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Throughout the seventeenth century Plymouth had gradually lost its pre-eminence as a trading port. In the days of Hawkins, locally produced wool had been the major export commodity. By the mid-1600s it was armaments and metalware manufactured elsewhere that internal transport costs prohibited from sending abroad via Plymouth. Ships returning to England from the West Indies and the American colonies too largely by-passed Plymouth; the city had no means of processing sugar or tobacco imports.
Nevertheless, a relatively small number of slave ships left from Plymouth to sail to Africa and then the New World on trading expeditions. On 9 February 1700, the Elizabeth sailed with a mixed cargo of cloth and metalware, although it sank off the coast of what is now Nigeria. On 16 January 1701, the Rochester carried tobacco to Guinea. Metal goods were the principal cargo of the Michael, which left Plymouth on 6 October 1704; the same as for the William, which sailed on 13 July 1705.
Dr Dalby Thomas, the Agent General of the Cape Coast Castle trading post, believed that England should colonise the west coast of Africa. To that end, the Pindar, which sailed from Plymouth on 6 January 1707, carried seeds with which to cultivate food for the supposed colonisers. Also on board were various drugs, to be administered to Africans who were at the time cared for using local customs. The Pindar reportedly disembarked 285 slaves at Jamaica early in 1708.
On 10 November 1708, the Joseph sailed to Africa with various cloths and metalware. Late in 1709 it delivered 280 slaves to Jamaica. Also in November 1708 the Sylvia left Plymouth with a cargo of consumer goods. The agent acting for the merchant was Philip Pentyre, the son of a Plymouth sail maker. Pentyre also arranged for a cargo of armaments and clothing to be carried by the John and Robert, which sailed on 11 April 1711.
On 4 November 1713 the Industry left Plymouth. It later transported two slaves from Barbados to Virginia. Similarly, the Duke of Cornwall, which sailed from Plymouth on 11 February 1716, transported nine slaves over the same journey. From that date, Plymouth’s direct association with the slave trade was very minimal, although Thomas Pownell, Secretary of the Board of Trade, accounted for one slave trading vessel sailing from Plymouth in 1753.
Despite Plymouth playing a bit part in England’s seventeenth century slave trade, its civic leaders and merchants were active participants campaigning for repeal of the ten-percent levy, by which private ships from ports other than London trading into and out of Africa had to pay a levy under the terms of the Ten Per Cent Act. On 11 January 1710 Plymouth’s burgesses petitioned the House of Commons for a free and open slave trade, as did the merchants on 19 April 1711. Their petition exaggerated Plymouth’s involvement:
The Ten Per Cent Act was repealed in 1712, inviting the privateers to enter completely the slave trade on an equal footing to the Royal African Company (RAC). This they did, picking up the vast majority of slaves from Africa. Bristol boomed, becoming the busiest slavery port, until surpassed by Liverpool in the mid-1700s. In 1731 the RAC ceased slaving, and in 1752 it was dissolved.
England’s (now Britain’s) slaving industry was boosted further in 1713. Under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, which marked the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, Britain was granted the Asiento (France had had it since 1702), whereby it guaranteed to deliver 144,000 slaves to the Spanish Caribbean over the next thirty years.
Learn more about slavery and abolition and the Plymouth connection:
Hawkins' First Slavery Voyage
Hawkins' Second Slavery Voyage
Lovell and Drake
Hawkins' Third Slavery Voyage
Deaths of Hawkins and Drake
Slave Trade Triangle
The Committee for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade
Gustavus Vassa: Olaudah Equiano