- The United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776–1867 by Leonardo Marques
To date, the United States' connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade has received little scholarly attention. The numbers behind the slave trade largely explain why. Vessels sailing under the American flag carried just 305,000 of the 12.5 million Africans who were forcibly transported through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, less than three percent of the total. The literature on the United States' involvement in the trade is proportionately small, especially compared to the plethora of works on larger national carriers, such as the Portuguese, British, and French. Jay Coughtry's The Notorious Triangle (1981) remains the most influential monograph on American merchants' involvement in the slave trade, but it focuses solely on Rhode Island and ends with abolition in 1807. More recently, a number of historians have written micro-histories of individual slaving voyages to the U.S. both before and after abolition. However, as leading slave-trade-scholar David Eltis pointed out in 2008 there is "still no book on the U.S. transatlantic slave trade, however defined."1
Atlantic-historian Leonardo Marques' new book is therefore the first to comprehensively examine the United States' links to the slave trade between the Revolution and the Civil War, and it reveals the plethora of ways that Americans were involved in the business. Marques first describes how Rhode Island merchants pushed into the slave trade after the Revolution, taking advantage of the opening of Cuba to foreign slave ships. Merchants in Bristol, Rhode Island, flouted Congress' 1807 abolition of the trade until 1820, when a new act made it a capital crime for U.S. citizens to be involved in the slave trade. Although historians have seen the 1820 act as toothless—no U.S. citizen was executed for illegal slave trading until 1862—Marques contends that "[e]vidence of U.S. citizens financing slave voyages almost disappears after 1820" (105). Marques then explores how the U.S. continued to be involved in slave trafficking after 1820. Between 1820 and 1866, slave ships carried 2.4 million Africans to the Americas, principally to Brazil (1.5m) and Cuba (0.7m). Using new data, Marques reveals that the majority of these Africans were forcibly transported in American built vessels that were designed to outrun the British Navy's antislave-trade squadron. While slave ships typically flew the Portuguese or Spanish flag after 1807, a significant proportion sailed under the Stars and Stripes, which [End Page 930] offered protection from search and seizure by the British Navy. U.S. citizens also continued to be concerned in the trade. Yankee captains and sailors manned slavers alongside foreigners. And American merchant firms in Brazil had Africans consigned to them during the 1830s and 1840s, who they resold to plantations, sometimes to American-owned coffee estates. When Brazilian authorities— under pressure from British and American consuls—drove out Portuguese and Spanish slave traders in 1856, many of them relocated to New York where they acquired American citizenship and dispatched slave ships to Cuba under the American flag. Marques' new research thus demonstrates that the small numbers of captives carried on U.S. owned and flagged vessels belies a much deeper and persistent connection between the United States and the slave trade.
Beyond his impressive analysis of the United States' multiple connections to the trade, Marques' work does much to explain why the slave trade persisted for almost sixty years after abolition, and the important role that the U.S. played in finally ending the illegal business. Marques claims that the slave trade became "internationalized" during the nineteenth century, a concept that historians will no doubt use extensively when they analyze the illegal slave trade in the future. Prior to abolition, the trade had been bounded by mercantilist laws that restricted who could own and captain slave ships, the origins of their cargoes, and their American destinations. After 1807, however, a slave ship might have...