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Ships Going Out

In American Slavers, Sean M. Kelley surveys the relatively unknown history of Americans who traded in slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

John Greenwood: Sea Captains Carousing in Suriname, circa 1755–1758. The painting was commissioned by the merchants depicted, many of whom were slave traders, and two of whom became governors of Rhode Island.,Saint Louis Art Museum

In a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Sussex in 1963, the eminent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper denounced undergraduates who were demanding to be taught the history of Africa. “Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach,” he said. “But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness…. And darkness is not a subject for history.” Trevor-Roper defined history as a form of “purposive movement,” something Europeans had but Africans did not. To waste time on the study of Africa was to “neglect our own history and amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.” Even in 1963 Trevor-Roper should have known better than to utter such foolishness, but in the decades since, historians have demonstrated that not even his beloved history of Europe can be fully understood without the history of Africa.

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The same is true of the history of the United States. Between the late sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to North America. The history of Africa is also essential to understanding that process, and no scholar has made this point as effectively as Sean M. Kelley, a historian at the University of Essex and the author of an excellent study that traced the voyage of a single slave ship as it sailed around the Atlantic from its home port in Rhode Island.2

 Kelley has now, in American Slavers, surveyed the history of the Americans who traded in slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Straddling several continents over hundreds of years, it is a work of impressive breadth, deep research, and evenhanded analysis.

Over the course of nearly 350 years, more than 12 million Africans were enslaved and sent across the Atlantic as laborers for the mines, ports, and plantations of European colonies in the Americas. Because a relatively small percentage of these people—some 388,000—disembarked in North America, general histories have tended to slight the African slave trade to the colonies that became the United States. American Slavers—at once social, political, economic, and military history—goes a long way toward filling that gap.

Kelley begins by distinguishing between “ships coming in” and “ships going out.” Until now scholarly attention has been focused on vessels, most of them British, bringing enslaved Africans to North America. He shifts our focus to a relatively unknown aspect of the slave trade—the American ships that left American ports to purchase slaves on the African coast and sell them, usually in the Caribbean. He also establishes a basic chronology of the trade, to distinguish among different periods during which American slavers operated.

Perhaps most importantly, Kelley brings a generation of Africanist scholarship to bear on the history of American slaving. It was established decades ago by John Thornton and others that European and American merchants were doomed to failure if they were not familiar with the regional differences and trading preferences of Africans who, Kelley writes, “subscribed to very different cultural values.” This is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that the slave trade flourished in part because from the earliest years of sustained contact, Europeans were struck not only by the differences but also by the similarities between themselves and Africans. Far from being “heathens,” Africans had recognizable religious practices. They were organized into states with governing hierarchies. And above all, Europeans encountered African merchants with whom they could profitably trade.3Unlike European traders, however, Americans lacked the commodities—notably textiles—for which Africans were willing to exchange slaves. As a result, Kelley notes, they could “never be much more than poachers on the much larger trade of the Europeans.” Nevertheless some Americans did trade profitably in slaves, and Kelley’s book chronicles their history.

Before the American Revolution, slave trading was almost exclusively the business of New Englanders. In the seventeenth century, Kelley observes, it was a “very small…miniscule” enterprise, “not so much organized as disorganized.” New England’s maritime industry grew from cod fishing, of which slave trading was a minor offshoot. The colonists’ trading networks were “primitive” and their “links with merchants on the African coast were nonexistent.” But “perhaps the most important obstacle to a regular, profitable slave trade…was the lack of suitable trade goods.” Most of those who traded in Africa went only once, and so there was “no accumulation of knowledge, no building of networks, no learning from trial and error.”

New Yorkers likewise did very little slave trading in the seventeenth century, with the exception of Frederick Philipse’s short-lived attempt to trade in slaves from Madagascar. Though “more sophisticated” than the New England trade, the New York trade was “only marginally less ephemeral.” In the first century of its existence, American slave trading was experimental and unprofitable. That changed after 1700, with the rise of Newport, Rhode Island.

For a number of reasons Newport emerged in the eighteenth century as the only real slave-trading port in North America. Charleston imported significant numbers of slaves, whether from the intra-American or Atlantic slave trades, but South Carolina rarely financed or outfitted its own ships to trade in them. Unlike New York, Boston, and other northern ports, Newport developed a cohort of merchants and “Guinea captains” who established the networks and accumulated—and shared—the knowledge of the geography and customs that were the prerequisites for successful trading on the African coast. In Kelley’s words, “Newport’s accrued knowledge of Africa and slave trading was in this way comparable to Silicon Valley’s know-how in chip manufacturing and software coding.”

