Charleston, July 4th, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Why "Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade" is the book to read on Independence Day.

View Of Cape Coast Castle. Cape Coast Castle Is A Fortification In Ghana Built By Swedish Traders For Trade In Timber And Gold. Later The Structure Was Used In The Trans-atlantic Slave Trade. . (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
View Of Cape Coast Castle. Cape Coast Castle Is A Fortification In Ghana Built By Swedish Traders For Trade In Timber And Gold. Later The Structure Was Used In The Trans-atlantic Slave Trade. . (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Declaration of Independence, 1776

When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, a half-million people of African descent lived not as equals in this country, but as slaves. In the Southern colonies, where slavery was an essential component of cotton and tobacco production, 40 percent of the population was owned by European-descendant masters. American independence leaders George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason — each of whom owned slaves — denounced the ownership of one human being by another as “repugnant,” a “hideous blot,” and frankly “evil.”

Yet compromises had to be made if the 13 original colonies were to stand together in battle against King George and the British Army. The best description of those painful compromises can be found in the state of South Carolina’s 1860 “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union”:

The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

When Northern states refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, denying Southerners their “right” to “collect escaped property” — meaning the African-descendant slaves who fled their bondage — secessionist sentiments grew throughout the South. The flames were fanned by congressional acts that compelled new territories won through wars and negotiations with Mexico and France to renounce slavery before winning statehood, including Missouri, Kansas, and Texas. The specter of anti-slave states outvoting the South in Congress and eventually compelling equality between black- and white-skinned individuals was more than the Southern states could tolerate.

From the point of view of white Southerners, the slave trade was as essential to their commerce and “tranquility” as were food and water. The state of Mississippi’s “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union” stated the case as starkly as possible:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

In the wake of the killing of nine parishioners inside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, white Americans today are finally beginning to find a distinction between the myths of Gone With the Wind and Dixie and the hideous realities of slavery. The Dixie flag and other symbols of the Confederacy, in which the young man charged with these murders, Dylann Roof, wrapped himself, are at the iconic roots of racism in our country. The Dixie flag wasn’t, as is often misstated, the national symbol of the Confederacy, but, worse, the emblem of battle under which gray-clad rebels fought to defend the institution.

The Civil War and more than a century and a half of segregation and race-based hatred in America stem directly from the transatlantic slave trade, which between 1501 and 1867 “claimed an estimated 12.5 million Africans and involved almost every country with an Atlantic coastline,” according to researchers David Eltis and David Richardson. In their brilliant 2010 book, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and on their amazing website, Eltis and Richardson chronicle one of the largest and most heinous mass kidnappings and relocations of human beings in history. Published by Yale University Press, the Atlas uses straightforward shipping data, logs, and maps to reveal in startling detail the commerce in human beings and its links to general trade.

The still-updated companion website offers no adjectives or descriptions to convey the horror — just the facts. For example, using its “Search the Voyages” function I learned that the Pastora de Lima set sail in 1817 under the flag of Portugal, departing Rio de Janeiro. It crossed the Atlantic, passed the cape tip of Africa, and arrived in Mozambique, where it took on 404 African slaves. On the eight-week voyage back to Brazil, 114 slaves died; the remaining 290 were sold to slave merchants at an eastern Brazilian port in Bahia.

A number of startling discoveries have emerged from the years of research compiled by Eltis, a professor at Emory University, and Richardson, a professor at the University of Hull. The first is that the largest volume of slave movement was from modern-day Angola to Brazil, the second-largest was from modern Angola and Nigeria to the Caribbean, and the smallest — just 4 percent of the entire transatlantic slave trade — went to North America. As this map on their open-source website reveals, for four centuries the slave trade primarily moved Africans to Brazil.

The second revelation Eltis and Richardson provide concerns the inextricable links between slavery and overall maritime trade from the dawn of the 16th century to the late 19th century. Ships might change crew and captain, but most vessels continued to circle the Atlantic for a decade or more, moving industrial goods from Britain, textiles and wines from France and Southern Europe, spices from Northern Africa, and then slaves — nearly all destined for sale in ports along the coast of Brazil and on the Caribbean islands. The slaves were sold, and sugar, rum, coffee, and molasses were taken aboard. A comparatively small number of slaves were taken on to port cities of the American colonies, and remaining cargo space was there filled with cotton, tobacco, and industrial goods from the Northern states. Those goods were hauled to Europe and sold, and the cycle repeated, over and over again. Trade in Brazilian sugar, Antiguan rum, South Carolinian tobacco, and New York iron goods depended on cash gleaned from the sale of slaves. And fine woolens from Scotland and silks from Lyon could not reach the ballrooms of Virginia without finances earned from the commerce of African human beings.

