Trade goods for the slave trade

A ship going to Africa to buy slaves carried a large cargo of mixed goods, such as cotton, brass pans and guns. These were exchanged for enslaved Africans, who were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to north and south America and the Caribbean. Here they were set to work on the plantations (large areas of land owned by Europeans where crops were grown). The ships’ captains would buy goods to take back to Europe. These would be goods produced by slave labour on the plantations. They were tobacco, sugar, indigo (a plant used for dye), rice, rum and cotton.

The trade goods used for buying enslaved Africans were often produced and sold locally around Bristol. Pictured here is an entry in the catalogue of stock in a Bristol shop selling cutlery and hardware, it reads ‘Articles suitable to the African Trade’.

But local industries did not always produce the goods which African buyers wanted. Traders in Bristol therefore had to buy products from elsewhere to trade with Africa. For example they bought cotton cloth from India (from a trading company, the East India Company, in London), or from traders in Manchester. Guns were mostly bought from the makers in Birmingham, but gunpowder was made in Bristol. The African traders, with whom the Bristol traders were doing business, wanted goods which were not available in Africa. They would have particular requirements for different types of fabric, for example, and would find a trading partner who could provide it. Copper was highly prized by West Africans: it has been called the ‘red gold of Africa’. African traders therefore happily accepted brass items, brass being an alloy or mix of copper and zinc. They would buy it from European traders in blocks, which could be melted down to make decorative items. Europeans made brass ‘manillas’, which was brass moulded into a bracelet shape. These became a form of money in West Africa. African traders would also buy items made from brass for everyday use, such as the one pictured here. Bristol had an important brass industry. Much of the brassware produced in Bristol was sold to slave traders for the African market.

Glass beads, such as those shown here, were used to trade with Africans. The beads had to be bought abroad for sale to Africa. The main suppliers were the city of Venice in Italy and Bohemia (in what is today Czechoslovakia). Beads were available in many sizes, shapes and colours. A European slave trader could be caught out by a change in fashion and find that the beads he had chosen were no longer wanted by his African trading partner. The Bristol ship the Africa in 1774 was left with a large quantity of unsold beads.

The involvement of Bristol in the Africa trade boosted industry in and around the city. Gunpowder, glass, pottery, woollen cloth, iron and brass pans went to Africa and all were produced locally. Without the transatlantic slave trade , local industry would not have had such a big market and been so profitable.