Slave trade Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mass importation of African slaves into the thirteen British colonies became established practice during the mid-seventeenth century. Although slavery existed in every colony, the greater portion of the African population resided in the plantation South. The slave trade was carried on legally until 1808, when Congress outlawed it; afterward, it continued illegally until the time of the Civil War. The most lasting impact of the slave trade was the creation of a large African American population that has made an immeasurable impact on every profession, field, and discipline in the United States.

The first documented instance of African slaves being carried to what is now the United States occurred in 1526 in a Spanish attempt to establish a coastal colony that failed so completely it is no longer known whether the attempt was made in present-day Georgia or South Carolina. In any case, when Vázquez de Ayllón, LucasLucas Vázquez de Ayllón, the Spanish explorer and former follower of Hernán Cortés, led six hundred settlers to the site where he had received a large land grant from the Spanish crown, an unknown number of African slaves were among the colonists. At some point before the colony was abandoned, the Africans escaped–possibly to join some Native American community. Four decades later, Menéndez de Avilés, PedroPedro Menéndez de Avilés led a successful effort to establish what would prove to be a permanent settlement at Florida;St. Augustine[Saint Augustine]St. Augustine, Florida. African slaves made up a small portion of St. Augustine’s original population, but they may have numbered close to 600 by the end of the eighteenth century.SlavetradeAfrican immigrants;slave tradeAfrican Americans;and slave trade[slave trade]Slave tradeAfrican immigrants;slave tradeAfrican Americans;and slave trade[slave trade][cat]AFRICAN IMMIGRANTS;Slave trade[cat]SLAVERY;Slave trade[cat]AGRICULTURAL WORKERS;Slave trade[cat]TRANSPORTATION;Slave trade[cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;Slave trade

British Slave Trade

The Virginia;slavery infirst Africans known to arrive in British North America were among the original settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. That much is known. Less certain, however, is the status of these Africans. Because chattel slavery was not then recognized under English law, it has been argued that these early black Virginia colonists were indentured servants with the same legal rights and obligations as white indentured servants in the colonies. However, regardless of what the true status of those colonists was, chattel slavery was soon to be recognized in the British colonies.

As the southern colonies developed labor-intensive plantation systems to produce cash crops, such as tobacco, a transition was eventually made from indentured servitude to a form of racially based chattel slavery. This development mirrored the existing model for Spanish and Portuguese colonies. The tendency to move toward this Iberian American conception of slavery can be seen in Virginia as early as 1640, merely two decades after the founding of Jamestown. From that time, one after another, the British colonies legalized slavery, thereby opening the door to the involuntary immigration of Africans via what would become notorious as the “Middle Passage” that linked Africa to the New World.

The legalization of chattel slavery in the thirteen British colonies actually began in the northern colonies and occurred in this order:

•Massachusetts, 1641

•New Hampshire, 1645

•Connecticut, 1650

•Virginia, 1661

•Maryland, 1663

•Delaware, 1664

•New Jersey 1664

•New York, 1664

•North Carolina, 1669

•South Carolina, 1682

•Pennsylvania, 1700

•Rhode Island, 1700

•Georgia, 1750

Slavery had actually started in New York before 1664. When the Dutch founded their New AmsterdamNew Amsterdam colony in 1625, chattel slavery was almost immediately introduced. Therefore, when the English assumed control of the colony in 1664, they merely continued a system that the Dutch had already put in place. In Delaware;slaveryDelaware, which had begun as New SwedenNew Sweden, chattel slavery of Africans was introduced as an accomplished fact in 1639 and was carried over through the Dutch occupation in 1655 and the English occupation in 1664.

Patterns and Statistics

Generally, the pattern of trade in chattel slaves to the mainland of British North America followed at a steady but unspectacular pace, with the notable exception of South Carolina, through the seventeenth century and into the early years of the eighteenth century. Then followed a period of accelerated trade until the outbreak of the American Revolution during the 1770’s. After the revolution, the trade steadily declined until 1808, the year in which it was officially outlawed by the federal government. After that date, the southern states continued a greatly diminished and illegal trade until 1862, when the U.S. Civil War put a halt to most southern maritime commerce. Throughout those years, however, a large internal trade in slaves was carried on in the South.

The total number of Africans who were forcibly brought to what is now the United States has long been the subject of intense debate. Because of imprecise and incomplete data, gaps between the lowest and highest modern estimates have been exceptionally wide, as this table shows.

When plantation owners bought slaves, they generally preferred to get them from different regions for reasons of security. It was expected that slaves from different cultures who arrived speaking different languages were less likely to plan escape attempts and insurrections. Favorable and unfavorable stereotypesStereotyping, ethnic;and slaves[slaves] of different African cultures sometimes also played roles in their sale. For example, Ibo men from what is now southeastern Nigeria were popularly regarded as being prone to defiance and therefore potentially dangerous. In contrast, Mandinke men from a large inland region of West Africa were thought to be more susceptible to discipline and thus more desirable as slaves. At the same time, however, slaveholders in different American colonies held different stereotypes. For example, Ibo men were considered desirable slaves inVirginia;slavery inVirginia because of their presumed greater capacity for hard work. In Louisiana, Ibo women were sought because of their alleged propensity for greater fertility.

As was true in other parts of the Western Hemisphere, geographical proximity dictated that the majority of Africans transported to North America originated in West Africa. The most persuasive estimates show the largest number of Africans came from the west-central portion of the African continent, and the smallest number came from the continent’s eastern coast.

Curiously, most of the small number of slaves originating on Africa’s eastern coast were shipped to Virginia, where they accounted for some 4.1 percent of the total African slave population.

