Compare And Contrast British, Spanish And Portuguese Involvement In The Transatlantic Slave Trade

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The transatlantic slave trade involved the movement of slaves and goods which involved a triangular route from Europe to Africa to the Americas and back to Europe hence the name, transatlantic triangular trade. While the transatlantic trade benefitted various parties that participated, such as the British, French, and Portuguese, particularly the slave trade, it also impacted the slave families. Concerning family formations, slaves could hardly establish stable families due to the movements and uncertainties that came with the slave trade. The essay discusses the transatlantic trade concerning the slave masters and the society of the slave families and children.

While the Portuguese took part in raiding the slaves in the Sub-Sahara, the Europeans avoided taking part as they spent a much shorter time, not exceeding a year in the area. The Portuguese’s main focus was the expansion of their trade routes, which required the slaves to move goods such as gold and minerals from their sources to the delivery points and trained collectors in this respect to ensure the movement of the goods. As opposed to the Portuguese, the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish showed more interest in actually colonising the states from which they got the goods and hence conquered different colonies. However, the British involvement in the slave trade started around 1562 to crush the Portuguese and Spanish trade.

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Notably, the differences and similarities among the slave trade in each of the different countries lay along the lines of why they needed the slaves and how they used the slaves in addition to the roles of the different parties in the trade. In Spain, the slaves were also directed towards religion, and forcibly became Christians, an act that had not existed within Portugal or Britain. However, the Portuguese also found black slaves easier to turn to Christianity as compared to the Moors. Meanwhile, the Portuguese mainly needed slaves for transport and labour on their plantations. The British required raw materials for their industries from the countries where they got the slaves for the great industrial revolution. According to Kean, 1500-1600 saw Spain and Portugal as the leaders of the trade while the 18th century had Portugal, Spain, and Britain leading the trade, which led to the restrictions of slave trading in particular colonies. Despite all the nations acquiring the labour and raw materials they needed for the development of their countries, the initial intentions were different. The way the slaves were treated under the rules of these colonial masters was slightly different as well.

Roles of the Different Parties

The participation similarities and differences between the three parties are noted within their evolution and interest in the slave trade over time in relation to why they carried out slave trade at the different stages of the trade.

According to the British National Archives, the British initially did not intend on taking part in the slave trade in 1553-1660 but rather intended to have African produce such as ivory and gold. In this light, the British mainly focused on the development of the slave trade for the growth of their industries in Europe rather than for the mere development of African lands. The development of the ownership of slaves as property hailed from the example set by the Barbadian planters that had also learnt from the Dutch who supplied them with slaves in the 1640s as the Dutch introduced the need for slave sugar plantations. The British engaged with even more intensity in the slave trade as they needed more labour on the Barbados farms and West Indies when the British slave traders started to supply slaves to British colonies. In contrast, the British had initially used to supply these slaves to Portuguese and Spanish colonies led by the first Briton to carry a voyage from Africa, John Hawkins in 1562, when he sold these to Spanish colonies. Ultimately, the British then saw this as an easier means of having labourers to deliver for their industries and hence the interest in the slave trade. Similar to the Portuguese, the British then decided to have the slaves for labour to produce materials required for their industries.

According to Klas, the main role played by the British in the transatlantic slave trade was basically the exploitation of the slaves and their countries to ensure the development of the industrial revolution as cited by Eric Williams. However, the outcomes for the Portuguese and Spanish may slightly differ as the industrial revolution was directly noted to have evolved from Britain. In Britain, the most important exchange points of the slave trade were London (1660-1720s), Bristol (1720s-1740s) and Liverpool (1740s-1807) and Glasgow was a major trading port at the time as well. Britain’s role involved the transportation of slaves to British colonies and the legalisation of the trade by the Crown.

The organisation of the Trade by British

The British highly commercialised the trade to a greater extent in the seventeenth century exceeding the former levels that it had been (around 1641). The goods that crossed the three most important ports all had a clear and intricate complicated financial system that formed an international credit system in the Atlantic trade. Williamsburgnotes that the British form of trade soon became even more complex as the trade was financed through credit from strong banking centres and state involved which ultimately meant that slave ships and goods delayed at the ports most of the time. Mohamud and Robin note that the British also held slaves that included the poor Britons who had to pay debts with journeys of transportation and sometimes were paid a fee while the African traders, usually brought by the Dutch, worked for free as property.

While Britain came into the trade later, it was more organised that the Portuguese and Spanish traders as the powers of trade were reinforced by the throne. The British, after 1660, took further country interest for the large scale slave trade and in 1672 formed the Royal African Company (royal charter) that handled the shipping of slaves who were taken to the British American colonies to work on the plantations to ensure growth and development. According to Williamsburg, the British developed contacts both in Africa and the Americas that were highly trusted for valuable goods to be transported and consequently, quality ship sailors and transporters were chosen as well. The nature of these connections then developed a more commercialised state of trade that created a group of the wealthy in the different colonies from which the British received goods.

