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Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870

Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870

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by W. E. B. Du Bois

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Comprehensive, well-documented 1896 classic draws upon a wealth of primary source materials to examine the South's plantation economy and its influence on the slave trade, the role of Northern merchants in financing the slave trade during the 19th century, and much else.


Comprehensive, well-documented 1896 classic draws upon a wealth of primary source materials to examine the South's plantation economy and its influence on the slave trade, the role of Northern merchants in financing the slave trade during the 19th century, and much else.

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Dover Publications
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African American
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The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870

By W.E.B. Du Bois

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1970 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15477-0



1. Plan of the Monograph.

2. The Rise of the English Slave-Trade

1. Plan of the Monograph. This monograph proposes to set forth the efforts made in the United States of America, from early colonial times until the present, to limit and suppress the trade in slaves between Africa and these shores.

The study begins with the colonial period, setting forth in brief the attitude of England and, more in detail, the attitude of the planting, farming, and trading groups of colonies toward the slave-trade. It deals next with the first concerted effort against the trade and with the further action of the individual States. The important work of the Constitutional Convention follows, together with the history of the trade in that critical period which preceded the Act of 1807. The attempt to suppress the trade from 1807 to 1830 is next recounted. A chapter then deals with the slave-trade as an international problem. Finally the development of the crises up to the Civil War is studied, together with the steps leading to the final suppression; and a concluding chapter seeks to sum up the results of the investigation. Throughout the monograph the institution of slavery and the interstate slave-trade are considered only incidentally.

2. The Rise of the English Slave-Trade. Any attempt to consider the attitude of the English colonies toward the African slave-trade must be prefaced by a word as to the attitude of England herself and the development of the trade in her hands.

Sir John Hawkins's celebrated voyage took place in 1562, but probably not until 16312 did a regular chartered company undertake to carry on the trade. This company was unsuccessful, and was eventually succeeded by the "Company of Royal Adventurers trading to Africa." chartered by Charles II. in 1662, and including the Queen Dowager and the Duke of York. The company contracted to supply the West Indies with three thousand slaves annually; but contraband trade, misconduct, and war so reduced it that in 1672 it surrendered its charter to another company for £34,000. This new corporation, chartered by Charles II. as the "Royal African Company," proved more successful than its predecessors, and carried on a growing trade for a quarter of a century.

In 1698 Parliamentary interference with the trade began. By the Statute 9 and 10 William and Mary, chapter 26, private traders, on payment of a duty of 10% on English goods exported to Africa, were allowed to participate in the trade. This was brought about by the clamor of the merchants, especially the "American Merchants," who "in their Petition suggest, that it would be a great Benefit to the Kingdom to secure the Trade by maintaining Forts and Castles there, with an equal Duty upon all Goods exported." This plan, being a compromise between maintaining the monopoly intact and entirely abolishing it, was adopted, and the statute declared the trade "highly Beneficial and Advantageous to this Kingdom, and to the Plantations and Colonies thereunto belonging."

Having thus gained practically free admittance to the field, English merchants sought to exclude other nations by securing a monopoly of the lucrative Spanish colonial slave-trade. Their object was finally accomplished by the signing of the Assiento in 1713.

The Assiento was a treaty between England and Spain by which the latter granted the former a monopoly of the Spanish colonial slave-trade for thirty years, and England engaged to supply the colonies within that time with at least 144,000 slaves, at the rate of 4,800 per year. England was also to advance Spain 200,000 crowns, and to pay a duty of crowns for each slave imported. The kings of Spain and England were each to receive one-fourth of the profits of the trade, and the Royal African Company were authorized to import as many slaves as they wished above the specified number in the first twenty-five years, and to sell them, except in three ports, at any price they could get.

It is stated that, in the twenty years from 1713 to 1733, fifteen thousand slaves were annually imported into America by the English, of whom from one-third to one-half went to the Spanish colonies. To the company itself the venture proved a financial failure; for during the years 1729–1750 Parliament assisted the Royal Company by annual grants which amounted to £90,000,10 and by 1739 Spain was a creditor to the extent of £68,000, and threatened to suspend the treaty. The war interrupted the carrying out of the contract, but the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle extended the limit by four years. Finally, October 5, 1750, this privilege was waived for a money consideration paid to England; the Assiento was ended, and the Royal Company was bankrupt.

By the Statute 23 George II., chapter 31, the old company was dissolved and a new "Company of Merchants trading to Africa" erected in its stead. Any merchant so desiring was allowed to engage in the trade on payment of certain small duties, and such merchants formed a company headed by nine directors. This marked the total abolition of monopoly in the slave-trade, and was the form under which the trade was carried on until after the American Revolution.

