Harris, John. The Last Slave Ships: New York and The End Of The Middle Passage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.
Reviewed by Bob Cary
There is something of a “close parenthesis” quality to John Harris’s engrossing discussion of the closing days of the Atlantic Slave trade. Harris focuses on the trade as it played out on Manhattan’s docks and in its commercial houses in the opening years of the nineteenth century to the eve of the Civil War. As the title suggests, this is not a study of the slave trade at high tide. Harris’s slave trade is not run by the British and the French with Americans as eager participants—profiting from slaves’ labor as they made cotton the driver of America’s commodity capitalism and from selling, outfitting, and insuring American-made ships to players in the slave trade. The British are now on the side, more or less, of the angels and are working to suppress the slave trade. Other players have moved on: Brazil, once a major importer of slaves, bows out after gaining its independence. The irony of the moment—and of the study itself—is that the Portuguese, the first major players in organizing and profiting from the slave trade, are the last ones out the door.
The American abolition movement was gaining strength as the nineteenth century unfolded, even while the domain of cotton and slavery was growing and looking to expand further west—or, perchance, to Cuba, a fruit slave owners saw as destined to be plucked by them.
But then in 1808 Congress, at the very earliest moment allowed by the Constitution, voted to prohibit the importation of slaves from Africa. Why? Considering the horrors of the Middle Passage, some Northern Congressmen thought the trade utterly immoral, but slave owners themselves often favored stopping importation. Harris argues that this was because without slave imports, their own homegrown slaves would become all the more valuable. Virginians in particular profited from the internal slave trade; they wanted to “whiten up” the Old Dominion state by selling slaves south and west to enlarge the domain of cotton. Predictably, however, as the value of slaves soared, smuggling from Africa became increasingly worth the risk.
Harris is very good at showing the reader how Portuguese traders, financiers, and other old hands at the slave trade set up shop in New York. Such scofflaws renewed contacts in Portugal, Africa, Spain and Cuba to keep taking the necessary risks associated with the international slave trade and profits it could yield. He shows us how Manoel Cunha Reis and Jose de Silva Maia Ferreira—Portuguese and Angolan Portuguese respectively—continually adjusted to the changing shape of the triangle trade and profited from the trade even as British efforts at suppression gained in effectiveness.
Why did New York play a starring role in the closing days of the trade? Two reasons according to Harris. First, “…by the mid-1840s the United States was the only major maritime power able to keep Britain from routinely interfering with its vessels.” That was one of the results of the War of 1812 and it handsomely served slavers’ purposes. The second reason: Americans built fast ships making it easier to avoid capture. Between 1853 and 1866, “…75% of all slaving voyages sailed under US colors.” Portuguese outfitters became adept at buying and outfitting ships; US officials tended to look the other way for as long as commercial success and a vigorous carrying trade meant American maritime success.
Harris walks the reader through the details of outfitting a slaver, the growth of Admiralty Courts and Commissions that the British established to deal with the slavers it caught, with the numbers of spies that it had (and very often didn’t pay) in New York, in Cuba, and in the West African ports where slavers picked up their cargo. Even as these efforts were beginning to yield success, slavers managed to squeeze profits out of the trade until New York and the United States was closed to them. The trade survived beyond that; in the Epilogue, Harris details the fate of another “triangle” anchored in Spain. He closes his study with discussion of the survivors of the last slave ship to make it to the United States, landing in the Mobile River in Alabama in 1860. The ship was the Clotilde, and the survivors settled not far from where their ship ran aground in a community they named Africa Town, Alabama. The last ship, indeed.
Bob Carey did his undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut (’61); read for degrees in theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (’66, ’68); and did his doctoral work in American history at Columbia University in New York City (’84). He served as an Assistant Pastor at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in the 1960s and has been a faculty member of Empire State College since 1973, retiring in 2018. He has served as an Associate and Graduate Dean in the course of his career with the College. His areas of interest in historical studies are America’s racial and religious history, the history of food and disease, and critical reading.
Featured image (at top): Even after the United States outlawed the importation of African slaves in 1808, New York remained the hub of the continuing slave trade in the decades leading up to the Civil War. “New York, from Brooklyn Heights” New York Public Library Digital Collections.