury ...one wasn’t looking at activity on a prodigious scale. Nantes has an altogether livelier atmosphere than Liverpool’s..."

Liverpool’s most successful merchants also tended to live more modestly within the town itself than their French counterparts. However, they also invested in houses on the outskirts of the town or sometimes further afield. Thomas Leyland had several unexceptional houses in Liverpool during his lifetime but also acquired Walton Hall north of the city (in fact not a stunning architectural building!). The Ashtons bought Woolton Hall, which was in a different league, especially after it was remodelled by Robert Adam, the leading architect and interior decorator of the age.

But the influences of slavery could be more specific. Liverpool’s Town Hall is known for its frieze including African heads, elephants and crocodiles - but similar African masks are found on buildings in Nantes and in Bordeaux. Street names reflect not only the names of slave traders - again in Liverpool, Earle, Tarleton, Cunliffe but also in names like Goree (the slave island off Dakar) and Jamaica Street, and in Bristol again Jamaica Street, Guinea Street and Black Boy Hill.

The Black population in slave trade ports

Many of the ports have stories about the slave trade passed on by word of mouth and in popular histories. Liverpudlians are very familiar with the stories of tunnels under the city for transporting slaves between the docks and the town and the cellars where they are said to have been kept and shackled. But one can find similar tales of tunnels and cellars in Bristol and in Nantes. Perhaps more surprisingly, there are stories of slaves being kept in the cellars of isolated farmhouses in Morecambe Bay and working in the local quarries - a reflection of Lancaster’s brief foray into the trade.

Although the nature of the trade was triangular and in general Africans were transported only as far as the Americas where their labour was needed, some Africans and people of African descent were brought back to Europe. Not surprisingly, all the slave ports had Black populations to varying degrees. In some cases, proximity and the existence of direct trade may have been the predominant factor. Lisbon is estimated to have had 10,000 Black slaves in 1620 and a continuing significant Black population. They seem to have been employed in specific occupations - particularly as ferrymen, as stevedores and builders - and in the nineteenth century 10% of house painters in the city were said to be Black.

In England, the largest Black population was found in the capital London, probably numbering between 5,000 and 15,000 at the end of the eighteenth century. Many were domestic servants, but they were also employed in other trades and there was an unknown but significant number of sailors, both in the Navy and the mercant marine. There were also a noticeable number of free Blacks, who recognised allegiance to no-one.

Elsewhere the numbers were smaller and it is even more difficult to be precise. Liverpool certainly had its Blacks - we know of sales in coffee houses and on the exchange, there were domestic servants, there are a few references in parish registers but there were also a noticeable number of Africans (mainly sons of leaders and chiefs) being educated in the town, numbering perhaps 50 in the last few years of the century. In terms of absolute numbers, they were probably always a small percentage of the population but they are no less significant for that. Bristol has its famous tombstone to Scipio Africanus in Henbury churchyard - a rare physical reminder - and a similar mix of servants, sailors and free Blacks of unknown number. Nantes, too, had a significant Black population in the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the revolution was able to raise a Black battalion, les hussards de Saint-Dominigue. Their descendants have merged into the present population, as in Bristol and Liverpool.

The effect of the slave trade on port economies

The importance of the slave trade to the ports involved, and to the wider economies of the countries promoting it, is much discussed. Given the complexity of the trade in all its aspects, whether of supply or demand, it is almost impossible to disentangle every strand. But it was clearly a crucial part of these economies and generated business activity and wealth on a significant scale. In the case of Liverpool, it is estimated that

“the African and associated trades (i.e. the direct trade with the Caribbean) may have occupied at least a third and possibly up to a half of Liverpool shipping tonnage in the half century before 1807.”

In the context of the Caribbean trade it is also worth remembering that sugar and other products being brought in by direct trade often represented payment for African slaves delivered by other ships. Again in Bristol, about 1789, trade to Africa and the Caribbean, but most particularly to the Caribbean, comprised over 80% of Bristol’s overseas trade.

The situation in Nantes is not dissimilar. The major authority on the French slave trade, Robert Stein, has written

“By 1789, the Nantes economy relied on the slave trade. Not only did investments in slaving exceed investments in other forms of commerce, but the trade was instrumental in keeping Nantes a major distributor of colonial commodities.”

Again over a third of the exotic products entering Nantes from the Caribbean represented slaving payments. In the case of some of the smallest ports participating in the trade, the reliance was greater. Middleburg and Flushing were virtual slaving communities, with substantial amounts of capital and manpower involved in the traffic. A report of 1750 confirms that the slave trade was Flushing’s only significant commercial activity.

But we should remember that it was not just the trade itself, the goods traded and the profit of the voyage. It stimulated much else besides from the shipbuilding industry to the general outfitting of the vessel. In the case of the Enterprise this amounted to nearly £2000, including obtaining supplies from sailmakers, chandlers, rope makers, to food and supplies for the voyage, the advanced wages of the seamen and 2s 6d to Margaret McKoy for cleaning the captain’s cabin!

The wealth deriving from the slave trade was reflected not only in the buildings and general economic climate but in the fortunes of the individual participants. In Liverpool, we know that every major merchant and thus every major citizen, was involved to a greater or less extent in the slave trade and its benefits. It is often quoted that all the Mayors of the town from the mid-eighteenth century until 1807 (and it includes the other civic officials) had slaving links. But some were more involved that others. William Davenport was involved in 140 voyages. John Tarleton, mayor in 1764, saw his fortune increase from £6000 in 1748 to £80,000 by 1773. Thomas Leyland, three times Mayor, left nearly £750,000 in 1827 and was involved in a range of activities, including founding a bank.

