For many people, the disturbing history of the slave trade brings to mind the horrifying experiences enslaved Africans had to go through while working on plantations in the Americas and other parts of the world.
Africans were, for centuries, captured and chained down, forced onto ships and taken into new lands against their will. Some even died before getting to their new homes due to the awful experiences on the ships that packed them like spoons, with no room even to turn.
For those who survived, it was the start of several hours of work on large plantations with little to eat and with never having to forget their status as property.
In time, the slave trade itself and the trade in goods produced by slave labor formed the most important source of income for the countries involved. So which countries grew rich from slavery?
The United States of America
From traders, slave owners to capitalists, America’s economy boomed amid the slave trade. As research shows, slave owners in the Upper South benefited immensely as they were paid for the people they sold while slave owners in the Lower South also profited because they forced the people they purchased to work in the productive cotton and sugar fields.
Then there were the ship and railroad owners who carried enslaved people, and merchants who provided food and clothing to the slave traders; they all profited. In the North, capitalists made money by investing in banks that oversaw the exchange of money for people, so did America’s cotton textile industry, which profited off enslaved people forced to pick cotton. In New York, firms on Wall Street including New York Life, JPMorgan Chase, and Lehman Brothers, made it big by investing in the slave trade.
According to the World Economy, Portugal began its slave-trading activities in Africa around 1445 not too long after Portuguese navigators discovered and settled in the Cape Verde islands, opposite Senegal. There, they were able to buy slaves from African merchants in return for salt, cloth, horses, and trinkets. About 175 000 slaves were between 1450 and 1600 shipped to Portugal and its Atlantic islands. Portugal later captured slaves further south in Angola as the slave trade developed.
At the end of the sixteenth and in the seventeenth century when Portugal shipped slaves to Brazil and oversaw most of the slave shipments to Spanish America, the slave trade became more profitable. Between 1500 and 1870, out of the 9.4 million slaves shipped to the Americas, about 4.5 million of those were supplied by Portugal, making it Europe’s largest trafficker of human beings. The growth of the sugar economy in Portugal’s colony of Brazil was thanks to the work of slaves, so was gold mining, which the Portuguese used to pay for industrialized goods such as textiles and weapons, and to erect regal buildings and monuments.
In Britain, profits were made from exporting manufactured goods to Africa and importing slave products such as sugar even as ports including Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool flourished. Statistics show that between 1761 and 1808, British traders made as much as 96.5 million (about $13 billion in value today) by hauling 1,428,000 African captives across the Atlantic and selling them as slaves. The Royal Africa Company, for instance, could buy an enslaved African with trade goods worth $5 and sell that individual in the Americas for $32. Profits accrued from the slave trade were used to build banks like Barclays and the Bank of London and equip institutions like All Souls College, Oxford. What is more, slavery provided industries with access to raw materials, becoming necessary for the Industrial Revolution, and in all, the commercial, financial, legal and insurance institutions who gave their support to the inhumane practice all benefited.
Thanks to several key French port cities — Nantes, Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Le Havre — the French became one of the largest slave traders, delivering huge numbers of Africans to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in the late eighteenth century. Records show that of the 1,381,000 Africans loaded onto French ships during the transatlantic trade, 1,165,000 survived the Middle Passage to meet harsh conditions mostly in French Caribbean colonies. About 217,000 went to Martinique while 73,000 went to Guadeloupe but the majority — 773,000 — went to Saint-Domingue (Haiti) which became the New World’s most profitable colony in the eighteenth century.
CM98, an Antillean anti-slavery group, said France “needed a large and resistant workforce to produce sugar cane, coffee, cotton, tobacco, indigo … all the colonial products that enriched Europe for a long time.”
“With the money collected, the slave traders buy the products of the Caribbean plantations (sugar, indigo, cocoa, coffee, precious stones) to bring them back to France,” said French historian Jean-Marie Desport. At the end of the day, the “kingdom of France became, in the eighteenth century, the world’s largest exporter of sugar, coffee and cotton,” according to Desport, adding that “thanks to the work of slaves, France has become part of the world’s economic hub, becoming, until today, a leading commercial power.”
The Dutch Republic was one of the wealthiest nations in the world, accruing much of its wealth from Atlantic slavery. According to an account, economic activities based on slavery contributed 5.2 percent to the gross domestic product of the Dutch Republic in 1770, with 19 percent of Dutch imports and exports consisting of goods produced by enslaved people in the Atlantic. For the Netherlands’ most prosperous province, Holland, the gross domestic product was as high as 10.36 %.
Vlissingen and Middelburg in Zeeland were then the most important slave trade cities in the Netherlands. As phys.org writes: “Between 1730 and 1800, about 500 slave ships departed from Vlissingen or Middelburg, loaded with valuable exports to exchange for people in West Africa.”
Following the tearing down of the Dutch West India Company’s slave trade monopoly in the 1730s, 65 to 70 percent of the Dutch slave trade was handled by merchants on the island of Walcheren in Zeeland. Essentially, the slave trade as well as the trade in goods like sugar, precious metals, tobacco, cocoa, coffee and cotton produced by slave labor formed the most important source of income for the Dutch economy.