That experience was necessary, but it was never sufficient. Slave traders needed a commodity Africans wanted to buy in exchange for slaves, and most of what Americans exported—rice, fish, lumber—was readily available in Africa. There was a small market for Chesapeake tobacco, but not enough to sustain a significant trade in slaves. What Rhode Island had was rum, most of which it distilled from molasses produced by slaves on the sugar estates of the West Indies, especially Barbados. “Molasses to rum to slaves,” goes the doleful tune from the musical 1776. With good reason the ships and slave traders of Newport were known as “rum men.”

But conditions in North America were not the most significant part of the story, Kelley argues. Rum, for example, was not an easy sell in Africa. In parts of West Africa influenced by the spread of Islam, for example, alcoholic beverages of any sort could not be exchanged for slaves. It took time for the African market in rum to develop, and even when it did it was limited to a couple of areas, such as Upper Guinea and especially the Gold Coast. Kelley writes, “More than anything else, it was the demand for rum on the Gold Coast that fueled Newport’s rise to prominence in the slave trade during the 1730s.”

Political conflict and warfare among African states repeatedly interrupted the supply of slaves available to Americans, and there was little they could do about it. Kelley does an outstanding job of clarifying the history of warfare in those parts of Africa where Americans could sell rum in exchange for slaves. Unlike British traders, who arrived with a wide assortment of consumer goods for sale and could therefore shift their operations to different ports on the African coast as local conditions warranted, the Americans had only rum to sell and were therefore unable to move beyond the Gold Coast or Upper Guinea. It “seems fairly clear,” Kelley concludes, “that the North American impact” on events in West Africa more generally “was proportionately small.”

Even as the colonial-era slave trade reached its height in the 1770s, it remained at the margins of American commercial activity. Only in Newport was slave trading significant, and yet, Kelley reports, not a single ship venturing out from it was engaged in slave trading exclusively: “The North American transatlantic slave trade before 1776 was, in essence, merely another branch of [the] carrying trade.”

The American Revolution dramatically transformed slave trading in the new nation. The northern states, besides abolishing slavery, also banned the importation of slaves. Shutting it down in New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island effectively ended the bulk of the American slave trade. In 1794 Congress passed a Slave Trade Act that barred Americans from trading in slaves to be sold in foreign ports, a crucial statute since most American slavers had been selling their human cargoes in the Caribbean. No law barred Americans from selling slaves in the US, however, and slave trading after the Revolution shifted from the North to the South. Charleston, which had previously been the major port for “ships coming in,” became North America’s major port for “ships going out” as well.

Although Newport was substantially shut down as a slave-trading port, nearby Bristol—politically dominated by slavers—quickly emerged as the leading northern port for the now-illegal trade. Led by a handful of powerful families, Bristol slavers eventually established their own banks and marine insurance companies to finance their business.

The trade in Africa was changing as well, once again in response to internal developments over which Americans had no control. African sellers increasingly demanded payment in gold as well as rum, forcing Americans to find sources of specie. On the Gold Coast, long the major source of captives, political instability and warfare continued to interrupt the flow of slaves. In parts of Upper Guinea, the development of agriculture created a domestic market for slaves that reduced the number available for export. As a result, fewer were being sold on the Gold Coast and more were embarking from the area around the newly established British colony of Sierra Leone. It quickly became an invaluable source of fresh water and provisions for slave traders, but slaving was illegal in the colony itself and was therefore transacted offshore.

By far the most dramatic change in the postrevolutionary American slave trade came in the years between 1804 and 1807. Driven by the cotton boom that began in the 1790s, the demand for slaves in the southern states skyrocketed, and Charleston traders scrambled to import as many as possible before the federal ban on the slave trade took effect on January 1, 1808. This was the only period in which as many slaves came into the United States on American ships as foreign ones. In three years some 65,000 disembarked. “The toll in human suffering was similarly unprecedented, probably unparalleled in American history,” Kelley writes. “South Carolina’s Cooper River undulated with the decomposing corpses thrown from quarantined ships to save burial costs.” The majority of the slaves imported during what Kelley calls the “slave rush” were set to work on the rapidly expanding cotton plantations of Georgia and the South Carolina Upcountry. But Charleston also served as the source of slaves transshipped to the Natchez district along the Mississippi—also in the throes of the cotton boom—and to the emerging sugar plantations of southern Louisiana.

