Modern history

14

By the Grace of God

Louis, by the grace of God . . . we have been informed that le sieur Jacques-Alexandre Laffon de Ladébat, trader in our city of Bordeaux, has carried on his commerce in Africa and in America and is distinguished by his zeal, by the extent of his operations and by the commerce of the slave trade . . . that, since 1764, he has arranged to send to our islands of America over 4,000 slaves, through fifteen vessels which he has sent to the coasts of Africa . . . that at present without cease he has seven ships employed in the slave trade or in the provisioning of our islands. . . .

Letter by King Louis XV with respect to the ennoblement of a Bordeaux merchant

THE LATE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY saw the beginning of the industrial revolution, which still has not spent itself in the late twentieth century. It marked the subsequent beginning of a transition from a life predominantly rural to one decidedly urban; and a new language in which social and political history could be discussed was devised in France. The last half of the century also saw several wars in which the national identity of the leading nations was created or reaffirmed, with a new generation of heroes: the framers of the Constitution of the United States; Nelson’s captains; the French revolutionary generals; the enlightened despots and their advisers in Prussia, Spain, and Portugal. It was the age of medical advances symbolized by vaccination against smallpox; and it was also the age of sugar.

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We observe in England the consequences, in the fat faces in the portraits of the beauties and the kings, of the ostlers and of the actresses. In 1750, already, “the poorest English farm labourer’s wife took sugar in her tea.” She baked sweet cakes, and spread treacle on her bread, as well as her porridge. Mrs. Hannah Glasse’s famous first cookery book in England, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy and subtitled which far exceeds anything of the kind ever yet published, whose first edition was in 1747, shows that sugar was no longer to be considered primarily a medicine, at least in a supposedly advanced country such as England. “Take . . . three quarters of a pound of the best moist sugar . . .” was part of her recipe for “a cake in the Spanish way.” Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility records a moment of anxiety when impending poverty threatens the heroine’s family’s purchases of sugar. The pudding, hitherto made of fish or light meat, now embarked on its unhealthy history as a separate sweet course. Sugar began too to be used as a preservative, as an alternative to salt. Fifty years later, the typical poor family in England would give as much as 6 percent of its income to sugar. In 1848, a planter with property in both Demerara (Guiana) and Grenada declared to a committee of the House of Commons that the consumption of sugar had “almost become a necessary of life.” The saccharine soul of Britain’s golden age seems thus clear. How could the sugar be found? As yet, the idea of obtaining it from beet was still a secret in the brain of an obscure Silesian; so the plantations of the West Indies seemed, therefore, the source of all comfort.

France was in a condition similar to Britain. By now two-thirds of French exports carried by sea went to the West Indies and, as in the case of England, sugar was the most valuable single import. Sugar stimulated the talkers in the great coffeehouses of Paris and of Bordeaux. It gave energy to the philosophes in the drawing rooms of great ladies and humor to petits marquis in the cold drawing rooms of Versailles. It would afford courage to the soldiers as well as the generals of the Grande Armée. Prince Talleyrand’s nostalgia for an epoch when the “douceur de vivre” survived employed an appropriate metaphor; and, of course, sugar in France, as elsewhere, depended on the imports of African slaves into the Caribbean.

Britain was, in these years, dominant in the Atlantic commerce in slaves. Between 1740 and 1750, her ships probably took to the Americas over two hundred thousand slaves: far more than any country had carried in any ten years before. Of these British shipments, nearly sixty thousand were probably taken to Virginia and the Carolinas. Over fifty thousand slaves went to Jamaica, and thirty thousand to Barbados, with well over sixty thousand to other colonies. In the single year 1749, British merchants sent out about 150 ships in the trade, with a capacity for at least fifty thousand slaves: seventy ships from Liverpool, nearly fifty from Bristol, eight from London, as well as twenty or so ships from minor harbors, such as Whitehaven, Lancaster, and Glasgow. Those secondary ports should not be ignored, for Lancaster was investing heavily in these years in the trade, and that tiny port became Britain’s fourth-largest slave trader, with twelve ships so occupied in 1756, her example encouraging some of her poorer neighbors on Britain’s northwestern coast, such as Preston, Poulton, and even bleak Ulverston, to follow her lead. South Carolina was a specially appreciative market, as can be seen from the papers of the Charleston merchant Henry Laurens. Well might Malachy Postlethwayt—a hack economics writer, author of The Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce—say, approvingly, in a book published in 1745 to support the Royal Africa Company, that the British empire was then “a magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power, on an African foundation [author’s italics].”1

In 1750, the slave trade was made even easier for British merchants: an act made the commerce entirely open, so that it was henceforth “lawful for all His Majesty’s subjects to trade and traffick to and from any port in Africa. . . .”2 A new holding company representing all merchants trading to Africa was established to look after British forts and trading posts. This was to be directed by a board composed of traders from Bristol, London, and Liverpool, which set about devising a new form of regulation to maintain those places. The eventual arrangements were a good example of the English approach to the mixed economy: the Crown gave the new company an annual grant of ten thousand pounds to maintain the forts, but the company—that is, the merchants—ran them, and were also responsible for the appointment of governors. Every trader to Africa was thereafter supposed to pay two pounds, to either the town clerk of Liverpool, the clerk of the Merchants’ Hall in Bristol, or the chamberlain of London, as a fee for using the African ports. Like many of the best English institutions, the company had the character, therefore, of a club.

