The Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade with black Africa was pioneered by Arabs; its economic mechanism was invented by the Italians and the Portuguese; it was mostly run by Western Europeans; and it was conducted with the full cooperation of many African kings. America fostered free criticism of the phenomenon: for a long time, no such criticism was allowed in the Muslim and Christian nations that started trading goods for slaves, and no such criticism was allowed in the African nations that started selling their own people (and, even today, slavery is a taboo subject in the Arab world).

Famous 19th Century Scottish Congregationalist pioneer medical missionary and explorer of Africa, David Livingstone, wrote of the slave trade:

“To overdraw its evils is a simple impossibility … We passed a slave woman shot or stabbed through the body and lying on the path. [Onlookers] said an Arab who passed early that morning had done it in anger at losing the price he had given for her, because she was unable to walk any longer. We passed a woman tied by the neck to a tree and dead … We came upon a man dead from starvation … The strangest disease I have seen in this country seems really to be broken heartedness, and it attacks free men who have been captured and made slaves.”

Livingstone estimated that 80,000 Africans died each year before ever reaching the slave markets of Zanzibar. Zanzibar, on the Indian Ocean, was once East Africa’s main slave-trading port, and under Omani Arabs in the 19th Century as many as 50,000 slaves were passing through the city each year.

In America before the Civil War, perhaps the best example of abolitionist spirit occurred during the case of the slave-ship AMISTAD. In February of 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone and shipped them to Havana, in Spanish Cuba, a center for the slave-trade. This abduction violated all of the treaties then in existence.

“Fifty-three Africans were purchased by two Spanish planters and put aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad for shipment to a Caribbean plantation. (Ironically, amistad is Spanish for “friendship”.) On July 1, 1839, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered the planters to sail to Africa. The planters did not comply and, on August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, NY, by the U.S. Navy brig Washington.

The planters were freed and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, CT, on charges of murder. Although the murder charges were dismissed, the Africans continued to be held in confinement as the focus of the case turned to salvage claims and property rights. Democrat President Martin Van Buren was in favor of extraditing the Africans to Cuba. However, abolitionists in the North opposed extradition and raised money to defend the Africans.

Claims to the Africans by the planters, the government of Spain, and the captain of the brig led the case to trial in the Federal District Court in Connecticut. The court ruled that the case fell within Federal jurisdiction and that the claims to the Africans as property were not legitimate because they were illegally held as slaves. The case went to the Supreme Court in January 1841, and former President John Quincy Adams argued the defendants’ case. Adams defended the right of the accused to fight to regain their freedom.

After the Federal District Court ruled in favor of the Africans, the U.S. District Attorney filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. In the trial before the Supreme Court, the Africans were again represented by Adams. For 8 ½ hours, the 73-year-old Adams passionately and eloquently defended the Africans’ right to freedom on both legal and moral grounds, referring to treaties prohibiting the slave trade and to the Declaration of Independence.

John Quincy Adams began his argument on February 24th. He did not disappoint. He argued that if the President had the power to send the Africans to Cuba, he would equally as well have the power to seize forty Americans and send them overseas for trial. He argued that Spain was asking the President to “first turn man-robber…next turn jailer… and lastly turn catchpole and convey them to Havana, to appease the vengeance of the African slave-traders of the bar-racoons.” He attacked the President for his ordering a naval vessel to stand ready in New Haven harbor, he attacked a southern intellectual’s defense of slavery, and he quoted the Declaration of Independence: “The moment you come to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided. I ask nothing more in behalf of these unfortunate men than this Declaration.” Adams ended his Supreme Court argument on a personal, reflective note:

“May it please your Honors: On the 7th of February, 1804, now more than thirty-seven years past, my name was entered, and yet stands recorded, on both the rolls, as one of the Attorneys and Counselors of this Court. Five years later, in February and March, 1809, I appeared for the last time before this Court, in defense of the cause of justice, and of important rights, in which many of my fellow-citizens had property to a large amount at stake. Very shortly afterwards, I was called to the discharge of other duties–first in distant lands, and in later years, within our own country, but in different departments of her Government.

Little did I imagine that I should ever again be required to claim the right of appearing in the capacity of an officer of this Court; yet such has been the dictate of my destiny–and I appear again to plead the cause of justice and now of liberty and life, in behalf of many of my fellow men, before the same Court, which in a former age, I had addressed in support of rights of property. I stand again, I trust for the last time, before the same Court–hic caestus, artemque repono. I stand before the same Court, but not before the same judges–nor aided by the same associates–nor resisted by the same opponents.

