“We want Able Blacks”: The British East India Company’s African Slave Trade

Ela Hefler Davidson College class of 2017.

April 6th, 2018


The air was crisp as Hugh Bennet, boatswain’s mate, stepped onto the top deck of the Delaware.[1] It was almost half six, and the sun was just breaking over the horizon. The temperature had been falling gradually since they first landed at Madagascar more than a month prior. Bennet watched the yawl and longboat pull away, loaded with provisions for the men on shore. Little did Bennet know, he would not be alive to see the two boats return. Below his feet, the sixty-one enslaved Africans in the Delaware’s hold were plotting a revolt. In less than three hours, they would break out of the hold, throwing the ship into chaos. By the time the chief mate could sound the alarm Bennet would be dead; at least five slaves and three other crew members would also perish before the rebellion could be subdued.

The Delaware was not the typical slaver, nor was Hugh Bennet the typical slave trader. He was an employee of the British East India Company engaged in the trans-Oceanic slave trade. Unlike millions of slaves carried on Royal African Company ships, the Delaware’s slaves were not bound for a plantation in the Americas. Instead, they were destined for the west coast of Sumatra on the far side of the Indian Ocean. Bennet and his crewmates were part of the East India Company’s elaborate and specialized slaving system, and yet their stories have been left out of the historiographies on the East India Company, European slave trading, and the Indian Ocean. Drawing on Company correspondence, consultation books, ships logs, ledgers and laws, I argue that the East India Company was a slave trading company, and that, like the companies trading human cargo, it developed a set of formal policies to reduce the high cost and risk associated with its trade. The East India Company should be recognized as a slave trading company because African slaves played a vital role in both the Company’s trade and its rise to become a colonial power in the nineteenth century.

Most scholars of African slavery, including Marcus Rediker, Herbert Klein and Stephanie Smallwood, focus exclusively on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Edward Alpers calls this the “tyranny of the Atlantic”: how scholarship on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and “Atlantic world” more broadly, has become so hegemonic as to draw attention and resources away from other studies of slavery, leaving fields like Indian Ocean history barren.[2] But the East India Company was no less a slave trading company than the Royal African Company. In fact, throughout the years they overlapped in operation, the two British companies shared personnel, coastal infrastructure, and even occasionally traded with each other.[3] The East India Company held a monopoly on all trade along the Guinea coast, including slaves, from 1657 until 1663 when the newly chartered Royal African Company took control of the trade and forts along the coast.[4] The West African trade was vital to restarting the East India Company’s economic activity and freeing the factories at Surat, Madras, and Bengal from debt.[5] West African slaves, purchased during the monopoly period, were also vital to the Company’s success in settling St. Helena – a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean, 1200 miles off the coast of Angola, which served as a key port to enable the Company’s Indian Ocean trade. Captain John Dutton, the island’s first governor, was instructed to purchase “5 or 6 Blacks or Negroes[, all] able men and women,” from St. Iago in the Cape Verde Islands on his first voyage to begin settling the uninhabited island.[6] As historiography and popular memory has built up the image of the East India Company as the “Honorable Company,” they have erased the African slave trade at the Company’s roots.[7]

The East India Company’s slave trade remained very small compared to the volume of both the British Atlantic slave trade and to other nations’ Indian Ocean slave trades.[8] Richard Allen estimates that from 1622 to 1772, the East India Company traded between 2,773 and 3,304 African slaves.[9] By comparison, the Royal African Company and British interlopers traded more than 1.9 million African slaves during the same period. Although for some readers, the East India Company’s comparatively low trade numbers may appear as grounds to dismiss its trade as insignificant, these numbers actually reflect and reinforce the East India Company’s dependence on slave labor and the degree to which slave trading was integrated into the Company’s broader trading network and policies.

