- The United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776–1867 by Leonardo Marques
Slavery, Slave trade, Transatlantic history
It was way back in 1896 when W. E. B. Du Bois famously contended that America’s prohibition against the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 [End Page 727] was, in effect, a dead letter.1 Yet, it was only during the past two decades that historians like Don Fehrenbacher, Matthew Mason, David Ericson, and, ahem, your humble reviewer began to challenge that claim. And, at the same time, Du Bois’ indictment of American complicity in the slave trade continued to recruit new adherents, including Ernest Obadele-Starks, Gerald Horne, and, most recently, Stephen Chambers. Mercifully, Leonardo Marques’s new book, The United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776–1867, provides a much-needed synthesis of this burgeoning research. It is an admirably cogent and comprehensive overview of American participation in the slave trade. Along the way, Marques also offers keen new insights into the intricacies of the traffic. As he shows, various government initiatives—both American and foreign alike—had a pronounced effect on the role that Americans played in the business of trafficking Africans throughout the Americas.
Scholars of the transatlantic slave trade will not be particularly surprised by Marques’s overall characterization of American involvement in the traffic—that it intensified during the early national period, waned following the Napoleonic Wars, and then surged in the years leading up to the American Civil War. Such ebbs and flows were already apparent from reading the existing historiography on the topic. Much like his PhD adviser David Eltis—the human repository of all things concerning the slave trade—Marques is at his most original when he’s assessing the impact of specific policy measures on American participation in the traffic, especially to Brazil and Cuba. In that regard, this book is reminiscent of Eltis’s Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New York, 1987). To illustrate, Marques succinctly explains the significance of Spain’s decision in 1825 to cede control of Cuba’s contraband slave trade to the local captain general. This subtle change in Spain’s colonial governance enabled Cuba to become (along with Brazil) the primary destination for American slave traffickers until well into the Lincoln administration.
Marques also calls attention to the changing nature of American participation in the slave trade over time. To be sure, many Americans—members of the D’Wolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island, most [End Page 728] notoriously—served onboard slave ships and financed their own slave voyages. A few certainly smuggled slaves into the United States. However, Marques makes it clear that scholars cannot rely on these identifiable forms of participation to be the benchmark for gauging American involvement in the slave trade, particularly during the illegal period. Instead, he repeatedly reminds his readers that American participants in the slave trade were astute businessmen (and savvy criminals), who, with each new regulation, adjusted their roles in the traffic to evade detection. Sometimes they served as auxiliaries to Portuguese or Spanish slavers. Sometimes they built the ships. Prior to the Civil War, some Americans merely provided a safe harbor in New York for foreigners to organize their own voyages. Such tactics made it difficult to determine the “national” character of slave ships, confounding authorities, statesmen, and historians alike. Not that American complicity was limited to those responsible for the voyages, either. As Marques points out, it was largely the American demand for coffee and sugar that created the markets for slaves in Brazil and Cuba.
So this is the perfect book to assign for your unit on the American slave trade, right? Not so fast. Ever notice how the most successful historians of the slave trade either recount the intricacies of a single voyage or employ a set of sources to offer insight into a portion of the traffic? There’s a good reason for their approach. The...