As I cast my eyes along those seats of honor and of public trust, now occupied by you, they seek in vain for one of those honored and honorable persons whose indulgence listened then to my voice. Marshall–Cushing–Chase–Washington–Johnson–Livingston–Todd– Where are they? . . . Where is the marshal–where are the criers of the Court? Alas! where is one of the very judges of the Court, arbiters of life and death, before whom I commenced this anxious argument, even now prematurely closed? Where are they all? Gone! Gone! All gone! Gone from the services which, in their day and generation, they faithfully rendered to their country. . . .

In taking, then, my final leave of this Bar, and of this Honorable Court, I can only exclaim a fervent petition to Heaven, that every member of it may go to his final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead, and that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.'”

The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Africans, and 35 of them were returned to their homeland. The others died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial for crimes committed in the United States. In November, 1841, the sailing ship Gentleman was chartered for $1840 to carry the Africans back to Freetown, where the Governor of Sierra Leone said the group would be met and guided on a four-day journey to their homeland. After a moving and tearful round of goodbyes, the thirty-five surviving Africans of the Amistad and four American missionaries boarded the Gentleman, bound for West Africa. (Only one African, Sarah, would ever return to America. She would attend Oberlin College in Ohio.)

A precise replica of the Amistad was built in Mystic, CT and launched in 2000. It now sails to ports around the United States and the Atlantic basin to tell the story of the slave-trade.

Today it is politically correct to blame some European countries and empires and America for slavery (forgetting that it has been practiced since prehistoric times). But one rarely reads the other side of the story: that the nations who were the first to develop a repulsion for slavery and eventually abolish slavery were precisely those countries (especially Britain and America).

In fact, more than 1.25 million European Christians (and Americans) were eventually enslaved by the Muslim “Barbary states” of northern Africa. As late as 1801 America attacked Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli precisely to stop that Arab slave trade of Christians. The rate of mortality of those Christian slaves in the Islamic world was roughly the same as the mortality rate in the Atlantic slave trade of the same period.

In 1787, as America’s own Constitution was being written in Philadelphia, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in England: it was the first society anywhere in the world opposed to slavery. In 1792 English Prime Minister William Pitt called publicly for the end of the slave trade: it was the first time in history (anywhere in the world) that the ruler of a country had called for the abolition of slavery. No African king and emperor had ever done so; no Muslim Caliph or Sultan had ever done so; no European monarch had ever done so, no Indian Raja, no Chinese khan or Russian Czar has ever done so. As author Dinesh D’Souza writes;

“What is uniquely Western is not slavery but the movement to abolish slavery”.

France became one of the first countries in Europe to abolish slavery in 1794. However, slavery was again allowed by Napoleon in 1802 and not abolished for good until 1848. In 1803, Denmark-Norway became the first country from Europe to implement a ban on the slave trade. Slavery itself was not banned until 1848. Britain followed in 1807 with the passage of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by Parliament – as did the United States in 1808 – which implemented the Constitutional mandate of 1788 to end the importation of slaves twenty years after ratification.

This British law allowed stiff fines for captains of slave ships, increasing with the number of slaves transported. Britain followed this with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which freed all slaves in the British Empire. British pressure on other countries resulted in them agreeing to end the slave-trade from Africa. For example, the 1820 U.S. Law on Slave Trade made slave trading piracy, punishable by death. Finally, a weakened and dysfunctional Muslim Ottoman Empire abolished slave trade from Africa in 1847 under British pressure but with little consequence.

The British took an active approach to stopping the illegal Atlantic slave-trade during this period. The West Africa Squadron was credited with capturing 1,600 slave ships between 1808 and 1860 and freeing 150,000 Africans who were aboard these ships. Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example against ‘the usurping King of Lagos’, deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers.

Of course, what was also (horribly) unique about the Western slave-trade was the scale (the millions shipped from Equatorial Africa to another continent in a relatively short period of time) and, that it eventually became a racist affair, discriminating against blacks by enslaving only black Africans, whereas previous slave trading had not discriminated based on the color of the skin.

What is unique about America in particular, is the unfair treatment that blacks received AFTER emancipation (which is, after all, the real source of the whole controversy because otherwise, just about everybody on this planet can claim to be the descendant of an ancient slave somewhere in their family tree). That does not mean that Atlantic slave-traders were justified in what they did, but placing all the responsibility solely on them is a way to absolve all of the others – including the particularly heinous African princes and potentates who willingly sold their own people into bondage.