Thornton, engraver, Copper engraving, ‘A View of the Town and Island of St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean belonging to the English East India Company’, 1790. (Source: Wikimedia Public Domain)

Strategic Reductions in Risk and Cost

Part of what made the East India Company’s slave trade different from the Royal African Company’s was the size of the East India Company’s slave cargos. Between 1622 and 1772, the average slave-carrying East India Company ship held only 47 slaves.[10] For the Royal African Company, the average slave cargo was much larger, with 299 slaves embarking and 241 disembarking.[11] In the Atlantic, where slave ships only carried human cargo, the sale of 47 slaves could not generate enough profit to cover the costs of the trans-oceanic slaving voyage.[12] The East India Company managed to sustain what otherwise would have been an economically unviable trade in human cargo by grafting its slave trade onto its established networks for shipping cloth, spices, tea and handicrafts. Slaves were not the primary cargo on most slave-carrying East India Company vessels, nor was their transport often the primary purpose of the voyage. Small slave deliveries, by way of mixed-cargo slave ships, helped the Company reduce the high overhead costs associated with the slave trade. Mixed-cargo trade and its associated benefits were possible because the Company was responding to its own internal demand for slave labor, drawing a profit not from the sale of slaves, but rather from their productive capacity within the company-state. The Company’s only profit from the slave trade came from its slaves’ productivity as a labor force.

Smaller slave cargos helped the East India Company reduce the risk and sunk cost inherent to large-scale slave trading. Although the slave trade could be lucrative business – in the Atlantic, the average rate of profit for investors was about nine percent – slaving voyages were still extremely expensive endeavors.[13] They carried both higher risk and higher fixed costs than other voyages because they required adaptations to the ship, larger crews, and, particularly during wartime, higher wages.[14] Most vessels used by Europeans to transport slaves in both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean trades were not initially built for that purpose, and thus had to be modified to securely carry human cargo.[15] One of the most common features of a slave ship was a 10-foot wooden bulkhead, which bisected the ship and served to separate the male slaves from female slaves.[16] The bulkhead could also help the crew secure a strong defensive position in the event of a slave insurrection.[17] Modifications like the bulkhead were not as necessary for small numbers of slaves in mixed-cargo holds because the risk of insurrection was far lower. Avoiding modifications helped lower the overhead costs for slave-carrying Company ships, and served as an incentive to the Company to pursue mixed-cargo trade. On one occasion in 1670, the Company ordered a group of four ships sailing together – the Unicorn, the John and Martha, the Satisfaction, and the John and Margaret – to purchase forty slaves from St. Iago in the Cape Verde Islands.[18] While all of the ships were bound for the same destinations, the captains were instructed to divide the slaves evenly between the four ships. With only 10 slaves on board the ships would not have needed modifications, like a bulkhead, to secure the human cargo.

Because carrying fewer slaves on board decreased the risk of insurrection, Company ships could sail with smaller crews, while maintaining comparable ratios of crew members to slaves. In Atlantic slave trade, the size of a ship’s crew was typically twice that of a comparably-sized merchant vessel.[19] The costs associated with maintaining large crew aboard a slave ship could account for up to 18 percent the voyage’s total costs. Smaller slave cargos, therefore, helped the Company sustain a consistent, economically viable trade in slaves.[20]

Smaller, integrated slave cargos also allowed East India Company ships to spend less time at port waiting for their holds to be filled. More than just improving the efficiency of the voyage, reducing time at port decreased the ship’s risk of attack. During wartime, European ships became collateral targets, and they were particularly vulnerable while at anchor. In 1709, the Company directors warned the governor at St. Helena that “[d]uring the Warr [sic] we can’t supply you with Blacks from Madagascar.”[21] The risk of attack was significant enough that the Company directors required captains to “keep a Shott or piece of Lead fasten’d to each [letter packet],” so that they could sink all the “Packets reciev’d from Us or for Us to prev[en]t the Enemys knowing their Contents.”[22]

Maximizing Efficiency Though Slave Transfers

The East India Company’s mixed-cargo slave trade was unique in that not all of the slaves were purchased by Company – many were born into slavery at the Company’s holdings and then transferred to another fort. When the Company directors in London received a request from their agents for slaves they would look first to the slaves the Company already owned, seeking to transfer them to fill the requesting agent’s needs. The exchange of Company slaves between holdings was a fundamental part of the East India Company’s slave trade strategy. Based on Richard Allen’s estimates, as many as one third of the slaves on board East India Company ships were transfers – a significant proportion considering transfer requests were consistently smaller than purchase requests. Between 1639 and 1787, the Company authorized a minimum of 77 transfer voyages, involving at least 1040 slaves.[23]

