Prosperity Through a Dark Business

Britain was, by and large, one of the most active states in the slave trade that connected Europe, Africa and New World colonies.  Along with the likes of London and Bristol, Liverpool was one of Britain’s key slave ports, which outfitted almost 5,000 ships for slave voyages. Although Liverpool was relatively late in joining the slave trade, its participation rapidly increased to the point where Liverpool dominated the slave market, even though other major cities such as London were deeply involved in slavery decades before Liverpool merchants even gained a foothold in this dark business. Liverpool’s economy, in essence, was built on the shoulders of the slave trade; its domination of the English sector of the trade propelled Liverpool into the position as one of Britain’s premier ports not just for slavery, but also for all transatlantic trade. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Liverpool owed its continued economic prosperity to the connections made between Liverpool and transatlantic markets during the slave trade and to the evolution of the city as an attractive mercantile center.

” A Liverpool Slave Ship” by William Jackson



Although Liverpool was slow to enter the slave trade, their participation increased at a remarkable rate, which connected the city to the transatlantic economy. When slaving was opened to private merchants, Liverpool outfitted only two slave voyages during the first several years, but by 1750, Liverpool was responsible for outfitting almost half of all slave voyages from Britain. Liverpool was even responsible for almost 40% of the slave trade itself during the last decade of the slave trade. The two major reasons for this increase was the domination of newly emerging slave markets within West Central Africa and Biafra before other English slavers moved to these regions, and they held onto control of trade with these popular regions through relationship-building with regional African leaders. Merchants and traders from Liverpool developed personal relationships with tribe leaders, and these regional leaders were able to act as middlemen and slave suppliers.


Ever-expanding participation of Liverpudlian merchants and traders in slavery helped to shift the economic focus of the city from agriculture to imports and exports. In order to make this transition, the infrastructure for high-volume slave trading needed to be established; the city’s first wet dock was completed in 1715, and Liverpool drastically expanded the size and number of docks in order to attract more ships. No other British port was as dedicated to dock-building and expansion than Liverpool in order to cope with the number of slave ships outfitted there, and eventually no other English port could handle the same volume of shipping that Liverpool could handle. Through this ever-expanding capacity for maritime trade, the booming industries which surrounded Liverpool in the hinterland, especially coal, salt, and various manufactured goods, had an outlet for exportation.

 Map of Old Liverpool Docks


Bill of Exchange

One major innovation employed by merchants from Liverpool was the establishment of lines of credit and alliances between financiers and slave traders. Liverpool merchants, through their connections with major financiers in other English cities such as Manchester, were able to obtain significant amounts of credit, and the time given to these merchants for repayment were longer periods of time than were given to merchants from other English regions. A second financial innovation was the widespread use of bills of exchange, which were nothing more than promissory notes. By the mid-seventeenth century, merchants and traders used bills of exchange and remittances in order to keep capital and financing widely available and readily accessible. Thirdly, maritime insurance became widely popular. Due to the risks of long-distance international trade, especially during times of war, maritime insurance became a thriving business in Liverpool.


As a result of Liverpool’s ties to the slave trade in the Caribbean and North America, Liverpool became deeply involved in the trade of non-slave commodities too, particularly tobacco and sugar. Liverpool merchants even went as far as to invest in the American and Caribbean tobacco and sugar industries for the sole purpose of gradually increasing the demand for slave labor.This meant that Liverpool and commodity-producing regions in North America and the Caribbean became intrinsically linked through Liverpool’s exportation of slaves to the Americas and the city’s importation of American goods.

The connections made between Liverpool and transatlantic markets during the slave trade era, as well as the development of strong commercial infrastructure, allowed Liverpool to be incredibly successful during and after the slave trade.