Slave Trade in Africa

Slave Trade in Africa
Slave Trade in Africa

Of the nations that participated in the slave trade, Britain had by 1750 the largest trade. The sugar islands of the Caribbean absorbed the bulk of Britain’s slave trade. Between 1753 and 1807 imports into Barbados totaled 104,800 slaves, though this number reveals nothing about the fluctuation in trade during these years. Between 1753 and 1766 imports into Barbados totaled 46,900 slaves, an average of 3,350 per year, and rose to 51,900 over the longer span of 1767 and 1807, though the annual average for these years fell to 2,300.

These numbers reveal that after having peaked around 1770, the trade declined, a dwindling that had nothing to do with supply and demand. Slaves were as plentiful as ever, and the demand was intense. Caribbean planters were forever wringing their hands over the problem of getting more and cheaper slaves.

After 1770 planters came to meet the demand for labor by reproduction more than by trade. By the first decade of the 19th century the slave population in Barbados sustained itself by reproduction, obviating the need for planters to buy slaves. Biology had, at least in Barbados, made commerce in humans superfluous.

The pattern is less clear in Jamaica, where imports reached their nadir of 362 slaves per year between 1784 and 1788. Thereafter, imports recovered, rising to 1,020 per year in 1802 and 1803. This increase implies that the slave trade may well have continued in Jamaica well into the 19th century had Britain not ended it in 1807.

The Leeward Islands show a similar pattern, with imports at 251,100 slaves, an average of roughly 3,440 a year, between 1734 and 1807, more than double the average of 1,600 between 1707 and 1733. The Seven Years’ War won Britain the Caribbean islands of Dominica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, and Tobago.

Flush with victory, Britain poured slaves into these islands, more than 2,000 per year between 1763 and 1769, to convert them to sugar production. Stasis in Dominica allowed Britain to reduce imports to fewer than 300 per year between 1780 and 1807, though imports remained high in the other three islands. In total, Britain imported into these islands 70,100 slaves between 1763 and 1807.

In the island of Grenada, trade peaked about 1780, perhaps a decade after its peak in Barbados. Imports into Grenada halved from 1,600 per year between 1753 and 1778 to 750 per year between 1785 and 1807, implying, as in Barbados, that natural increase more than the slave trade fi lled the demand for labor. In all, Britain imported to its colonies more than 1.8 million slaves between 1750 and 1807.

Abolition Begins

In British North America and the United States, natural increase met the demand of tobacco and rice planters as early as 1700. The expansion of cotton after 1790 and the acquisition of Louisiana in 1803 spiked the trade to 70,000 slaves between 1791 and 1807, an average of 4,375 per year. The U.S. Constitution ended the slave trade in 1808, though merchants defied the law until the Civil War.

Historian Philip D. Curtin estimates the illicit trade at 54,000 slaves between 1808 and 1861, an average of roughly 1,020 per year, and one-quarter of the total of the legal trade. Only the Civil War ended the slave trade and slavery in the United States.

The end of the slave trade in Britain and the United States coincided with the abolition of the trade in Denmark and the Netherlands. Denmark imported 11,160 slaves into the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands) between 1755 and 1799, an average of roughly 250 per year .

The volume of Danish trade rose from an average of 536 slaves per year between 1751 and 1775 to 1,216 per year between 1776 and 1800 and to 5,250 per year between 1801 and its abolition in 1803. Denmark thus ended the slave trade at its zenith. In contrast, the trade in the Netherlands ended after a 40-year decline.

Trade peaked at 118,200 slaves between 1751 and 1775, falling to 34,200 between 1776 and 1800 and to 1,300 between 1801 and its abolition in 1814. A remnant of its former vigor, Elmina, the fortress in Ghana, remained a possession of the Netherlands until 1872.

As in the Netherlands, the trade withered before dying in France. At its apogee, the French trade, at 60,340 slaves imported into the colony of Saint-Domingue in 1788 and 1789, constituted half Europe’s slave trade. These years were the largest in a remarkable spurt in which France imported 338,200 slaves into Saint-Domingue between 1779 and 1791.

The numbers might have been higher still had not a slave revolt in 1791 disrupted trade. Thereafter, French trade hobbled into the 19th century, with 48,900 imports into Martinique between 1788 and 1831 and another 9,100 between 1852 and 1861.

Guadeloupe showed a similar decrease in imports, from 36,500 between 1779 and 1818 to 27,000 between 1819 and 1831 and to 5,900 between 1852 and 1861. France imported 118,000 slaves into Louisiana between 1785 and its sale to the United States in 1803 and 14,100 slaves into French Guiana between 1814 and 1830.

All the while France vacillated, allowing Britain in 1831 to enforce a ban on the slave trade but in 1852 concocting the fiction that Africans aboard French ships were exempt from this prohibition because they were workers rather than slaves.

The End of the Slave Trade

The end of the slave trade in Britain, the United States, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France brought the Iberian nations of Portugal and Spain to the fore. From Jamaica, the Spanish imported into their colonies 206,200 slaves between 1701 and 1807 and another 200,000 from British, French, Dutch, and Danish carriers.

The rise of sugar cultivation on the island of Cuba around 1760 stoked Spain’s demand for slaves. Between 1774 and 1807 planters in Cuba imported 119,000 slaves. The slave trade in Cuba remained robust into the 19th century, averaging more than 10,000 per year in all but a few years between 1817 and 1865. Imports into Cuba between 1801 and 1865 exceeded 600,000.

Puerto Rico was likewise a sugar island, though its demand for slaves was little more than one-tenth that of Cuba. Between 1774 and 1807 Puerto Rico imported 14,800 slaves. The Spanish imported even fewer slaves into Santo Domingo, perhaps 6,000 between 1774 and 1807.

The Portuguese trade rose steadily until the mid-19th century, increasing from 472,900 slaves imported into Brazil and the colonies of other nations between 1751 and 1775 to 1.2 million between 1826 and 1850 dropped.

Portuguese trade slumped to 154,200 slaves between 1851 and 1867. In total, Portugal bought and sold 3.4 million slaves between 1750 and 1867. The prime movers of the slave trade, Portugal and Spain, began and ended it.

By the 19th century the slave trade had fallen out of favor. The planters in the United States and Barbados, with a self-sustaining slave population, did not need to import slaves. The Enlightenment of the 18th century branded slavery, and by implication the slave trade, as wasteful.

In their place, Scottish economist Adam Smith and his disciples advocated wage labor. The Society of Friends (Quakers) and other religious reformers declared slavery and the slave trade contrary to the tenets of Christianity.

In 1783 a delegation of Quakers petitioned the nascent United States and Britain to end the slave trade. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, likewise opposed the slave trade. Opponents of the slave trade coalesced in 1787 into the London Abolition Committee in England. In 1788 and 1789 likeminded organizations formed in France and the United States.

In 1788 Parliament began to regulate the slave trade, and in 1792 the House of Commons passed a bill to outlaw it. The measure died in the House of Lords, but the bill’s revival and enactment in 1807 ended the British slave trade. In 1833 Britain outlawed the slave trade in its colonies.

Two years earlier Britain had begun to patrol the Atlantic for slave ships in an effort to force other nations to end their trade. Denmark in 1803, the Netherlands in 1814, and France in 1848 ended the slave trade. Britain pressured Cuba to abandon the slave trade in 1867, and Brazil followed in 1888, ending four centuries of commerce in humans.