The Slave Trade Continued Long After It Was Illegal — With Lessons For TodayRoundup
tags: slavery, Atlantic Slave Trade
Manuel Barcia is chair of global history at the University of Leeds. His most recent book is The Yellow Demon of Fever: Fighting Disease in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Slave Trade (Yale University Press, 2020).
John Harris is assistant professor of history at Erskine College and author of The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage (Yale University Press, 2020).
Last weekend, “60 Minutes” featured a special on the recent discovery of the sunken remains of the slave ship Clotilda. On this vessel, traders brought 110 captive Africans to Alabama in 1860 — a full half-century after Congress outlawed such traffic.
While viewers may have been stunned to learn that trading still happened on the eve of the Civil War, they shouldn’t be. After the federal abolition of the trade went into effect Jan. 1, 1808, hundreds of illegal slaving voyages with American connections crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean, bringing captives not just into the United States but also to the two largest destinations for enslaved Africans during this period, Brazil and Cuba. These voyages fueled the expansion of slave-grown agricultural products that were traded on international markets, not only enabling a model of economic development defined by human suffering and death, but further empowering racist systems whose legacies endure today.
The 1808 ban on the trade was a bright note in the young Republic’s history, a signal that perhaps the ideals of the American Revolution could in fact be realized. But while some traders responded to the new law by quitting the traffic, others doubled down. After the ban, American ships smuggled around 8,000 enslaved Africans to U.S. shores, usually through the Gulf of Mexico, and sold them illicitly to cotton planters in the Deep South. America’s westward expansion was built on African as well as African American labor.
And arrivals in the South were dwarfed by U.S. participation in the trade to other parts of the Americas, even though the traffic was illegal there, too. Around half a million captives arrived in Brazil and Cuba aboard American ships in the 1800s, fueling the production of slave-grown coffee and sugar and feeding overseas markets for these goods. It turns out that Americans’ caffeine addiction and Europeans’ sweet tooth were satisfied by trafficked Africans — not to mention the U.S. shipbrokers, captains, crews and diplomats, often based in Rio de Janeiro and Havana, who were deeply involved in enslaving them.
If anything, traders seemed to become even more brazen over time. The most notorious example of American participation in the illegal trade was the involvement of New York City in the 1850s and 1860s. By this stage, the U.S. government’s negligence in combating the trade, especially its willingness to let the traffic carry on under the American flag, had become notorious all over the Atlantic basin. Slave traders, often born in Portugal but living in Brazil and Angola, came streaming into Manhattan to buy up ships for the traffic in America’s biggest ship market and financial center.
This so-called “Portuguese Company,” featuring the notorious Manoel Cunha Reis and José Maia Ferreira, worked with a laundry list of American and Cuban merchants in New York, local ship provisioners, seamen and corrupt officials such as Chief Marshal Isaiah Rynders. They sent hundreds of slave ships from New York’s crowded wharfs disguised as legal merchantmen in pursuit of African goods such as palm oil. By the opening of the Civil War, they were also operating from abolitionist strongholds of New England such as New Bedford, as well as from the Southern metropolis of New Orleans.
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