Slave trading across the Atlantic Ocean provided revenue for northern ports in American colonies and a labor source for plantations in the American South. The slave trade supported the manufacturing and use of textiles, beverages, and other products in the North and their distribution to the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe.
The Atlantic slave trade developed in the sixteenth century as a consequence of the growth of capitalism and improved long-distance transportation. New markets in Africa and the Americas became available to European merchants and attracted those with business knowledge and the ability to accumulate capital. European goods, including wool, linen, silver, tapestries, and grain, were bartered for African slaves. Spanish and Portuguese ships acquired slaves along the central part of the western coast of Africa in return for products from the Caribbean islands, such as citrus fruits, coconuts, bananas, sweet potatoes, and maize. Among the slave traders were two explorers whose names are synonymous with the New World, Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci.
The growth of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and extensive coffee production in Brazil vastly increased slave trading and attracted French, British, and Dutch merchants.
The occupation of the lower Hudson River Valley by the Dutch involved this area in the slave trade. By 1630, there were three hundred white settlers and about sixty black slaves in this region. Some of the slaves were owned by private settlers and some by the Dutch West India company. About twenty years later, about one quarter of the population between the settlements that later became Albany, New York, and Hoboken, New Jersey, consisted of enslaved black men, women, and children.
Slave trading did not end with the British acquisition of New Netherlands in 1664. Ships brought in slaves, ivory, ebony, gum, and beeswax in return for sugar and rum from the Caribbean. In Philadelphia, as early as 1684, slaves were being bought for cash. Quakers, who later became fierce opponents of slavery, were represented in this trading. Both in New York and Philadelphia, slaves were employed in construction or in shipbuilding. In the eighteenth century, slaves were sold in New York at auctions at wharves by commissioners and sometimes on the ships to avoid paying commissioners.
Rhode Island, a small state with limited resources other than its long coastline and good ports, depended on shipping for its economic survival. The Rhode Island city of Newport became the principal slave trading area in the American colonies, followed by Bristol and Providence. Rhode Island merchants developed excellent distilleries and therefore preferred to import molasses from the Caribbean and make their own rum. From around 1725, ships from Newport carried the liquor to colonies in the South or to Africa. The prosperity of merchants in Newport began with proceeds from the slave trade, although the greatest fortunes were not made until the early decades of the American Republic. From 1725 to 1807, a total of 934 vessels left Rhode Island to transport 106,000 slaves. The rum trade on the West African coast was monopolized by New England merchants, chiefly those with ships departing from Rhode Island. Cargo ships from Rhode Island were considerably smaller than those used by Europeans, often carrying no more than 75 to 100 slaves, as merchants found that faster loading reduced the chances of disease and death among the slaves. During the American Revolution, this trading ceased in Rhode Island.
Around 1670, slaves began arriving in significant numbers in Maryland and Virginia. British law required the American colonies to import manufactured goods, but these states had foodstuffs for export to the Caribbean. In these states, tobacco, first cultivated by Native Americans, was an important product, but by the seventeenth century, European tobacco merchants controlled more of the trade than did the middle American colonies.
The great southern port for the importation of slaves was Charleston, South Carolina, with many of its ships coming from Rhode Island. Many of the slaves brought to Charleston were destined for North Carolina, which lacked adequate ports, and Maryland, because Baltimore did not develop its harbor facilities until the American Revolution. Slavery was important in South Carolina from the first permanent English settlement in 1670. Much of the land was suitable for rice, and rice culture required workers to be able to stand knee-deep in water and stoop constantly to plant, tend, and harvest the crop. Willing workers were hard to find, so vast numbers of slaves were imported for this grueling labor. Slaves also seemed better able to withstand the yellow fever and malaria that plagued the colony. Bad as the rice fields were, they were probably less demanding than the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Within a century of the founding of South Carolina, the majority of its population comprised slaves and Native Americans. The profits from slave labor inevitably encouraged the purchase of even more slaves. Another product that could be profitably grown in South Carolina was indigo, valued all over the world as a source of dye. The Carolinas paid for the slaves with food, livestock, and pitch, items needed by merchants and shipbuilders.
Not all trade was barter. However, African exporters tended to refuse paper money and credit notes, although some trading was accomplished with coins from Europe and America. In the eighteenth century, gastropodic shells called cowries became an important international currency. More than 25 million shells were imported into West Africa by slave traders. Cowries had a number of advantages: They were attractive and easy to handle, did not break easily or fade with wear, and could not be counterfeited. However, although they were too cumbersome to hoard, their size made them unwieldly to transport in quantities sufficient to purchase a shipload of slaves.
Starting during the 1660’s, more Africans than Europeans were entering the British colonies in America, a pattern that held into the early nineteenth century. By 1770, rum represented more than four-fifths of exports from New England. Rice and tobacco were more important than cotton, for until the invention of the cotton gin, cotton was a minor southern product. Rice exportation from the American colonies, primarily South Carolina, reached its peak in 1770, when more than 83,000 pounds left the country, but it declined thereafter.
During the last few years before the American Revolution, slave importation declined. The growing defiance against England for practices such as the taxes imposed by its Sugar Act of 1764 and its Tea Act of 1773 took the form of colonial attacks on practices regarded as essential to British economic power. Northern colonies were also finding labor by freemen more satisfactory. All but four colonies had enacted duty laws on the importation of slaves. During the conflict itself, slave trading became too dangerous and came to a halt.
In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson charged that King George III was violating the rights of life and liberty of the people by making them a part of the “execrable commerce” of slavery. It is one of the supreme ironies of American history that Jefferson and other slaveholders were striving to find some way out of a practice that had marked commerce in the colonies for a century and a half. Most of the colonies were inclined to accept a ban on the importation of slaves, but South Carolina and Georgia would not accept a quick end to the Atlantic slave trade. As a result, the lengthy list of charges against the monarch in the declaration did not include slave trading.