Transfers were possible and efficient because, like the mixed-cargo slave trade, the Company grafted transfers onto its existing trading networks.[24] If the directors felt a transfer was needed, they would assign it to the next ship passing both ports, which helped keep costs low and voyage lengths shorter. While the Delaware’s primary purpose was the purchase and transfer of Malagasy slaves to Fort St. David in India, Captain Donicus also “received on board 35 woman slaves and 2 Children D[itto] belonging to the Hono[rab]le Company,” in Madras, “to be transported to Benc[oolen].”[25] Because the Delaware already needed to pass through both Madras and Bencoolen to execute her primary objective, the transfer of thirty-seven slaves did not add any additional sunk costs. The only cost to the company was to compensate Captain Donicus for his efforts. Captains were paid per slave, usually at a rate of four pounds, which was the same rate at which captains carried passengers.[26]

Slave transfers allowed the Company to rearrange its unfree labor force, which meant it could further benefit from the specialized skills and knowledge of English culture that its slaves had developed. Such rearrangements were particularly valuable at St. Helena where the Company regularly experimented with new crops and goods, trying to maximize the island’s productivity and value. In the first five years that the Company held St. Helena it sent multiple requests to its agents at Surat asking that they send indigo seeds and slaves who “hath knowledge of how to sow it and afterward to work it to perfection and adviseth [the] Governor of St. Helena of the particulars.”[27] Environmental and diplomatic factors made Bencoolen, the Company’s primary fort on the island of Sumatra, a particularly precarious location for Company employees, which further increased the value of having experienced slaves. Company letters routinely describe the fort at Bencoolen as a “sickly” and “fever infested” place, which sent Englishmen “to their everlasting homes.”[28] In 1687, when the Company sent English-speaking slaves from St. Helena to Bencoolen, it noted, “we would have you principally to employ in attending and administering to our sick soldiers.”[29] Given the vulnerable position of the sick soldiers and the Company’s fears about African spirituality and healing practices, it seems unlikely that the directors would have trusted newly purchased slaves to this task.[30] While slave transfers kept the Company’s aggregate trade numbers low, they demonstrate the vital role that slavery played in the Company’s ability to control territory and generate profit.

A Company Dependant on Slavery

Slaves were so central to the Company’s day-to-day operations that both the Company’s directors and its agents abroad had specific expectations for the skills and traits that made a slave valuable. Much to the Company directors’ frustration, their agents would use the Company’s transfer policy to manage the slave population at their forts. When St. Helena had surplus labor and the Company demanded a slave transfer to Bencoolen, the governors would choose slaves they deemed less desirable, often women and young children. In December 1705, Company directors criticized the governor at St. Helena after a slave transfer, writing, “common prudence would have dictated to any reasonable man that if those girls were of no value at St. Helena they would not be of more at Bencoolen and therefore there was no reason to be at the charge of 4£ per head to send them thither[. W]e want able Blacks not children there.”[31] Eventually, after significant, sustained resistance from the island’s governors, the Company directors changed their transfer policy. In 1733, they wrote to St. Helena that they would no longer “draught blacks” from the island, having deciding instead to send the Hertford to procure 200 Malagasy slaves for their Sumatran settlements. The directors added, “We don’t doubt [this] will be very agreeable to you as in the Letters now before Us such heavy Complaints are made of the Draughts upon you.”[32]

Despite the additional cost and risk, as in the case of the Hertford, the company did occasionally choose to commission a captain to purchase a full cargo of slaves. Large-scale slave shipments were most common between the 1730s and the 1750s, after the Company changed its policies on slave transfers.[33] When a fort requested a significant number of slaves, sometimes a single voyage was more efficient than a series of smaller voyages. Full-cargo slave shipments allowed the Company to maintain large labor and defensive forces at its forts, despite high mortality rates for both free and enslaved populations. Between 1751 and 1753, the Company commissioned three full-cargo slaving voyages to deliver three hundred, five hundred, and six hundred slaves respectively.[34] In each of these cases, however, the captains struggled to meet the Company’s full requests. In 1741, Henry Watts of the Swift wrote in his journal, if a ship “comes in May or June and lay[s at Madagascar] two or three months they ought [to] get 100 or 150/60 [slaves] maybe more.”[35] While supply and demand factors kept the number of slaves aboard East India Company ships lower than those of the Royal African Company, the Company directors’ readiness to commission full-cargo slave voyages demonstrates both the Company’s dependence on slavery, and the directors’ commitment to using even traditional slave trading methods – with all the associated violence and carnage – if it would help in meeting the Company’s profit objectives.

