Wales and Atlantic Slavery: tracking the connections

Slave Trading

Planting Sugar Cane, Antigua, West Indies, 1823, by William Clark

This article was first presented at a webinar on slavery and its links to Wales, organised by Llafur: The Welsh People’s History Society on 1 August 2020.

There are many approaches to be taken to the history of Atlantic slavery, as we’ll discover from the varied contributions on offer today, but the one I’m taking is panoramic in scope and structural in approach. I’m going to start with some of the big datasets that have become available to us over the last twenty years. Big space, big time, and correspondingly big data. I want to outline what this data tells us about the shape of the transatlantic slave trade and about the nature of chattel slavery in the New World.

From there, I want to move the focus to Britain and to the character of British slaveholding, with some short observations about where Wales sat within that broader British picture.

Then, I want to pick up on new historiographical developments in continental Europe. These suggest that the impact of Atlantic slavery was felt throughout Europe; it was not something restricted to the continent’s western fringe. The effects of enslavement were felt in some unsuspected parts of central and northern Europe. Knowing this, I want to suggest that Wales should be thought of in the same light – as a place making a hitherto unsuspected but significant contribution to the system of Atlantic slavery. 

Let’s start with big data. Our view of Atlantic slavery has been transformed in the last generation by the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, first released on CD-ROM at the end of the 1990s but now fully searchable online at What have we learned?

  1. This vast collaborative endeavour tells us about 12.5 million Africans were loaded onto transatlantic slave transports, of whom 10.7 million survived to make landfall in the New World. Over 36,000 voyages were required to complete this gigantic exercise in people trafficking. 

  2. It tells us that the trade was extraordinarily long-lived. The first known transatlantic shipment was in 1520, the last in 1866. 

  3. It tells us that enslaved Africans went everywhere, from Boston in the north to Buenos Aires in the south. Most slave transports, however, landed captives in the Caribbean (45%) or Brazil (45%). This is important to note. Although slavery in the popular imagination is a phenomenon of the American South, fewer than 5% of the transatlantic trade’s victims were landed in what is today the USA.

  4. It is the sugar islands of the Caribbean and Brazil that constitute Atlantic slavery’s killing floor – with consequences that I’ll return to. 

  5. Slave Voyages tells us that Britain was a major player in the trafficking business, the most important of them all in the eighteenth century. I say British, but the trade was overwhelmingly an English preserve, dominated first by London, then Bristol, then Liverpool. Although Guinea-men were occasionally constructed in Welsh creeks, and although Welsh captains and crewmen are easily found in the written record, not a single slaving voyage is known to have left a Welsh port. Why? For this reason: slaving is for the big boys. The profits could be spectacular, but a lot of capital had to be laid out and the returns are slow to come in. Wales, poor then as it is now, simply lacked the resources to get involved in slave trading. 

Big data also tells us something about the nature of British slaveholding. Here, we must turn to the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database. This gives us a snapshot of the British planter class at the moment of emancipation in 1834. It does so by tracking the compensation payments made to enslavers – not the enslaved – by the British government. £20 million was paid out, in portions that were meticulously recorded. The payments disclose the location and suggest something of the character of the last generation of slaveholders. What do we learn?

  1. There was a lot of them. The Slave Compensation Commission made over 40,000 separate awards. 

  2. They weren’t all resident in the sugar islands. Indeed, a high proportion of the awards went to claimants settled in Britain.

  3. Taken together, these findings overthrow the dominant view at the time – that the planter class was somehow something aberrant: a set of people who were remote, remote spatially and remote temperamentally from the liberal constitutional norms that supposedly governed British life. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project tells us that the planters were not the tropical tyrants of caricature. They were numerous; and they lived next door – or they lived next door if you lived in Bloomsbury or Marylebone, or if you spent time in resort towns like Harrogate and Cheltenham.

