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Slavery and the North of England

Updated Tuesday, 17th October 2006

Did the North of England become prosperous on the back of the slave trade? Melinda Elder examines the impact of the trade on the ports of Lancaster, Liverpool and Whitehaven.

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African slaves were central to the production of sugar, tobacco and other tropical crops on British plantations in the West Indies and mainland North America during the 18th and early 19thcenturies.

Accordingly, the triangular slave trade, comprising the export of textiles and other manufactures from Britain to Africa for the purchasing of slaves, the slaves’ transportation to the Americas (the 'Middle Passage') and finally their exchange for slave-produced goods for sale back home, became a significant feature of Britain's overseas commerce during this period.


The promised riches of this commercial enterprise were not lost on those living in Northwest England given the region's favourable position for transatlantic trade. Liverpool's role in the slave trade is well known to many. Indeed, it became Britain's foremost slave-trading port. Less familiar but no less fascinating, however, is the discovery that further north the smaller ports of Lancaster and Whitehaven also participated in the trade albeit on a much more modest scale.

These two ports also shared Liverpool's interest in another branch of transatlantic commerce where ships sailed direct to the West Indian and American colonies, laden with provisions for the plantations, and returned home, like the slave ships, with slave-produced goods. It was an interest that sometimes led to a third link with slavery, plantation ownership itself.

I shall be exploring these three areas of involvement in transatlantic slavery, that is the slave trade, plantation trade and plantation ownership, as well as the impact they had on north Lancashire and Cumbria. The discoveries may challenge modern preconceptions of this quiet rural corner of northern England.

The Slave Trade

In the course of the 18th century, Lancaster and Whitehaven slave ships would have carried in excess of 29,000 and 14,000 slaves, respectively, out of Africa. Though overshadowed by Liverpool, London and Bristol, these statistics put them at the forefront of smaller operators. Both ports were most actively involved between 1750 – 1775.

In this period alone Lancaster ships made 100 voyages to the African coast whilst Whitehaven ships accounted for nearly 60 further slaving voyages. Interestingly, the slave trade started earlier at Whitehaven, the Swift sailing to Africa in 1711, 25 years before Lancaster's entry. However, when Whitehaven quit the trade in 1769, slave ships continued sailing from Lancaster until the 1790s and even then a few Lancaster merchants proceeded to clear their slaving vessels from Liverpool right up to the trade's abolition in 1807.

Identifying a few characteristics of the slave trade for each port is instructive. Investors at Whitehaven, for example, appear to have been established merchants diversifying their commercial activities, especially on facing competition from Scottish merchants in their profitable tobacco trade with Virginia. This happened initially after the Act of Union in 1707 which opened up Irish and Scottish markets to Scottish tobacco imports and again in the late 1740s when Whitehaven merchants faced renewed competition in their French and Dutch markets.

Early investors at Lancaster, meanwhile, seem to feature more marginal operators eager to launch themselves through transatlantic trade, with the slave trade providing a more risky but lucrative alternative to direct trade with the colonial plantations, which tended to be dominated by more established merchant families. Whitehaven's slave ships were typically larger than those at Lancaster, no doubt reflecting both the different circumstances of the investors concerned and also the fact that Whitehaven was a seaport and Lancaster a river port. This, in turn, had implications when trading ammunition, textiles, metal ware and other goods for slaves on the African coast.

Lancaster merchants focused almost exclusively on the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Windward Coast where river trading and small-scale slaving transactions suited their smaller vessels trading out of the River Lune. Whitehaven ships were typically directed further south to the Gold and Bonny coasts where larger consignments of slaves were generally on offer. There were differences when it came to selling slaves in the colonies too. Most Whitehaven ships confined their sales to the established slave markets of Jamaica and Barbados.

Conversely, Lancaster slave ships chose varied destinations across the islands and also South Carolina in mainland America in search of profitable markets and produce for the return voyage. Whilst slave-produced sugar and rum were popular commodities in both homeports, mahogany proved a popular addition in the holds of Lancaster slave ships given the town’s thriving cabinet-making industry.

It may be that Whitehaven's earlier withdrawal from the trade ultimately reflected disappointing returns, especially from the perspective of more established merchants who also faced mounting competition from Liverpool in their preferred African and West Indian destinations. Lancaster's persistence in the trade, on the other hand, may well be attributable to the more marginal status of its operators whose smaller enterprises and rather different slaving destinations allowed them to maintain a satisfactory foothold in the trade for longer.