That the slave-trade was the very life of the colonies had, by 1700, become an almost unquestioned axiom in British practical economics. The colonists themselves declared slaves "the strength and sinews of this western world," and the lack of them "the grand obstruction" here, as the settlements "cannot subsist without supplies of them." Thus, with merchants clamoring at home and planters abroad, it easily became the settled policy of England to encourage the slave-trade. Then, too, she readily argued that what was an economic necessity in Jamaica and the Barbadoes could scarcely be disadvantageous to Carolina, Virginia, or even New York. Consequently, the colonial governors were generally instructed to "give all due encouragement and invitation to merchants and others, ... and in particular to the royal African company of England." Duties laid on the importer, and all acts in any way restricting the trade, were frowned upon and very often disallowed. "Whereas," ran Governor Dobbs's instructions, "Acts have been passed in some of our Plantations in America for laying duties on the importation and exportation of Negroes to the great discouragement of the Merchants trading thither from the coast of Africa ... It is our Will and Pleasure that you do not give your assent to or pass any Law imposing duties upon Negroes imported into our Province of North Carolina."

The exact proportions of the slave-trade to America can be but approximately determined. From 1680 to 1688 the African Company sent 249 ships to Africa, shipped there 60,783 Negro slaves, and after losing 14,387 on the middle passage, delivered 46,396 in America. The trade increased early in the eighteenth century, 104 ships clearing for Africa in 1701; it then dwindled until the signing of the Assiento, standing at 74 clearances in 1724. The final dissolution of the monopoly in 1750 led — excepting in the years 1754–57, when the closing of Spanish marts sensibly affected the trade—to an extraordinary development, 192 clearances being made in 1771. The Revolutionary War nearly stopped the traffic; but by 1786 the clearances had risen again to 146.

To these figures must be added the unregistered trade of Americans and foreigners. It is probable that about 25,000 slaves were brought to America each year between 1698 and 1707. The importation then dwindled, but rose after the Assiento to perhaps 30,000. The proportion, too, of these slaves carried to the continent now began to increase. Of about 20,000 whom the English annually imported from 1733 to 1766, South Carolina alone received some 3,000. Before the Revolution, the total exportation to America is variously estimated as between 40,000 and 100,000 each year. Bancroft places the total slave population of the continental colonies at 59,000 in 1714, 78,000 in 1727, and 293,000 in 1754. The census of 1790 showed 697,897 slaves in the United States.

In colonies like those in the West Indies and in South Carolina and Georgia, the rapid importation into America of a multitude of savages gave rise to a system of slavery far different from that which the late Civil War abolished. The strikingly harsh and even inhuman slave codes in these colonies show this. Crucifixion, burning, and starvation were legal modes of punishment. The rough and brutal character of the time and place was partly responsible for this, but a more decisive reason lay in the fierce and turbulent character of the imported Negroes. The docility to which long years of bondage and strict discipline gave rise was absent, and insurrections and acts of violence were of frequent occurrence. Again and again the danger of planters being "cut off by their own negroes" is mentioned, both in the islands and on the continent. This condition of vague dread and unrest not only increased the severity of laws and strengthened the police system, but was the prime motive back of all the earlier efforts to check the further importation of slaves.

On the other hand, in New England and New York the Negroes were merely house servants or farm hands, and were treated neither better nor worse than servants in general in those days. Between these two extremes, the system of slavery varied from a mild serfdom in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to an aristocratic caste system in Maryland and Virginia.



3. Character of these Colonies.

4. Restrictions in Georgia.

5. Restrictions in South Carolina.

6. Restrictions in North Carolina.

7. Restrictions in Virginia.

8. Restrictions in Maryland.

9. General Character of these Restrictions.

3. Character of these Colonies. The planting colonies are those Southern settlements whose climate and character destined them to be the chief theatre of North American slavery. The early attitude of these communities toward the slave-trade is therefore of peculiar interest; for their action was of necessity largely decisive for the future of the trade and for the institution in North America. Theirs was the only soil, climate, and society suited to slavery; in the other colonies, with few exceptions, the institution was by these same factors doomed from the beginning. Hence, only strong moral and political motives could in the planting colonies overthrow or check a traffic so favored by the mother country.

4. Restrictions in Georgia. In Georgia we have an example of a community whose philanthropic founders sought to impose upon it a code of morals higher than the colonists wished. The settlers of Georgia were of even worse moral fibre than their slave-trading and whiskey-using neighbors in Carolina and Virginia; yet Oglethorpe and the London proprietors prohibited from the beginning both the rum and the slave traffic, refusing to "suffer slavery (which is against the Gospel as well as the fundamental law of England) to be authorised under our authority." The trustees sought to win the colonists over to their belief by telling them that money could be better expended in transporting white men than Negroes; that slaves would be a source of weakness to the colony; and that the "Produces designed to be raised in the Colony would not require such Labour as to make Negroes necessary for carrying them on,"