The 1750s saw few changes in slave deliveries, at least until the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War. Britain again delivered over 200,000 slaves in these ten years: about 65 ships a year left from Liverpool, 25 from Bristol, 10 from London; ships from Liverpool were now carrying over half the slaves exported from Africa by Europeans. The Brazilian trade was not far behind, and accounted for 170,000, over half from Angola, about 50,000 from Mina, and the remainder from Mozambique round the Cape of Good Hope. The French, much affected by the war, in which they lost so much, shipped about 90,000. The war virtually brought their commerce to a temporary end. From 1757 to 1761, only two slave ships left French ports (both from Bayonne). The English seized over 100 ships from Nantes, causing the ruin of several famous shippers there (Michel et Grou, Trochonde Lorière, Rollet du Challet, Struickman, Desridelières-Leroux, and others). But there were some successful French attacks on English ships: Captain William Creevey, father of the courtly diarist Thomas Creevey, recalled how his slaver, Betty, was sunk off Spain while en route to Gambia.

The war affected slaving in other ways. Thus, in 1758, a British expedition sent on the urgent recommendation of Thomas Cumming, of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, captured both Sénégal (May 2) and Gorée (December 27), and soon all the most important French anchorages in Africa, with their six factories, were in Britain’s hands.

The victors began immediately to export slaves from those ports. Yet, war or no war, some merchants of France were prosperous: between 1748 and 1765, a single merchant, Guillaume Grou, sent from Nantes forty-three négriers, to carry over 16,000 captives. The government in Paris showed itself so determined to revive the trade that it introduced bounties for slave ships leaving France for Africa, and increased the existing bounties for every slave landed in the West Indies. French planters were, however, still dissatisfied, for the shortages were continuous and harvests had to be brought in, whatever the cause of the conflict. They bought slaves illicitly from English or Dutch merchants—sometimes from ships “obliged” to take refuge in a French harbor, sometimes from English ships which secretly landed slaves on the indented south coast of Saint-Domingue.

There was, meantime, one unexpected benefit to France of the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s (and Antoine Walsh’s) efforts to recover the British throne for the Roman Church: a Jacobite manufacturer from Manchester, John Holker, fled to France, and convinced both merchants and officials there of the desirability of using, and stealing, English techniques for dyeing and printing textiles: hence his factory in the Rouen suburb of Saint-Sever in the Seine Valley. Many of his imaginative products found their way onto slave vessels. So did those of Julien-Joseph Pinczon du Sel des Monts who, at Salleverte, near Rennes, planned his new manufactury of textiles for the benefit of the shippers of Nantes’s African trade. His Considérations sur le commerce de Bretagneendeared him to the états of the region, and they gave him a large subsidy. Another new manufacturer was André Langevin, who had himself been a minor slave dealer, but who, in 1759, became an indienneur to serve his old colleagues and rivals in that trade.

In these years, Spain was too backward and too poor to look on sugar as the recipe for prosperity. The aristocrats could buy it from France, the poor (“les nègres de l’Europe,” in Chamfort’s phrase) could be overlooked. Yet sugar was being produced in the Spanish empire, and slaves were still held to be needed in a hundred anchorages there. When, after 1739, the War of the Austrian Succession between Spain and Britain caused the South Sea Company’s contract again temporarily to lapse, the Spanish Crown made a contract for slaves with a Havana merchant of Basque origin, Martín de Ulibarrí, the first Spanish asentista for two generations; and, when nothing seemed to transpire, began a series of separate agreements with different companies which, the government hoped, would meet the demand in different markets. Thus, after 1746, the new Royal Havana Company was given a twenty-year license to introduce merchandise to that port, including the right to sell five hundred slaves, at 144 pesos each. The company sounded new; but its directors were all members of well-known Cuban oligarchic families, who themselves had sugar mills near at hand. Other companies were given similar licenses: the much more successful Guipúzcoa (Caracas) Company, for example, which made much money carrying cacao to serve the new chocolate craze in Madrid, carried nearly twelve thousand slaves to the port of Caracas between 1754 and 1765; and a special concession enabled Ramón Palacio to import two thousand or more blacks into Chile and Peru.

The changes which these arrangements made were modest: none of the new companies went to Africa to look for slaves, they merely continued to buy in Jamaica, or elsewhere in the Caribbean. The Spanish government must have known that was likely, if only because the Havana Company’s agent, José Ruiz de Noriega, traveled to that island specifically to make the necessary plans with George Frier, who had been the South Sea Company’s representative at Cartagena.

Peace after 1748 brought the revival of the South Sea Company’s contract but, two years later, its directors, such as Sir Peter Burrell, MP, being by then passive or lazy, by mutual agreement between Spain and Britain brought the venture to an end. Neither the British government nor those directors felt that the once-promising arrangements concluded in 1713 now had prospects. Spain even paid £100,000 for the British renunciation of the opportunity.

Spain had then to consider its needs anew. Another Basque merchant, Martín de Ariosteguí, was in 1754 asked to try and satisfy the demands of the empire. But despite his initial enthusiasm, he failed to produce any slaves at all. France was then again temporarily if informally allocated the asiento, and Antoine Walsh, Prince Charles Edward’s friend and financier, prepared to supply blacks from his “floating factory,” off the coast of Angola. His plan was that there would be a fortified assembly point in Saint-Domingue, from which slaves would be distributed to the French and Spanish markets. But again little transpired. As a result, in 1753, the Spanish Crown gave permission to Spanish companies to bring slaves directly from Africa to Cuba. The papal rule of 1493, limiting trade with Africa to Portugal, was at last, unceremoniously, put aside, at a time when the Spanish and Portuguese governments were also reconsidering Pope Alexander VI’s division established at Tordesillas in that same far-off year.

All the same, nothing was done immediately, in the light of this liberal decision. Spanish merchants had gone down the West African coast occasionally in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but the Crown had no African factories, no navy on the coast, and little commercial experience in the territory. Still, when similar rights were offered to a Catalan company, the Barcelona Company, to provide slaves to Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Margarita, some long-term voyages were planned and, in 1758, the first boat for many years, the Perla Catalana of Barcelona, did arrive in San Juan direct from Africa.

The opportunities offered by the trade in slaves, and especially the dominance of Britain in the business, were reflected in North America, where, in these last years before the revolution of the 1770s, slave merchants were beginning to be men of wealth. They were never as rich as those found in Liverpool or Nantes, or even in Middelburg in the Netherlands but, relatively speaking, they were important. In South Carolina, for example, there was Henry Laurens of Charleston, who has already been briefly mentioned. Laurens was a trader of Huguenot stock (his grandfather, André, came from La Rochelle, in the late seventeenth century a major slave port, and so perhaps the commerce was in his blood). South Carolina was already known, at the time of Laurens’s birth, for its production of rice and indigo for the home market; a biographer of his explained, “The very trying summer climate, supplemented by the unhealthy nature of the tasks, made African slavery inevitable.”3 Laurens began to trade slaves, in company with George Austen, also of South Carolina, in 1748, when he told Foster Cunliffe, a Liverpool correspondent, that “there is a good prospect of good sales for negroes in that province, as rice [this year] promises fair to be a good commodity.” He told other English slave merchants of his plans to enter the traffic in slaves (for example, Isaac Hobhouse of Bristol). He, Laurens, wanted to buy slaves from English or other traders and then resell them—mostly, but not entirely, to Carolina planters. In return for a commission of 10 percent, Laurens would also arrange to give security in England, and collect all slave-trading debts, but he did not propose any limit on the length of time that he would be offered credit. Laurens’s principal partner in England was Devonshire, Reed and Lloyd of Bristol, but he also used the imposing Augustus Boyd of London who, with his son, John, would form one of the best collections of paintings in England.I After a few years, though, Laurens’s English partners, especially those in Liverpool, began to turn their business over to other traders who would offer “immediate remittance”; and so Laurens was run close, as the main dealer, by rivals such as Samuel Brailsford and Miles Brewton. Laurens sent a few ships direct to Africa, but most of his profits derived from buying captives from captains who had been sent by his friends in England, and then reselling them.

There was plenty of money to be made by all these men, for the 1750s marked a breakthrough in slaving in South Carolina. In 1754, the governor, James Glen, reported that “negroes are sold at higher prices here than in any part of the King’s dominions . . . a proof that this province is in a flourishing condition, for these importations are not to supply the place of Negroes worn out with hard work, or lost by mortality. . . . But our number increases even without such yearly supply. I presume ‘tis indigo that puts all in such high spirits. . . .”4 The proportion of slaves which came from natural increase in South Carolina was certainly high: one plantation’s stock of slaves there grew in Laurens’s day from eighty-six to 270 in thirty-eight years, only twelve or fourteen of them being replaced by purchases. Yet Laurens reported in 1755, “Never was there such pulling and hawling for negroes before. Had there been a thousand, they would not have supplied the demand.”5 The firm of Austen and Laurens was concerned with wines and spirits, beer, deerskins, rice, indigo, and indentured servants, as well as slaves, but it carried, in 1755, about a quarter of Charleston’s slaving business: seven hundred slaves that year. Laurens made a profit of 10 percent on every slave imported, 5 percent on other produce.

That same year, Laurens wrote to Captain Charles Gwynn of the Emperor, then at Jamaica: “If you had arriv’d about the middle of April, or anytime since, we should have made a glorious Sale of your cargo, our planters are in full spirits for purchasing Slaves, and have made almost all the money loaded up for that purpose. Indigo has kept up at almost an exorbitant price in England, so has rice. . . . Capt. [William] Jeffries [on the Pearl, owned by Thomas Easton & Co, of Bristol] arrived here the 10th instant with 251 pretty slaves. . . .” Most sold at between £270 and £280 each, “a very great price for Angola slaves.” Laurens was able to tell Easton that he had made £52,294 on this voyage.6

In another sale at Charleston, Laurens sold slaves from the Orrel, owned by John Knight of Liverpool, to a most diverse group: to, for example, Peter Furnell of Jamaica; to Gedney Clarke, collector of customs at Barbados; to William Wells, Jr., of Saint Kitts; to Devonshire, Reed and Lloyd of Bristol, presumably for resale in North America; to the art collector and slave dealer Augustus Boyd of London; and to Robert and John Thompson, two brothers who were the leaders of the trade in slaves from Lancaster. The sale shows the extent to which these traders in captives, even in then parochial North America, were far from being provincial men; like Bartolommeo Marchionni of Lisbon in the fifteenth century, or Coymans of Amsterdam in the seventeenth, they thought in intercontinental terms.

Laurens is one of the most interesting men in the long history of the Atlantic slave trade since, a great gentleman who loved his own slaves, in later life he repented of his involvement in the traffic. But he never did much against it, and bought one or two more slaves from an English friend, Richard Oswald of London, even after he had become convinced of the need for change. Having made his fortune, and established himself at Mepkin, a fine property on the Cooper River, inland from his city, Laurens withdrew from active slaving about 1764; he later entered politics, became the president of the Continental Congress and, after a year in prison in England, became a peace commissioner, in 1782, with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay in Paris, where Richard Oswald was a senior British negotiator.II

Despite the significance of Charleston as a market, Rhode Island, and particularly Newport, was, in the 1750s and the 1760s, still the North American colonies’ most important slaving zone. Newport, which always welcomed enterprising people without asking whence they came, also used more slaves in small businesses, farms, or homes than any other Northern colony did. If, as seems likely, Rhode Island carried just over 150,000 slaves from Africa either to the Caribbean or to North America, probably 100,000 were financed by merchants of Newport. About 110 slavers cleared Newport for Africa in the 1750s, 165 in the 1760s. These figures were, of course, small beer in comparison with those of the major slaving ports of Europe.

