What can portraits tell us about why Britain was involved in the transatlantic slave trade?

Learning objectives

  1. Assess the impact of key figures from British history within the context of the transatlantic slave trade.
  1. Apply knowledge of the development of the transatlantic slave trade to interpret the roles played by individuals.
  1. Investigate some of the motivations behind support for the trade, and reasons for resistance to abolition.
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    Elizabeth Barrett Browning,    by Michele Gordigiani,    1858,    NPG 1899,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
by Michele Gordigiani
oil on canvas, 1858
29 in. x 23 in. (737 mm x 584 mm)
NPG 1899
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Between the 1500s and 1800s, millions of African people were kidnapped, sold and forced to work on Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. in the Caribbean and the Americas, as part of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . Whole nations, including Britain, grew extremely rich from enslaved people’s labour. Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. owners and slave traders in Britain and other countries also grew extremely rich.

Generations of enslaved people resisted and rebelled against their enslavement and brutal treatment. In the 1800s, laws were passed in Britain to end the trade and then slavery itself.

Before you start this resource, it is important that you understand how Britain built its trade, and how the trade worked. If you need to ready yourself with more information, here are some good places to start:

This is a traumatic part of our history. Its legacy still affects our lives today. Learning about the history of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. , you will encounter descriptions of violence acted on men, women and children; and offensive language and attitudes. You will also encounter stories of Resistance The act of using force to oppose somebody/something. and extraordinary resilience. We recommend you learn about this topic with support from your teacher.

History is something that needs to be challenged and re-interrogated and revised constantly.
Bernadine Evaristo, 2020

What can portraits tell us about the beginning of Britain’s transatlantic slave trade?

Britain's involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. began in the 1500s, during the Tudor period. To become more wealthy and powerful, the Tudors needed to make connections with the wider world. They had ambitions to do this through trade, through alliances with other nations, and by Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. land. Explorers went on expeditions to Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean, looking for lands to Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. and resources they could use and control. This included capturing and enslaving African people.

Explore these portraits of John Hawkins, Walter Ralegh and Queen Elizabeth I. Click on each portrait to look closer and find out more.

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    Sir John Hawkins,    by Robert Boissard,    circa 1597-1601,    NPG D48075,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir John Hawkins, by Robert Boissard, circa 1597-1601
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    Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh),    by Unknown English artist,    1588,    NPG 7,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh), by Unknown English artist, 1588
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    Queen Elizabeth I,    by Unknown English artist,    circa 1588,    NPG 541,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, circa 1588

    • John Hawkins showed British Merchant A person who buys and sells goods in large quantities, especially one who imports and exports goods. that trading kidnapped people was a way to make money. He also showed them that the Triangular trade Trade routes used to buy and sell people as slaves, forming a triangle across the Atlantic Ocean. Ships sailed between Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean and the Americas. was a system that could make large profits.
    • Walter Ralegh helped to get powerful British people interested in setting up Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another country. in America. He also helped to make tobacco popular in Britain. Later, British people set up tobacco Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. in the Americas, that relied on the labour of enslaved people.
    • Queen Elizabeth I used her power to support and encourage the early Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . She financed early slaving voyages which made her a lot of money and made the trade official.
    • Hawkins, Ralegh and Queen Elizabeth I are all wearing clothes made from expensive materials such as silk and fine lace. The portrait of Elizabeth also shows expensive velvet material draped in the background.
    • Elizabeth and Ralegh are wearing jewels, their clothes are also covered with them. These jewels would have been expensive and highly prized.
    • Having a portrait made was expensive because of the cost of the artist and the materials; it also meant that you could afford to spend time posing for an artist rather than working.
    • As well as a symbol of wealth, jewels were also a symbol of global connections as they came from different parts of the world.
    • Pearls were found hidden in shells on the seabed in South America and the Caribbean. At this time, English Merchant A person who buys and sells goods in large quantities, especially one who imports and exports goods. relied on the skills of Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. Americans, and enslaved Africans who had been transported to the area by Spain, to dive for the pearls.
    • The portrait of Elizabeth I shows England defeating the Spanish Armada in the background. Other nations viewed Tudor Britain, and Elizabeth I, as more powerful after winning this important sea battle.
    • John Hawkins’s portrait includes his crest in the top right corner. The crest symbolises him and his family. Only high-status families would have their own crest. It includes an enslaved African man, tied with rope.
    • It also includes ships in the background and he is holding a map. Hawkins was a skilled sailor and navigator. He was involved in the successful sea battle against the Spanish Armada as a ship’s captain.
  1. Which of these portraits do you think best represents the beginnings of Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade?
  1. Do others in your class or group agree?
It’s no secret that the history of the British royal family is intertwined with slavery.
Brooke Newman, 2020

Making the transatlantic slave trade official

Explore these portraits of King Charles I, King Charles II and Queen Anne. Look at the clothes, objects, background, Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. and expression on their faces.

Click on each portrait to look closer and find out more.

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    King Charles I,    by Daniel Mytens,    1631,    NPG 1246,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
King Charles I, by Daniel Mytens, 1631
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    King Charles II,    attributed to Thomas Hawker,    circa 1680,    NPG 4691,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
King Charles II, attributed to Thomas Hawker, circa 1680
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    Queen Anne,    by Michael Dahl,    circa 1702,    NPG 6187,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Queen Anne, by Michael Dahl, circa 1702


Each of these monarchs played a role in growing Britain's Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. and making it official, enabling the trade to grow at a rapid rate from this point on. They personally increased their wealth and power from their involvement, as did Britain itself.

