Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

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Abolition of the British Slave Trade as a Crisis: Coping, Management and Adaptation, 1788-1815
Sheryllynne Haggerty

Last modified: 2014-03-10


Not all commercial crises are financial in nature. Moreover, many financial crises start off as something else. This might include natural disasters, wars, or political stand-offs; many of course eventually affect the wider economy, causing consequences with which merchants (and others) have to deal. One such political crisis was the abolition of the British Atlantic slave trade in 1807. Between the rise of the abolition movement in the late 1780s and the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807, merchants in British ports such as Liverpool, London, and Bristol, but also in the West Indies and the United States had to prepare for the adjustment abolition would make to the Atlantic economy. This change did not only affect the slave traders, not least because the United States (and former colonies) had always been essential to the functioning of the West Indian colonies. Abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (not intra-colonial trade) was meant to ameliorate the conditions of the slaves, but still left thousands of slaves in the West Indies to be fed, clothed and tools to be provided for their labour. Furthermore, sugar, coffee, cotton and other agricultural products still needed to be imported into Britain. Moreover, what new trading opportunities might there be on the West Coast of Africa? This all had to be negotiated in the wider context of war after 1793.

 Using a variety of manuscript sources based in the John Carter Brown Library, RI (and elsewhere) this paper will investigate the ways in which merchants in Britain, the West Indies and the United States coped, managed and adapted to the new trading conditions presented by abolition of the British Atlantic slave trade. Clearly slave traders had to make the biggest adjustment, but they were far from the only ones affected.  Through this case study this paper will also think about ways in which crises can be catalysts for both positive and negative change.