World events

Explore key world events by selecting a title below to read more.

The 'Catalan Atlas' by Abraham Cresques showing Mansā Mūsā. With thanks to Bibliotheque Nationale de France via &

Early Stages: Spain and Portugal

1346 - 1353: Black Death

A bubonic plague in Western Europe and North Africa, the Black Death, killed thousands of people. As Howard French pointed out, at its peak, Western European deaths were about one-third or three-fifths of the total population resulting:

“in dire labor shortages, which almost certainly fueled interest in Italy and Iberia in acquiring African slaves.”

The consequences of this pandemic lasted well into the following century.

1375: 'The Catalan Atlas', by Abraham Cresques

Majorcan Cresques’s 1375 ‘Catalan Atlas’ for the King of Spain highlighted the existence of gold in Africa. It shows a picture of Mansā Mūsā with a golden crown and orb, surrounded by the trade routes reaching across the Mediterranean. The text next to him translates as:

“This black Lord is called Musse Melly and is the sovereign of the land of the negroes of Gineva [Ghana]. This king is the richest and noblest of all these lands due to the abundance of gold that is extracted from his lands.”

According to author Toby Green, Cresques created the map using stories and reports from traders travelling between Algeria, Morocco, West African kingdoms to the south, and the Iberian Peninsula. Green points out that the map was the product of years of cross-cultural exchange and reciprocation between West Africa and other parts of the world. Gold was also a sign of power for African rulers well before Europeans were drawn towards it. The founders of the Mali empire, for example, traditionally sat on a golden stool.

1462: Pope Pius II (pope 1458 – 1464) decrees that newly converted Christian Africans cannot be enslaved

Previously in 1452 Pope Nicholas V had allowed King Alfonso V of Portugal:

“full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be . . . and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery”

Succeeding popes continued to issue various papal bulls about the practice of slavery.

1482: King Kwamina Ansah (reign 1475 - 1510), grants permission for the Spanish to build Elmina Castle.

Elmina Castle is the first permanent European trading outpost in Africa, modern-day Ghana.

The Portuguese representative’s first meeting with King Kwamina Ansah demonstrated that he was used to receiving European goods through Sudanese Muslim networks. It is clear that for the king, gold was not just a means of exchange, but also an important marker of political and spiritual power.

For nearly a century, the castle was used to store gold before transporting it back to fill the coffers of European powers, but over time, the capture and transportation of enslaved Africans became the more valuable trade. From this point onwards, Elmina was used to keep captured Africans before they were put on board sailing ships.

Bronze seal matrix of the Royal African Company, 1662. The inscription round the edge translates as “Business is flourishing due to royal patronage and the kingdom is flourishing due to business”. © The Trustees of the British Museum

16th & 17th centuries: The start of English trading and North American colonies

1562: Sir John Hawkins leads the first English slaving expedition to present day Sierra Leone.

It has been argued that John Hawkins’ first violent capture of 300 Africans in 1562 was an early portent of the later English trafficking of enslaved Africans on a massive scale. He transported around 1,200 more Africans to Spanish Hispaniola for the Spanish, demonstrating that the triangular trade in enslaved Africans between England, West Africa, and Brazil could be profitable.

1606: English King James I grants a royal charter to the Virginia Company

This joint-stock company was funded by men and women from a range of backgrounds as well as livery companies. By 1624, it had 1,684 investors hoping to make money from the scheme. The purpose of the Virginia Company was to colonise parts of North America, but there were several false starts due to harsh conditions and attacks from the indigenous population.

1624: English King James I dissolves the Virginia Company.

After a period of relative prosperity between 1619 and 1622, the Virginia Assembly was formed in the hope of forming a self-governing colony. After the Second Powhatan War in 1622 however, King James dissolved the company, with King Charles I making it Virginia royal colony the following year.

1637: English King Charles I decrees that only Anglicans can emigrate to the North American colony of New England.

By this time, King Charles was concerned that too many people were emigrating, and issued a proclamation that only approved Anglican conformists could go to New England in North America. He required everyone to have a testimonial from their minister to say that they conformed to the order and discipline of the Church of England.

Charles I also required clergy to obtain permission from both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, as he was worried they might otherwise promote non-conformist schisms.

18th century: wars and revolutions

1700 - 1740s: Wars with Spain

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, European countries were battling each other over who should inherit the Spanish throne, particularly as it would have an impact on the access to trade. Known as the War of the Spanish Succession (1701 – 1713), it started when England, Holland, the Holy Roman Empire, Prussia, some German states, and Portugal formed an alliance against Spain and France.

It ended when the Treaty of Utrecht was agreed, with John Robinson representing England’s interests for Queen Anne, shortly before becoming Bishop of London. One of the aspects of the treaty was the Asiento de Negros which gave Britain the monopoly to traffic enslaved Africans to Spanish American territories.

By the 1730s and 1740s however, England and Spain were again warring with each other over South American and Caribbean territories. England was also fighting to retain its Asiento agreement and its control over the trafficking of enslaved Africans, with the British Navy attacking both merchant and navy Spanish ships and their ‘cargo’.

1775 – 1799: American War of Independence

While the aim of this war against the British was not itself concerned with slavery, enslaved people themselves, particularly those in the South, used it as a way to fight for their own freedom. In many of the thirteen British colonies for example, large numbers of enslaved people went there to fight on the side of the British.

