London and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Take a tour around London and learn about the city's connection to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, guided by Dominic Burris-North

By City of London Corporation

1) Listen to Dominic's Introduction

Hi, I’m Dominic Burris-North and I’m a Professional London Blue Badge Tour Guide. This tour is a condensed version of my tour about London and its involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Firstly, I think it is important to say from the outset that we shouldn’t simplistically conflate slavery with Black history. It is an element of Black history, but really, it is our shared history, the legacy of which has had a disproportionately negative impact on the lives of Black people.

2) Hawkins

Mincing Lane

We start off at Mincing Lane in the City of London, the historic and financial heart of London, which you may know simply as the City, or as the Square Mile. It’s hard to fathom whilst looking at this fairly nondescript, inner city London street that it was in a house on this street that preparations for England’s very first venture into the Transatlantic Slave Trade were made. 
Those plans were made by a man called John Hawkins. John Hawkins, is traditionally seen as England’s first slave trader, at least to sail from an English port. 

3) Drax - Racism

Churchyard of St John Zachary

This is the Churchyard of St John Zachary in the City. The actual church no longer stands and today it’s just a small, peaceful garden. But buried somewhere beneath this garden is James Drax, the man who introduced sugar to the Caribbean island of Barbados and in so doing fundamentally changed the nature and scale of English involvement in slavery.

Barbados had, in 1625 been acquired as one of the earliest English colonies in the Americas and James Drax was one of the many opportunistic Englishmen hoping to get rich by using the colonies to grow so called “cash-crops”. These were high demand goods that grew very well in the climatic conditions of Caribbean, things like tobacco, coffee and indigo, but above all sugar.

4) Jamaica Coffee House

The Jamaica Wine House

This is the Jamaica Wine House. Today it’s a pub housed in a 19th century building, but it stands on the site of London’s oldest coffee house, built in 1652. It was originally known as Pasqua Rosee’s but soon changed name to the Jamaica Coffee House, following England’s acquisition of Jamaica as a colony in 1655. Coffee houses were important drivers in the demand for slavery’s principal product, sugar, which in turn drove demand for enslaved Africans as forced labour in the plantations of the Americas. Some estimates put the number of coffee houses in London by the beginning of the 1700s as high as 550. 

The British had started to drink beverages like coffee, tea and chocolate in the mid to late 17th century. Coffee of the time (which itself was a product of slavery) had a particularly bitter taste so sugar was seen as an essential ingredient to make it more palatable. 

5) RAC 2

Leadenhall Street

This is Leadenhall Hall Street which in the 17th and 18th centuries was the location of Africa House, the headquarters of England’s only company to hold a monopoly over trade with west Africa. The company began as the The Royal Company of Adventurers Trading to Africa in 1660 but was later reformed and renamed the Royal African Company. Among its founder members was King Charles II who granted the company a royal charter after realising the potential profits to be made from trade with Africa and the trade in enslaved people in particular.

The Royal African Company had a number of powerful and wealthy investors including the King’s brother James, Duke of York (later King James II), his cousin, Prince Rupert, various Dukes, Earls, former Lord Mayors of the City of London, as well as some names that are quite well known in England today, including the philosopher John Locke and the diarist Samuel Pepys. There were numerous others.

6) Bank of England 2

Bank of England

One of the key people involved in the campaign to end the Royal African Company’s monopoly was Sir Humphry Morice - an independent slave trader and merchant. Maurice later became a member of parliament and in 1727 was appointed as the Governor of the Bank of England which we see here. This appointment was a signifier of his influential position in society. 

The Bank of England, which is England and later Britain’s central bank, had at least 25 governors or directors connected in some way to the enslavement of Africans. Most prominent among them is Humphry Morice. The historian James Rawley has asserted that Morice was the foremost slave trading merchant in London of his time. It has been calculated that Morice’s slave trading enterprise was responsible for the dispatch of 53 slave voyages to Africa, carrying 14,000 enslaved Africans to the Americas, with around 2,500 of them dying on the journey known as the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. 

7) Hans Sloane 2

British Museum

One of the legacies of slavery is how the profits made from it were used to enrich the cultural, natural and artistic collections of those involved in it. Some of the cultural institutions in London which have connections to the enslavement of Africans are today among the most visited attractions in the world. One such institution is the British Museum and by extension its off-shoots, the Natural History Museum and the British Library. The British Museum which explores human history and culture, was founded in 1753 based on a collection of 71,000 objects that had been bequeathed to the nation by a man called Hans Sloane for a total of £20,000. 

The sculpture of Hans Sloane, whose huge bequest of artifacts formed the original basis of the museum, is available for public viewing and has been recently placed in a display cabinet alongside objects and descriptions that reflect his colonial activities.

8) Zong 2


This is the Guildhall. It is the administrative and ceremonial centre of the City of London. In 1783 it was the site of a court case presided over by Lord Chief Justice William Mansfield, the most senior judge in the land. The case was called Gregson v Gilbert but is better known today as the Zong Massacre Trial. The Zong was a Liverpool based slave ship. 

In 1781, an inexperienced captain, Luke Collingwood, set sail in the ship from the coast of Gabon in West Africa with 440 enslaved Africans tightly packed in his ship’s hold (more than twice the number it was designed to hold). It was a long and disease infested journey, with many of the enslaved Africans on board dying in the horrendous conditions. Then in a navigational error, Collingwood missed his destination of Jamaica, which he mistook for the island of Hispaniola. Disease rapidly took hold throughout the ship which alarmed Collingwood. Subsequently, over the course of 3 days, Collingwood instructed his officers to throw the sickest of the enslaved overboard to their deaths, 133 in total.