Also, it is worth noting that the death rate among the white crews of the slave ships – approximately 20% – was higher than the rate among black slaves (15%) because slaves were more valuable than sailors but nobody has written books and filmed epics about those sailors – often unwillingly enrolled or even kidnapped – a practice known as “being shanghaied” in ports around Europe – many when they were drunk.

To this day, too many Africans, Arabs and Europeans believe that the African slave trade was an aberration of the United States of America, not their own invention. Unfortunately, too many Americans believe this, too, when in fact, by the time the slave trade was abolished in the West, there were many more slaves in Africa – black slaves of black owners – than in the Americas.

While the Atlantic slave trade was dying down around 1850, the trans-Saharan and East African slave trades were at their peaks. In the 1850s the Ottoman Empire, under British pressure, nominally outlawed slavery in much of the Islamic world, but this had only a minor effect on the slave trade.

One of the main justifications European powers gave for colonizing nearly the entire African continent during the 1880s and 1890s was the desire to end slave-trading and slavery in Africa. It may have been one reason but, the exploitation of raw-material wealth was the primary reason.

The continuing anti-slavery movement in Europe became an excuse and a casus belli for the European conquest and colonization of much of the African continent. It was the central theme of the Brussels Anti-Slavery Conference 1889-90. In the late 19th Century, the “Scramble for Africa” saw the continent rapidly divided between imperialistic European powers, seeking to control trade in raw materials necessary for modernity but a secondary focus of all colonial regimes was the suppression of slavery and the slave-trade.

By the dawn of the 20th Century, European forces had defeated most African slave-trading states, and the trans-Saharan and East African slave-trades came to an end. In response to this pressure, Ethiopia officially abolished slavery in 1892; the Sokoto Caliphate abolished slavery in 1900 and the rest of the Sahel in 1911. By the end of the colonial period they were mostly successful in this aim, though slavery is still very active in Africa even though Africa has gradually moved to a wage economy. Recall that this was happening at the same time as the Plains Indians Wars were ending in America – marshalling in the end of the Epoch of Conquest.

Although colonial authorities began outlawing slavery in some African territories as early as the 1830s, the complete legal abolition of slavery in Africa did not take place until the first quarter of the 20th Century. By that time, however, slavery had been deeply ingrained in most African societies for centuries, and thus the practice continued illegally.

Independent nations attempting to westernize or impress Europe sometimes cultivated an image of slavery suppression. Slavery has never been eradicated in Africa, and it commonly appears in African states, such as Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger and Sudan, in places where law and order have collapsed.

Slaves who became liberated often did so by escaping and going to the colonial authorities or by simply leaving the areas in which they had been held to take up residence elsewhere. In some places, enslaved persons held that status throughout their lives, despite the legal prohibition. It was not until the 1930s that the visible slave trade in Africa was almost totally eliminated.

The demographic effects of the slave trade are some of the most controversial and debated issues. Some have argued that the export of so many people created a demographic disaster and had left Africa permanently disadvantaged when compared to other parts of the world, and that this largely explains that continent’s continued poverty. They present numbers that show that Africa’s population stagnated during this period, while that of Europe and Asia grew dramatically. According to some, all other areas of the continental economy were disrupted by the slave-trade as the top merchants abandoned traditional industries to pursue slaving and the lower levels of the population were disrupted by the slaving itself.

Others have challenged this view. Some compared the number effect on the continent as a whole, perhaps as many as 25 million sold into slavery from the 14th Century on. Others have compared the numbers to the rate of emigration from Europe during this period. In the nineteenth century alone over 50 million people left Europe for the Americas – the majority being able-bodied men – a far higher rate than were ever taken from Africa. No, the primary factor in the continuing poverty in Africa is the primitiveness of the tribal order – the Tutsis and the Hutus being the best examples. When neighboring peoples are continually trying to annihialate each other, there can be no education, no economic activity and no progress.

Demographically, slavery in North America began when the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, to aid in the production of such lucrative crops as tobacco. Slavery was practiced throughout Britain’s North American colonies, particularly the southern colonies, in the 17th and 18th Centuries (as well as Dutch New Netherland before it was conquered in a bloodless coup by the British in 1664), and African slaves helped build the economic foundations of the new nation. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 solidified the central importance of slavery to the agriculturally-centric South’s economy.

In the early 17th Century, early European settlers in North America turned to African slaves as a cheaper, more plentiful labor source than indentured servants (who were mostly poorer Europeans). After 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 Africans ashore at the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia, slavery spread throughout the American colonies. (The Dutch were the world’s greatest trading nation at that time.) Though it is impossible to give accurate figures, some historians have estimated that 6 to 7 million slaves were imported to the New World during this period, depriving the African continent of some of its healthiest and ablest men and women.

