Slave Trade, Slavery, Early Antislavery

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U.S. Slave Trade, Slavery, Early Antislavery, and Abolitionists

Slavery and the United States of America

The Atlantic Slave Trade, also known as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, was the trade of African people supplied to the colonies of the "New World" that occurred in and around the Atlantic Ocean. It lasted from the 16th century to the 19th century. Most slaves were shipped from West Africa and Central Africa and taken to the New World (primarily Brazil). Some slaves were captured by European slave traders through raids and kidnapping, but most were obtained through coastal trading with Africans (Africans enslaving Africans and them selling them to Europeans). Most contemporary historians estimate that between 9.4 and 12 million Africans arrived in the New World, although the number of people taken from their homestead is considerably higher. The slave-trade is sometimes called the Maafa by African and African-American scholars, meaning "holocaust" or "great disaster" in Swahili. The slaves were one element of a three-part economic cycle—the Triangular Trade and its Middle Passage—which ultimately involved four continents, four centuries and millions of people.

The Atlantic slave trade, also known as the transatlantic slave trade, was the trade of African people supplied to the colonies of the "New World" that occurred in and around the Atlantic Ocean. It lasted from the 16th century to the 19th century.

Destination Percentage
Brazil 35.4%
Spanish Empire 22.1%
British West Indies 17.7%
French West Indies 14.1%
British North America and future United States 4.4%
Dutch West Indies 4.4%
Danish West Indies 0.2%

(Left) Distribution of slaves in the Western Hemisphere (1450-1900)
 
While colonial North America received few slaves compared to other places in the Western Hemisphere, it was deeply involved in the slave trade and the first protests against slavery were efforts to end the slave trade. English reformers took the lead in this and were joined by Americans with varied motives. Some southerners feared slave revolts if importation continued. Religious societies stressed the moral evil of the trade, and free blacks saw the end of the slave trade as a first step toward general emancipation.

In colonial North America, newly enslaved Africans often ran away in groups of men and women intending to create a new community in a remote area. For these groups, called maroons, their large numbers made them easier to discover, although bands of fugitives, primarily men, continued to live in swamps and mountains and eluded capture throughout the slavery era. Spanish Florida and Mexico were favored destinations for many enslaved in the lower South. There was a boom in the Underground Railroad immediately following the emancipation laws that were adopted by Northern U.S. states and Canada.

Results of Slavery (1863)
resultsofslaveryphotograph.jpg
National Archives

The American Revolution created more free blacks, both through those who actively supported the Patriot cause and were freed and those who took the opportunity to work for or leave with the British. The rhetoric of liberty and human rights effected a change in some slaveholders who emancipated their slaves in the years after the Revolution. But these events were more than counterbalanced by the fact that the United States Constitution, adopted in 1787, protected the rights of slaveholders to slave property throughout the union. Some actions by the new American government and the individual states did limit slavery. The Northwest Territory was forbidden to slavery and the Northern states enacted gradual emancipation laws. But the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 explicitly stated that slaveholders could retrieve their slave "property" from free states and territories. That was to discourage enslaved persons from trying to reach free regions.

Hundreds of slaves fled bondage each year in the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Some stayed in the South, seeking family from whom they had been separated or a temporary refuge from slavery. Other fugitives stayed in southern towns and cities, often with forged "free" papers. Whether they sought free territory or remained in the south, they were primarily aided by other slaves and by free blacks while in the south. In each decade after the Revolution, the assistance of some whites became more apparent. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) was prominent in the antislavery societies which sprang up after the Revolution, and, for a while, the Baptists and Methodists were antislavery. The early antislavery societies promoted gradual emancipation and they faded from the national scene by the War of 1812. As the free black population grew, their concern for the status of the African American became the center of the antislavery movement.