Although now based in the South, the trade was still dominated by British and northern merchants and shippers. Slavers continued to rely heavily on the export of rum, but they also expanded their business to include textiles purchased in Britain, which allowed them to operate in other areas of Africa, in particular the Loango Coast. American slaving expanded in other ways as well. After Charleston, Cuba was the largest destination for American slavers, and it became the primary location for the illicit American slave trade. New England traders also briefly established a smaller commerce selling slaves in the Río de la Plata in Brazil.

In the end, Kelley concludes, the years 1804–1807 were an aberration. The number of American ships deployed and the number of slaves imported were unusually high. Charleston’s prominence as a slaving port was short-lived: “Never again would the ships going out and the ships coming in coincide as they did in this era.” The slave rush came to an end as suddenly as it had emerged.

In 1807 Great Britain, whose ships had carried most of the slaves coming into the United States, banned slave trading entirely. The US Congress followed suit, and in 1808 the legal slave trade came to an end. With that it became a criminal enterprise, operating in very different ways and on a much smaller scale.

For all the changes that marked the long history of American slaving, certain aspects of it remained fairly constant—none more so than the experience of the captives themselves. Here the history of Africa once again becomes central. Popular references to the slave trade often speak of Africans as having been “kidnapped” by Europeans and Americans. In fact, Kelley writes, the “vast majority of those taken aboard American slave ships—probably more than 99 percent—were purchased, not abducted.” Africans controlled the commerce along the coast. As had been true in dozens of societies across the globe, stretching back to antiquity, they often enslaved those they considered “outsiders” from different states or ethnic groups. Muslim societies, for example, professed to enslave only “non-Muslims.” However, the taboo against enslaving one’s own was frequently honored only in the breach.

What the Atlantic slave trade did was dramatically expand the place of slavery in the African societies engaged in it. The trade transformed slavery in Upper Guinea “from a social into an economic institution.” Enslaved labor became more important, and in some places “agricultural units that can only be described as plantations began to appear.” As slavery and slave trading spread, travel could become dangerous—a particular problem if drought and famine forced people to migrate into areas where they would be seen as outsiders.

By far the most common source of slaves was warfare. This could mean the enslavement of prisoners captured in battle, but it could also mean—as it did among the Asante—that the victors demanded “tributary slaves” from their defeated enemies. Others were abducted, sometimes en massebut often as individuals. And still others were enslaved as punishment for crime or indebtedness, both of which evaded the strong cultural proscription against enslaving “insiders.”

Most of the slaves purchased by Americans had endured long marches from the interior to the coast. They might be sold and resold to different merchants along the way. Kelley writes of one man, named Sang, who was captured by Fante slavers and sold six times before arriving at a coastal fort, where he was sold yet again to a slaver and transported to Jamaica. Traders collected slaves as they moved from the interior, forming caravans that could include dozens of slaves by the time they reached the coast. There the captives were gathered into forts, or barracoons—essentially prisons—where they were held for inspection and sale to American buyers.

At that point the enslaved Africans were hurled into the notorious Middle Passage across the Atlantic. In the process their fate as “outsiders” was reframed in racial terms. “Their status as human commodities was not what changed,” Kelley explains. They had been commodified long before they boarded the slave ships. “What changed, rather, was the racialized nature of captivity.”

The horrors of the Middle Passage have been amply described by others, none more thorough than Marcus Rediker in his indispensable The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007), and Kelley’s account is appallingly familiar. Rebellions by captives were so frequent—estimated to have occurred on 10 percent of all voyages—that security became the overriding concern. Slaves were chained together in coffles, kept below deck in sex-segregated barracks, and allowed into the open air only for an hour of forced exercise once a day. Kelley quotes a man named Primus who recalled the captain forcing the captives to “clap their hands together with a song, whilst eating.” But Primus heard “only lamentations…or fragments of songs, broken with sobs.”

Slave ships were infamous for their high mortality rates among crews and captives alike. Disease spread rapidly among slaves, most often dysentery and diarrhea, but also smallpox, pneumonia, and, among children, measles. After disease, the biggest cause of death was violent rebellion by the slaves and its brutal suppression. Kelley’s account is harrowing:

Rebels shot, bludgeoned, drowned, and slit the throats of crew members…. Rebels and crew then went at each other with whatever they could lay their hands on—guns, swords, axes, torches, gunpowder, handspikes, ropes, lumber…. Crews raked the decks and scuttles with swivel guns and muskets.

Some unknown number of captives threw themselves overboard to drown in the ocean.

Even after the Atlantic crossing ended, Kelley notes, “death rates for newly arrived Africans were extremely high.” The vast majority were sold as agricultural laborers on plantations—mostly in Jamaica and Barbados before 1776, and Cuba and North America after the Revolution. Sugar plantations in the Caribbean were especially lethal, and the rice swamps of the Carolinas were also extremely unhealthy.

