Slavery in the British Isles dates back to the times of the Roman Empire; however, the British really perfected the Atlantic slave trade throughout the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. As the demand for black slaves grew in 18th century England, so did the industry of buying, transporting, and selling slaves. As the slave trade expanded, as many as 1700 and 1800 British merchants jumped on the lucrative bandwagon, committing ships and seamen to the transport of slaves.
The Transatlantic slave trade was the single most lucrative element in Britain’s trade during the 18th century. Ships never sailed empty, and profits were enormous. For a long while, very little consideration was given to the morality of the slave trade. James Houston, an employee of an 18th century slave merchant, noted, “What a glorious and advantageous trade this is. It is the hinge on which all the trade of this globe moves.” And, in fact, in many ways it did. It is estimated that nearly 70 percent of the government’s total income at that time came directly from taxes on goods from its colonies.
As money poured in through the slave trade, that money was in turn invested into British industry. The industrial landscape of Britain and other European countries involved in the slave trade was changed forever, as massive wealth poured in. In fact, the profits gained through the slave trade contributed hugely to financing the Industrial Revolution.
However, while some grew obscenely wealthy off of the trade in human chattel, others suffered greatly: namely, the slaves themselves. Uprooted from their homelands thousands of miles across the sea, they were forced into labor in a culture, language and country that was not their own. Transportation of slaves subjected them to appalling conditions for many months as they were packed tightly onto ships with little concern for comfort or well-being. Many, in fact, died before ever reaching British soil.
It is estimated that nearly three million slaves were forced across the Atlantic and into a new culture and lifestyle far from the home, people and places they knew. As the slaves were integrated into the culture, some were eventually freed and others escaped. By the final quarter of the 18th century, many thousands of black people had become part of the population of the British Isles. Some of them worked in domestic settings, yet many more worked in port cities and industrial hubs.
At that time, black domestic servants were seen as a sign of great wealth. In some cases, the African immigrants were paid workers and were free to leave their employers at will. In many other cases, however, black slaves were treated little better than property and were kept, sold, or traded at will. As time went on though, many African immigrants were free and worked as tradesmen, sailors, and even businessmen and musicians.
Interestingly enough, while the British indisputably gained nearly immeasurable wealth through the slave trade, they ended up being the leaders in the struggle to end slavery completely. In only 46 short years, the slave trade was outlawed completely by the British government. In one of the most successful reforms of the 19th century, the British government went on to abolish the practice throughout every one of their colonies.