European Slavery: England/Britain

Figure 1.--

Ancient Era

Slavery was a major economic and social institution in Europe during the classical era. A great deal is known about the Greeks and Romans. We know little about slavery in Celtic Britain or to the north in Calednia beyond Hadrians Wall. Of course slavery was central to the Roman economy and Rome conquered Celtic Britain (1st century AD). We know the Romans took war captives ad other Britains and shipped them to Rome and presumably other areas of the empire as slaves. We have, however, few details about slavery in Roman Britain.

Medieval Era

Slavery did not disappear in Britain with the withdrawl of the Roman Legions (5th century AD). This can be considered the beginning of the medieval period. Slaves remained common in continental Europe during the early medieval period. We are less sure about England. The withdrawl of the Legions soon resulted in the Anglo-Saxon invasions. This might have resulted in slavery for the Britons, but the Anglo-Saxons conducted a war of extinction rather than enslaving the defeated Britons. As the Anglo-Saxon kingdoims becae estanlished and Christianized (6th century AD), the institutions of fedudalism began to develop, including serfdom rather than slavery. With the advent of the Viking raids we are not sure to what extent slavery was revived (9h century). One of the goals of the raiders was to take captives back to Scandavia where they could be sold as slaves. We are less sure about the existence of slavery in the Scandinavian communities in England (the Dane Law). Nor do we know much about slavery in Wessex, the only surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdom which was the foundation for modern England. Even in Scandavia slavery died out as the kingdoms became Christinized (11th-12th centuries). We have no information on slavery in England at this time. The Feudal system and serfdom was well established.

Voyages of Discovery

The first important English explorer was Giovanni Caboto (1450-98), better known as John Cabot. He was Genoese. (Note the importance of the Genoese. As Venice defeated Genoa and limited its maritime commerce, many Genoese like Cabot and Cloumbus sought their fortunes in other countries.) Cabot set up as a merchant in Bristol. Soon accounts of Columbus' voyages reached England. Cabot with his navigational skills was commissioned by King Henry VII to explore the New World and find a passage to the Indies, the famed Northwest Passage. Cabot found Cape Breton Island off modern Nova Scotia and claimed it for England (1497). He explored the coast of Greenland in a second expedition (1498). The English watched in envy while Mary was queen, her husband was Phillip II of Spain. With the accession of Princess Elizabeth, however, this changed. Queen Elizabeth secretly authorized privateers to prey upon Spanish treasure ships and in the process not only seized important quantities of gold and silver, but accumulate increasing information about navigation and ocean seafaring. The English Sea Dogs (Drake, Hawkins, Raleigh, and others) were the bane of Philip's existence. Sir Francis Drake (1545?-96) was the greatest English explorers and one of its preminant naval heroes. Drake received his early training from Sir John Hawkins, a realative and participated in the raids on Spanish shipping. On one f thse fraids, Drake led a small party accross the Istmus of Panama for his forst view of the Pacific Ocean (1572). Queen Elizabeth, depite the fact England was at peace with Soain, approved and helped finance a secret expedition to target Spanish colonies along the Pacific coast of South America (1576). The Pacific at the time a virtual Spanish lake. Drake attacked Spanish cities from Chile north to Mexico and became known as El Drago. Drake and the Golden Hind reached Plymouth having curcumnavigated the globe (1580). The Spanish issued stinging diplomatic protests, but Queen Elizabeth knighted him. Not only were the English plundering his treasure fleets, but they were Protestants and Elizabeth was taking the English church in a decidedly Protestant direction. Philip's response was the Great Armada described above. The defeat of the Armada (1588) opened the way for more intensive English exploration and the founding of colonies. Henry Hudson (?-1611?) made four voyages if discovery primarily aimed at finding the Northwest Passage. On his third voyage (1609) he explored along the coast of North America 150 miles up what is now known as the Hudson River. On his fourth voyage abord the Half Moon (1610) Hudson still searching for the Northwest passage found what is now known as Hudson Bay where his crew mutined and Hudson and his son are believed to have perished.