Yale University historian David Brion Davis summarizes the relationship between commercial and slave trade in the book’s foreward (italics are his): “Our Western culture tends to worship the magic of the free market, the invisible hand that allegedly promotes the common good,” Davis writes. “Yet it was uncontrolled market forces that determined how many African slaves could be crammed into the hold of a ship … to satisfy consumer demand for sugar, rum, tobacco and coffee. As it happened, these stimulants did little to improve the world or enhance human health and well-being.” Further, Davis argues, the transatlantic slave trade offers a crucial lesson for free market advocates: “Britain’s 1807 law, which ended the country’s 130-year dominance of the slave trade and led to the economic decline of the British Caribbean, was a revolutionary move toward regulating the global market.”

Prior to the American Revolution, the slave trade also circled a smaller route that integrated Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese commercial goods with West African ports, particularly those linked to modern Guinea, Benin, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. But the European appetite for coffee, sugar, rum, tobacco, and cotton soon pushed valuations toward the New World. In 1680, for example, the real price index for a slave was 94.6 British pounds sterling, while a “hundredweight” (about 112 pounds) of sugar was 102.7 pounds sterling, meaning a shipping captain could haul roughly equivalent weights of human and sugar cargo for equal monetary value around the Atlantic circle. But by 1805 that balance had shifted, amid a glut of plantation sugar producers from Buenos Aires to New Orleans, creating ever greater demand for slave labor in the Americas. Prices pushed the slave trade away from Europe (which undervalued the African human beings) toward the Americas. By 1800 the real price index value of that hundredweight of sugar hovered around 140 pounds sterling, while the slave price had soared to 255.7 pounds.

Between 1501 and 1867, most of the slave trade ships — 31 percent — were outfitted in England and flew under the Union Jack, but the second-largest slavery fleet, nearly 17 percent of the entire transatlantic fleet, was Brazilian. Just 2.6 percent of slave ships were outfitted from North American ports. And the primary destination over those years were the ports of modern Brazzaville, Kinshasa, and Luanda, from where 45 percent of all African slaves were exported, after being captured from tribes of modern Congo, Angola, and Central African Republic. Those slaves were ultimately mostly sold in the ports of modern Brazil (nearly half), Jamaica (9.7 percent), and Cuba (7.4 percent).

The Atlas is replete with tables and charts spelling out in unemotional numbers the scale of this human movement. Table 4, for example, informs the reader that between 1501 and 1867, a total of 12,520,170 Africans were captured and stowed in ship cargoes, the largest toll of whom (5,693,900) originated in what was then called West Central Africa (the Congo/Angola region).

Writing in the Atlas’s afterword, another Yale historian, David W. Blight concludes that, “the slave trade has to be assessed for what it was: a massive economic enterprise that helped build the colonial Atlantic world, a story of enormous human cruelty and exploitation that helped forge modern capitalism.”

That capitalism surged, the Atlas demonstrates, after 1783. It was the end of the American Revolutionary War that spawned the expansion of Atlantic capitalism and Brazilian, Caribbean, and Southern states’ demand for slave labor. When the slave trade finally ended after the American Civil War, “the number of people living in North America [who had been] enslaved was larger than anywhere else,” Eltis told NPR in a 2010 interview. “And it’s extraordinary that the slave trade accounts for such a small share of that number.”

On one point, it seems, modern Americans’ nostalgia for Dixie and the antebellum past may recall a grain of awful truth: Africans enslaved in the rest of the Americas were treated even more brutally than were those who worked the plantations of North America. And that modicum of “better” led them to have children, grow in population, and escape to free states, so that today more people descending from the transatlantic slave trade live in the United States of America than any other country on Earth.

Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

About the Author

Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer. @laurie_garrett

Laurie Garrett is a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer. @laurie_garrett

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