  1. Which portrait do you think gives the strongest message of wealth and power?
  1. Why do you think that?
    • By showing themselves as wealthy and powerful in their portraits, these monarchs were also showing Britain as a wealthy and powerful nation.
    • Their support made the whole system official and legal. This included the kidnapping and enslavement of African people.
    • Their money, power and Status The level of importance that is given to something. meant Britain could Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. other lands, such as islands in the Caribbean. Here goods such as sugar and tobacco were produced, using the labour of enslaved Africans, to make great profits as part of the Triangular trade Trade routes used to buy and sell people as slaves, forming a triangle across the Atlantic Ocean. Ships sailed between Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean and the Americas. .
    • They also ensured these lands and the routes of the triangular trade, between West Africa, the Caribbean (and Americas) and Britain, were defended from attack by other nations.
The Royal African Company of England shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade.
William Pettigrew, 2013

Making and spending money from the transatlantic slave trade

Choose three portraits you find most interesting. Look at their clothes, Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. , the expression on their faces, objects and the background.

  1. What are your first impressions of each person?
  1. Write down as many words as you can to describe each one.

Look at your three chosen portraits again. Click on each one to read the accompanying text and find out more.

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    Edward Colston,    by George Vertue, after  Jonathan Richardson,    published 1722,    NPG D27544,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Edward Colston, by George Vertue, after Jonathan Richardson, published 1722
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    Thomas Guy,    after Francesco Bartolozzi, and after  John Bacon the Elder,    (1779),    NPG D35083,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas Guy, after Francesco Bartolozzi, and after John Bacon the Elder, (1779)
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    William Ansah Sessarakoo,    by John Faber Jr, after  Gabriel Mathias,    mid 18th century,    NPG D9199,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
William Ansah Sessarakoo, by John Faber Jr, after Gabriel Mathias, mid 18th century
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    William (Thomas) Beckford,    by Sir Joshua Reynolds,    1782,    NPG 5340,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
William (Thomas) Beckford, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782
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    Sir Thomas Picton,    by Sir Martin Archer Shee,    engraved 1812,    NPG 126,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Thomas Picton, by Sir Martin Archer Shee, engraved 1812
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    Elizabeth Barrett Browning,    by Michele Gordigiani,    1858,    NPG 1899,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, by Michele Gordigiani, 1858

  1. Has your view of each person changed? Add any new descriptive words to your lists. Are there any you would remove?
  1. Can you see any evidence in the portraits that connects these people to the transatlantic slave trade?
  1. What do you think these portraits show about their attitudes to being involved in the transatlantic slave trade?
  1. Aside from great wealth and status, can you think of any other reasons why some people did not want to abolish the transatlantic slave trade?
The history of British slavery has been buried. The thousands of British families who grew rich on the slave trade … brushed those uncomfortable chapters of their … stories under the carpet.
David Olusoga, 2015

Why did the transatlantic slave trade continue for so long?

The Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. continued for almost 300 years before it was finally Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. in the early 1800s. It was a system that relied on the enslavement and brutal treatment of millions of African people. Despite this, the majority of people – ordinary people, traders, business people and kings and queens – still accepted and supported it.

This was because the slave trade helped make Britain and other nations extremely rich and powerful, as well as individual families.

It was also because of deeply racist ideas. Slaving nations, like Britain, saw African people as less than human. They saw them as property that could be bought, sold and used in any way. They believed African people had no human rights.

The legacies of the transatlantic slave trade are all around us today. Britain and other nations still benefit from the money made from enslaved people. People still face racism and struggle against it.

  1. How do you think portraits are useful as a source for helping us understand why a lot of British people supported the transatlantic slave trade?
  1. What other sources might help you find out more?
One devastating legacy of the transatlantic slave trade was racism. Historically, it was used to justify the enslavement of Africans.
Antonio Guterres, 2020

Contentious statues

Look again at the portraits of Edward Colston, Thomas Guy and Thomas Picton and the information about them.

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    Edward Colston,    by George Vertue, after  Jonathan Richardson,    published 1722,    NPG D27544,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Edward Colston, by George Vertue, after Jonathan Richardson, published 1722
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    Thomas Guy,    after Francesco Bartolozzi, and after  John Bacon the Elder,    (1779),    NPG D35083,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas Guy, after Francesco Bartolozzi, and after John Bacon the Elder, (1779)
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    Sir Thomas Picton,    by Sir Martin Archer Shee,    engraved 1812,    NPG 126,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Thomas Picton, by Sir Martin Archer Shee, engraved 1812
  1. Why do you think statues were made of these people and displayed in public spaces?
  1. What is your view on what has happened to these statues more recently?
  1. Do you think they should still be on public display? Why?
  1. Investigate the connections between the transatlantic slave trade in the past and anti-racism movements such as Black Lives Matter today.

Next steps: local connections

Huge amounts of money were made through the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . In Britain, it paid for buildings, industries, hospitals, charities, schools, art and much more. 

Investigate your local area.

  1. Can you find out if any local places or organisations had connections to the transatlantic slave trade?
  1. Are there portraits of the people who spent their profits from the transatlantic slave trade in your area in the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection or displayed in your local community?
  1. What do you think their portraits, and where and how they are displayed, say about them?

Reflections

  • You have focused on a complex and brutal part of our shared history. It can bring up strong reactions. How are you feeling?
  • Do you have any questions? You could discuss them with a teacher or an adult you feel comfortable talking to.
  • You could use the links in this resource to find out more or explore more portraits that link to this history from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection.