American Slavery: The Domestic Slave Trade


Figure 1.--Here we see a depiction of a slave coffel in Virginia dated 1839. Such scenes were common in the South. The slaves are being moved south to the cotton plantations of the Deep South. Click on the image for a fuller discussion.

The U.S. Congress prohibited the importation of slaves effective January 1, 1808. To some extent this was because many still believed that slavery was a dieing institution. This was, however, not the case. The invention of the cotton gin and the Industrial Revolution in Europe created a huge demand for cotton. And the American South proved ideal for cotton production. This creasted a demand for slaves as new plantations were founded in the new southern sates west of the Atlantic seaboard. The operations of the cotton plantations were labor intensive. Thus at the same time the demand for slaves increased, the supply of slaves was theoretically restricted by the Federal Government. Slaves for the new plantations of the South would theoretically have to be descendants of the slaves already in America. This was not entirely the case because for years at least some slaves were imported illegally. While importing slaves was banned, participation in the international slave trade or outfitting slaves trips was not outlawed. The slave trade was eventually ended primarily by the Royal Navy. Gradually a domestic slave trade developed and American slavery became self-sustaining. Part of this process was the development of slave breeding operations in Virginia and other states. The domestic slave trade was conducted by both sea and overland routes. The overland slave trade generally developed from Tidewater Virginia and the Carolinas into the highly profitable plantations of the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana). After the Texas War for Independence (1836) the slave trade extended into Texas. The horrrs of the middle passage, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, are some of the better known aspects of African slavery. Rarely disscused are the agonies involved in the inter-state slave trade. The domestic slave trade was conducted by both sea and overland routes.

Atlantic Slave Trade

Most African slaves were brought to America through the Atlantic Slave Trade. This was primarily dyeung the colonial period. The slave trade was an important element in the European colonization of the America. The slave trade began even before Columbus discovered the Americas (1492). The Portuguese moving south along the African coast began tradeing in slaves (early 15th century). The trade expanded in scope one the Portuguese found tht the Native Americans could not be successdfully enslaved, in part because the popultion colapsed due to mistreatment and disaease. Slaves appeared in the English colonies for the sane reasin, to solve the labor countries. Large numbers of captive Africans were enslaved both in the Caribbean and in the thirteen North American colonies (17th century). All the colonies permitted slavery, but the largest numbers were imported into the southern colonies.

Constitutional Convention (1787)

The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Some northern delegates were opposed to it. Southern delegates were committed to it. It became clear that there would be no Constitution without a compromise. As a result, the delegates at the Constitution Convention generally avoided the issue. The unwritten compromise was that a decission on the future of slavery wold be deferred.

The Constitution (1789)

The term "slavery" does not appear in the constitution, although there are references to it. By not addressing slavery in the Constitution, the instiution was essentially put in the hands of individual state governments. Even though not mentioned, a curious arrangement was written in to the Constitution by which for voting purposes slaves would be counted as 3/5s of a person. The Constitution also included a provision that Congress would not end the importation of African slaves until 1808. Many delegates believed or at least hope that slavery would gradually die out as individuals states abolished it. This is what happened in the North.

Cotton

To some extent the compromise over slavery at the Constututional Convention was possible because many still believed that slavery was a dieing institution. John Randolph, a Virginia planter, claimed "...that if the decrease of value in slave labor (in Virginia) continued and the slaves did not run away from their masters, the masters would have to run away from their slaves." This was, however, not the case. And even when Randolph made his famous statement, it was really wishful thining because the value of slsves were increasing. The invention of the cotton gin only a few years after the Constitution was adopte significantly reduced the cost of producing cotton, for the first time making cotton farming profitable. At the same time the Industrial Revolution in Europe created a huge demand for cotton. Cotton was in fact at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. The result was that cotton became the principal export commodity of the United States and cotton farming based on the plantation and slave labor became enormously profitable.

Prohibition of Importation (1808)

The new United States Constitution which was adopted in 1787, prohibited Congress from banning the importation of slaves before 1808. The Congress did just that (1807) and the bill was signed by President Jefferson. The ban came into force on January 1, 1808. This suggests that there was considerable opposition to slavery and the slave trade early in the 19th century. I do not yet have details on Congress action and why the Southern States did not prevent it. The American action must have been affected by the British Parliament's action outlawing the international slave trading (1807) which also went into effect in 1808. While the Federal Govern,ent banned the importation of slaves, participation in the international slave trade or outfitting slaves trips was not outlawed.

Demand for Slaves

The American South proved ideal for cotton production. Cotton was not an impotant crop until Eli Whitney perfected the cotton gin (1793). This revolutionized the economics of cotton farming. This creasted a demand for slaves as new plantations were founded in the new southern sates west of the Atlantic seaboard. The operations of the cotton plantations were labor intensive. At the same time the demand for slaves increased, the supply of slaves was theoretically restricted by the Federal Government banning the importation of slaves. Slaves for the new plantations of the South would theoretically have to be descendants of the slaves already in America. This was not entirely the case because for years slaves were imported illegally.

Ending the African Slave Trade

It was the British Royal Navy that eventually ended the African slave trade. The slave trade had been a lynch pin in thr triangular trade that has been a key element of the British economy and helped bring great wealth to Britain. It had in part helped to finance the growth of the Royal Navy. The expansion of the British merchant fleet under the protection of the Royal Navy resulted in Britain dominating the slave trade by the 18th century. British ships beginning about 1650 are believed to have transported as many as 4 million Africans to the New Wiorld and slavery. The British Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars banned the slave trade (1807). This was a decession made on moral grounds after a long campaign in Britain against slavery at considerable cost at a time of War. After Trafalgur (1805) the powerful British Royal Navy could intercept suspected slave ships under belligerent rights. After the cesation of hostilities this became more complicated. The only internationally recognized reason for boarding foreign ships was suspected piracy. Thus Britain had to persue a major diplomatic effort to convince other countries to sign anti-slavery treaties which permitted the Royal Navy to board their vessels if suspected of transporting slaves. Nearly 30 countries eventually signed these treaties. The anti-slavery effort required a substantial effort on the part of the Royal Navy. The major effort was carried out by the West Coast of Africa Station which the Admiralty referred to as the ‘preventive squadron’. The Royal Navy from this station for 50 years conducted operations to intercept slavers. At the peak of these operartions abour 25 ships and 2,000 officers and men were deployed. There were about 1,000 Kroomen, African sailors, operating West African Station. The Royal Navy deployed smaller, shallow draft vessels so that slavers could be persued in shallow waters. Britain also targeted African leaders who engaged in the slave trade. A British forced in one operation deposed the King of Lagos (1851). The climate and exposure to filthy diseased laden slave ships made the West African station dangerous. The officers and men were rewarded with Prize money for both freeing slaves and capturing the ships. The Royal Navy's task in East Africa and the Indian Ocean was even more difficult. This was in part because of the support for slavery among Islamic powers (both Arabian and Persian). The slave trade persisted into the 1860s, in part because of the continued existence of slavery in the United states. Eventhough thecslave trade was outlawed in America, the American Navy was not used to aggresively inters=dict the slave trade. This did not change until President Lincoln signed the Right of Search Treaty in 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. The Cuban trade ended (1866).

Slave Breeding

While the 1808 bn did not entirely prevent the importation of slaves, it and subsequent action by the Royal Navy to end the African slave trade did reduce the importation. This created a shortage of slaves just as demand was increasing because of the expanding cultivation of cotton. There were other crops (indigo, rice, sugar cane, and tobacco) for which slave labor was used, but cotton was by far the most important. As a result, a new aspect of slsvery in America developed--the breeding slaves. This was not unknown in the 18th century, but the difficulty of importing slaves greatly expanding breeding activities. There was a simple financial calculation here. As the supply of slaves fell and demand for slaves increased, the price for slkaves increased. This mean that breeding slaves became an increasingly profitable undertaking. Virginia became the single most important state involved with breeding slaves. Valuable information can be found in the advertisements published in Souther newspapers. An advertisment from a Charleston, South Carolina newspaper in 1796 read, "... they are not Negroes selected out of a larger gang for the purpose of a sale, but are prime, their present Owner, with great trouble and expense, selected them out of many for several years past. They were purchased for stock and breeding Negroes, and for any Planter who particularly wanted them for that purpose, they are a very choice and desirable gang."

Inter-state Slave Trade

Gradually a domestic slave trade developed and American slavery became self-sustaining. The horrrs of the middle passage, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, are some of the better known aspects of African slavery. Rarely disscused are the agonies involved in the inter-state slave trade. The domestic slave trade was conducted by sea, rivrine, and overland routes. The overland slave trade generally developed from Tidewater Virginia and the Carolinas where there were slave breeding operations to the highly profitable plantations of the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississipi, and Louisiana). The Mississppi was a major rour for shipping slaves South. This gave rise to the term, "sold down the river". After the Texas War for Independence (1836) the slave trade extended into Texas.

Atlantic Slave Trade (1850s)

While the United States abolished the slave trade (1807), this did not mean that the slave trade ended. American Navy and especially the Royal Navy as accounted above did gradually reduce the Trans-Atlabntic Slave Trade. Slave ships we know did continue to arrive in America, both directlt from Africa and from the Caribbean, especiallt from Cuba after the British abolished first the slave trade (1807)and then slavery itself (1833-34). Most scholars believe that from the aboliton of the slave trade (1807) that American slavery was primarily conytinued through an internal slave trade. There were some illegal slaves brought in from overseas. We think that the numbers were relatively small. This was not because rthe Federal Government strictly enforced the laws, but because the mere existence of the laws and the covert sales made Trans-Atlantic operations expensive and thus unprofitable. And America's maritime fleet was largely operated by northeasterners and not southeners. The actual numbers are not, however, known with any certainty because of the covert nature of the enterprise. The last known Trans-Atlantic slave trip to the Inited Stsates occurred just before the Civil War--the Clotilda. It brought 110 childrenand young adults (5-23 years of age) to Alabama (July 1860). [Diouf] The voyage is of special interest because detailed documentation exidsts on both the voyage and the subsequent lives of the Africans in America. The enterprise was organized by Timothy Meaher, a Mobile businessman, contracted the Clotilda to sail to Ouidah in the Bight of Benin. He bet that he could "bring a shipful of niggers right into Mobile Bay under the officers' noses." The circumstances suggest that it was not difficult to bring slaves into the southern stsates at the time, but also it was not being done very commonly, or obviousky no one would have taken the bet.

Sources

Diouf, Sylviane. Dreams of Africa in Alabama: Story of the Last Africans.






HBC









Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to Main American slavery page]
[Return to Main American debate over slasvery]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]




Created: 11:16 PM 4/24/2006
Last updated: 7:05 PM 7/19/2008