The debate in Congress in 1819 and 1820 over whether Missouri should enter the Union as a slave or free state made it clear to the entire nation that the slavery issue was not going to simply evaporate in the American republic. The debates resulted in the Missouri Compromise of 1820--which was later repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. (See Causes and Origins of the American Civil War). For free blacks, the formation of the national American Colonization Society persuaded them to organize for the abolition of slavery rather than act individually. The Colonization Society wanted federal government funds to pay the costs of settling free blacks in an African colony they founded and called Liberia. The threat to free African Americans that this appeared to represent called for a more organized black response and for more white allies. The era of immediate abolitionism is generally acknowledged to have begun on January 1, 1831, when William Lloyd Garrison first published his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

In the United States slavery officially ended with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but the Emancipation Proclamation laid the groundwork for the amendment.

(Sources listed at bottom of page.)

Recommended Reading: Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement. From Publishers Weekly: Though the Underground Railroad is one of the touchstones of American collective memory, there's been no comprehensive, accessible history of the secret movement that delivered more than 100,000 runaway slaves to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. Journalist Bordewich (Killing the White Man's Indian) fills this gap with a clear, utterly compelling survey of the Railroad from its earliest days in Revolution-era America through the Civil War and the extension of the vote to African Americans in 1870. Using an impressive array of archival and contemporary sources (letters, autobiographies, tax records and slave narratives, as well as new scholarship), Bordewich reveals the Railroad to be much more complicated--and much more remarkable--than is usually understood. Continued below…

Through the skillful weaving of numerous official reports, financial documents, and firsthand accounts, Thomas explains how slavery was socially acceptable and shows that people and governments everywhere were involved in it. This book is a comprehensive study from African kings and Arab slave traders to the Europeans and Americans who bought and transported them to the New World. Despite the volatility of the subject, the author remains emotionally detached in his writing, yet produces a highly readable, informative book. A superb addition and highly recommended.

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Related Reading:
 

Recommended Reading: Uncle Tom's Cabin (Wordsworth Classics), by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Author). Description: Edited and with an Introduction and Notes by Dr Keith Carabine, University of Kent at Canterbury. Uncle Tom's Cabin is the most popular, influential and controversial book written by an American. Stowe's rich, panoramic novel passionately dramatizes why the whole of America is implicated in and responsible for the sin of slavery, and resoundingly concludes that only 'repentance, justice and mercy' will prevent the onset of 'the wrath of Almighty God!'.

 

Recommended Reading: The Slave Ship: A Human History. From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. In this groundbreaking work, historian and scholar Rediker considers the relationships between the slave ship captain and his crew, between the sailors and the slaves, and among the captives themselves as they endured the violent, terror-filled and often deadly journey between the coasts of Africa and America. While he makes fresh use of those who left their mark in written records (Olaudah Equiano, James Field Stanfield, John Newton), Rediker is remarkably attentive to the experiences of the enslaved women, from whom we have no written accounts, and of the common seaman, who he says was a victim of the slave trade... and a victimizer. Continued below...

Regarding these vessels as a strange and potent combination of war machine, mobile prison, and factory, Rediker expands the scholarship on how the ships not only delivered millions of people to slavery, [but] prepared them for it. He engages readers in maritime detail (how ships were made, how crews were fed) and renders the archival (letters, logs and legal hearings) accessible. Painful as this powerful book often is, Rediker does not lose sight of the humanity of even the most egregious participants, from African traders to English merchants. Highly Recommended.
 

Recommended Reading: American Slavery, American Freedom. Description: "If it is possible to understand the American paradox, the marriage of slavery and freedom, Virginia is surely the place to begin," writes Edmund S. Morgan in American Slavery, American Freedom, a study of the tragic contradiction at the core of America. Morgan finds the key to this central paradox in the people and politics of the state that was both the birthplace of the revolution and the largest slaveholding state in the country. With a new introduction. Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize and the Albert J. Beveridge Award. Continued below... 

About the Author: Edmund S. Morgan is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and the author of Benjamin Franklin. Morgan was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2000.

 

Recommended Reading: African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame. Description: The story of the Atlantic slave trade has largely been filtered through the records of white Europeans, but in this watershed book, Anne C. Bailey focuses on memories of the trade from the African perspective. African chiefs and other elders in an area of southeastern Ghana once famously called "the Old Slave Coast" share stories that reveal that Africans were both traders and victims of the trade. Though Africans were not equal partners with Europeans, their involvement had devastating consequences on their history and sense of identity. Continued below…

Like trauma victims, many African societies experience a fragmented view of their past that partially explains the silence and shame around the slave trade. Capturing astonishing oral histories that were handed down through generations of storytellers, Bailey breaks this deafening silence and explores the delicate nature of historical memory in this rare, unprecedented book.

