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101 f o u r Ending the Slave Trade A Caribbean and Atlantic Context P hilip D . M o r g a n T h e ab o l i t i o n of the slave trade was an improbable event.Before the late eighteenth century some Europeans felt unease about the thought of shipping enslaved Africans, but most viewed the practice as morally indistinguishable from shipping any other commodity. In the 1783 trial concerning the Zong, a slave ship in which sailors threw overboard 133 enslaved Africans to claim the insurance, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield stated that “the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” When the first Quaker petition for abolition arrived in Parliament in the same year, the Commons categorically dismissed it. Yet, within a decade, the same body voted overwhelmingly for it, even though full success had to wait another fifteen years. The African slave trade, long considered the foundation of Britain’s colonial economy, suddenly became superfluous.1 Unexpectedly, too, abolition occurred as the slave trade was booming . At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the transatlantic slave trade, the largest forced transoceanic migration in history, was at its height. From 1780 to 1810 an annual average of eighty thousand shackled Africans traversed the Atlantic. In those three decades, just over a half the Africans came in ships flying the flags of Britain, the United States, or Denmark. Yet by the second decade of the nineteenth century almost no Africans crossed the Atlantic in such ships—for each of these three nations had abolished the 102 Philip D. Morgan trade. The Atlantic slave trade died an unnatural and quick death. A massive withdrawal from transatlantic slaving occurred with astonishing rapidity.2 The mention of the three nations that abolished the trade in the first decade of the nineteenth century merits a brief recapitulation. The first slave-trading state in Europe to abolish the trade was Denmark. In March 1792 the royal Danish government issued a decree banning the import of slaves into the Danish West Indies and their export from the Danish establishments on the Gold Coast. The law was not to take effect for ten years—not till 1 January 1803—reflecting the gradualist tendencies in eighteenth-century antislavery.The prime mover behind this decision, the minister of finance, Ernst Schimmelmann, was a reformer, but he was also the largest slave owner in the Danish West Indies and a prominent shareholder in the Danish slave-trading company. The slave trade was insignificant to Denmark’s overall economy; the maintenance of the forts and factories on the African coast was costly; and, perhaps most important, the Danish authorities were convinced that the British and French would soon abolish the slave trade and anticipated that they would then exert pressure on the smaller slave-trading nations to do the same. Anxious to avoid a maritime clash with the major powers, the Danish action was a preemptive strike.3 The campaign against the Atlantic slave trade began, however, not in Denmark or Britain but in North America. After the Seven Years’ War, settler elites from Massachusetts to Virginia took steps to restrict or halt the importation of slaves. Their actions can be traced to the emergence of antislavery opinion but owed even more to the long-standing desire in North America to exercise control over who came to colonial shores. In all these colonies, too, the slave population grew naturally and the import of Africans had become largely unnecessary. Still, attempts to block the Atlantic slave trade before the American Revolution largely represented a demand for colonial self-determination. Without the prior anxiety about the impact of slave imports on colonial society, and the lack of necessity for African newcomers in most places, the moral case against the Atlantic slave trade would have carried far less weight. After the revolution, each state, some quickly, others laggardly, passed prohibitory or restrictive legislation against the slave trade. Moreover, when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, they included a compromise slave-trade clause, “weighted with circumlocution and ambiguity,” that confirmed Congress’s power to regulate 103 Ending the Slave Trade: A Caribbean and Atlantic Context foreign commerce, permitted importation of Africans, yet set a probable target date for the slave trade’s prohibition—twenty years hence, in 1808—an even more gradualist measure than the Danish decree. When Congress passed the slave trade act...


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