The Royal African Company and Edward Colston

In the early years of slavery, most enslaved Africans were brought from Dutch traders and sold on as property. In 1619, around 20 Africans were purchased from Dutchmen in Jamestown, Virginia to work in English colonies tobacco fields.

The Royal African Company had a monopoly on the west African slave trade. It was originally led by the King’s younger brother (the Duke of York), who was later King James II. Its ships, protected by the Royal Navy, sailed out of London, Liverpool and Bristol to West Africa, transporting around 5,000 slaves a year in the 1680s. The companies not only enslaved people but branded the companies initials, RAC or DY (standing for Duke of York) on the slaves’ chests to mark their ownership. Between 1772 and 1713 the RAC transported an estimated 100,000 enslaved African across the Atlantic.

The coat of arms of the Royal African Company, courtesy of the Museum of London

Slavers would wait in African ports to load up their ships full to the brim with slaves to make the journey known as the Middle Passage. Conditions for slaves were horrendous, cramped and many did not survive the journey, falling ill with a type of dysentery. It is estimated that 20-30% of the slaves died whilst at sea. Slavers would take out insurance to cover the loss of their human cargo.

Engraving of a slave ship called the Brookes in the 1780s by abolitionists to raise awareness about the horrors of the Middle Passage. It carried as many as 609 enslaved people at one time.

Colston was the son of a Bristol Merchant and benefited economically from the slave trade, although he used some of his fortunes to build schools and almshouses, this charity, was built upon the backs of enslaved Africans.

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His statue had been in the city centre since 1895 and was pulled down by protesters last month in Bristol.

His brother supplied beads that were used to buy slaves in the London-based Royal African Company. He inherited the Bristol business from his brother and became a partner in a Bristol sugar refinery, processing sugar produced by slaves in the West Indies. His ships would depart ports filled with slaves, bound for the Caribbean Islands and Barbados to work on plantations and would return laden with sugar. Colston benefited economically from the slave trade, although he used some of his fortunes to build schools and almshouses, this charity, was built upon the backs of enslaved Africans.

The British benefited enormously from the trafficking of enslaved Africans. Coffee and sugar became more in demand as time went on. sugar consumption in Britain doubled between 1690 and 1740, People, including the royal family, bought stocks in the Royal African Country. King James II lost the throne and was exiled, he paid for his exile to France, by selling his stock in the Royal African Company.

William Clark Ten Views, 1823. Shows enslaved men, women and children working together in a field of sugar cane.

In 1655 Jamaica became the largest British colony when it was taken from the Spanish. The transition allowed some enslaved African-Jamaicans to escape to the mountainous areas. They managed to fight off the British until the 18th century, when a treaty was signed, giving the the previously escaped slaves autonomy but only in return for returning any new enslaved runaways from the plantations.

The RAC continued to trade slaves until 1731.

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