The Financial Infrastructure

Though both Africans and Europeans participated in the transatlantic slave trade, it was European demand for slaves which drove the trade and Europe which benefited financially.

In the 18th century, Britain ‘ruled the waves’ and gained control of much of the transatlantic slave trade. This was achieved by warfare with its European competitors and laws passed by the government. The slave trade certainly contributed to the British industrial revolution, exactly how much is debatable. The wealth generated by the trade in slaves and slave-produced goods contributed to the growth of capital and commercial institutions. This sort of growth made later industrialisation possible.

The poet Robert Lovell wrote Bristol: A Satire in 1794. One verse stresses the business interests of the city, with a desire to know how stocks and shares and companies are doing.
‘… How goes sugar? What’s the price of rum?
What ships arrived? and how are stocks today?
Who’s dead? who’s broken? and who’s run away?’

Bristol, as a major trading port, had over the years developed the finance businesses to support the trade of the city. Money lenders, banks and insurance companies were all available to the merchants. The slave trade especially needed this financial support. A slaving voyage needed a much higher level of investment than the usual trade with European countries such as Spain or Portugal. The slaving voyages lasted up to two years, and the ship carried a large valuable cargo on each part of the voyage. Money lenders might be needed to help investors buy the ship or the cargo, insurance was required to cover the possible losses, and banking systems were needed to transfer money from the Caribbean and America to Britain.

In Bristol, many of the directors of the early local banks had direct or indirect involvement in the slave trade. The Old Bank in Corn Street, Bristol, was the first bank established in the city, in 1750. Two of the founding partners, Onesiphorous Tyndall and Isaac Elton, had interests in the African and Caribbean trades. Pictured here is a note from the Bristol Bank for £30. The founding partners of the Bristol Bank, Levi Ames, John Cave, Joseph Harford, George Daubeny and Richard Bright, all had personal or family links with the African or Caribbean trade. The same was true of the insurance trade, which grew due to the rise of slaving voyages and insuring the sugar refineries which often suffered from fires. The sugar refining industry was a major industry in Bristol in the eighteenth century and relied almost entirely on sugar produced by slaves on plantations in the Caribbean. Pictured here is a fire insurance plaque from a Bristol company of private firefighters. Such private companies of firefighters were established by insurance companies.

It has been suggested that Bristol merchants had a better business sense than their London rivals. Thus when the London-based Royal African Company lost their control of British trade to Africa for slaves, Bristol merchants soon took over the trade. Bristol merchants were allowed to trade with Africa after 1698. By the 1730s, Bristol had overtaken London as the major slave trading port. The London merchants were perhaps not exploiting their control over the trade to the full. Bristol’s dynamic slave traders established the pattern of trade with Africa which other merchants followed.