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The Rise of Antislavery Sentiment Previous Next
Digital History ID 3593


During the eighteenth century Great Britain dominated the Atlantic slave trade. Exports of Africans, during the 1700s, exceeded six million, three times the number shipped between 1450 and 1700. Of these, 2.9 million were shipped by Englishmen or Anglo-Americans.

During the eighteenth century, the slave trade became one of Britain's largest and most profitable industries. By mid-century, a third of the British merchant fleet was engaged in transporting 50,000 Africans a year to the New World. But it was not just slave traders or planters who benefited from the slave trade. American ship owners, farmers, and fisherman also profited from slavery. Slavery played a central role in the growth of commercial capitalism in the colonies. The slave plantations of the West Indies became the largest market for American fish, oats, corn, flour, lumber, peas, beans, hogs, and horses. And New Englanders distilled molasses produced by slaves in the French and Dutch West Indies into rum.

Although slavery did not create a major share of the capital that financed the industrial revolution (profits from the slave trade and New World plantations added up to about five percent of Britain's national income in the mid-eighteenth century), slaves did produce the major consumer goods that were the basis of world trade during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. These slave-grown products stimulated a consumer revolution, enticing the masses of Britain and then Western Europe to work harder and more continuously in order to enjoy the pleasures of sugar, tobacco, rum, coffee, and eventually, cotton clothing. It was New World slave labor that ushered in the consumer culture we know today. In addition, the slave trade provided stimulus to shipbuilding, banking, and insurance; and Africa became a major market for iron, textiles, firearms, and rum.

Among the people deeply implicated in the Atlantic slave system were the Quakers. Some Quakers in the West Indies owned slave plantations, while Quaker merchants in London, Philadelphia, and Newport, Rhode Island, were engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. The Seven Years' War, however, produced a spiritual crisis within the Society of Friends and inspired the Quakers to become the first religious group to actively discourage its members from owning or trading in slaves.

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