One successful merchant of Newport interested in slaving was the “active, alert, shrewd, bold, and masterful” John Bannister, whose ancestors had been merchants in Boston and who, like many others, came to Newport after 1733 as a protest against the prejudices he encountered in that austere city. Like Laurens in Charleston, Bannister was as much at home in old as in New England. He even built ships for merchants in England, such as Joseph Manesty of Liverpool (owner of the Duke of Argyll, presumably called after the duke who had been a South Sea director, on which the Reverend John Newton was once captain).III Another important slave merchant was Abraham Redwood, who was among the first North Americans to carry commercial logic to its geographical conclusion by not only trading in Newport and Africa but owning a plantation in Jamaica, to which his own ships took slaves from Africa. Quaker merchants were involved, too, in Rhode Island slaving; for example, Joseph Wanton, who became his family’s fourth governor of Rhode Island, saw no difficulty whatever in buying and selling slaves in the 1770s.

The most interesting of these merchants of Rhode Island with slaving interests in the second half of the eighteenth century was, however, Aaron Lopez of Newport, who, unusually in the United States at that time, was Jewish Portuguese in origin. He had concealed his Judaism in his youth in Portugal, and came to North America in 1752 (and to always welcoming Newport a little later). He was, to begin with, a general trader, operating from a shop in Thames Street, selling everything from Bibles to violins, being especially concerned in the trade in candles made from whale spermaceti. He always kept his spermaceti works, but he entered the slave trade in 1762, in collaboration with his father- and brother-in-law, Jacobo and Abraham Ribera; and spermaceti candles often figured among their cargoes to Africa. By 1775, Lopez was the largest taxpayer in Newport and owned over thirty ships. It is not quite clear how many slaving ships he financed; his accounts seem to list only fourteen direct voyages to Africa, but over fifty to the West Indies, from which his captains sometimes presumably returned with slaves, and delivered them in North America—for example, in South Carolina. Lopez, like Abraham Redwood, was as philanthropic as he was successful. The Dictionary of American Biography exhausts its approbatory adjectives in describing Lopez as “beneficient to his family connections, to his nation, and to all the world,” as “almost without a parallel.” Again like Redwood, he was also the proprietor of an estate in the British West Indies, in his case in Antigua.

Trading in slaves was carried on elsewhere than in Rhode Island: for example, in Maryland, where the Galloway, Tilghman, and Ringgold families were prominent. They or their colleagues sold a hundred thousand slaves in one way or another by the end of the eighteenth century, perhaps many from natural increase, but also many bought from captains hailing originally from Liverpool or London. Thomas Ringgold and Samuel Galloway, with houses on opposite sides of Chesapeake Bay, sent at least one ship direct to Africa, all the same, as well as several to the West Indies.

Nor can New York be neglected as a slave port. At least 130 slave voyages seem to have been mounted from that city to Africa between 1747 and 1774, William and Garret van Horne and John and Stephen van Courtlandt being prominent alongside Nathaniel Marston and Philip Livingston, the latter’s sons also being investors (Marston and Livingston seem the only merchants to have had investments in as many as four ships). Thus it was not surprising that, in the region of the Sherbro River, in what is now Sierra Leone, John Newton of Liverpool, then the captain of a slave ship, should have exchanged slaves with Captain William Williams of New York in the Rebekah, a sloop. Trading in slaves, of course, constituted only a tiny proportion—2 percent perhaps of the total commerce of the city—and many more ships, nearly six hundred between 1715 and 1764, went to the West Indies than to Africa. Even so, between a third and a quarter of New York’s four hundred merchants were concerned in one way or another in the slave trade in the mid-eighteenth century.

Merchants from Massachusetts were also implicated: families from Boston who invested in the slave trade in the eighteenth century included the Belchers, the Waldos, the Faneuils, and the Cabots; there were also the Crowninshields and the Grafton brothers of Salem; and, farther north still, the Pepperells of Kittery, a little port just in Maine. Still, all these enterprises were on a small scale. Boston shipping destined for Africa rarely totaled ten a year before 1774, in comparison with nearly sixty destined for Britain and sometimes nearly two hundred for the Caribbean.

Pious Pennsylvania was also sending ships in the 1760s to Africa for slaves. The supply of indentured servants there had been exhausted. This led to new initiatives being taken by merchants already interested, such as Thomas Riche, or the powerful firm of Thomas Willing and Robert Morris. The latter company is of special interest, since Morris, the future “financier of the revolution,” even if he did help to send the patriotic-sounding Granby across the Atlantic to Africa, was the son of an agent of the well-connected slave merchant Foster Cunliffe, of Liverpool, at Oxford, on the Chesapeake Bay. Perhaps a dozen ships left the City of Brotherly Love for Africa in the ten years before the War of Independence, and perhaps a thousand slaves a year were imported.

Few slaves were in these days sold in New England, except for Rhode Island, and fewer still of those came direct from Africa. For there was no work on which slaves could be easily employed there, and the few slaves in New England were mostly domestics.

One important change came in 1750. For the first fifteen years of its existence, between 1733 and 1748, the Trustees of Georgia had forbidden the import of slaves. The Scottish settlers of Darien, on the southern coast, and the Salzburgers of nearby Ebenezer supported this prohibition, but the Anglo-Saxon settlers in Savannah bitterly opposed it: they had been raising their tall glasses to “the one thing needful” for twenty years. The trustees were harassed, and there had been much illegal import. In 1750, the Anglo-Saxons won the debate and Georgia declared slavery legal. Thereafter, the colony was soon transformed: there were 1,065 slaves in 1753 and 7,800 in 1766.

