Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


Slavery and London
Seán Mac Mathúna

Blackheath and slavery

Links to Olaudah Equiano and Slavery

Olaudah Equiano or Gustavas Vassa, the African slave - a short biography

The Equiano Foundation Online

Web resources on slavery

Olaudah Equiano: The life of Gustavus Vassa selections

Settlement in Barbados 1627 - 1880

"The fortune of many an old respectable family came from it.
Slavery is as the heart of the wealth of London"
- Geraint Smith, 1993 (1)

The Coat of Arms of the slave trader Hawkins


A feature of the shipping engaged in West Indian privateering which may cause some surprise is the overwhelming predominance of Londoners. There are forty-one ships mentioned herein whose port of origin has been traced; thirty-one were from London. Kenneth Andrews

In London, one thing most school children are still not taught much about, is the depth of England's involvement with the slave trade and the simple fact - as pointed out by many historians - that the wealth generated by this barbaric practice generated the wealth that created the industrial revolution in England - and lined the pockets of the aristocracy and the City of London. The National Gallery in London was founded on it, Lloyd's of London and the Bank of England were immersed in it . According to One Foot in the Past, a programme shown on BBC TV in 1993, involvement in the slave trade was seen as a respectable occupation in London during the 17th and 18th centuries. Although Bristol and Liverpool were the main docking areas for slaves coming into England, (hence the opening of the first US diplomatic mission in Bristol), it was in London that businessmen who made millions from the financing of the slave trade. By 1750, it was these London merchants which were taking almost three-quarters of the sugar imported from the West Indies, and many of them lived in South London, in a area thought today - as it was yesterday - as quite respectable - Blackheath.

Thus, many famous institutions in London were built on the profits of the slave trade, according to research carried out by Dr Nick Merriman of the Museum of London. (1) These included Barclays Bank, founded by Alexander and David Barclay, who were among 84 Quaker slave traders operating in the West Indies according to the records of the Society of Friends. (1) One bank closely connected with slavery and South East London was Barings Bank. It's founder, Sir Francis Baring earned nearly £7 million from a business of dealing in slaves that went back 70 years. Baring Road in South East London is named after him. He was said to have his first money trading in slaves when he was just 16, indicating his family's immense wealth and business connections with the West Indies. Thus, it is an outrage that this road (in the London Borough of Lewisham), has not been renamed.

The founding collection of pictures at the National Gallery in London, was given by John Julius Angerstein. He had built up his art collection with the money made from the slave trade, and his activities as one of Lloyd's underwriters insuring the slavers. According to one historian, the Bank of England should well have been called the Bank of the West Indies, because of it's involvement in slavery. Humphrey Morice, the Bank's governor between 1716 and 1729, owned six slave ships. Sir Richard Neave, a director for 48 years, was chairman of the Society of West Indian Merchants. Slaves were sold on the London Royal Exchange and "other places of public resort" - many of them children.

South East London

Joan Anim-Addo in her book Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham, has been the only author to write a definitive account of the long history and struggle of the black population in South East London. Here we read that the earliest contact of Africans with South east London, would have been at least 2000 years ago. The evidence is in a miniature carved wooden figure with distinctive African features and design that was found near Southwark Bridge in London.

Within the ranks of the Roman Legions that were garrisoned across Britain were African soldiers - at least 500 were thought to be stationed in a garrison near Carlise for example. They would have probably travelled along Watling Street through Deptford - the Roman road that ran from Dover to Chester.

Thus, the first Africans that forded the creek at Deptford, would have been those serving with the Roman army. However, the next significant presence of Africans in the Deptford/Greenwich area would come during Elizabethan times - at a time when the area developed in strong links with the slave trade.(2)

The Royal Dockyard at Deptford played a significant role in the slave trade. In 1553, The Primrose, a ship built at Deptford two years earlier, would provide the first contact between the English and African Kingdom of Benin. The journey was a business enterprise that involved the young adventurer, Martin Frobisher. Although he is known for his voyages to the Artic and China (from which he was seen off from Deptford by Elizabeth I in 1576), he spent his early years sailing around the coast of West Africa involved in the slave trade. No doubt, that was were he made his money to finance such trips.