9) James Somerset 2

Westminster Hall

Eleven years before the Zong trial in 1772, another significant case had been held in Westminster Hall, the oldest surviving part of the Houses of Parliament - Westminster Hall is the building in the middle of the image with the dark grey roof. The case was known as Somerset v Stewart and like the Zong trial had also been presided over by the Lord Chief Justice.
The case concerned the right of an enslaved African man called James Somerset not to be forcibly deported from England to the colonies of the Caribbean against his will.

Somerset was a 20 year old enslaved man from Virginia, who was owned by a customs officer called Charles Stuart who had brought James with him to London in 1769. Two years later, James Somerset was able to escape from Charles Stuart but he was eventually caught by so called slave-hunters in Covent Garden and was imprisoned on the lower decks of a ship on the River Thames., 

10) 2 George Yard 2

2 George Yard

The injustice of the Zong case and Mansfield’s opinion from the Somerset case that the status of slavery had to be legislated by Parliament, stimulated the grassroots campaign to abolish the slave trade. This campaign was formalised in 1787 when a group of 12 men, 9 Quakers and 3 Evangelical Anglicans met in a small printing shop at 2 George Yard and formed the ‘Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade’. Today, as you can see, a modern office building stands on the site.

11) Equiano

73 Riding House Street

Olaudah Equiano was a remarkable figure and lived a remarkable life. His is the story of enslavement to hard-won emancipation which was documented in one of the very first autobiographies written by a formerly enslaved person. As a free man, Equiano had a number of addresses in London. One of them was this address 73 Riding House Street (then known as 10 Union Street). The building Equiano lived in no longer stands but the site is today marked by a plaque indicating that it was here in 1789 that he finalised his written memoir, a first hand testimony about slavery. It was called “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African”

12 Cugoano 2 FINAL

Pall Mall/Schomberg House

A close friend of Equiano’s was Ottabah Cuguano, another formerly enslaved African, turned abolitionist. After becoming free, Cugoano entered into the service of husband and wife artists, Maria & Richard Cosway who lived in this grand building, Schomberg House at 80-82 Pall Mall in Westminster. Richard Cosway was the leading portraitist to George Augustus Frederick, the Prince of Wales and had a wide circle of artistic friends - so Cugoano would have been acquainted with the likes of painters such as Joshua Reynolds and poet and painter William Blake.

13) Anti-Slavery Soc & Women

25 Poultry King’s Head Tavern

The first meeting of the organisation that formally began a successor movement to the campaign to end the slave trade was held at the King’s Head Tavern in 1823. It was known as the London Society for Mitigating and Gradually Abolishing the State of Slavery (later shortened to the Anti-Slavery society), The tavern no longer stands but it was located on 25 Poultry in the City which is roughly on the site of today’s Ned hotel which you can see here.

The early Anti-Slavery group were cautious in their approach and favoured a gradual as opposed to an immediate end to slavery. The abolitionist William Wilberforce was such a gradualist, and felt that Africans were not ready for full emancipation straight away and that the focus should rather be on evangelising them.When talking about the abolition campaign, conversation is often dominated by the name William Wilberforce and whilst he played a role in bringing an end to the slave trade, more so than slavery itself, many marginalised figures have been historically overlooked. This includes Black abolitionists like Ottabah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano. Also historically overlooked has been the huge contribution of women. 

14) Mary Prince

Senate House on Malet Street

A woman who made a vital contribution to the abolition campaign was the formerly enslaved African, Mary Prince.  Like Equiano, Prince wrote a book in the form of a personal memoir detailing her horrific experience of enslavement. It’s entitled ‘The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave’. A plaque commemorating Mary Prince was put up in 2007 by the Nubian Jak Community Trust here on the walls of the University of London’s Senate House which is near to where she lived. 

15) Abolition 2

Houses of Parliament

The Houses of Parliament is where the political and ultimately legislative struggle to end the slave trade and slavery was played out between 1789 and 1833.William Wilberforce is the figure most associated with the parliamentary campaign to abolish the slave trade. He led the abolition campaign in Parliament, using the research and evidence gathered by Thomas Clarkson and others.

This campaign lasted 18 years until the slave trade was finally abolished in 1807.
It was wrongly assumed by many, including Wilberforce that the end of the slave trade would eventually lead to the demise of slavery itself. This was not the case and slavery would actually continue for more than 30 more years after the abolition of the slave trade. 

16) Gilt of Cain

Gilt of Cain Monument

The Archbishop Desmond Tutu unveiled this poignant sculpture by sculptor Michael Visocchi in 2008. It features the inscribed poetry of Black British author Lemn Sissay. Known as the ‘Gilt of Cain’, the sculpture commemorates the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. The granite sculpture is composed of a group of columns surrounding a podium which can be interpreted in a number of ways: sticks of sugar cane, a congregation that has gathered to listen to a sermon or the sale of enslaved people at a slave auction.

Gilt of Cain sculptureCity of London Corporation

17) Conclusion


To conclude this tour, I’d like to leave you with these thoughts...

The Transatlantic Slave Trade is often dismissed as an irrelevance with people being told to “get over it”. Why is this when clearly it was of such material benefit to the British economy, institutions, individuals and their descendants? It has left us with a legacy of racism - racism that has over the years been built into many of this country’s systems and institutions - racism that still plays a very real and damaging role in the lives of Black people in the 21st century.

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