Without mentioning slave trading, Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution asserted that a certain “migration or importation” of people would not be prohibited before the year 1808. As a result, United States vessels carried 180,000 slaves into the Americas between 1791 and 1810. A considerable number of these people went to various parts of Spanish America or to the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, especially after 1808, but 60 percent of them entered the United States. In 1807, Congress passed legislation banning the importation of slaves beginning on January 1 of the following year.
The records of the various states were mixed during this period. Rhode Island appears to have desisted from slave trading between 1776 and 1783, but trading resumed during the late 1780’s, and in 1800, the state was represented in Congress by two slave traders, Christopher Champlin of Newport and John Brown of Providence. South Carolina barred slave trading between 1787 and 1804. From 1804 to 1808 slaves could be admitted from Africa but not from the Caribbean. During those years, two hundred ships brought more than forty thousand slaves into Charleston. Georgia restricted importation in 1793 and prohibited it after 1798.
What part humanitarian concerns played at this time is difficult to assess. The arguments against the continuation of the slave trade included the fact that slave families in the United States were increasing the black population. A higher proportion of women slaves were brought to the United States than to other places, and these women proved to be not only able workers but also the mothers of many more slaves. In some states, the growing numbers of slaves generated white fears of uprisings. Cycles of low prices for the products generated by slave labor also led to reductions of importations.
One event in 1793 altered the situation greatly: Eli Whitney’s invention of the
Although Congress could not ban slave trading, it could and did act against the outfitting of slave ships. A 1794 act of Congress prohibited the building, fitting, equipping, or loading of a vessel within American borders for slave trading. In 1800, Congress forbade Americans from carrying slaves from one foreign port to another. Effective enforcement of such legislation, however, was difficult.
A series of laws against slave trading did not stop the process because profits were still to be made. Many ships evaded detection, and laws were gotten around by legalistic trickery in the courts, bribery, and mild judicial interpretations of the laws. The most severe yet perhaps most futile law was passed in 1820, when Congress made slave trading by any United States citizen a capital offense. A study of American slaving and the federal law that covered the years from 1837 to 1862 found that of 125 captains and crew members prosecuted in New York, only 20 received prison sentences. No one was found guilty under the 1820 statute. Clearly, the judicial system could not bring itself to apply this harsh law. Up to the end of the U.S. Civil War, only one of the many American ship captains charged with slave trading was executed.
The application of federal laws proved difficult outside the states. Slave trading took place in Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, but Louisiana did not become a state until 1812, and Florida and Texas were not states until 1845. Slaves could be shipped to Pensacola, in west Florida, which at times was under the control of Spain or France, and then transferred to nearby Alabama, legally before 1819 and illegally afterward, or to Georgia. One piece of legislation better known for its application to boundary disputes, the
Cargoes remained diverse in the nineteenth century. African markets desired cotton goods, muskets, gunpowder, tobacco, rum (and sometimes other alcoholic beverages), hardware, cutlery, and trivial goods, including beads. Several developments gave rise to slave trading during the 1850’s. The development of slave trading companies, particularly in New York City, created a new boom in the business. Also, an economic crisis in 1857 left many captains and crews unemployed and induced them to participate. Steam-powered ships left more space for slaves, thus enabling more profitable voyages. In Cuba, the production of sugar reached a new high during this time, inducing some southern states to seek resumption of trade.
About fifty thousand slaves were brought to the United States between the ban in 1808 and 1860, but slaves were imported even during the
Although slave trading had virtually ceased for about a century after the Civil War, a 2003 Department of Justice report estimated that each year between eighteen thousand and twenty thousand people are brought to the United States, where they are sexually exploited or forced to work long hours under inhumane conditions for little or no pay.
Modern-day slaves people are of various races and from various countries. Some have been sold, often for as little as between forty and several hundred dollars. Others have been kidnapped or promised good jobs and a better life. They are smuggled into the country overland from Canada and Mexico, or by boat and airplane. They are forced to work as farmhands, domestics, sweatshop and factory workers, restaurant help, sex slaves, and prostitutes. Very few cases are reported. The slaves are often fearful and typically have language difficulties. Many of the slaves are subjected to violence. Although the practice of slavery is illegal and no longer morally sanctioned, some unscrupulous business executives continue to find this activity profitable.
Coughtry, Jay. The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981. One of the most thorough studies of slave trading activity in a single colony, which later became a state. Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. This study explains how the Caribbean slave trade spread to the colonies of Maryland and Virginia during the late sixteenth century. Fogel, Robert W., and Stanley L. Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. A very controversial book packed with information about slave imports, slave prices, and earnings from slavery. The controversy relates primarily to the authors’ interpretations of this information, not to the data on which they are based. Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade: New Approaches to the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A modest-sized attempt to survey the work done by mid- and late-twentieth century scholars for the benefit of the general public. Klein warns that the scholars disagree on a number of points in the history of the slave trade. Rawley, James A. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981. This book was the first detailed study of the Atlantic slave trade. The last four chapters consider the American involvement. Maps and tables are included. Soodalter, Ron. Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader. New York: Atria Books, 2006. With a strong emphasis on the impediments to effective administration of the laws against American slave trading in the nineteenth century, this books focuses on the routine of an enterprising slave trader. Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Over nine hundred pages long, Thomas’s book is the most detailed account of the subject. There are many references to American activity, but they are scattered under thematic topics. It is an extremely valuable history with much literary polish.
U.S. Civil War