The first recorded instance of African slaves in Deptford was on 9th November 1501 when Catherine of Aragon arrived in Deptford with two slaves from Spain to marry Henry VII's eldest son, Arthur. By 1530, English seamen begin to challenge the dominance of Spain and Portugal with exclusive rights to trade in Africa. Foremost among these was William Hawkins, father of John Hawkins, the notorious slave trader.

Between 1530 and 1537, made at least three journeys to Guinea where he traded in ivory and other rare goods. Soon, the main trade would be of two things; gold and slaves, and Deptford and London would play a major role in this through their docks. (3)

Deptford became a centre for those interested and involved in the slave trade and its business in the Caribbean. A key figure in the slave trade was a resident of Deptford and pirate, Sir John Hawkins. The Church of St. Nicholas contains a statue of William Hawkins, his brother, which was erected by Hawkins, then Treasurer of the Royal Navy in 1589. Described as "the English father of the slave trade", he lived in the Treasurers House at Deptford Dockyard and made his first slaving trip from England in 1562.(4)

In the The Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galerno describes how Elizabeth 1 became a business partner of Captain John Hawkins.(5) His first slave expedition in 1562 was made with a fleet of three ships and 100 men. He smuggled 300 slaves out of Portuguese Guinea "partly by the sworde, and partly by other meanes".

According to James Walvin writing in Black Ivory, Hawkins sold the slaves in Hispaniola, and filled his ships with "hides, ginger, sugars, and some quantities of pearles". A year after leaving England, Hawkins returned to England "with properous successe and much gaine to himself and the aforesayde adventurers".(6)

According to Galerno, when Elizabeth I found out, she was furious: "it was detestable and would call down vengeance from heaven upon the undertakers", she cried. But, when Hawkins told her that in exchange for the slaves, he had a cargo of sugar, ginger, hides and pearls, "she forgave the pirate, and became his business partner". 25 She supported him by loaning him for a second expedition, The Jesus of Lubeck, a 700 ton vessel purchased for Henry VIII for the Royal Navy.

Anim-Addo notes from the official Navy records how the slave trade was to "enrich England for centuries to come . . . and correspondingly depopulate and impoverish Africa":

The man of the fleet were kept busy going ashore every day to capture the Negroes, burning and spoiling their towns, and many were taken . . . by the 21st December, the raiding parties had taken all the Negroes they could find and had also carried on board as much fruit . . .(7)

As business increased, and he made himself rich, Hawkins reputation soared within slaving circles. On his third slaving expedition in 1567, for which Elizabeth's I's investment increased to two ships, he was accompanied by Sir Francis Drake. On this particular journey they "had obtained between four and five hundred Negroes, wherewith we thought it somewhat reasonable to seek the coast of the West Indies".(7)

Along with Hawkins, Drake was another pioneer of the English slave trade. His family was well connected with slavery and with Deptford. In 1585, he had appointed to command an expedition to the Caribbean that marked the beginning of open war with Spain. However, the Queen of England thought that Drake's "low birth" and independent temperament made him unfit to command her fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588, and he ceded control to another Deptford resident, Charles Howard of Effingham. Drake died at sea with Hawkins of the coast of Panama in 1596.

Another of Deptford's famous slave traders was Sir Walter Raleigh who had business connections with both Hawkins and Frobisher. He was the great grandson of Baron Edmund Carew of the Carew family of Blackheath. In 1595, he led four ships on the search seeking El Dorado or Golden Land of Guiana. Howard contributed one of his ships The Lion's Whelp. The journey however, was not a great success, and Raleigh returned home with gold samples whose authenticity was doubted. Jailed later in the Tower of London, he was released in 1616 to organise another trip in search of the legendary gold of El Dorado. A ship, The Destiny was built in Deptford and he sailed for Guiana where he lost his son in battle with the Spanish. Devastated, he returned to England. He was later arrested after a chase in the River Thames when he entrusted his escape plans to the wrong party. He was tried in closed court and executed in 1618.(7)

The connections between the royal family and slavery continued: the Duke of York was branding the initials "DY" on the left buttock or breast of each of the 3000 slaves his "business concern" shipped to what were called the "sugar islands" in the Caribbean.