In the seventeenth century, the East India Company moved only 2.2 to 3.4 percent of the slaves traded in the Indian Ocean by Europeans. In the eighteenth century, the Company’s proportion was even lower, representing between 1.4 and 1.7 percent of the Indian Ocean trade.[36] The East India Company was not the largest of the slave trading companies, but it was no less a slaving company. Slaves played a central role in the company structure and profit mechanisms, and had a significant impact on the Company’s overall business model. Aggregate trade numbers mask the fundamental role slavery played in the growth and profits of the company-state, particularly at St. Helena. In 1661, two years after the Company’s first voyage to settle the island, St. Helena had a population of fifty-three people, twenty-one of whom were slaves.[37] By the 1720s, slaves represented more than fifty percent of St. Helena’s population, which numbered close to 1000 individuals. Just like the companies that moved larger volumes of slaves, the British East India Company was intentional and systematic in how it sought and handled human cargo – grafting slaves trade into its existing trade networks and commissioning larger slave cargos when necessary. Recognizing the East India Company as a slave trading company is vital to fulling understanding the Company’s history, and its impact on the Indian and south Atlantic Oceans. 


[1] Alternative spellings of the ship’s name include Delware and Delawar.

[2] Richard B. Allen, European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2014), 4.

[3] In 1684, the governor and council at St. Helena wrote to the East India Company, “wee shall endeavor to buy 60 or 80 Gold Coast Negroes of [the] Royal [African] Comp[any] & send [them] to you.” See E/3/90, fol. 251v, Letter to Governor and Council at St. Helena, 26 November 1684, East India Records Collection, East India Company Letter Books, Special Collections & Archives, British Library, London (hereafter cited as India Office Records, Letter Books).

[4] E/3/85, fols. 5-6, Letter to Mr. Lancelot Stavely, 31 December 1657, India Office Records, Letter Books; also see Margaret Makepeace, “English Traders on the Guinea Coast, 1657-1668: An Analysis of the East India Company Archive,” History in Africa 16 (1989): 237-284.

[5] Margaret Makepeace, “English Traders on the Guinea Coast,” History in Africa 16 (1989): 238.

[6] E/3/85, fol. 94, Instructions given to Capt. John Dutton Governor of the island of St. Helena, 11 January 1658, India Office Records, Letter Books; the East India Company regularly uses, and inter-changes, the terms Blacks, Africans, Negroes, Coffreys and slaves to describe the unfree laborers at their various holdings. In the seventeenth century, black was a broad term that was applied to many groups beyond just individuals of African descent. It did not always imply enslaved status. For the sake of consistency and clarity, this paper uses the terms Africans and slaves, except when directly quoting primary sources.

[7] See Anna Winterbottom, Hybrid Knowledge in the East India Company World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

[8] According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, from 1657-1757 British ships carried 1,400,289 slaves across the Atlantic, of whom 1,138,999 survived. Most of these slaves were carried by private traders. During the Royal African Company’s period of operation, from 1668-1731, they carried 187,289 slaves, of whom 149,139 survived; see http://www.slavevoyages.org/voyages/0ZG5qvB0 and http://www.slavevoyages.org/voyages/NCISlJJf.

[9] Allen, European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 38; This number includes only slaves purchased by the East India Company, and thus does not include the slaves delivered by interloping vessels to St. Helena from Madagascar, or slaves transferred between East India Company forts. Allen estimates the total volume of slaves trafficked by the British in the Indian Ocean from 1500-1850 to be at least 5,698-5,716.

[10] Allen, European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 38; Allen does not distinguish in his data between slaves embarked and disembarked for East India Company slave purchases in this period. It is likely that this figure is a closer reflection of the number of slaves embarked or authorized.

[11] Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, accessed March 24, 2017, http://www.slavevoyages.org/voyages/NCISlJJf.

[12] Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking, 2007), 62.

[13] Rediker, The Slave Ship, 47.

[14] Rediker, The Slave Ship, 50.

[15] Rediker, The Slave Ship, 52.