•  •  •

The Seven Years’ War, of 1756-63, was Britain’s most successful engagement in a world conflict. Her defeat of France in both Canada and India was accompanied by her conquest of the French sugar islands of Guadeloupe and later Martinique, as well (as we have seen) as their slave suppliers in Africa.IV Havana also fell to the English in 1762.

Cuba had previously had a small number of African slaves, say thirty-two thousand, working on about a hundred small sugar plantations. John Kennion, the Liverpool-born Unitarian commissary, or general supplier, to the commanders who conquered the island, was given an exclusive right to import to the place two thousand slaves a year, of whom fifteen hundred were to be men, five hundred women. Kennion already had plantations in Jamaica, as did many go-ahead English slave merchants of the day. But though this unitarian Liverpudlian sold many slaves during the nine months of British occupation—probably seventeen hundred—his competitors sold as many: “The acquisition of Havana will give great spirits to the planters in Georgia and Carolina to purchase negroes,” wrote Henry Laurens to John Knight in Liverpool; “a cargo from Angola lately sold at higher prices than we ever knew, considering the quality.”7,V Many of the most respected names in the Anglo-Saxon world of commerce turned their ships towards Havana in 1762 and 1763 (including Samuel Touchett, the cotton pioneer and MP, of Manchester; and Sir Alexander Grant, MP, of Glasgow and London).

All these merchants found that Kennion’s privileged arrangements excluded them. The glut in slaves in Cuba meant that prices plummeted. The old state monopoly company had before the war sold piezas de indias at three hundred dollars each. The new merchants could only sell at ninety dollars. The British army also sold off in Havana the thousand or so slaves which they had brought to serve as porters and general assistants in the campaign.

The criollo planters of West Cuba were delighted by the British occupation: this was before the age of patriotism. As well as slaves, they bought from the conquerors a vast quantity of cloths, clothes, and sugar equipment. This brief extension of the British Empire marked, as the inspired Cuban economist Francisco de Arango would later recognize, a turning point in Cuban history, the import of so many Africans being the motor of an economic change which made Cuba, by the end of the century, a formidable sugar producer: “The tragic event of its surrender gave Havana life in two ways,” Arango wrote; “the first was considerable riches, with the great import of blacks, utensils, and cloths which were brought in during only a year. . . . Second, it showed our Court the importance of this.”8 The occasion also demonstrated the charm of Cuban sugar to a wide audience: “The Havana sugar which I have for sale is exceeding good and very clear,” Henry Laurens wrote from Charleston in April 1763.9

Thus it was that Cuba was launched on her astonishing career as the world’s grandest sugar bowl; and soon few, apart from historians, would remember the old days before 1763, when the poorer island had a more balanced economy, in which a trade in hides and tobacco competed for labor and investment with shipbuilding.

The attitudes of the Spanish criollo planters of Havana were shared by their French counterparts in Guadeloupe. Into the latter island, the English conquerors introduced even more slaves than they did in Havana (probably over twelve thousand), and over a longer period, for the occupation lasted seven years. The economy of the island was transformed.

The possibility that the peace might return some of these conquests to their original owners distressed businessmen in London. Thus, in November 1762, 145 merchants of Liverpool petitioned Lord Egremont (the secretary of state) to keep at least Guadeloupe after the peace, because of their great success in selling slaves there: “The possession of that island has increased their trade beyond all comparison with its former state, in the demand of British manufactures for slaves. . . . The West-Indian and African trade is by far the largest branch of the great and extensive commerce of this kingdom . . . the most beneficial commerce, not only to themselves but to the whole kingdom, as the export is chiefly of the manufacturers of this kingdom, British ships and seamen solely employed. . . .”10

The protests were to no avail. The policy of “Take and Hold,” advocated by William Pitt and those who had won the war, did not move those more tranquil souls concerned to make the peace. Lord Egremont succumbed to what the polemicist Junius described as “a fatal lethargy.” Thus, though Britain gained Canada and India at the peace, she abandoned the one opportunity afforded since 1600 to any great power of uniting the Caribbean under a single flag.

At the Treaty of Paris, there was a most notable transfer of “people and provinces” in what Woodrow Wilson, at another peace made later in the same city, would call “the great game of the balance of power.” For, though Britain returned to France Gorée, off Africa, and Guadeloupe, Martinique, Belle Isle, Desirade, Saint Lucia, and Marie-Galante, in the Antilles, as well as Havana to Spain, she retained Fort Saint Louis, at the mouth of the river Sénégal, and other trading points on that great river; and in the West Indies, she kept several islands: Saint Vincent, Dominica, and Tobago, with a total population of perhaps twenty thousand, together with Grenada (a new sugar island, with a slave population of twelve thousand in 1750). The huge French territory of Louisiana, Crozat’s old concession, passed to Spain, with its six thousand slaves, and the almost empty Spanish colony of Florida also fell to Britain.

Both the French and Spaniards reacted to this peace by a determination to compensate for their losses. The French Prime Minister Choiseul sought immediately to develop new French interests in Africa so as to free their colonies in the West Indies from reliance on Britain, formally or informally, for the supply of slaves. That the provision of slaves was an essential part of French commercial policy he was left in no doubt. Thus, in 1762, the Chamber of Commerce of Nantes declared: “The African trade is precious not only because of gold and ivory, it is infinitely more so because of the blacks that it makes possible for only they are capable of carrying through the hard work which the agriculture and manufacturing [of sugar] demand. . . .”11 Choiseul agreed: “I look upon this trade as the motor of all the others. . . .” Equally, the same body in La Rochelle declared, in 1765: “The African trade has always been looked on rightly as very advantageous to the nation. More than 100 ships [that is, from La Rochelle] are annually employed in this navigation. . . . They each introduce 300 blacks. The Ministry has been shown that this commerce brings into the kingdom 11,470,330 livres solely from the expeditions. . . . If foreigners [for example, Perfide Albion] were to introduce blacks into our colonies, our manufactures, our sailors, and our farmers would be deprived of innumerable outlets. . . .”12