English Colonial Empire

Although Cabot's voyages began only a few yers after Columbus (1497), the English failed to implant any colonies in the New Worlsd. Meanwhile the Spanish established colonies throughout South America, the Caribbean, Central America, and in southern North America. The first English effort occurred at Roanoke Island (modern North Carolina) (1585). The effort was organized by Queen Elizabeth's favorite, Sir Walter Raleigh. It was led by Ralph Lane. The colony failed and the colonsts withdrew (1586). Raleigh organizes another venture (1587). When English ships return, te colonits had vantaged without a trace (1580). Their fate continues to be a historical mystery. Francis Bacon writes a book addessing te subject of colonization (1597). [Bacon]

Atlantic Slave Trade (16th-18th Centuries)

England was one of the major colonial powers partipated in the African slave trade. England was deeply involved in the Atlantic slave trade. English slave rading began with selling slaves to the Spanish. England used African slaves in its Caribbean and North American colonies. African slaves were used in the enormously profitable sugar indusry. Slaves were also extensively used in North America, especially the southern colonies (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carrolina, and Georgia). Slaves were sold in the northern clonies as well, but the overwealming numbers were sold to planters in the southern colonies. Great fortunes were made in both the slave trade and on the plantations where slves wee employed.

Beginning (16th century)

The English slave trade was begun by Sir John Hawkins of Plymouth. Hawkins appears to have been first English trader to sail along the coast of West Africa while Henry VIII was still king (1532). He did no immediately begin trading slaves. English foreign policy was significantly affected by the soverign. Edward VI (1547-53) was a Protestant. Mary I (1553-58) was Catholic and determined to restore Catholcism in England. She was also married to King Philip II of Spain. Mary prohibited commercial actions violating Spanish law such as participating in the slave trade or tradeing with Spanish colonies. Queen Mary prohibited English involvement in Guinea where captive Africans could be obtained (1555). John Lok, a London merchant, brings a small group of Africans from Shama (modern Ghana) to London (1555). He was attempting to popularize the idea of African slavery in the hope of etering the lucrative slave trade. Mary's death and the accension of Elizabeth changed the political situation. These prohibitions were quickly rescinded with the acession of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Elizabeth was not only a Protestant, but willing to allow English merchants to enter profitble trade with Spanish colonies (in violation of Spanish law) and even privateering. Spain was growing rich from its colonies and England did not yet have a single colony. Elizabeth was anxious that England merchants be allowed to participate in the colonial trade, even though England had no colonies of its own. The first such English merchant to enter the slave trade was John Hawkins. He purchased captive Africans at the Sierra Leone River (1562). Hawkins eventually transported 1,200 Africans in four voyages, selling them to Spanish settlers on Hispaniola. The English slave trade, however, was limited. There were no English colonies where slaves could be sold. They were in great demand in the Spanish Caribban colonies. But this violated Spanish law. The Spanish and Portuguese had a closed colonial system. The colonies were not allowed to trade with foreign countries or even other Spanish colonies. Thus the English slavers could be arrested and seized. The trade, however, was enormously profitable and others quickly took up the trade. And the trade as well as priveteering played a major role which increasing tensions between England and Spain. This led to Philip's decision to invade England and supress Protestantism. This climaxed in the Great Armada (1588). Hawkins not only initiated the English slave trade, he also introduced both the potato and tobacco to England.

Cribbean and North America (17th century)

After a failed effort, the Englishbestablished their first permanent clony in North America (1607). The English at first attempted to use English indentured servitude as a labor force. This prived unsatisfactory as it was relativdly easy for the indebntured servants to run off and even if they stayed, there term of servive was limited, usually only 7 years. Thus the Virgininians and subsequent southern colonists turned to African slavery as a labor force. They at first were treated as indentured servants, but soon the colonial legisltures began formalized the institution of slavery. At firstvthe term "slave" ws avoided, but gradually came into use in the legl code. Virginia became a major market for English slavers. England also began seizing Caribbean islands. The first was Barbados which was not settled by Spain (1625). Next was Jamaica, but this was more difficult as the Spanish had begun to settle it (1655). The English form The Royal African Company to regulate the slave trade through a monopoly (1672). Many private traders ignored the monopoly.The Crown terminated the Royal African Company monopoly (1698). This meant that private individuals and concerns could participate in the slave trade. The Glorious Revolution and te accession of William and Mary brough war with France. It was a conflict that would be waged on and off for over 100 years and would not end until Waterloo (1815). The first battles of the conflict were in Europe were the effort to save the Dutch Republic from Louis XIV.

