With meticulous research and wide-ranging analysis, Leonardo Marques shows the multiple ways that the United States participated in the transatlantic slave trade. The book provides insights into the “profound structural transformations” during the long nineteenth century, which included “trade liberalization on a global scale and industrial development in parts of the North Atlantic” (3). At the same time, it sheds light on key moments, such as the passage of anti–slave trade laws, and on specific individuals, particularly traffickers of human flesh. The volume shows the clash between pirates who espoused free-trade ideas and considered Africans to be private property and those determined to end a highly profitable and brutal business. For brevity’s sake, United States involvement in the transatlantic slave trade can be broken into four phases. In a first phase, between the years 1776 and 1820, investors from Rhode Island enabled a U.S. entrée into the transatlantic slave trade. Members of the D’Wolf family of Bristol and the Brown family of Providence, along with numerous others, created a triangular trade that connected Rhode Island, West Africa, and the Caribbean. These entrepreneurs traded New England rum for slaves, whom they transported to Cuba and the U.S. South. Sugar produced in Cuba enabled the production of the rum. “Products forged transatlantic connections as much as winds and ocean currents” (21). These Rhode Islanders became wealthy, and invested in various businesses and institutions. This first phase is distinct in that U.S. merchants directly financed slaving voyages. Several antislavery trade laws that passed in the U.S. (1794, 1800, 1807, 1818, 1819, 1820) helped force an end to Rhode Island’s predominant role in the traffic. International pressures also came into play, specifically, England’s passage of a law in 1807 that prohibited the slave trade throughout its empire and England’s signing of treaties with several nations to suppress the trade from 1817. The dialectic between internal debates in the United States over the illegality of U.S. participation in the international slave trade and external pressures exerted by England to halt this “odious commerce” is a theme that surfaces throughout the volume. A second phase lasted from the 1820s to 1851. In the wake of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), production of sugar and coffee rose significantly in both Cuba and Brazil. To satisfy labor demand, planters and merchant elites in those areas transported African slaves to cultivate these crops. U.S. entrepreneurs and citizens immediately responded: U.S. captains offered their expertise; U.S. sailors signed up to sail on slave vessels; and the numbers of U.S.-built vessels involved in the slave trade increased. Between 1820 and 1867, traffickers transported over two million slaves to Cuba and Brazil (108); U.S.-constructed ships carried over one million of those Africans. A third phase occurred during the 1850s. From 1848, the British Squadron attacked traffickers along the Brazilian coast with increasing ferocity. This led to passage of the Eusébio de Queiroz Law in September 1850 that brought an end to the largest branch of the transatlantic slave trade in Atlantic history. As a result, U.S. traffickers turned their attention back to Cuba. U.S.-constructed vessels and U.S. ports played a key role during this decade, which enabled a huge upsurge in slave disembarkations to the island. Given the wide-reaching tentacles of the slave trade, its profitability, and the subterfuge of traffickers, forging effective suppression policies proved to be a major task for those committed to ending the trade. A fourth and final phase played out during the early 1860s. Two key events merit consideration. Unlike his predecessors, President Abraham Lincoln (elected November 6, 1860) refused to pardon Nathaniel Gordon, a sea captain from Portland, Maine, found guilty by a New York jury of transporting African slaves to Cuba. Hanged in February 1862, Gordon was the only slave trafficker in U.S. history to be executed. Gordon’s death sent a “thunder-clap” throughout the Atlantic World (249). Moreover, Lincoln enabled the signing of the Lyons-Seward Treaty in 1862. The United States agreed with England for the first time to a mutual right of search of suspected slave vessels. Outfitting of slavers in U.S. ports and the numbers of Africans carried on ships flying the stars and stripes decreased precipitously. Three and a half centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, which had embarked some 12.5 million slaves from mother Africa, neared its end (which came in 1867). Marques provides evidence of the myriad ways that individuals impacted history for better or worse. There were U.S. representatives in both Brazil and Cuba who publicized illegal activities and helped to indict U.S. traffickers. Others facilitated the slave trade. There were U.S. judges who worked diligently to halt all forms of U.S. involvement in the slave trade, and others who turned a blind eye. He offers a wealth of information about individual traffickers, how they operated, and the ways they invested in slave voyages. Marques also points to a major debate related to U.S. involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. To what extent did U.S. capital play a role in the transatlantic slave trade? Marques observes a “pervasive presence” (203) of U.S. capital in the transatlantic slave trade during the nineteenth century, citing the pathbreaking study of the subject by W. E. B. Du Bois (The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 ). Marques suggests that Du Bois’s interpretation “needs to be radically revised” (207), given that direct U.S. financing of slave voyages dried up by 1820. After that date, U.S. captains and sailors were employees primarily of Spanish and Portuguese investors (188). Marques, at the same time, points out that hundreds of U.S.-constructed ships were purchased or leased by traffickers from several countries. The construction of fast-sailing vessels at shipyards along the U.S. eastern seaboard from the late eighteenth century through the 1860s was a major form of capital investment. It provided significant trickle-down benefits to local and regional economies. U.S. investors who funded the construction of those ships often knew exactly in whose hands those vessels would end up. Future research surely will elucidate this “innovative moment in the history … of historical capitalism” (4). One final comment. Numerous specific locations and regions are described throughout the book. For example, on page 21, Charleston, Savannah, Havana, Rhode Island, the Gold Coast, Upper Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Senegambia are all noted. A map, even if only one of the Atlantic World, would have been helpful to specialists and non-specialists reading about this painful saga. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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