1789 – 1799: French Revolution

The people of France rose up against the establishment to fight for the rights and freedoms of ordinary men and women. Like the American War of Independence, the French overthrow of the monarchy influenced other countries, such as Haiti, where Toussaint Louverture adopted the egalitarian values of equality and freedom for all. While enslaved people were inspired, enslavers and colonisers were afraid that their slave economy was under threat.

Although he was against the trade in enslaved Africans, Bishop Porteus did not approve of revolutionary ideas. He commissioned Hannah More to write a tract called Village Politics which was meant to counterbalance the violence of the French Revolution.

In 1794 the new French Republic freed all enslaved people in its Empire, but the decision was reversed after Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in 1799 and announced special laws for French colonies. While Louverture had abolished slavery in Haiti, Napoleon restored it in 1802. The Haitians eventually took back control again a couple of years later.

1792 – 1802: French Revolutionary Wars

These are split between the War of the First Coalition of 1792 – 1797, and the Second Coalition of 1798 – 1802. The British joined the first coalition in 1793, along with Austria, Prussia, Portugal, Naples, Netherlands, Spain, and Piedmont-Sardinia against France. But each country either capitulated or brokered their own peace treaties with France, leaving Britain on its own to fight against France.

The war had a huge impact both within and outside Europe. In Haiti, for example, after the enslaved Africans and Creoles rose up in 1791, the British backed the white colonists and were eventually driven out by the French in 1798.

The second coalition involved France against Austria, Britain, Naples, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, and Russia, but again, Britain was eventually left on its own until it signed a peace treaty with France in 1802. This time, some of the fighting took place in Egypt, with Napoleon Bonaparte seizing Cairo, in an effort to rebuild the French empire after its colonial losses in the Americas.

Peace however did not last. Between 1793 and 1815 Napoleon fought with the British and various alliances to expand his empire. One of the sites of battle was in India, until the British East India Company ran out of money and retreated in 1805.

Fighting continued with the French, British, and others including Russia and Spain. By 1805 the European powers brokered a longer-lasting peace and Napoleon was exiled to the British colonial island of St Helena in the South Atlantic.

A broadside on the end of the French Revolutionary Wars, and the proclamation of Peace in London on 20 April 1802. © The Trustees of the British Museum

18th & 19th centuries: steps toward English abolition

1787: The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade is launched in Britain

The Society explicitly aimed to abolish the trade in enslaved people, rather than slavery itself. There were twelve founding members, including nine Quakers and three Anglicans. Of the Anglicans, Thomas Clarkson (1760 – 1846), was a vociferous writer against the slave trade, and influenced Bishop Porteus’s unsuccessful appeal to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), for better treatment of the enslaved people on their Codrington estate.

Lawyer Granville Sharpe (1735 – 1813), was also an established campaigner, successfully publicising the ‘Zong atrocity’ in 1783. The crew of the Zong threw 132 sick enslaved Africans overboard en route from Africa to Jamaica and the ship’s owners tried to make an insurance claim for loss of property. Sharpe’s publicity caused public outrage in favour of the enslaved Africans.

Thomas Clarkson was also an influence on William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833), who used his position as member of Parliament to lead the campaign against the trade in enslaved Africans, and to introduce debates the House of Commons. Wilberforce shared his views with Bishop and Mrs Porteus, visiting them at Fulham Palace at least twice in 1800 for dinner, and as an overnight guest.

Hannah More was another friend of Bishop Porteus and a keen supporter of the abolition of the slave trade. At Porteus’s instigation, she wrote a poem called ‘Slavery to help publicise the campaign.

Other abolitionist writers and campaigners within Britain were of African descent. This included Olaudah Equiano who published ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ in 1789; Ottobah Cugoano’sThoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species of 1787′; and Ignatius Sancho’s letters to newspapers which were published as ‘The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African’ in 1782.

By 1792, with repeated defeats of abolition bills by traders and absentee enslavers in the House of Lords, as well as the diversion of the French Revolution, the abolition campaign lost momentum.

Interest was reignited during the 1804 – 1815 European wars, when politicians and others realised that supplying enslaved Africans to Spain and France was against their best interests.

1807: Slave Trade Abolition Act

In 1807 The Slave Trade Abolition Act passed in Britain by 283 votes to 16. This ended the British transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans, but not slavery. Many of the supporters and campaigners of this Act were not necessarily against slavery itself, the abolition of which took longer to achieve.

In 1823, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions was formed by William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and others. This was also known as the Anti-Slavery Society, but was still focused on finding a solution which appeased enslavers to some extent. It was ten years before the British government passed the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833.

Despite the Slave Trade Abolition Act of 1807, Black labourers were forced to continue working for their former enslavers on a low wage apprenticeships until 1838. Emancipated enslaved people still had to fight for their economic, civil, and political rights over a long period of time. In contrast, enslavers were paid compensation by the British government for the loss of their ‘property’, amounting to 20% of the total national budget. In combination with this, the white planters tried to exploit Indian and Chinese indentured labour but this only lasted until around 1920.

Blue glass sugar bowl probably made in Bristol c. 1820 - 1830. Produced by an abolitionist society to promote the boycott of sugar produced by enslaved labour © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Further reading