Thomas Earle was a prominent slave trader in the 18th century who played a significant role in the transatlantic slave trade. Born in Liverpool in the 1750s, Earle made a fortune as a slave trader and merchant during the peak of the slave trade era..
Earle was born in Liverpool in 1754 to a family of slave traders. ￼His father William Earle, was a slave trader whose career lasted almost 40 years, his grandfather, relatives and also brothers were all slavers.
Earle’s career as a slave trader began in the 1770s, when he became involved in the transatlantic slave trade. He owned several ships that transported enslaved Africans from West Africa to the Caribbean and North America, and he profited greatly from the sale of these human beings.
Together with his brother William Earle, he mostly traded under the name T. & W. Earle. For a UK parliamentary commission dated 3 March 1790, the company was listed as the sixth biggest in Liverpool.
The Earle brothers were responsible for at least 73 slave voyages and for transporting over 19,000 enslaved Africans mostly from Bonny, the Cameroons, Calabar and Whydah (Benin rep). Of these 3,000 died on board their ships.
An account of the Earle’s slave trading was recorded by William Butterworth, a teenage boy who sailed with them on the Hudibras slaver ship. He wrote that the ship arrived in Old Calabar where two other Earle ships were already in harbour. Butterworth describes the enslaved people as “the unfortunate sons and daughters of Africa” who were treated not as fellow creatures, but as a degraded race unworthy to enjoy the blessing of freedom, in God’s free air, and therefore doomed to perpetual exile…’
He described one event whereby the captain of the Hudibras was met by an African vessel containing a single cannon and 12–14 African men armed with guns and swords. The leader of this ship offered to sail up the river and capture people who he would then sell to the captain.
Butterworth also described how Hudibras was fortified and partitioned to ensure the captives could not escape. It was around six months before Hudibras was full and set sail with 360 enslaved people.
The young teenager Butterworth later recounted his experiences in his book “Three Years Adventures of a Minor in England, Africa, The West Indies, South Carolina and Georgia.
Mayor of Liverpool
Despite the brutal and inhumane nature of the slave trade, Earle’s shrewd business sense and wealth allowed him to gain significant influence and power in Liverpool, ultimately leading to his appointment as the city’s mayor in 1787.
Earle’s rise to the top of London’s political hierarchy is a testament to the deeply ingrained racism and systemic injustices – that allowed slave traders to prosper while the slaves they traded suffered unimaginable horrors – that characterized much of British society at the time.
As the Mayor of Liverpool, Earle was responsible for overseeing the city’s commerce and trade. This included the transatlantic slave trade, which was one of the main sources of income for Liverpool at the time.
After serving as the city’s mayor, Earle resumed his active participation in the trade of enslaved Africans, which persisted until 1804, when the British Crown seized his slave-ship, the Annabella. The ship had been seized due to Earle’s purchase of enslaved Africans from the European governor of Elmina (Ghana), which was then controlled by the Dutch, an enemy state. Shortly after this Earle exited the slave trade, around 3 years before it was officially abolished with the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Earle passed away on July 8th, 1822, at the age of 68, and was laid to rest in a family vault at Walton Church.
Today, Thomas Earle is remembered as a symbol of the injustices of the transatlantic slave trade and the corrupting influence of wealth and power.