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How Large Was the Slave-Trading Industry?

From 1503 (when the Portuguese first began their slave-trading) and 1562 (when the British joined the business), to the 19th century (when laws permitting the practice were finally changed), slave-trading became such a large industry that its size resembled today’s housing market.

British slave-trading began in 1562, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Thomas Clarkson, a colleague of William Wilberforce, tracked its history to that start date. Summoning Captain John Hawkins, a ship captain, the Queen cautioned him not to carry-off anyone “without their free consent.”

Elizabeth went further, telling Hawkins “it would be detestable, and call down the vengeance of heaven upon the undertakers” if anyone “carried off” Africans without their consent.

Hawkins did not keep his word. A Naval account of his second voyage, by an officer named Hill whom Clarkson quotes, describes the forcible taking of people against their will:

Here began the horrid practice of forcing the Africans into slavery, an injustice and barbarity which, so sure as there is vengeance in heaven for the worst of crimes, will some time be the destruction of all who allow or encourage it.

Queen Elizabeth I was worried about the very types of slave-trading abuses which soon followed its inception.  Yet ... can you think of any African who would be “carried off” with “their free consent?” Explain your answer.

If it is highly unlikely anyone would agree to be carried-off, was the Queen tacitly encouraging slavery, turning a blind eye toward it or just not understanding how human beings are capable of harming each other?

Historians liken the size of the slave-trading business to the size of today’s housing market. Does that seem possible, or not possible, to you? Explain your answer.


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