[16] Rediker, The Slave Ship, 70.

[17] Rediker, The Slave Ship, 70.

[18] E/3/87, fol. 208v, Letter to the Company’s Factors at Bantam, 18 January 1670, India Office Records, Letter Books; Today, St. Iago is the island of Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands.

[19] David Richardson, “Shipboard Revolts, African Authority, and the Atlantic Slave Trade,” The William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2001): 74.

[20] Miles Ogborn, Global Lives: Britain and the World, 1550-1800, Cambridge Studies in Historical Geography 41 (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 204; large slave ship crews were a preventative measure against the risk of insurrection and high crew mortality rates. The average East India Company ship was manned by a crew of 100 or more men, see Erikson, Between Monopoly and Free Trade, 81

[21] G/32/1, sheets 165-166, Letter to the Governor and Council at St. Helena, 11 January 1709, East India Records Collection, East India Company Factory Records, Special Collections & Archives, British Library, London (hereafter cited as India Office Records, Factory Records).

[22] E/3/98, 130v, Orders and Instructions given by [the] Court of Directors of the United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies To Capt. Aex[ande]r Reid, [January 1714, India Office Records, Letter Books].

[23] Allen, European Slave Trading, 58.

[24] Mortality rates were also lower for the Company’s slave transfers, compared to the purchases. Allen reports that mortality rate in transfers between 1732 and 1757, the mortality rate for slave transfers was 0 percent; Allen, European Slave Trading, 54.

[25] L/MAR/B/322B, entries from 31 October 1752, 1 November 1752, 14 December 1752, East India Records Collection, India Office Marine Records, Special Collections & Archives, British Library, London (hereafter cited as India Office Records, Marine Records); Bencola is an alternative name for Bencoolen/Benkulen, the Company’s main holding on the west coast of Sumatra.

[26] G/32/1, page 410, Note Omitted in the Rochester’s General Letter, 14 December 1705, India Office Records, Factory Records.

[27] E/3/86, fol. 126v, Letter from the Company to their factors at Surrat, 24 March 1662; see also IOR: E/3/86, fol. 157, letter to Company’s Governor and Council at St. Helena, 30 September 1663; IOR: E/3/86, fol. 213v, letter from the Company to their factors at Surrat, 11 August 1664, India Office Records, Letter Books.

[28] Frenise A. Logan, “The British East India Company and African Slavery in Benkulen, Sumatra, 1687-1972,” The Journal of Negro History 41, no. 4 (October 1956): 340.

[29] E/3/91, fol. 177v, Letter to Bencoolen, 1687, India Office Records, Letter Books.

[30] Slaves were actually forbidden by law from administering “any physic or medicine upon the penalty of severe correction; see E.L. Jackson, St. Helena: The Historic Island from Its Discovery to the Present Date (New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1905), 66.

[31] G/32/1, page 401-402, Omitted in the Rochester’s general letter, 14 December 170, 5, India Office Records, Factory Records.

[32] E/3/106, fol. 39v, 41v Letter to St. Helena, 23 November 1733, India Office Records, Letter Books.

[33] The East India Company launched its first large-scale slaving expedition in 1684, when Robert Knox, the captain of the Tonquin Merchant, received instructions to purchase 250 slaves at Madagascar and deliver them, not to Bencoolen but, to St. Helena. By the 1770s, Allen reports that the Company’s full-cargo slave shipments had all but ceased, a change that may have been expedited by the changing Company-State structure in India after the Battle of Plassey, as well as the temporary loss of Bencoolen to French forces in 1760. See Allen, The European Slave Trade, 50.

[34] E/3/111, fols. 190v-192, Letter to Fort St. George, 25 October 1752; IOR: E/3/111 fol. 105-105v, Letter to Ft. St. David on the ship Delaware, 14 November 1751, India Office Records, Letter Books.

[35] L/MAR/B 616A, Henry Watts’ Original Journal Aboard the Swift, March 1741, India Office Records, Marine Records.

[36] Allen, European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 59.

[37] Stephen Royle, The Company’s Island: St. Helena, Company Colonies and the Colonial Endeavor (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007) 174; four of the slaves were owned by Governor Robert Stringer and the remaining seventeen were owned by the Company and managed a “small, productive [Company] plantation.”

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