Portugal was the first European country to participate in the transatlantic slave trade. For the Portuguese, the transatlantic trade rather hailed from the search of trade routes which later led to settlement on the different African coasts. Moreover, Erolla notes that the Portuguese and Spanish initially carried out slave trade primarily for sale to Europe before the colonisation of the Americas (1450-1600). Eventually by the 1480s, Portuguese had already started to own slaves that they held at their plantations in Cape Verde and the Eastern side of the Atlantic whose intention was initially to find a faster sea route to the eastern world. However, their involvement was more intense as it penetrated the interior as they established themselves along with the Western Africa ports and the tip of Africa. Erolla adds that the Portuguese and Spanish were pushed deeper into the need for slaves as their indigenous countries were hit by pandemics, European diseases, and war as well as the forced labour policies. These conditions, therefore, called for the need of more labourers in their very own countries to the plantations and hence increased development in the slave trade as opposed to the earlier reasons.

The Spanish were involved in the transatlantic slave trade at almost the same time with the Portuguese as the first European countries involved in the trade. Initially, Spain signed the Asiento agreements accepting for the transfer of slaves to its colonies opening all borders to the slave trade and changing scenes of the trade. This was before the mid-seventeenth century in which the British later became powerful. However, the starting times of all parties in the trade differentiate the nature of roles they played in the initiation and continuity of the trade. It is in sight of the Asiento Agreements that the Portuguese traders then became very prominent and hence the increasing power of the Portuguese and Spanish in the trade in the 15th and 16th centuries. Both Catholic states held this power in the sixteenth century.

Moreover, the intention for the Spanish hailed from the need to find a faster sea route to East Indies by travelling west across the Atlantic, which was led by Christopher Columbus. The increased need for labour by Spain in the Americas, similar to Portugal, was due to the reduction in population and hence increased slave trade in the 16th century mainly for mining and plantations in for the Spanish. Particularly for the Spanish, slaves were to work in cruelty and torture in exchange for their very own security and protection as opposed to the British. However, the same mentality soon spread to the Portuguese, who also alerted the British and the slaves were further mistreated. Incidentally, this means that the treatment of slaves by the different colonial powers was seemingly different.

While the Spanish emphasised the torture of the indigenous people for their own lands, the Portuguese initially required slaves for the transportation of their goods through the fastest route among other reasons while the British had not yet taken great interest in trade. Christopher Columbus, as one of the founders of the transatlantic slave trade in Spain, was the initiator of the system in which people from the West Indies were forced to work as slaves in their own countries and sometimes sent to Spain since the transport of the sea route was not available at the start. With this nature of living, the Spanish initiated the trade as they thought the idea of Africans being slaves was more palatable when the natives/ indigenous people of the West Indies were not able to handle the conditions. In light of the need for labour, harshness to the slaves in Spanish and British colonies increased. It was at this time that John Hawkins used to trade with Spanish and Portuguese traders in the Americas for slaves. In light of this treatment, the British then picked interest, and the formation of colonies came with such increased slave trade and unique reasons for the trade for the British as well.

The Organisation of Trade by the Spanish and Portuguese

Slaves were captured forcefully and sometimes sold by the African merchants to the Portuguese and Spanish traders from their countries and later kept in warehouses from which they were shipped. En route to the Americas and other European countries, the traders were required to pass by Portugal to pay a tax on their slaves before they could supply other colonies. Also, the British, Dutch, and Spanish, as well as British merchants, were required to make the same stop in Portugal, a similarity that they all shared. Before transportation, traders labelled their slaves with marks of a hot iron to brand them as their personal goods, and the labels indicated the monarch or the ownership of the slaves and hence a transaction mode. With the Portuguese and Spanish was the use of the “Middle Passage” which meant that slaves were highly packed in unconducive environments and families destroyed as well as social lives disrupted as traders sought to pack as many to make profits. The first financial state benefits of the trade for the Portuguese, mainly, were the import and export taxes that were being imposed on slave traders as Portugal held a monopoly of the trade.

However, taxes were also imposed by the Spanish government for the slaves and these allowed slave traders to pay their taxes to the leading governments and crowns directly to move cargo to the West. Despite the organisation ensured by both Spain and Portugal, the British organisation of the trade remained superior in the later stages of the trade starting with the seventeenth century. The British system was more complex and unique, which boosted the trade in the eighteenth century as well. The Transatlantic trade became a largely lucrative business for the Europeans countries (Britain, Spain and Portugal) as trade licences became easier to get overtime; allowing traders to carry over a thousand slaves and those that allowed for specific forms of torture and collection such as kidnapping.

While the Transatlantic trade benefited many parties and was negative to some, the British, Portuguese and Spanish all set out in search of different but slightly similar reasons for the trade while the organisations of the finances also differed. While the Spanish began with natives working in their own country, the Portuguese began with the desire to find a shorter route. Meanwhile, all three parties sought the slaves in need of labour for production as their country populations had deteriorated due to disease. Moreover, while the Portuguese and Spanish basically made use of taxing their slaves, the British later made the trade more complex in terms of commercialisation and hence its uniqueness and growth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With the Portuguese and Spanish holding monopoly of the transatlantic trade at the start and therefore levying taxes for each slave by the owner according to the labels given to the slave, the Spanish and Portuguese governments created the strong business people in the 15th century. The British instead grew the system to make use of the credit system of exchange benefiting a larger number of people part of the trade.  

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