Blackbirders and Bozales: African-Born Slaves on the Lower Brazos River of Texas in the Nineteenth Century
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Blackbirders and Bozales:
African-Born Slaves on the Lower Brazos River of Texas in the Nineteenth Century

About forty miles south of Houston, in Brazoria County, Texas, down a gravel road and across a fenced pasture, lie the ruins of a large brick building, two hundred feet long, wrapped in a chrysalis of vines, with trees sprouting in and around it. The structure was once the center of Chenango Plantation, the heart of Texas's nineteenth-century African community. In the 1830s this was home to more than one hundred—at times perhaps nearly two hundred—African-born slaves. And Chenango was far from only plantation in the area with African-born slaves: The Mims plantation farther south on the San Bernard River had at least seventeen; the various plantations belonging to members of the McNeel family had an unknown number, likely in the dozens; the Randon plantation straddling the border between Brazoria and Fort Bend Counties had an undetermined but significant number, as did a host of other local plantations.

In his 1896 dissertation-turned-monograph on the slave trade, W. E. B. DuBois argued that the federal ban on importations after January 1, 1808 "came very near being a dead letter" in the first few years after its passage and was routinely circumvented even after enforcement was strengthened in the 1810s. In subsequent years historians would point out that DuBois overestimated post-1808 imports, failing to distinguish between American citizens and vessels importing Africans into the United States and those transporting them to other parts of the hemisphere, most notably Cuba and Brazil. Since [End Page 406] then, while no serious scholar doubts that some Africans were imported after the ban, most agree that the number was quite small. In his landmark 1969 survey, Philip Curtin argued that the illegal trade "was too small to influence the demography of the Afro-American population," amounting to perhaps a thousand per year from the ban to the Civil War. And David Eltis's 1987 work on the final decades of the transatlantic trade suggested that after an initial influx of ten thousand slaves in the first ten years or so after the abolition of the foreign slave trade, the number of imports fell to near negligible levels—only twenty-three hundred between 1820 (when slave smuggling was declared piracy and became punishable by death) and 1860. Given the clandestine nature of this commerce, a reliable estimate of total imports is likely to remain elusive, but there is little reason to doubt the consensus view that the post-1808 trade to the United States was very small indeed.1

Still, some Africans were imported during the nineteenth century, and their circumstances are worth looking into. After all, even if the demographic impact of illegally imported Africans was insignificant in the aggregate, it was potentially significant locally. The area with perhaps the largest concentration of illegally imported African slaves was the lower Brazos River of Texas, which saw the arrival of between five hundred and one thousand Africans during the 1830s.2 Their presence reveals another problem with the post-1808 numbers game: it counts only those slaves who were imported into the United States. Those in Brazoria County never actually crossed into the United States; rather—to borrow a phrase from the Chicano movement—the border crossed them when the United States annexed Texas in 1845. Because they were smuggled in by local planters and not commercial speculators, they tended to remain in the area, up to emancipation and beyond. Assessing their impact on the local community is difficult, given the nature of the [End Page 407] evidence, but the Africans seem to have made their presence felt on two levels. At the household level, it appears Africans did all they could to find partners of similar background and likely perpetuated Old World understandings of family, gender, and perhaps the sacred, at least among those with whom they were most intimate. At the community and even regional level, they seem to have claimed a special symbolic and moral place in the consciousness of all black residents of the lower Brazos.

Why Texas, and why Brazoria County? At first...