•  •  •

The fifteen years of peace between 1763 and 1778 (the year when France entered the American Revolutionary War against Britain) were good for the slave trade in all the main commercial nations, including British North America. The continuing popularity of coffee, tea, jam, and chocolate partly explains the matter. Two-thirds of the slaves shipped to the Americas in the 1770s worked on sugar plantations, and 84 percent (160,000 out of 190,000) of the slaves in Jamaica were employed to produce sugar on the large plantations established there. Slaves in these years also seemed essential to all important European military operations in the Americas: five hundred from Jamaica went with Admiral Vernon’s disastrous expedition to Cartagena de Indias and twice that in 1762 to Havana with General Lord Albemarle. So it is unsurprising that Britain should have carried something approaching a quarter-million slaves across the Atlantic between 1761 and 1770—of whom about seventy thousand went to the Southern mainland colonies, where they would be sold by Henry Laurens or his successors to the owners of rice or indigo plantations. These British-shipped slaves were carried by merchants and captains primarily from Liverpool, which city sent over a hundred ships to Africa in 1771 for the first time, carrying more than twenty-eight thousand slaves. The largest ship of these, the Prince of Wales, was alone responsible for six hundred. London transported eight thousand slaves in fifty-eight ships; and Bristol a few more, nearly nine thousand in twenty-three ships; even Lancaster carried nine hundred and fifty in four. In the single year 1774, the British slave trade seems to have accounted for forty thousand captives, these captives coming mostly from the Bight of Benin, the Niger Delta, and the Loango coast.

These were golden days for British West Indian society in particular: the governing class was small, but the large slave populations seemed resigned to their productive if ignominious lot. Visitors noted the pretty landscapes—a tropical version of Gloucestershire, with hedges of cape jasmine and pomegranate, logwood and lime, to point the contrast. How agreeable it was to hear, from travelers’ vivid accounts, of the feasts, with turtle on the table, accompanied by thirty-two different fruits. Meantime, the slaves, in their Sunday suits, would be making the best of their hard lives with amazing forbearance, even with high spirits, having often survived dangers at sea which would have made Dante blench.

In these same years, however, France was beginning to overtake Britain as a sugar producer. In 1767, for the first time, her colonies exported more of the ever-desirable commodity than did her rival: seventy-seven thousand tons against seventy-two thousand. She also shipped for the first time over a hundred thousand slaves in a period of ten years. She did not seem to have much missed her old slaving harbors on the river Sénégal. The average number of slaver ships leaving French ports every year was fifty-six, a modest increase only, it is true, over previous figures, but the new ships were bigger, averaging 364 slaves per boat. The merchants were also much assisted by the government’s policies directed towards using the slave trade as a means of economic revival. Thus, after the peace of Paris, France refortified Gorée, refurbished the French trading points on the river Gambia and at Whydah, established forts at Lahous, Quitta, and Apollonia (on the Windward Coast), and even opened an inquiry into the reasons why their trade in blacks had been bringing less profit than that of Britain. Finally, in 1767, Law’s old Compagnie des Indes lost its monopoly. Henceforth, the government used the ten livres paid by traders for a license much as their English rivals did, to maintain their forts in Africa.

Nantes remained the great French slaving port, followed by Bordeaux. The latter sent five ships a year to Africa in the early 1760s, eight a year in the 1770s. Other ports were struggling to enter, or re-enter, the profitable business. For example, merchants from Le Havre, such as the Foäche family and their relations by marriage the Bégouens, were heavily engaged. The Foäches established a younger son (Stanislas) in Saint-Domingue, as firms in Nantes had long done, to receive the slaves dispatched by the head of the family (Martin-Pierre and his wife, Catherine). Le Havre was able to make herself France’s third-most-important slaving port in these years, ahead of La Rochelle. The new promising circumstances also encouraged René-Auguste de Chateaubriand, of Saint-Malo, to re-enter the trade: he sent the Saint-René to Africa in 1768, just at the moment when his wife was giving birth to the future author of the novel René.13 Saint-Malo dispatched seventy-five ships, all told, to Africa in the first fifteen years after the peace of 1763. Outstanding among those who now entered the French trade was Jean-Baptiste Prémord, of Honfleur who, in 1762, contracted with the London owners (Richard Oswald, Alexander Grant, and their friends) of Bence Island, in the Sierra Leone estuary, to buy fifteen hundred slaves a year for five years—a figure which was not reached. But Honfleur went ahead in the trade in Africans, thanks largely to Prémord’s determination, and sent forty-four ships to Africa between 1763 and 1777, another seventy-two between the latter date and 1792. Rouen also played a part.

The Crown was delighted. In 1768, King Louis XV expressed himself pleased in particular at the way “les négociants du Port de Bordeaux se livrent avec beaucoup de zèle au commerce de la traite des nègres.”14

The great success in these years of Loango Bay, with Cabinda and Malemba nearby, as a slave harbor was due to its remaining a zone of free trade. The rulers of Loango retained their independence and traded with all comers. Here, in the 1760s, the French did the best, if only since they seemed the most numerous. They also now supplied what Loango judged to be the best goods, and they paid the highest prices for the captives. By the 1780s, two-thirds of the French slave trade was from Loango, whose total product was then between ten and fifteen thousand slaves a year.

The chief buyers of these French-carried captives were the planters in Saint-Domingue (three-quarters), who also bought many slaves illegally from the British. There were over two hundred thousand slaves in Saint-Domingue in 1765, and it was generally assumed that fifteen thousand slaves had to be introduced every year just to maintain the labor force at the right level. The French government, meantime, did what it could further to support the commerce by raising the bounty per slave when it was delivered to one hundred livres, a figure which would be increased further in 1787 to 160.

