In the fall of 1853 Salvador de Castro Jr., a leading Cuban slave trader, traveled to Manhattan to arrange an expedition to West Central Africa to buy slaves and transport them for sale in Cuba. There he met with José Antunes Lopes Lemos, an experienced Brazilian slave trader who had transferred his operations to New York City after Brazil ended its slave trade in 1850. Lemos was one of about a dozen Portuguese and Brazilians who made New York a center of the last decade of the Atlantic slave trade.
Because everything they were doing in the city was illegal—the US had outlawed the slave trade in 1808—the Cuban and Brazilian slave traders took great pains to obscure their activities, something that was relatively easy to do in the bustling port of Lower Manhattan. They hired an intermediary, William Valentine, who in turn hired a German immigrant, James Smith, as captain. Smith went up to Boston, where he purchased the Julia Moulton, a two-hundred-ton vessel built by Tengue and Hall, shipbuilders in Newcastle, Maine, in 1846. In New York Smith claimed that he owned the ship, which he did not. Castro and Lemos stocked it with lumber as well as enough food and water to cross the Atlantic and return, and Smith told customs officials that they were bound for Cape Town, which they were not. Though he later denied it, Smith said he was a US citizen, which enabled the Julia Moulton to fly the American flag on the high seas. This would protect it from British efforts to suppress the slave trade, which Parliament had prohibited in 1807. (By the 1850s the US was the only country that still refused to sign a treaty allowing British cruisers to intercept slaving vessels sailing under its own flag.) Once at sea, the crew used the lumber to build a platform to hold slaves below deck, covered the hatches with metal grilles to create a maritime prison, and headed for Ambrizette, a slaving port on the coast of West Central Africa.
Ambrizette generally trafficked in people enslaved in the Kingdom of Kongo, and most of the captives on the Julia Moulton were likely from Kikongo-speaking communities. Sometimes individuals were enslaved in violent wars between different African groups; others were the victims of conflicts and pressures within their own communities. They were sold to pombeiros—itinerant traders—and taken by canoe or marched to the coast from as far as 250 miles inland. There they were shackled, branded, and caged in wretched pens to await embarkation.
Some 664 Africans were sold to the Julia Moulton, mostly men and boys. The crew worked swiftly to avoid detection by the British navy, transferring the captives to the ship as soon as it arrived on the coast. Once onboard they were stripped naked; the men were sent below, while the women and children—less likely to rebel—were kept on deck. As if all the misery they had suffered were not enough, the nightmare known as the Middle Passage was about to begin.
John Harris tells this story midway into his impressively researched new book, The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage. Among its many virtues is a too-modest subtitle. Manhattan is only part of the story. Harris’s description of the “triangular trade” takes readers seamlessly from Cuba to New York to West Central Africa to Cuba and back to New York (with an early side trip to Brazil). Harris raises, if only implicitly, some of the biggest questions historians have asked about the fraught relationship between capitalism and slavery. This is a small book about big things.