Who Was Behind the Slave Trade?: Virginia

Colonial ships outnumbered those outfitted in England among the 1,252 documented slaving voyages arriving in Virginia between 1619 and 1774. However it appears that residents of Great Britain financed the purchase and transportation of the great majority of the approximately 85,000 enslaved Africans carried into the colony on 544 separate voyages. Since shipping records often name just one of a vessel's owners, the 898 individuals identified as investing in slaving voyages to Virginia represent only a fraction of British and colonial residents who sought to profit from selling human cargoes in the colony.

Bristol merchants financed the transportation of nearly 40,000 captives, close to half of the enslaved Africans brought into Virginia. They were especially active in the 1720s and 1730s, when the Virginia slave trade was at its height. Some of the early Bristol investors also dealt in tobacco, but the traffic was dominated by men who specialized in slave trading in the West Indies as well as the mainland. An equal number of London investors supplied nearly 20,000, or about one quarter of all captives delivered. Some of the London investors were tobacco dealers who dabbled in the slave trade, some were major slave traders who financed multiple voyages, and some more obscure men who invested in only one Virginia voyage. Liverpool merchants financed the transportation of about 14,000 captives, mostly from the 1740s through the 1770s. A few were also involved in the tobacco and naval stores trades, but most specialized in slave dealing. Forty-two traders from Whitehaven, Lyme Regis, Glasgow, Dublin, Belfast and other lesser British ports mostly imported small numbers of slaves from the West Indies, although starting in the 1760s some began making direct voyages to Africa. Altogether they brought in just over 3,000 captives.

Colonial merchants financed 708 voyages bringing slaves to Virginia; however, they accounted for only ten percent of slaves imported into the colony. Almost none of the colonial ship owners invested in voyages to Africa. Instead slaves were among the "commodities" Virginia and Maryland ship captains purchased while trading with Barbados and other West Indian Islands. New York, Philadelphia, and New England captains also sold slaves in Virginia that they acquired while trading in the Caribbean, and Barbados, Bermuda, and other West Indian merchants carried slaves to Virginia along with cargoes of sugar, rum, and other tropical produce. Only Rhode Island merchants regularly financed direct voyages to Africa, and some began marketing slaves in Virginia in the 1760s. Intercolonial traders were most active in the Virginia trade in the 1730s and 1740s, when demand for slaves was high, and after the Seven Years War, when the transatlantic trade was winding down.

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