The Plantation Trade

Merchants in both ports sent ships laden with manufactures and foodstuffs for the plantations in the West Indies and mainland America to be exchanged for slave-produced crops. The cornerstone of Whitehaven's colonial trade was with the tobacco planters of Virginia and Maryland, making it one of the leading tobacco ports between 1700 – 1750, but its merchants also developed a trade with the West Indies. Vessels would take on goods in Ireland to help compensate for geographical isolation. The weight of Lancaster's colonial trade, meanwhile, was with the sugar islands where its merchants formed extensive trading connections. This trade flourished from the 1750s to the extent that by 1780 Lancaster ranked as England's fourth colonial port albeit in a different league to London, Liverpool and Bristol.

The plantations' focus on cash crops made them dependent on the mother country for all manner of goods. Outgoing cargoes from Lancaster might range from fine clothing, beef and furniture for the planters to knitted caps, salted fish and work implements for their slaves. Sugar production in the islands required copper 'stills' (distilling apparatus) whilst plantation houses needed candles for light. At home, colonial imports encouraged sugar refining in both ports and even a pipe manufactory in Whitehaven. And whilst one of Lancaster's foremost businesses was the Gillows, the most famous of its cabinet-making firms to profit from the import of tropical woods and dyes, Whitehaven had its successful rum merchants the Jeffersons.

Boone Plantation, South Carolina
Boone Hall Plantation, South Carolina

Plantation Ownership

Closer still to the institution of slavery were the plantation owners. Possession came about through direct purchase or when planters defaulted on mortgage payments making their property over to their creditors. Probate records for Lancaster bear witness to those merchants, including the town's successful Rawlinson family, who became legal owners of slaves working the plantations.

Possession encompassed many of the British islands, especially those acquired through 18th century wars, such as Grenada and Dominica. Ownership of plantation slaves can just as readily be associated with those living in and around Whitehaven. Prominent amongst them were the Lowther and Senhouse families who bought plantations in Barbados and the Jefferson family whose rum supplies were enhanced through purchasing a plantation in Antigua. Many would receive compensation after slavery's abolition in the British Caribbean between 1834 and 1838.

The Impact of Transatlantic slavery

Despite the risks, trade based around transatlantic slavery brought tremendous prosperity to the region. Although merchants stood to gain most from this overseas commerce, those supplying their ships, trade goods and other needs all profited too. Success in colonial trade spurred Lancaster merchants to act collectively to improve port facilities and to express their growing confidence through commissioning the elegant Customs House on St George's Quay.

Those in colonial trade made less impact on harbour development at Whitehaven given the patronage of the powerful Lowther family who, in accommodating their interests in the coal trade, did not always meet the needs of the port's transatlantic fleet. Wealth and trade translated into fine town houses and substantial warehouses in both ports. Merchants also purchased land and property in surrounding districts which they turned into country estates, a practice that was mirrored in some style by John Bolton's procurement of Storrs Hall at Windermere on the back of Liverpool trade. Some, around Lancaster, even ventured into water-powered cotton mills.

An altogether different and often unexpected consequence of the region's close links with transatlantic slavery was the introduction of Black people locally. Parish registers disclose their presence and numbers across the region even within remote villages. Most, however, would have lived in and around larger centres, especially the ports of Lancaster and Whitehaven.

Their arrival can be easily explained in terms of transatlantic trade. Most would have been brought over by captains and merchants returning from the colonies. On arrival, some would have been left waiting for the ship to sail again, as seems to have been the case with Sambo, a slave who died in about 1736 and was buried at Sunderland Point near Lancaster.

Others were evidently destined to serve in the town and country houses of merchants who no doubt considered fashionable Black servants as befitting their social aspirations. Although the majority of the region's Blacks would have been in domestic service, some were able to live more independently, including those receiving wages aboard vessels engaged in the plantation trade. Implication in transatlantic slavery was hard to avoid.


The region's transatlantic commerce would not endure, however. Time highlighted local disadvantages, especially distance from manufacturing centres for exports and markets for imports. Further away, Whitehaven was the first to suffer but from 1800 Lancaster merchants began feeling the pinch too. This same remoteness may well have served, down the years, to diminish public awareness of the region's notorious commercial past.

Yet its legacy remains today. It is evident in the Georgian architecture and street names of the ports and in surrounding country houses. It can be traced in memorial inscriptions, local paintings and artefacts as well as in parish registers and newspapers. Leather-bound ledgers chart enriching commercial enterprises that speak of the many caught up in the web of transatlantic slavery.


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