Compared to the devastating impact of enslavement on Africans, the effects of slave trading on places like Newport and Bristol were far less severe, but they were nevertheless substantial. To be sure, even at the height of its involvement in the slave trade, fewer than 5 percent of ships clearing Newport were slavers. But the slave trade depended on the human and material resources available in the well-established port town.

Sometimes the influence of slaving was subtle. In all port towns and cities, where men were gone for long periods of time, women had to be more actively engaged in commercial affairs, despite wives’ legal subordination to their husbands. But Kelley suspects that Newport’s unusually high proportion of women—55.7 percent—may have been a consequence of the high mortality rates among slaving crews.

Though they were a minority of the shippers in Newport, slave-trading families like the D’Wolfs were disproportionately wealthy, and their wealth was diversified. They owned stocks in banks, insurance companies, bridge companies, and cotton factories. On the eve of the Revolution, 30 percent of Newport’s families owned slaves. Because political power follows wealth, slave traders were among the most influential members of the town. This was even more true of Bristol, where, Kelley writes, “the D’Wolf family could control the town in the manner of a political machine, which enabled their slave-trading empire.”

Those who captained slave ships were wealthier than those who avoided the trade. Captains earned a wage for their services, but they also earned a percentage of the ship’s profits and were entitled to a few “privilege slaves” of their own. The same was true, though to a lesser degree, for first mates. Shipowners, captains, and officers established a system of “maritime paternalism” supporting the families of those who were gone for extended periods or who never returned.

At the bottom of the maritime class hierarchy were the ordinary seamen, “likely drawn in part from a sizable poor and often-transient population.” Between 15 and 20 percent of a ship’s crew died during the voyage, and those who were lucky enough to survive deserted in unusually high numbers. Unlike the families of the officers, the wives and children of ordinary seamen could not always count on community support and could be “warned out” of town if their husbands did not survive the voyage.

Because of the trade, slaves constituted 10 percent of colonial Rhode Island’s population, compared to 2 and 3 percent in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut. Newport in particular had a large Africa-born population, and through a close reading of gravestone markers Kelley draws some general conclusions about these people. They were disproportionately adult males, which made family formation more difficult for Black Newporters. They also died at higher rates than their white neighbors, “indicative of material hardship and mistreatment.”

More intriguing, day names used by Akan people appear on over 80 percent of the gravestones, indicating their origins on the Gold Coast. This is complicated by the fact that not all Akan speakers came from the Gold Coast, and by the additional fact that the children of Black Newporters sometimes bore Akan names as well. Though it is impossible to draw firm conclusions, Kelley suggests that the rituals associated with Newport’s annual “Negro Election Day”—a festival held in several New England towns that included a parade and election, after which the “Sons of Africa,” according to one observer, “amused themselves with…cudgeling, jumping, wrestling, playing at the various games, and on the musical instruments of their native country”—may have had their roots in traditional Akan practices. It is probable, Kelley concludes, “that Black culture in Newport was strongly influenced by Akan customs, at least in the mid-eighteenth century.”

The situation changed after the Revolution. In 1784 Rhode Island passed an abolition statute that, though technically gradual, resulted in the rapid emergence of a free Black population. Kelley finds that “by 1790, the proportion of free people in Rhode Island’s Black community went from a tiny minority to 78 percent.” The Free African Union Society, “the first known free Black association in the United States,” was established in 1780. Its members were also early supporters of colonization to Sierra Leone. As was true elsewhere, Newport’s free Blacks celebrated not their distinctive Akan roots but a more generic Africanness.4

Having emerged from slavery impoverished, Rhode Island’s free Blacks were subject to the coercive features of the system of poor relief. In 1786 authorities in Tiverton ordered the expulsion of any Blacks who could not prove legal residence in the town. One escape route for free Black men was to join the merchant marine, which had a long history of Blacks serving on crews.

As Kelley notes, after 1835 it becomes tricky to talk about “American” slave traders. Americans were no longer organizing slave-trading voyages. American banks would not finance slavers, and American insurers would not write policies for them. Cuba and Brazil continued to import slaves, and they did so using American-built ships, but slave traders were purchasing them secondhand.

Britain patrolled the Atlantic in an effort to suppress the trade, but the US refused to allow the Royal Navy to board ships flying the American flag. As a result slave traders hired “flag captains”—US citizens whose presence enabled ships to fly the American flag to evade British inspections. The British had likewise negotiated “equipment clauses” with European nations that empowered the Royal Navy to inspect and retain ships carrying equipment used for slave trading but no actual captives. Here again, US-flagged vessels served as “auxiliaries” to the slave trade.