The government in Paris, never completely able to escape the tradition of Colbert, who so hated the thought of free trade, could not bring itself to abandon the idea of monopolies, and so part of the French trade, that from the newly fortified Gorée, was allocated to a new Company of the Coast of Africa (it became in 1776 the Guyana Company, on the mistaken assumption that it would sell slaves exclusively to the new colony of Cayenne-Guyane). This company was given the exclusive right to trade slaves from Gorée for fifteen years.

•  •  •

That African slavery was regarded as the solution to all problems of labor in Brazil was confirmed by the formation of two new chartered companies in Lisbon: the Maranhão Company, established in 1755, and the Pernambuco Company, founded in 1759. The first was most interested in Bissau and Cacheu, and specialized in large ships, such as the Nuestra Senhora da Esperança or the San Sebastião—able to carry between five and eight hundred slaves each voyage. The second—its ships had similar devotional names—dealt largely with Luanda, the main Portuguese settlement in Angola, where, for its first twenty-two years of trading, 1761–83, it rapidly became the major buyer. Both companies were concerned primarily with slaves, though they had other interests, and both were exempt from the export duties levied on their competitors. There had been a Maranhão Company in the seventeenth century, but it had not been successful: the price of slaves had been too high for the settlers on the Amazon, who had then been able to kidnap Indians with great ease and without much cost. Now, however, the Indian tribes had either been destroyed or had escaped farther into the green interior. Furthermore, Pombal, the prime minister, a man whose own monarch thought that he had “hairs growing on his heart,” was determined to introduce a new era for the Indian in Brazil. His law of 1755 on the matter did break new ground so far as the surviving Indians were concerned. But it meant a greater emphasis than ever on black slaves.

Black slavery was thus now the characteristic form of labor in Brazil, in both the rural and the urban scene, even if the mining of both gold and diamonds was in decline, and if the old gold province of Minas Gerais was being turned over to agriculture. Sugar and tobacco were Brazil’s most important crops, and both began to seem as valuable as exports of precious metals. Large concentrations of slaves, mostly from the Gold Coast, seemed essential in plantations: for example, as always at Recôncavo (near Bahia), at Pernambuco, on the coast near Rio (Baixada Fluminense), and soon at São Paulo.

The Maranhão Company imported twenty-five thousand slaves between 1757 and 1778 (twenty-eight thousand loaded), nearly fourteen thousand to Pará, nearly eleven thousand to Maranhão, about half deriving from Bissau, half from Cacheu, and the exports carried to Africa to pay for these included many new products from the Amazon region: sarsaparilla, for example, a berry whose juice was believed falsely to cure syphilis, and coffee, as well as cotton and hardwoods. The peak year of that company was 1764, when there were nearly two thousand “chegados vivos” (live captives).

The Pernambuco Company, on the other hand, brought into Brazil, between 1761 and 1786, nearly double what was sent by the Maranhão Company. Nearly all were landed at the city which gave the firm its name. Here the peak year was 1763, when about four thousand slaves were imported. Most of these derived from Angola. In 1781, José da Silva Lisboa wrote from Bahia: “The African trade is of great importance here and is directed to the supply of slaves, yet nevertheless the profit which should accrue to it is seldom realized. Its staples are tobacco, either waste or second rate leaf, and strong spirits. More than fifty cargoes a year depart from Bahia in corvettes and smacks; eight or ten corvettes go to Angola with European goods while others go to the coast of Guinea [both] to buy slaves. . . . The investment risked in entering this business is small. . . . A cargo may consist of sixty slaves. . . . If few die . . . the voyage is lucrative. . . . More than 25,000 slaves have arrived for use in agriculture this year, 15,000 entering Bahia alone and 10,000 at Rio. . . .”15

The Brazilian slave trade accounted for about 160,000 slaves between 1760 and 1770. The viceroy, the count of Arcos, wrote in 1757 to Pombal in Lisbon that he thought slaves the most important merchandise in the Americas: “Without them, the colonists would receive irreparable damage to a commerce which is already in a state of decay.”16 But this was still a bad period in Brazil, with prices of commodities low, and it is at first sight surprising that the figures for imports were as high as they were. The explanation is that traders from Rio took many of the slaves whom they had bought for sale (illegally, of course) to Buenos Aires, a city which, to Lima’s disgust, was becoming the largest port in the Spanish empire; or to other harbors on the river Plate. The payment which they received was, above all, in silver, so much desired in eighteenth-century Europe. The French naturalist Bougainville, on his way to the South Seas in 1766, thought that thirty of the coasting ships which he saw in the bay of Rio were about to take slaves south to Buenos Aires in return for silver or hides.17 The coming of a final peace between Portugal and Spain in 1777 (which settled the frontiers of Brazil to the Portuguese satisfaction) legalized this traffic.

The position in Angola was transformed by permissions in 1758 and 1762 to merchants in both Luanda and Benguela to trade freely inland. Further, an energetic governor of the colony, Francisco Innocêncio Sousa Coutinho, a protégé of Pombal, tried, in the true spirit of enlightened despotism, to diversify the economy of the place, even to reduce the colony’s reliance on the slave trade. He set up an iron foundry and a leather factory, and gave money for numerous agricultural schemes aiming to establish plantations in Africa, instead of in Brazil. He tried to arrange that ships returning to Portugal from Goa would automatically call at Luanda, to sell Indian goods: satin, dinner services, enamel vases. He also persuaded the government in Lisbon to abolish the arrangements by which the slave trade was indirectly administered, the duties being collected by inefficient and easily corrupted tax farmers. That contract had, in the past, accounted for 20 percent of the taxes received from the trade.