About 500,000 Africans were imported into, what is now, the United States, between 1619 and 1807 – or about 7 percent of all Africans forcibly imported into the Americas. Approximately 85,000 of these arrived between 1776, when Americans first declared freedom from British law, and 1807 (when the importation of slaves ended by Constitutional mandate) – 17% of all Africans imported into what is now the United States and about 1% of all Africans forced into slavery in the Americas.

Between 1790 and 1860, approximately 835,000 slaves (imported slaves and their progeny) were moved internally from Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas since their value had risen (again) because of the Constitutional prohibition on the importation of slaves (Article I, Section 9) which began in 1808. For perspective, more than 350,000 Union servicemen (and women) died in order to free the approximately 4 million slaves living in the United States at the time of the Civil War. Almost 40,000 of these casualties were former slaves serving in the Union Army.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, black slaves worked mainly on the tobacco, rice, cotton and indigo plantations of the Southern Atlantic coast. After the American Revolution many of the newly-minted white Americans (particularly in the North, where slavery was relatively unimportant to the economy) began to link the oppression of black slaves to their own oppression by the British, and to call for slavery’s abolition.

Slavery itself was never widespread in the North, though many of the region’s businessmen grew rich on the slave-trade and investments in southern plantations. Between 1774 and 1804, all of the northern states abolished slavery, but the so-called “peculiar institution” remained absolutely vital to the economy and culture of the South.

One of the first martyrs to the cause of American freedom and patriotism was Crispus Attucks, a former slave who was killed by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre in 1770. Some 5,000 black soldiers and sailors fought on the American side during the Revolutionary War.

After the war’s end however, in a compromise to Southern delegates absolutely necessary to even get the new U.S. Constitution passed – much less ratified, Northern delegates tacitly acknowledged the institution, counting each of the approximately 1.3 million slaves in America as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation in Congress and guaranteeing the right to repossess any “person held to service or labor” (an obvious euphemism for slavery).

Though the Northern delegates managed to get the U.S. Constitution to outlaw the African slave-trade beginning in 1808, the domestic trade flourished, and the slave population in the U.S. nearly tripled over the next 50 years as slave-owners created working and living conditions where births significantly outstripped deaths. By 1860 it had reached nearly 4 million, with more than half living in the cotton-producing states of the South.

In the late 18th Century, with the land used to grow tobacco nearly exhausted, the South faced an economic crisis, and the continued growth of slavery in America seemed in doubt. Around the same time, the mechanization of the textile industry in England led to a huge demand for American cotton, a southern crop whose production was unfortunately limited by the difficulty of removing the seeds from raw cotton fibers by hand.

In 1793, a young Yankee schoolteacher named Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a simple mechanized device that efficiently removed the seeds. His device was widely copied, and within a few years the South would transition from the large-scale production of tobacco to that of cotton, a switch that reinforced the region’s dependence on slave labor.

Slaves in the antebellum South constituted about one-third of the Southern population. Most slaves lived on large farms or small plantations; many masters owned less than 50 slaves. Slave owners sought to make their slaves completely dependent on them, and a system of restrictive codes governed life among slaves. With few exceptions, they were prohibited from learning to read and write, and their behavior and movement was restricted.

Many masters took sexual liberties with slave women, and rewarded obedient slave behavior with favors, while rebellious slaves were brutally punished. A strict hierarchy among slaves (from privileged house slaves and skilled artisans down to lowly field hands) helped keep them divided and less likely to organize against their masters. Slave marriages had no legal basis, but slaves did marry, called “jumping the broom” and raise large families; most slave owners encouraged this practice, but nonetheless did not hesitate to divide slave families by sale or removal.

Slave revolts did occur within the system (notably ones led by Gabriel Prosser in Richmond in 1800 and by Denmark Vesey in Charleston in 1822), but few were successful. The slave revolt that most terrified white slaveholders was that led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in August 1831. Turner’s group, which eventually numbered around 75 blacks, murdered some 60 whites in two days before armed resistance from local whites and the arrival of State militia forces overwhelmed them.

Supporters of slavery pointed to Turner’s rebellion as evidence that blacks were inherently inferior barbarians requiring an institution such as slavery to discipline them, and fears of similar insurrections led many southern States to further strengthen their slave codes in order to limit the education, movement and assembly of slaves. In the North, the increased repression of southern blacks would only fan the flames of the growing abolition movement.

Next time: Dred Scott and civil war


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