In 1842 the US and Britain signed the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, committing Washington to establishing an Africa squadron of its own—in principle cooperating in the suppression of the slave trade. In practice, however, the treaty was thwarted by a succession of American secretaries of state, and not until 1859 did the US seriously commit itself to suppressing slave ships flying the American flag. By then even Brazil had shut down the slave trade, and Cuban authorities began enforcing a ban that had been on the books for some time. The center of the illegal slave trade moved to New York City, a subject covered in John Harris’s excellent recent book The Last Slave Ships.5

In these closing years “American” slaving was actually controlled and financed by Brazilians, or by Cubans who were often based in Havana, or by Portuguese who were sometimes based in West Central Africa. Not surprisingly, the illegal post-1835 trade shifted for the first time from the Gold Coast to West Central Africa, which had long been the primary destination of Portuguese traders. By then, Kelley concludes, it was little more than a criminal syndicate.

Ever since 1969, when Philip Curtin published his pioneering census of the Atlantic slave trade, evaluating the place of North America in its centuries-long history has been a perplexing exercise. Curtin showed, and subsequent scholarship has confirmed, that only about 5 percent of enslaved Africans ended up in what became the United States. Moreover, before the Revolution nearly 90 percent of that 5 percent arrived in North America in European, mostly British, ships. It looked as though the involvement of Americans in the slave trade was insignificant.

Kelley does not so much reject as revise this conclusion. He acknowledges that Americans were not major participants in the larger history of the African slave trade, but he worries that cumulative statistics can understate some of the ways the American trade did matter. It is only the enormousness—and enormity—of the entire slave trade that makes it possible to think of the enslavement of 388,000 Africans as a small fraction.

So, too, does the relatively minor place of American slaving obscure its human cost. Kelley calculates, for example, that American traders removed 305,000 slaves from Africa and that in the process 52,000 people died. “When we consider that each person transported was a member of a family and community,” he concludes, those numbers need to be “multiplied by several times to begin to appreciate the full impact of the trade.”

The fact that Americans transported “only” 2.4 percent of all the slaves transported over four hundred years is similarly misleading. While it is “certainly true that Americans were minor contributors to the transatlantic slave trade in the aggregate,” Kelley notes, “it is also true that for nearly eighty years they were substantial participants, and that for a few years the United States was a major slave-trading nation.” By not allowing the British to police American ships after 1808, the US facilitated the transportation of 150,000 slaves to Cuba and Brazil: “In that sense, the United States was the great enabler of the Cuban slave trade.”

And this is to say nothing of the impact American slavers had on Africa. Here again aggregate numbers obscure the effects they had at particular times in specific places. During the years of their greatest activity, American slavers on the Gold Coast were responsible not for 2.4 percent of the trade, but closer to 15 percent, and they were substantially involved in a commerce that drew productive, often skilled workers from Africa. This fostered the growth of “predatory states in some places” and spread “insecurity everywhere else.” In all these matters Kelley’s judgments are remarkably evenhanded, neither exaggerating nor underestimating the significance of American slavers.

No historian would think to write the history of Puritan New England without reference to the history of Puritanism in “Old” England. Now, thanks to several generations of impressive scholarship by historians of Africa, it has become unthinkable that the history of New World slavery, colonial America, and the early republic can be fully understood apart from the history of Africa. Perhaps Kelley’s greatest achievement is to have incorporated African history into American history in a persuasive way. He has given us an outstanding history of the “ships going out.” We now need a scholar of comparable skill to produce an equally distinguished history of the “ships coming in.”


1Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe (London: Thames and Hudson, 1965), p. 9.

2The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

3The classic account stressing the English response to African “heathens” is Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black (University of North Carolina, 2012)More recent scholarship, based on a wider array of sources, shows that Europeans were often impressed by their similarities with Africans. See, for example, Herman Bennett, African Kings and Black Slaves: Sovereignty and Dispossession in the Early Modern Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019); and John Samuel Harpham, “The Intellectual Origins of American Slavery” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 2018).

4James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441–1770 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003) is a pioneering work that traces the emergence of a “composite” African culture in Brazil. For a wide-ranging survey of the African cultural origins of various Black communities in early America, see David Hackett Fischer’s recent African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals (Simon and Schuster, 2022).

5The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage (Yale University Press, 2021); see my review in these pages, April 8, 2021.

James Oakes’s latest book is The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution. (September 2023)

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