The Revolution, the Constitution, and 1808

At least a decade before the American Revolution began to raise questions about the compatibility of chattel slavery and principles of liberty and equality that were being bandied about, there arose a growing perception that both the slave trade and the institution of slavery itself were eventually destined for oblivion. In the northern and mid-Atlantic colonies, vestiges of slavery persisted, but the institution had never really taken root and was gradually being abolished. There, it was taken as common knowledge that slavery, even in the South, was becoming less profitable and would in time simply peter out of its own accord.

By 1787, four years after American independence was achieved, ten of the original thirteen states had outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa. The exceptions were North Carolina;and slave trade[slave trade]North Carolina, South CarolinaSouth Carolina, and GeorgiaGeorgia. Even among those who remained staunch in their support of slavery, there developed a concern that having too massive an influx of Africans enter the United States might lead to a perilous situation wherein someday free blacks and slaves would so far outnumber whites that a race war might happen, possibly with Native Americans allying with the Africans. This fear was certainly a powerful sentiment among Virginia;slavery inVirginia planters.

The question of the slave trade, in conjunction with the larger issue of chattel slavery, was debated at the [a]Constitution, U.S.;and slavery[slavery]Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. Delegates of the three Deep South states that still allowed the slave trade remained so strong in their support of slavery that it was feared by other delegates that any firm moves against either the slave trade or slavery might result in one or more of those states refusing to ratify the Constitution, U.S.;and slave trade[slave trade]Constitution. Consequently, a compromise was hammered out whereby the Constitution guaranteed that Congress would not prohibit the slave trade before the year 1808. Curiously, however, the Constitution does not use any form of the word “slave.” According to Article I, section 9 of the document,

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

Imaginative depiction of the interior of a slave ship painted by Bernarda Bryson Shahn during the 1930’s.

(Library of Congress)

Other clauses favorable to slave owners, such one that could be interpreted as requiring the return of fugitive slaves crossing state lines, were also inserted in the Constitution to appease southern sensibilities. The Constitution was afterward duly ratified and put into effect.

In 1807, an act of the British parliament made Great Britain the first nation officially to outlaw the slave trade. The following year, in accordance with the constitutional provision permitting such an act, the U.S. Congress passed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves from outside the United States.

After Formal Abolition of the Trade

Both Great Britain and the United States outlawed the African slave trade, but enforcing this prohibition was a different matter. Indeed, American efforts to enforce the ban were practically ineffective. U.S. laws, such as the [a]Piracy Act of 1820Piracy Act of 1820, which made slave trading subject to the death penalty, were not enforced and, consequently, widely ignored by both traders and law-enforcement officials.

Spain and Portugal, the two major colonial powers in the Western Hemisphere, made no pretence of their opposition to the British and American bans and showed their contempt for the ineffective Anglo-American enforcement measures. Nevertheless, Britain’s powerful Royal Navy remained an intimidating force for any rogue slave trader to defy.

More effective perhaps than the ban in keeping down the trade in Africans to the United States was the fact that the natural population increase among the already resident slave population in the southern states was sufficient to meet the demands for slave labor on the plantations. The internal slave trade among the states flourished. In fact, the main sources of labor to southern cotton plantations during the years leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865) were the auction blocks in Virginia;slavery inVirginia.

As the nation drifted into war in 1861, the avenues open to external slave traders rapidly closed. By early 1862, the Union’s naval blockade of Southern ports effectively stopped new imports of African slaves. The symbolic end of the illicit slave trade occurred on February 21, 1862, when Captain Gordon, NathanielNathaniel Gordon became the first, and only, slave trader hanged under the [a]Piracy Act of 1820Piracy Act of 1820. With the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865 and the subsequent ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution later that same year, slavery was completely and permanently abolished and with it the Atlantic slave trade to the United States.Slave tradeAfrican immigrants;slave tradeAfrican Americans;and slave trade[slave trade]

Further Reading
  • Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970. Landmark quantitative and statistical history of the slave trade. Although now somewhat dated in certain of its assumptions and conclusions, it provides a valid and enlightening picture of the actual numbers and geographical dispersal of slaves in the New World and remains a seminal and indispensable work on the subject.
  • Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Davis’s work draws extensively on that of Eltis and Thomas, but it also effectively correlates portions of Africa to destinations in the New World and offers some different interpretations of existing records.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. The Suppression of the African Slave-trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. First published in 1896, this classic study approaches the problem from the differing perspective of antislavery initiatives and provides documentation on continuing violations of the ban on slave importation into the United States after 1808.
  • Eltis, David, Stephen Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Includes extensive documentation of more than 27,000 Middle Passage voyages that carries forward and enhances the earlier work of Philip Curtin and others.
  • Hashaw, Tim. The Birth of Black America: The First African Americans and the Pursuit of Freedom at Jamestown. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007. Offers an iconoclastic and highly readable account of the coming of the first Africans on the Middle Passage and the eventual legalization of chattel slavery in Virginia.
  • Jewett, Clayton E., and John O. Allen. Slavery in the South: A State-by-State History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Useful thumbnail guide to the local impact of the slave trade and the varied slave societies that were formed as a result.
  • Kulikoff, Allan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of the Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Heavily quantitative work that is liberal in its application of statistical data while attempting to lay out the demography of slave settlement in the East Coast’s Tidewater region.
  • Soodalter, Ron. Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader. New York: Atria Books, 2006. This account of the only hanging administered for a violation of the anti-slave trading law provides valuable insights into the workings and effects of the illegal slave trade after 1808.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Substantial and nearly definitive study of the slave trade that focuses more deeply on the operation of the actual trade than its geo-demographic elements.

Abolitionist movement

African Americans and immigrants

African immigrants

Clotilde slave ship

Economic consequences of immigration

History of immigration, 1620-1783

History of immigration, 1783-1891

Indentured servitude


Smuggling of immigrants

Categories: History Content