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Slave Trade, African

Slave Trade, African

The African slave trade to North America began in earnest about 1700 and reached its peak in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. The trade declined dramatically in the decades following the Revolution, was resurrected in 1803, and then experienced a "political death" with federal abolition on 1 January 1808 and subsequent suppression.

Modern estimates of the total number of Africans imported vary widely, from a low of some 292,000 to a high of about 650,000. About one-third were taken to the Chesapeake region (Virginia and Maryland), while over half (53 percent) went to South Carolina and Georgia. In general, between 4 and 5 percent of all enslaved Africans taken across the Atlantic were bound for the territories that became the United States.

waves of importations

New evidence based on shipping records suggests that there were four waves of importation. Between 1716 and 1740 traders brought 85,500 new slaves to the various colonies, with about half taken to Virginia. In the colonial golden age (1751–1775), at least 115,000 Africans were shipped, with about two-thirds intended for South Carolina. In the 1780s and 1790s Louisiana under Spanish administration was the major receiving region, where planters and merchants brought about 25,000 Africans to develop new sugar plantations. It is also likely that in the eastern states during the early national period there was relatively significant smuggling, perhaps bringing numbers equal to those legally imported to Spanish Louisiana. Finally, in the first decade of the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of Africans were imported in one final tidal wave, mostly through the port of Charleston. And though the decade after federal abolition saw some smuggling, perhaps amounting to 10,000 Africans illicitly imported, suppression after 1820 was effective. Hence a large statistical sample of over 310,000 Africans imported into colonial and early national North America gives an indication of likely distributions over time and space as well as of the approximate coastal origins of Africans thrown by force or by circumstance into the slave trade.

provenance and distribution

In Virginia, settlement of the piedmont region and the consequent expansion of tobacco production (from the 1720s to 1760s) brought nearly 80,000 Africans to the colony. A large sample of some 50,000 slaves shows that nearly half (47 percent) were from the Bight of Biafra in West Africa, with another quarter from Greater Senegambia and one-sixth from West-Central Africa.

In South Carolina during the colonial golden age (1751–1775), rice became king and low-country plantations produced great wealth for the larger planters. In these two and a half decades the slave trade shifted southward, and Carolina plantermerchants brought some 72,500 Africans to the colony. A comprehensive sample of some 65,500 imported slaves shows that a clear majority (56 percent) originated in Greater Senegambia. The next major coastal grouping was from West-Central Africa, representing one-sixth of those sent to the colony in this time.

In Louisiana during the Spanish period (roughly 1763 to 1803), perhaps 25,000 Africans were imported. Though no comprehensive shipping records exist for this branch of the slave trade, indirect evidence strongly suggests that West-Central Africans, especially "Congo," formed a large proportion, with some number from Greater Senegambia and others in smaller numbers originating in the hinterlands of the Bights of Biafra and Bénin.

Finally, pent-up demand in the early national period, following two decades of post-Revolutionary restrictions and state-level prohibitions, and the impending federal abolition, exploded in the first decade of the nineteenth century. In just five years (1803–1807), over 55,000 Africans were transported to Jeffersonian America. The vast majority were taken to South Carolina, in particular through the port of Charleston. A sample of some 40,500 Africans whose coastal provenances are known shows that nearly half (48 percent) were from West-Central Africa, with about a quarter from Greater Senegambia. Perhaps half of all of these newly imported Africans were re-exported, likely bound for rapidly settling Deep South territories and states such as Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi but also for the emerging cotton black-belt of the eastern piedmont regions.

In short, the flows of people in the large-scale forced migration that was the African slave trade suggests the importance of captives from the Bight of Biafra (and Senegambia) in the Chesapeake; and from West-Central Africa and Senegambia in the Carolina low country and in the emerging Deep South, including Louisiana. The relative scarcity of peoples from the hinterlands of the Gold Coast, the Bight of Bénin and Southeastern Africa (Madagascar and Mozambique), respectively, in the African trade to North America is striking. Of the six basic Atlantic African regions, however, three were closely integrated with the slave trade to the U.S.: the Bight of Biafra, Greater Senegambia, and West-Central Africa. About 85 percent of Africans bound for North America came from these three regions. Though the African trade to North America was always a relatively marginal one in the larger Atlantic world context, colonial and early national planters established important commercial relations with merchants, factors, and brokers in particular Atlantic entrepôts (intermediary trade and shipping centers) in the modern countries of Great Britain and France, Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia, and Congo and Angola.

"this execrable commerce"

As was the case in Great Britain itself, the early antislavery movement in America began as a moral and religious issue among dissenting Evangelicals. The conversion of first Quakers and then Methodists to antislavery, between the 1750s and 1770s, however, was followed by the rise of a natural-rights critique of both the slave trade and slavery by late- Enlightenment propagandists such as Thomas Jefferson.

In America opposition to the slave trade quickly became politically popular. Some colonial assemblies in the 1760s and early 1770s repeatedly sought to restrict importations by imposing tariffs and customs duties, nearly all of which were vetoed by royal governors and the Crown. It also became convenient to blame the Crown for the trade itself. Jefferson's bill of particulars against George III, published as "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" (1774), included a strong condemnation of "this infamous practice" of slave trading. In the original draft of the Declaration of Independence (June 1776), Jefferson expanded his political use of antislavery to rhetorically lash the Crown for "suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce."