War with France and the American Revolution (18th century)

The Conflict with France continued in Europe. The War of the Spanish Succession was Louis XIV's final effort to gain mastery of Europe (1702-13). Marlborough conducted one of the great military campaigns in European history, marching an Englis army deep into Germany and gining a spectacular victory at Blenheim (1704). England and Scotland merge diring the War becoming the United Kingsom or Brirain. The wars with France had significant implications in other areas, including the Caribbean. In the peace settlement gains St. Kitts from France. In addition, Spain grants the British South Sea Company the lucrative right (asiento) to sell captive Africans in Spain's American colonies. The North American colonies in the early 18th century completed the legal framework of race-based slavery. Here Virginia as the largest and richest southern colony was particularly important. The Virginia General Assembly firmly established slavery as property without rights. The General Assembly declared, "All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves ... shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master ... correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction ... the master shall be free of all punishment." (1705) The Marrons (escaped slaves) in Jamaica prve disruptive to the plantation economy. The plantrs launch the First Maroon War (1700-39). The Maroons manage to hold ou in the mountaneous interior of the Island. The British finally accept a treaty with the Maroon leader Cudjoe (1739). Tackey’s slave rebellion occurs in Antigua (1735-36). Britain and France fight a world war--the Seven Years War (1756-63). Britain acquires more Caribbean islands--Dominica, Grenada, St Vincent and Tobago. Tacky leads a major slace rebellion in Jamaica (1760). The American Revolution breaks out in Boston (1775). British efforts to supress the Colonists fail (1776). The British offer freedom to slaves who support the Crown. The tactic backfires, eroding support for the Crown in the southern colonies. The war becomes a protracted struggle when the French and Spanish enter the War (1778). This extends the fighting into the Caribbean. During the War the French seized Grenada, Tobago and St Kitts. After the Americans sign a separate peace with Britain, France retains only Tobago in the Peace of Versailles (1783). With American independence, the history of slavery in North America becomes that of the United States. Britin's Caribbean islands continue to be very valuable possessions with ecoomies based on slavery and the production of sugar. The French Revolution led to the spread of political ideals that reach the Caribbean slaves. The immediate result is a slave rebellion in the French colony of St. Dominique (Haiti) (1791). War breaks out again with France. The British attempt to seize Haiti, but fail (1794-96).

Philosophical Outlook

Some European authors addressed the question of slavery. Sir Thomas More attempted to descripe an ideal society in his classic book--Utopia (1516). This of couse is the origin of the modern word "utopia". More wrote at a time in which the Atlantic slave trade had not yet developed significantly and England did not yet have a colonial empire. and there was not yet a racial component to slavery. In the book he addressed the question of slavery. He saw a place for slavery in his ideal society. His concept of slavery was different than that current at the time. Slaves would not be prisoners-of-war, slaves by birth, or purchsed in slave markets. More conceived slavery as a conditioned for "condemned criminals". He thought thay could be purchased from foreign countries or such countries might even deliver them at no cost. [More]

Africans in England

Some Africans reached England (16th century). This was as a result of the seizure of Spanish ships and England entering the slave trade, I'm not entiresly sure of their status. Some were held as slaves, but I'm not sure that they all were. Some were employed aboard ships. Apparently their presence disturbed some Enhlish people. Queen Elizabeth sent a letter complaining that 'there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie ... Her Majesty's pleasure therefore ys that those kinde of people should be sent forth of the lande" (1596). Authoritiesthus rounded up some slaves and turned over to a German slave trader--Caspar van Senden.

Abolitionist Movement

Caribbean Islands

Indian Ocean

Campaign to End the Slave Trade (19th Century)

The British launched upon a dual campaign. First a Royal Navy effort to stop slavers and a diplomatic campaign to get the various European powers and America to cooperate. The Royal Navy campsaign would prove to be the longest campaign in the its long history. The diplomatic campaign would prove to be an enormously difficult undertaking. Other countries were involved in the campaign to end the slave trade, but it was an effort pushed by the British Abolitionist movement and conducted by the Royal Navy.

Jamaican Slave Rebellion (1831)

Abolition (1834)


Bacon, Francis. Plantations (1597).

More, Thoms. Utopia (1516).


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Created: 1:32 AM 2/26/2008
Last updated: 1:32 AM 2/26/2008