Slave Trading and the Colonial Economy

No one doubted the economic importance to Britain of the transatlantic slave trade. It employed hundreds of ships and thousands of sailors. In addition to the business of building, outfitting, and provisioning of these vessels, British manufacturers produced much of the cloth, hardware, and weapons that made up a "Guinea cargo." Return voyages brought loads of slave-produced sugar and tobacco that enriched large numbers of processors and distributors.

In the North American colonies, a wide range of people also profited from this human commerce. For example, in Virginia, few captains of transatlantic slave ships had any knowledge of Chesapeake waters, so they first needed the services of a bay pilot. Once docked, ship chandlers and coopers stocked the vessel with naval stores and casks for the return voyage to Britain. Merchant millers or bakers supplied biscuits made from Virginia wheat. Farmers sold cattle and hogs to seamen desperate for fresh meat, while watermen supplied fish to feed the slaves. Carters and porters transported goods to the ship. Some local residents even earned money for cleaning corroded metalwares, knives, and guns, remnants of the outbound cargo that had not been traded for slaves on the African coast. As the vessel prepared to leave, customs house officers were paid for recording the outbound cargo and land waiters for discharging the vessel. Each visit of a slave ship could easily inject one to two hundred pounds into the local economy. Captain Thomas Jordan of the brig Eadith of Liverpool, for example, which was in Virginia from June 10 to October 5, 1761, paid out a total of £145 for duties, goods, and services.

Selling the enslaved Africans necessitated a trip to a printing office, such as those in Williamsburg and Annapolis, to place a newspaper advertisement and to print up handbills, which paid express riders then distributed. Storekeepers supplied the "liquors" with which potential buyers were customarily treated, and ship's officers sometimes paid for on-shore lodgings and horse hire while arranging for the sale. In addition, the sailors were paid half the wages they were due for the voyage in the colony where the slaves were sold and in the currency of that colony. Given sailors' propensity for spending freely when ashore, storekeepers and especially tavern keepers in port towns could expect to profit from the sailors' thirst.

Also, in Virginia and Maryland, funds raised from duties on slaves paid for government functions, such as running the Capitol, the Governor's Palace, the Magazine and the Public Gaol in Williamsburg. In both Chesapeake colonies the duties collected on imported Africans kept taxes on residents lower than they otherwise might have been.

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