1500-1799 | Slavery

Deaths from Britain’s slave trade estimated at 30,000 a year

Francois-Auguste Biard – Slaves on the West Coast of Africa
Oil on canvas – crop -Wilberforce House, Hull. via Wikimedia

1 September 1772

Exactly one year after the Scots Magazine reported shocking revelations about mass starvation in Bengal caused by the unprecedented rapacity of the East India Company, the magazine published an article by American abolitionist Anthony Benezet entitled ‘The Rise and Progress of the Slave Trade, its Nature and its Lamentable Effects.’ It confirmed what many among the magazine’s readership must already have suspected or known, that every year the nascent British Empire was also bringing misery and death to tens of thousands of Africans.

He explained that ‘England supplies her American colonies with negro slaves, amounting to above one hundred thousand every year. When the vessels are fully freighted with slaves, they sail for our plantations in America, and may be two or three months in the voyage; during which time from the filth and stench which is among them, distempers frequently break out, which carry off commonly a fifth, a fourth, yea sometimes a third or more of them: so that taking all the slaves together that are brought on board our ships yearly, one may reasonably suppose, that at least ten thousand of them die on the voyage. And in a printed account of the state of the negroes in our plantations, it is supposed that a fourth part, more or less, die at the different islands, in what is called the seasoning. Hence it may be presumed, at a moderate computation of the slaves who are purchased by our African merchants in a year, nearly thirty thousand die upon the voyage and in the seasoning.’

This staggering death toll did not, however, take account of how the slave trade provoked conflict within and between African states. Benezet reminded readers that when considering the total impact on mortality, it was also necessary to include ‘the prodigious number who are killed in the incursions, and intestine wars, by which the negroes (bribed or compelled by British officials and merchants) procure the number of slaves wanted to load the vessels. How dreadful then is the slave trade, whereby so many thousands of our fellow creatures, free by nature, endued with the same rational faculties, and called to be heirs of the same salvation with us, lose their lives, and are, truely and properly speaking, murdered every year !’1 He might have added that many slaves on the plantations considered the dead lucky to have escaped captivity, and that, for that very reason, not a few committed suicide at the first opportunity.

Stowage plan of the British slave ship ‘Brookes’ – c 1788.
Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

FOOTNOTE

  1. Anthony Benezet, ‘Some historical account of Guinea, its situation, produce, and the general disposition of its inhabitants. With an inquiry into the rise and progress of the slave trade, its nature and lamentable effects,’ The Scots Magazine, 1 September 1772, pp. 486-487.

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