Of course, for the larger slaveholders (including Jefferson), limiting importations of new Africans also reflected a basic economic rationale. In an economy such as late-colonial Virginia, where planters were heavily in debt to metropolitan merchants, any sustained increase in the value of one's property in slaves similarly increased financial equity against which it was possible to borrow further. In general the slave trade tended to depress prices because new Africans were comparatively cheap, thus lowering the financial value of slaveholdings as capital assets. The quickest way to inflate prices and increase the value of slave property was to restrict the slave trade. No doubt many of Jefferson's contemporaries in the southern colonies, canny merchant-planters that they were, implicitly understood their common economic interest on this issue. Jefferson's genius was to converge the failure to enact such restrictions with the rising tide of ideological and religious antislavery thought and then to put it all to specific political purposes: blaming the Crown.

Thomas Jefferson, in "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled" (June 1776), included the following clause in his indictment of King George III. Congress struck it from the final Declaration of Independence:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another.

Douglas B. Chambers

revolutionary crisis

The rage ideologique, the ideological fervor, of the Revolutionaries—fired by the sense of striking a daring blow for liberty against an impending slavery of tyranny—bubbled over to a conditional antislavery position throughout the colonies. In December 1774 the First Continental Congress imposed a ban on slave imports. Effectively instituted in Virginia, where the slave trade ended in 1775, and implemented in Connecticut, it was followed in 1776 with a comprehensive prohibition by the Second Congress. Between 1776 and 1780 a number of the former colonies either banned such importations or abolished slavery or both at the state level, and only a handful of slave shipments made it through the British naval blockade.

During the war an estimated 100,000 slaves ran away from their masters. Between 1781 and 1790 the new southern states wrestled with balancing Revolutionary ideology and economic exigency. It was a confusing time of variously enacting and then repealing restrictions on the slave trade, but by 1786 only South Carolina and Georgia still allowed importations. In the 1780s some 10,000 Africans were legally imported and probably an equal number illicitly smuggled, mostly to South Carolina.

constitutional compromise

By 1787 a half-dozen states had abolished slavery either directly or by gradual emancipation schemes. Slavery had been prohibited in the newly organized Northwest Territory north of the Ohio River; and the African slave trade was restricted to just two states. The next decade would see another wave of statelevel restrictions on slave trading, including temporary prohibitions on imports into South Carolina, the emergence of a new organized antislavery movement, and further state-level abolitions, so that by 1790 all states in New England had formally ended slavery. When Vermont was admitted to the Union (1791) it entered as a free state and was immediately followed by Kentucky (1792) as a slave state.

The framers of the new Constitution, however, reached a working compromise on the issue of the African slave trade. In effect they relegated its regulation to the states, where such restrictions generally were popular if porous, and thereby put off any substantive federal action for twenty years. Even South Carolina suspended its participation in the trade in 1787. On the federal level, the Constitution merely stated (article I, section 9) that Congress was prohibited from enacting any ban on the "Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit," without specifically mentioning slaves. This constitutional compromise was set to expire in 1808.

a political death

In the fifteen years between 1787 and 1802, the African slave trade to the United States slowed to a relative trickle, though it boomed to unprecedented heights elsewhere in the Americas. By 1793 Georgia was the only remaining state officially to allow importations, though imports from the West Indies and Spanish Florida were prohibited. In the 1790s some 7,500 slaves were taken mostly to Georgia, and likely an equal number were smuggled.

By the end of the decade, when Congress refused to prohibit slavery in the Mississippi Territory (1798), and especially with the Louisiana Purchase (1803), pressure mounted to reopen the African trade. In 1803 South Carolina formally did so, also allowing importation from Latin America and the Caribbean. Though Louisiana and Georgia also permitted slave imports, Charleston merchants nearly monopolized this last tidal wave of the African slave trade, controlling over 90 percent of the shipments and making several new fortunes in this human commerce. But following President Jefferson's formal encouragement to Congress (1806) to end the trade as soon as the Constitution permitted, on 22 March 1807 Congress abolished the African slave trade to the United States, effective 1 January 1808.

Total suppression of actual trading took nearly a decade, though it was relatively effective even in the first ten years. With the 1819 Slave Trade Act, in which, though the act was short-lived, the United States joined England in sending a small naval squadron to patrol the coasts of West Africa, as well as Congress's definition of slave trading as piracy in 1820, the African slave trade to the new American nation died a largely political death. In the antebellum era very few slaves were smuggled; an occasional ship did run the American gauntlet. In 1842 the United States signed the Ashburton-Webster treaty with England and through 1861 sent between three and eight warships annually to West Africa to suppress the Cuban branch of the trade. During the sectional crisis just before the Civil War, some prominent Southerners argued for reopening the slave trade to the nascent Confederacy, largely for political reasons and to little end. The last recorded slave ship was the Clothilde, which arrived in Mobile Bay, Alabama, in 1859.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North .


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Douglas B. Chambers

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