  4. They didn’t live in Wales, not on the whole. Some were to be found in the Wye valley and some in Flintshire – the hinterlands of Bristol and Liverpool, in other words. But Wales more widely held few attractions. Why? Let’s turn once more to the bleeding obvious. Rich people tend to enjoy the company of other rich people, which in the 1830s meant Belgravia, not Blaina. 

Big data has taught us that Atlantic slavery was enormous and, correspondingly, enormously complex. But in what particular ways?

  1. We have learnt that procuring enslaved people was costly. African merchants could not be fobbed off with trash. They were not daft; they demanded payment in high-quality goods. It is this realisation that has led many European historians to examine the impact of African demand on commercially advanced regions in central and northern Europe. African bodies were bought with copper from Sweden, brass wares from Aachen and Stolberg in north-western Germany, guns from Liège, glass from Bohemia or Venice, fine linens from what is now south-western Poland. And so on. The Atlantic slave trade drew upon resources from deep within the European continent. The Slovak Republic, say, had a specific link to slavery, just as much as the Dutch Republic. 

  2. Wales is part of this vast procurement system too: anyone who visited the copper mills at Holywell in Flintshire in the eighteenth would have witnessed the making of currency bars, lengths of copper made to precise specifications and known by a telling trade name: Negroes. These were items made expressly for the purchase of enslaved people on the Guinea coast.

  3. Then there’s sugar in the Caribbean, the dynamo driving the whole Atlantic slave system. Its manufacture had effects that were far-reaching. Sugar plantations must be thought of the eighteenth-century equivalent to oil rigs. They were dedicated production platforms, devoted to a single high-value commodity. Everything needed to sustain production and human life had to be brought in from outside: the industrial kit (boilers made from copper smelted in Slovakia or, by the eighteenth century, Swansea), the food (cod from the Grand Banks or barrelled beef shipped from Cork), and the clothing. 

And it’s here, with clothing, that Wales comes in. In the eighteenth century, mid-Wales was one of the major producers of the sort of coarse woollen fabric that was known in the plantation world as “Negro Cloth”. The heartland of this industry spanned western Montgomeryshire and southern Merionethshire. It was here that an impoverished rural population turned to woollen manufacture as a way of augmenting the meagre returns from agriculture. As such, it was a classic example of protoindustrialization, a phenomenon in which urban merchants put out work to underemployed rural workers – workers who could toil within the confines of their own dwellings, using relatively simple and inexpensive tools. Characteristically, the products were exported to distant markets. 

It was something that kept mid-Wales afloat economically. Indeed, it powered a surge in population in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Supplying woollens for enslaved consumers was an unstable business, however. If demand collapsed, Welsh spinners and weavers would be left badly exposed. And that’s precisely what happened in the 1830s when emancipation in the British Caribbean and tariff protection in the American Republic closed off the historic markets for coarse woollen fabrics from Wales. The rural woollen industry collapsed; outmigration and demographic decline followed. (Montgomeryshire, despite considerable population growth in recent decades, still has fewer inhabitants than it did in the 1830s.)

What implications does this have for Welsh history? It may not be for me to say – I’m not a Welsh historian – but one thing does suggest itself. The region where so-called Negro Cloth was produced coincided exactly with the region that mid-twentieth-century geographers and anthropologists identified as the heartland of authentic Welshness – authentic because of its rootedness in unchanging rustic culture, and long protected in its authenticity because of its seclusion, because isolation had rendered it resistant to the inroads of modernity. 

The proponents of this brand of cultural nationalism could not, it seems to me, have chosen worse ground on which to fight. Viewed from an Atlantic vantage point, western Montgomeryshire was not the seat of some sort of pristine Welshness, still holding out against anglicisation and vulgar mass culture; it was a deindustrialised wasteland, a landscape that had once been an integral part of the slave Atlantic. Its history is not one of deep cultural continuity; it’s one of switch-back convulsions, brought about by being harnessed to Atlantic slavery. 


Prof Chris Evans_ Historian Professor Chris Evans

Professor Chris Evans is a historian of Atlantic slavery with an interest in how slavery was linked to industrial development in Europe.