A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

David Eltis (Emory University), 2007

Eventual Abolition

Awareness of the insider-outsider divide within Europe coincided with the onset of the struggle to suppress first the slave trade, and then slavery itself. Early in the British campaign to suppress the slave trade, Charles James Fox, a British statesman, posed a question for the House of Commons that he described as “the foundation for the whole business.” How would members of Parliament react, he asked, if “a Bristol ship were to go to any part of France…and the democrats (there) were to sell the aristocrats, or vice versa, to be carried off to Jamaica….to be sold for slaves?” The very posing of this question – and this is the earliest documented example from someone close to power – meant that the issue was not whether the system was to be questioned, but rather, when it would end. In the same year, the Danes passed legislation ensuring their own slave trade would become illegal in 1802. In 1807, the British and US governments made the trade illegal. Beginning in 1810, the British established a network of treaties that allowed their naval vessels to detain the slave ships of other nations. The decisive actions against the traffic nevertheless did not come until the mid 1840s and again in 1851, when the Cuban and Brazilian governments respectively took serious action against the slave trade. In effect, the traffic could be halted only by the intervention of the governments of regions that were either exporting or importing slaves; it could not be halted by naval action alone. Nevertheless, naval intervention did result in the capture of nearly 2,000 slave vessels after 1808. Only 544 of these had slaves on board at the time of capture, but their 125,000 captives (or strictly, re-captives) were diverted from the sugar and coffee plantations for which they were intended, and for the most part ended their lives with choices they did not have prior to their re-capture.

Between the 1840s and 1850s, the traffic declined from an average of 50,000 a year to 16,000, and after 1860, to half this. It was carried on under the Spanish and Portuguese flags, and sometimes under no flag at all. By now all governments were cooperating to suppress the traffic. From one perspective, the slave trade dragged on for many decades after the first action was taken against it in 1792. From another, it disappeared in less than a century after millennia during which slavery and slave trading had been regarded as normal as growing food. Not surprisingly, a few decades beyond 1867 saw other (though much smaller) varieties of long-distance movement of coerced labor disappear as well. The flow of contract laborers from Asia to the Americas ended in 1917; the last convict dispatched to exile in the Americas returned from Devil’s Island to France in 1952. Notwithstanding the horrors of forced labor of the twentieth century and the ongoing smuggling of illegal laborers into developed countries, often under terms of debt slavery, it is inconceivable that a slave traffic could reappear as a central social institution.

The Trade’s Influence on Ethnic and Racial Identity Notes
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