This policy greatly displeased the colonists, who from 1735, the date of the first law, to 1749, did not cease to clamor for the repeal of the restrictions. As their English agent said, they insisted that "In Spight of all Endeavours to disguise this Point, it is as clear as Light itself, that Negroes are as essentially necessary to the Cultivation of Georgia, as Axes, Hoes, or any other Utensil of Agriculture." Meantime, evasions and infractions of the laws became frequent and notorious. Negroes were brought across from Carolina and "hired "for life. "Finally, purchases were openly made in Savannah from African traders: some seizures were made by those who opposed the principle, but as a majority of the magistrates were favorable to the introduction of slaves into the province, legal decisions were suspended from time to time, and a strong disposition evidenced by the courts to evade the operation of the law." At last, in 1749, the colonists prevailed on the trustees and the government, and the trade was thrown open under careful restrictions, which limited importation, required a registry and quarantine on all slaves brought in, and laid a duty. It is probable, however, that these restrictions were never enforced, and that the trade thus established continued unchecked until the Revolution.

5. Restrictions in South Carolina. South Carolina had the largest and most widely developed slave-trade of any of the continental colonies. This was owing to the character of her settlers, her nearness to the West Indian slave marts, and the early development of certain staple crops, such as rice, which were adapted to slave labor. Moreover, this colony suffered much less interference from the home government than many other colonies; thus it is possible here to trace the untrammeled development of slave-trade restrictions in a typical planting community,

As early as 1698 the slave-trade to South Carolina had reached such proportions that it was thought that "the great number of negroes which of late have been imported into this Collony may endanger the safety thereof." The immigration of white servants was therefore encouraged by a special law. Increase of immigration reduced this disproportion, but Negroes continued to be imported in such numbers as to afford considerable revenue from a moderate duty on them. About the time when the Assiento was signed, the slave-trade so increased that, scarcely a year after the consummation of that momentous agreement, two heavy duty acts were passed, because "the number of Negroes do extremely increase in this Province, and through the afflicting providence of God, the white persons do not proportionately multiply, by reason whereof, the safety of the said Province is greatly endangered." The trade, however, by reason of the encouragement abroad and of increased business activity in exporting naval stores at home, suffered scarcely any check, although repeated acts, reciting the danger incident to a "great importation of Negroes," were passed, laying high duties. Finally, in 1717, an additional duty of £40,13 although due in depreciated currency, succeeded so nearly in stopping the trade that, two years later, all existing duties were repealed and one of £10 substituted. This continued during the time of resistance to the proprietary government, but by 1734 the importation had again reached large proportions. "We must therefore beg leave," the colonists write in that year, "to inform your Majesty, that, amidst our other perilous circumstances, we are subject to many intestine dangers from the great number of negroes that are now among us, who amount at least to twenty-two thousand persons, and are three to one of all your Majesty's white subjects in this province. Insurrections against us have been often attempted." In 1740 an insurrection under a slave, Cato, at Stono, caused such widespread alarm that a prohibitory duty of £100 was immediately laid. Importation was again checked; but in 1751 the colony sought to devise a plan whereby the slightly restricted immigration of Negroes should provide a fund to encourage the importation of white servants, "to prevent the mischiefs that may be attended by the great importation of negroes into this Province." Many white servants were thus encouraged to settle in the colony; but so much larger was the influx of black slaves that the colony, in 1760, totally prohibited the slave-trade. This act was promptly disallowed by the Privy Council and the governor reprimanded; but the colony declared that "an importation of negroes, equal in number to what have been imported of late years, may prove of the most dangerous consequence in many respects to this Province, and the best way to obviate such danger will be by imposing such an additional duty upon them as may totally prevent the evils." A prohibitive duty of ;£100 was accordingly imposed in 1764. This duty probably continued until the Revolution.

The war made a great change in the situation. It has been computed by good judges that, between the years 1775 and 1783, the State of South Carolina lost twenty-five thousand Negroes, by actual hostilities, plunder of the British, runaways, etc. After the war the trade quickly revived, and considerable revenue was raised from duty acts until 1787, when by act and ordinance the slave-trade was totally prohibited. This prohibition, by renewals from time to time, lasted until 1803.


Excerpted from The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 by W.E.B. Du Bois. Copyright © 1970 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Meet the Author

W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) was an African-American sociologist, civil rights activist, and author. He was one of the founding members of the NAACP, and he is well-known for believing on full civil rights and disagreeing with Booker T. Washington’s argument that blacks remain subservient. His most famous book, The Souls of Black Folk, defines the term "double-consciousness" and remains a cornerstone of African-American literature.

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The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
chipstuart More than 1 year ago
A most brilliant book, published in 1898, and highlighting extraordinary scholarship, not often seen today. Few works are written with such clean prose, driving home the lessons of history in stunning clarity and power. A must read. By analogy, the failure of our "founders" to address the question of slavery and its irrefutable immorality suggests a calamity far greater than the civil war when one contemplates the same fecklessness and dithering concerning the moral imperative of "global warming" and the same failure to act on political and economic excuses. Most instructive.