 

Recommended Reading: Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Publishers Weekly: Myth and metaphor, the Underground Railroad was also real in the lives of escaping slaves, in the activities (legal and illegal) of black and white people, free and slave, who aided and abetted them and in the structures in which they found refuge. Bountifully illustrated with 78 color and 174 black-and-white photos and other images, this collection also comprises highly, readable essays by 15 distinguished historians. The first section, "Slavery and Abolition," lays a historical foundation with cogent accounts of slavery in the colonial years and in the 19th century and of the antislavery movement. Continued below…

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Civil War, William Still and Harriet Tubman are all carefully treated. Short-term stay escapes and long-term fugitive communities within slave territory, escape by water, escape into Northern free black communities, escape to South Florida and escape to Western Canada are all freshly covered, as are "current uses of the Underground Railroad in modern thought, tourism, and public history." Eddie S. Glaude Jr. discusses the African-American appropriation of the Exodus story, with the U.S. being Egypt rather than the Promised Land. …A coherently arranged collection with two thought-provoking essays exploring the role of history and memory and probing the current attention to the Underground Railroad that "says much about who we are as well as who we say we want to be."

 

Recommended Reading: Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement. From Publishers Weekly: Though the Underground Railroad is one of the touchstones of American collective memory, there's been no comprehensive, accessible history of the secret movement that delivered more than 100,000 runaway slaves to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. Journalist Bordewich (Killing the White Man's Indian) fills this gap with a clear, utterly compelling survey of the Railroad from its earliest days in Revolution-era America through the Civil War and the extension of the vote to African Americans in 1870. Using an impressive array of archival and contemporary sources (letters, autobiographies, tax records and slave narratives, as well as new scholarship), Bordewich reveals the Railroad to be much more complicated--and much more remarkable--than is usually understood. Continued below…

As a progressive movement that integrated people across races and was underwritten by secular political theories but carried out by fervently religious citizens in the midst of a national spiritual awakening, the clandestine network was among the most fascinatingly diverse groups ever to unite behind a common American cause. What makes Bordewich's work transcend the confines of detached social history is his emphasis on the real lives and stories of the Railroad's participants. Religious extremists, left-wing radicals and virulent racists all emerge as fully realized characters, flawed but determined people doing what they believed was right, and every chapter has at least one moment--a detail, a vignette, a description--that will transport readers to the world Bordewich describes. The men and women of this remarkable account will remain with readers for a long time to come.

 
 
 
Sources: National Park Service; Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. Simon and Schuster, 1997; King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Books, 1988; Klein, Herbert S. and Jacob Klein. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge University Press, 1999; BBC Quick guide: The slave trade; Welcome to Encyclopędia Britannica's Guide to Black History; Migration Simulation; Ronald Segal, The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995); Eltis, David and Richardson, David. The Numbers Game. In: Northrup, David: The Atlantic Slave Trade, 2nd edition, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002; Basil Davidson. The African Slave Trade.

 
 
 
This study offers research and material regarding US Slave Trade History, Atlantic Slave Trade History, Transatlantic Slave Trade History, US Slavery History, Antislavery History, Slaves and Slavery in American History, Underground Railroad History, and Abolitionist History. The links on this page also allow the student to study, for example, from early slavery, slave trade, Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Civil War, to William Still and Harriet Tubman. Short-term stay escapes and long-term fugitive communities within slave territory, escape by water, escape into Northern free black communities, escape to South Florida and escape to Western Canada are also covered, as are "current uses of the Underground Railroad in modern thought, tourism, and public history." Eddie S. Glaude Jr. discusses the African-American appropriation of the Exodus story, with the U.S. being Egypt rather than the Promised Land. …A coherently arranged collection with two thought-provoking essays exploring the role of history and memory and probing the current attention to the Underground Railroad that "says much about who we are as well as who we say we want to be."

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