Later, Charles II was a shareholder in the Royal African Company, which made vast profits from the slave trade. Of the 70,000 slaves the company shipped to the Caribbean between 1680 and 1688, only 46,000 survived the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. On these voyages of death, many Africans died of epidemics of disease or malnutrition - many simply committed suicide by either refusing food, hanging themselves by their chains, or throwing themselves overboard into a sea bristling with sharks fins.(7)

What about the life of black slaves in South East London ? Hardly any accounts survive, but Joan Anim-Addo gives brief descriptions of two such slaves: John Caesar and Billy Blue (see picture above). (1) She describes how Caesar was one of many black slaves who ended up in London, who was to pay a steep price for gaining a criminal record.

Before the British seizure of Australia in 1788, English political dissenters and criminals were deported to America and the West Indies. After the American War of Independence these people were transported to Australia, including hundreds of black people and thousands of Irish and Scots dissidents. The most famous English prisoners were the Tolpuddle martyrs who were deported to Australia because of their determination to set up a trade union.

John Ceasar and Billy Blue, both of whom lived in Deptford, were among the earliest prisoners to be deported. Caesar, described as a "powerfully built Negro" was convicted as Maidstone in 1785, and held on a prison boat on the Thames until the fleet sailed for Botany Bay in Ireland in 1787. Maidstone jail was also where the priest and liberation theologian John Ball was held.

On arrival in Australia, Caesar was sent to labour in chains on Garden island in Sydney harbour. However, he managed to escape in April 1789 with a musket, some rations, and a iron cooking pot. He survived for 19 days by stealing from the settlements on the mainland. When he was caught, he was returned to Garden Island, but he escaped again &endash; after stealing a boat from the local Aborigines. After a month, he was caught and banished to Norfolk Island. Five years later, he fled again, and in January 1796 a reward of five gallons of rum was offered for his capture. In February, he was ambushed and shot dead by Bounty hunters in a place known ironically as Liberty Plains.

As for Billy Blue, the little we know about his life comes from a petition he sent to a Governor Brisbane in 1823 when he 89 years old. He had served as a soldier in the British army and was involved in the attack on Quebec in 1759. During the American War of Independence, Blue was a "spy or guide" for the army, which Anim-Addo thinks may indicate that he had American Indian ancestry. He had been a "lumper" at Deptford Dockyard, and in 1796, he was convicted of stealing sugar from a West Indian owned ship, the Lady Jane Halliday. He was said to have had his own chocolate making business, and as a result ended up spending nearly 5 years on prison hulks on the River Thames before transportation to Australia.(2)

However, his ended up being appointed a Watchman at Sydney Cove, and was granted 80 acres of land to the north of the harbour, known today as Blue's Point. In 1818, he was convicted of smuggling rum, but was pardoned because of his "special relationship" with the British colonial administration. He died in 1834, leaving his property to his children.

The British royal family and slavery

I found most of the information on the British royal families involvement in the slave trade in the excellent book by Hugh Thomas The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870 (Picador, London, UK, 1997). In it, he shows how in 1632, King Charles I first granted a licence to transport slaves from Guinea. In 1651, a new Guinea Company in London was founded, in which a prominent London merchant and slave trader Samuel Vassall was one of the major shareholders. Vassall was one of the early 'incorporators' of Massachusetts. He also collaborated with Lord Berkeley to develop Virginia. Vassall had had endless debts and lawsuits, and several terms of imprisonment. An MP, for the City of London, he was also a commissioner concerned in the establishment of the Providence plantations in Narragansett Bay. As Thomas notes, the end of the monarchy of Charles I, and the coming of a Puritan administration, had had no effect on the City of London's desire to make money from slaves; nor did the change in the regime after the Restoration of 1660 alter that ambition.

This company however did not prosper, as its ships were attacked at sea by the Royalist Prince Rupert, then leading a "piratical monarchist fleet" to the West Indies in alliance with the Portuguese. They were also attacked by the buccaneer Captain Carloff and his Danes. The losses of the company are estimated to have reached £300,000.

