London's slave trade



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    Outside the Greenwich Maritime Museum

    Via Docklands Light Railway to the Greenwich Maritime Museum

    As well as being a port, Greenwich was home to many merchants who grew rich from the slave trade. Thomas King – of the biggest slave trading company Camden, Calvert and King – lived here. He was a member of the Royal Blackheath Golf Club, an ideal place to make slave trade contacts. Other members included plantation owner-turned-banker Francis Baring, slave trader-turned-Lloyds bank founder John Julius Angerstein (founder of the National Gallery) and iron merchant Ambrose Crowley, who manufactured shackles and collars. Greenwich was also home to the first anti-slavery campaigners. Former enslaved Africans such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho lived in Greenwich for much of their lives.

    DL You can cut the beginning of the modern age in two ways. You can say it began during the Industrial Revolution, but there’s an argument that it starts at this point, when notions of equality and human rights surfaced for the first time.

    AT Yes, one of the important things about the campaign to abolish the slave trade was that it was the precursor of all kinds of other human rights movements, especially women’s rights. Women were very important in fighting slavery but they have largely been invisible from the story of abolition. Philanthropists like Hannah Moore were concerned about female slaves and the way they were cruelly dealt with. And many of the younger women involved in the abolition movement later got involved in the suffragettes. Once they felt that the abolition movement was secured in terms of Africa and then the Americas, they started saying ‘What about our lives?’

    DL Was there a big black community in London at this time?

    AT At the end of the eighteenth century, there were about 10,000 in London. There were many within the Square Mile, in Westminster and around Petticoat Lane, where a lot of black people were employed in making dresses. Others were entertainers, servants or in the British army – some of them buglers. After the American War of Independence in 1776, black people had come over from America where they had been fighting on the side of the British. The slaves who had fought in the war were promised freedom by the British, and came over in their thousands. But then there was a big old cry in Britain: ‘There are so many blacks, what are we going to do with them?’

    In fact, the British reneged on the promise to give them pensions. So they were beggars in the street. There was actually a movement to help the black poor called the Refuge for Black Poor on Tottenham Court Road. So a movement grew for them to go back to Africa, to Sierra Leone. They could have their own plantations, grow their own crops and be free. The first ship sailed in 1787 from Britain to Sierra Leone. It became a beacon for black freedom.

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