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The Transatlantic Slave Trade

A Christian Response

by David Pott


In 1562, Sir John Hawkins sailed from Plymouth to West Africa. His flagship was The Jesus of Lubeck and it was on this voyage that slaves were first taken by Englishmen to the New World. Sir John Hawkins is known as one of the heroes of the Spanish Armada, but not so many know about this more dubious claim to fame. What an irony that the first English vessel to take slaves should be called by the name of Him who came “to release the captives” and that Hawkins personal standard was a bound African woman! On another slaving voyage, Hawkins captured a Portuguese slave ship and renamed it The Grace of God before he continued his business.1

It is important for Christians today to face up to the issue of the slave trade and especially the misrepresentation of the gospel which was passed on to so many through it and still causes deep offence in our own time. 

Estimates for the number of Africans transported to the Americas between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries vary greatly. Even the conservative estimate of 11 million is an appalling figure. All the West European nations were involved as well as New England which later became the USA. Up to 3 million slaves perished on the infamous Middle Passage and many more died in the “seasoning” period of the first few months on the plantations. The biggest loss of life created by the trade was however in Africa itself. The Portuguese and the Spanish did not trade guns for slaves, but when the Dutch and the English entered the trade, they traded in guns. In his book “Black Ivory” historian James Walvin writes:

“The export of arms to Africa was a massive business. By the eighteenth century, Europeans imported between 283,000 and 394,000 guns each year into West Africa. In 1802 the value of weapons shipped to Africa was £145,661.”2

A report to Parliament in 1788 found that Birmingham had over 4,000 gun makers, with 100,000 guns a year going to slave traders. Although Quakers were later leaders in the cause of abolition, one of the leading gun manufacturers in Birmingham was the Quaker firm of Farmer and Galton. It is known that that firm also sent a ship, the Perseverance, to the West Indies with 527 slaves on board.3

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