Despite this, it was during this time that the trading of slaves by London-based ships began on a regular basis. According to Thomas, one instruction of 1651 by the Guinea Company had asked a captain of one of their ships that he bring back to England 'fifteen or twenty lusty negers'. Another asked a captain on a ship said to be bound for London to 'put aboard . . . so many negers as your ship can carry'. London slave merchants were also involved in sending slaves to Barbados, as yet a third letter requested:

'We pray you buy as many lusty negers as she well can carry, and so despatch her to the Barbados'.

Members of the British royal family were the first members of a European royal family to go to West Africa - and purpose of the visit was slavery. In 1660, after the Restoration of Charles II, a new slave-trading company was set up in London called the Royal Adventurers into Africa. The unemployed Duke of York, the brother of King Charles II was the President of the new company which was given a monopoly of the English African trade for 1,000 years. Princess Henrietta ('Minette'), the King's sister, also had a share

Investors, who were known as "The Royal Adventurers", each of invested £250 in the enterprise, and included most of the important politicians of the time: for example, the King's friend the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Craven, Lord Ashley, the Duke of Albermarle (General Monck), Lord Arlington, Lord Berkeley, Lord Crofts, Henry Jermyn (a prominent Catholic), and Lord Sandwich, the admiral who had brought back King Charles II from exile in Holland. The King's brother, the unemployed Duke of York, became President. In total, there were four members of the royal family, two dukes, a marquess, five earls, four barons, and seven knights.

When a new charter was issued for the company of Adventurers in January 1663, shareholders now included King Charles II, the Queen Mother, Henrietta Maria, and the Duke of York (who invested £2,000). Other included new Queen, Catherine of Braganza (whose dowry of £330,000 was partly financed slave traders), and Samuel Pepys. The, so-called "philosopher of liberty", John Locke was another subscriber. As noted by Thomas:

"The profits which could be made from trading slaves had by then been appreciated in England."

Thus, as Thomas observes, the commitment by the royal family to the African slave trade was strong. Few people know the origin of the money once used in England called "guineas" - but it will come as no surprise to know that the coin was named after a country in West Africa where the British were heavily - and profitably - involved in the slave trade. In 1663, it was agreed that some of the gold brought back from the Gold Coast region (present day Ghana to Guinea) should be turned by the Royal Mint into coins with an elephant on one side. Because of there connection to the slave trade, Thomas points out, they "were popularly called 'guineas' from the beginning". The coin was made until 1813, and the unit of currency continued in use till the abolition of the old shilling in 1967.

In 1665 the company of Adventurers estimated its annual return from gold as £200,000, from slaves as £100,000, and from ivory, wax, hides, woods, grain (pepper) as another £100,000. It had had assured the King that:

"The very being of the plantations depends upon the supply of negro servants for their works" Hugh Thomas in The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870 (Picador, London, UK, 1997)

The Royal Adventurers company was wound up in 1672 and in its place, the Royal African Company (RAC) founded. The Governor and largest shareholder, was James, Duke of York. The directors also included four proprietors of plantations in Carolina (Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Craven, Sir George Carteret, Commissioner for Trade and Plantations; and Sir John Colleton, a landowner in Barbados as well as Carolina) - as well as Lord Berkeley, "the first peer . . . to collect directorships". The shareholders also included over the years, fifteen of the lord mayors of London, twenty-five sheriffs of London, and again, John Locke. Between 1672 and 1689, the company exported just under 90,000 slaves into the West Indies. A further 75,000 slaves were sent to British North America, and sold onto plantations in the 13 colonies, between 1673 and 1725, according to Thomas.

Thus it is clear that much of London's early wealth was generated by the Slave trade, with the involvement of many prominent people at the time - from John Locke to Samuel Pepys, most of the merchants in the City of London seemed to have a hand in it, along with the involvement of the British royal family from the 16th century to the 18th century.


1 Evening Standard, 24th June 1993.
2 Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham, Joan Anim-Addo. Deptford Forum Publishing Ltd, London, UK, 1995, Idid, pp1-2.
3 Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham, Idid, pp4-9.
4 The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a continent, Eduardo Galerno, Monthly Review Press, NY, USA, 1973, Pp 92-93
5 Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery, Fontana Press, London, UK, p25.
6 Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham, ibid, pp8-11.
7 Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham, ibid, pp29-33.
The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870. Hugh Thomas, Picador, London, UK, 1997.