Slave trade

It would not have been unusual for ships sailing to the Australian colonies in the 1830s to encounter slave ships.

The seas between the West Coast of Africa and the Americas were the ‘middle passage’ in the Atlantic triangular slave trade. Manufactured goods (including ‘slave beads’, cloth, guns and ammunition) were transported from Europe to West Africa, where they were sold or bartered for captives.  Ships then continued on to the Caribbean or American colonies, where those captives who survived the brutal voyage were sold into a life of slavery, mainly on plantations. The ships would then return to Europe laden with the products of the slave labour (including sugar, tobacco, rum, rice and cotton).

Britain had been a major player in the slave trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when profits from the colonies contributed to economic growth in Britain, including the industrial revolution. Other European imperial powers – the Portuguese, French, Spanish and Dutch – also participated in the slave trade, as did North America. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, liberals in Britain began to campaign for the abolition of the trade. In 1807, Abolitionists secured the passage of The Slave Trade Act through the British Parliament, making the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire.  The trade continued, however. In 1827, Britain declared that participation in the slave trade was piracy and therefore punishable by death. Slaves within the British Empire were freed by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Debate about the abolition of slavery in North America was ultimately a cause of the American Civil War, 1861-1865.

The Royal Navy’s West Coast of Africa Station was active in patrolling the seas between Africa and the Americas in an attempt to prevent the trade for half a century from the early 1800s. European imperial powers banned the trade from the late eighteenth century, and Brazil became the last country to ban the Atlantic slave trade in 1831. However, illegal slave trading across the Atlantic continued until the 1860s, when it was finally stopped, due to a combination of political pressure and naval power (including the introduction of steam-powered vessels, which could chase down slave traders more effectively.

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