Whilst the slave traders were clearly fully integrated within the mercantile and civic society in Liverpool, the same was not necessarily true in Nantes where at least one contemporary describes a different situation:

“They form a class apart, never mixing save when business requires it, with the other merchants who approach them only with signs of profound respect.”

He goes on to describe them in terms that make them seem dandies:

“They are important personages, leaning on high, gilt-topped canes .... dressed in full civic regalia, their hair carefully arranged and powdered, with suits made of dark or light-coloured silks according to the season, wearing long waistcoats, and breeches, also of silk, and white stockings and shoes with large gold or silver buckles.”

But then, making money in the slave trade was one way to gain ennoblement. I suspect one is distinguishing between successful merchants and less successful ones. Certainly there were several families, as in Liverpool, who were involved with the trade throughout the eighteenth century. In Nantes, the Montaudoin family, the largest private traders in the city, sent 357 ships to Africa between 1694 and 1791. They also founded La Grande Manufacture to produce indiennes cloths, a major Nantais industry. The Grou family organised 50 slaving voyages in the 40 years from 1721 to 1763. Guillaume Grou left 2 million livres, besides giving 200,000 livres to the General Hospital and building perhaps the most elegant town mansion of any of his contemporaries. Perhaps the pièce de resistance is the claim that many of these merchants sent their laundry

“to be washed in the mountain springs of Saint Domingue, where the water whitens clothes much better than in French rivers.”

Trade patterns after abolition

When abolition came none of the slave ports suffered more than temporary problems. This is partly because of the complex interlocking of all the trades which meant that losing one component did not spell disaster. In fact, one of the legacies of the trade and its consequences is that it helped shape the future pattern of trade. Nantes continued to maintain major links with the Caribbean and also continued its dominance of the East Indies trade. In Liverpool, two arms of the triangle were maintained. Trade with West Africa continued and particularly the developing and lucrative palm oil trade, the main participants of which were those very merchants who had previously been involved with slaving. Not surprisingly as they had good contacts in West Africa and the infrastructure was already in place. But Liverpool also continued its trade with the Americas and increasingly developed the import of raw cotton, a slave produced commodity, which it had initially begun in the late eighteenth century. Indeed, the import of cotton and the export of finished cotton goods were to be the port’s major activities in the nineteenth century and underpinned much of its other trade. Bristol, too, continued to rely on its American trades, importing sugar and increasingly tobacco.

These commodities were not only important as trade but also sustained crucial manufacturing industries in the ports. In Bristol, Wills tobacco was a major industry and employer. And Bristol also had its West African connections importing cocoa, which in turn became chocolate in Frys factory. Back on the Mersey, large quantities of palm oil went to Levers at Port Sunlight, and there was sugar refining by Tate and Lyle and tobacco products from Ogdens.

Acknowledgement of past involvement in the slave trade

But there are other sorts of legacies, apart from the economic ones. One important one is how the ports and their inhabitants have dealt with their past involvement with slaving. There is no doubt that on a popular level, knowledge of the slaving past has been an important part of the inhabitants’ consciousness for a long time. In large part this has probably been sustained by the stories of tunnels, of secret cellars and slaves being sold or chained up - regularly repeated in the local press over the last century and supported in popular literature. In Liverpool, as early as 1884, “A Dickey Sam” published Liverpool and Slavery: A History of the Liverpool-African Slave Trade and this was followed by more comprehensive works such as Gomer Williams’ 1897 history of the Liverpool privateering and slaving.

However, at an official level, the slave trade was generally perceived as something best forgotten. This is reflected in the treatment of the long-standing Black populations, certainly in the British and French ports, which have been marginalised, neglected and disadvantaged. The situation has changed in the last 20 to 30 years and the importance of the slave trade in the history of the slave ports has been increasingly on the agenda. Partly this is as a result of the work of academics. But it is also as a result of lobbying by the Black populations themselves, looking primarily for recognition and acknowledgement of the past, and by a realisation amongst some whites that this is an important issue.

In Nantes, two major international academic conferences have been held, the first in 1975. The city also has two organisations memorialising the involvement and lobbying for greater recognition. One of them, Les Anneaux de la Mèmoires, was closely involved in the temporary exhibition which was held in the museum in 1992. The civic authorities supported the exhibition, but the process of achieving it was by no means an easy or simple project.

Liverpool had its first conference on the trade in 1976, though it dealt with the British trade and lacked the international involvement that was a key feature of the one in Nantes. The opening of the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery in the Maritime Museum in October 1994 saw the first permanent gallery devoted to the subject in any of the slave ports. The gallery has had a significant impact both in the city and wider afield. Bristol has been slower to come to terms with its involvement and more reluctant. The City Museum in Bristol held a major temporary exhibition on Bristol and the slave trade in 1999, the core of which has now been installed in the Industrial Museum. On a wider basis, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has incorporated a section on the slave trade in its Trade and Empire Gallery also opened in 1999. The Commonwealth and Empire Museum to be based in Bristol plans to include significant reference to the subject. The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, another slaving port, is considering a temporary exhibition of the Dutch trade and determining how the subject can be permanently incorporated in the major refurbishment of their museum.

There is thus some recognition in the former slave ports that the slaving past needs to be recognised. There is obviously a long way to go and more that can be done. And there are also some wider movements beginning to unfold. In 1993 UNESCO began its Slave Route project, an attempt to recognise the importance and consequences of the slave trade on an international basis and in particularly to seek the assistance of Europeans in helping both African, Caribbean and South American nations in this process. In this sense, the triangle which began as a trading arrangement is being re-established to memorialise it. The slave trade completely changed the history of three continents; but it also profoundly changed the ports that organised it and they are still struggling to live with the consequences.

Anthony Tibbles, April 2000

Further reading

'Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity' by Anthony Tibbles is available to purchase from the online bookshop.