Yet a single governor, however energetic, could not hope to change habits which had persisted for two hundred years. In 1780, too, there were twelve or so influential slave merchants in Luanda (whose population was probably four thousand), and about four or five in Benguela (whose population was then about two thousand). These traders were among the most important individuals of the places concerned, and they operated in well-known internal marketplaces, such as Dondo, buying from African merchants who would assemble their captives, usually by now from the far interior, and march them down in “coffles” of about a hundred. There were about eleven slaving establishments at Dondo by the 1790s. These men were difficult to outmaneuver, much less restrict.

These merchants of Angola operated a transatlantic system, buying goods in Rio de Janeiro or Bahia with the money from the sale of their slaves, and carrying them across the South Atlantic for further slave purchases. Benguela was a pioneer in this practice. By the end of the century, about twenty slave firms were active there, the directors being usually rich enough to live in the beautiful, melancholy houses, facing the sea on the south side of the city, known as sobrados. Portugal, meantime, was playing less and less of a part in all this commerce, and her statesmen knew it: Martinho de Melo Castro, secretary of state in Lisbon, wrote in 1770, “One could not without great sorrow see how our Brazilian colonies have absorbed commerce and shipping on the African coast to the total exclusion of Portugal; and what the Brazilians do not control, foreign nations do.”

Spain, at that time also modernizing after her fashion, had still not lost all belief that a magic property was communicated by the grant of the famous asiento. The first new contract after the peace of 1763 for importing slaves to the empire was that by the new captain-general of Cuba, the count of Ricla, to Martín José de Alegría, of Cádiz, allowing him to bring in seven thousand slaves to Cuba, of whom one thousand had to be sold to the Crown (whose officials in Havana had embarked upon a lavish program of public works). “The prosperity of this island depends mainly on the import of African slaves. . . . The King [too] will derive much more revenue from the import duties on slaves . . . ,”18 General O’Reilly, who was responsible for overseeing the new defenses, wrote from Havana in a letter to Spain in April 1764.

Then came the concession of a new large-scale asiento in the old style, to the Cádiz Slave Company, a society directed by an imaginative and persistent Basque, Miguel de Uriarte, of Puerto de Santa María, supported by numerous fellow Basques resident in Cádiz. Uriarte wanted a ten-year contract, to sell slaves at three hundred pesos a pieza, wherever he thought desirable. His scheme was traditional in structure. Ships would be sent from Cádiz full of European goods to West Africa, where the goods would be exchanged for slaves. He suggested that neither his ships nor his goods should incur taxes. He proposed taking all his slaves first to Puerto Rico, whence they would be distributed to other Caribbean ports, just as Walsh had thought of assembling all his slaves in Saint-Domingue.

Much discussion followed, Uriarte being forced to admit that he would have little chance of obtaining slaves direct from Africa, given that the coast between the river Sénégal and the Cape of Good Hope was so well covered by competing Europeans. All the same, a report was prepared in Havana which sought to explain how the innovative English procured and sold their slaves. It seemed desirable to learn from the leaders in the profession.

Arguments about these and other requests took a long time in Madrid. At one moment the issue was confused by the presentation of a request to carry slaves to the Spanish empire by the immortal Beaumarchais, at that time in the Spanish capital gaining material for his incomparable plays, looking for business, seeking to avenge the honor of his sister, and making love to the marquesa de Croix, the wife of the enlightened Spanish viceroy in Mexico.19

Yet, in the end, Uriarte triumphed over his competitors, including Beaumarchais, though with the numerous bureaucratic conditions always associated with the asiento. He was obliged to carry fifteen hundred slaves a year to Cartagena de Indias and to Portobelo, and a thousand to Havana; though Havana could have taken more and Cartagena been satisfied with less; six hundred each to Cumaná (near Caracas), Santo Domingo, Trinidad (the island), Santa Marta (Hawkins’s old market near Cartagena), Puerto Rico, and the pearl mart of Margarita; and, finally, four hundred each to Honduras and Campeche. The slaves would be obtained by sending Spanish ships to the Cape Verde Islands, to the river Sénégal (even though it was in English hands), or to Gorée, the French fortress. But they could also be carried in foreign ships for distribution from Puerto Rico. The absence of Veracruz from this list showed that the need for labor in New Spain was already being filled by the growing indigenous population there.

The company was then formed and, in 1767, the Venganza was duly from Cádiz sent to Africa. Though it sought to buy 600 to 700 slaves, it only managed to find 250, at a high price, almost all in the Cape Verde Islands. The failure was repeated a year or two later, with another vessel, the Fortuna. The company then decided to change its tactics and obtain from the Caribbean all the slaves that it could, assemble them in Puerto Rico, and then sell them off. This system was put into practice; Puerto Rico became for a few years a major slave center and, in the first seven years of the new asiento, from 1765 to 1772, nearly 12,000 slaves were sold. But about 1,500 died, either en route to, or waiting at, Puerto Rico, and the price obtained (and previously fixed) often did not even cover the price of purchase.20

The company survived into the 1770s, but it never made money. The Spanish planters throughout the empire, and especially Cuba, wanted to trade directly with Jamaica, legally or illegally: ill-paid colonial officials were far too used to receiving presents from smugglers to permit Uriarte anything like a real monopoly.

Later, one more asiento was drawn up, in which Uriarte’s partners Lorenzo de Ariosteguí and Francisco de Aguirre formed a new company after 1773. But by then it was almost impossible to maintain any such monopolistic arrangements. They were out of date. Jamaica was, as a later witness—Philip Attwood, the first English merchant to be established in Havana, a representative there of the Liverpool firm of Baker and Dawson, shipbuilders and slave traders—reported in 1787, responsible for at least three-quarters of the slaves sent to Cuba in the 1770s; and Cuba was by then the main buyer in the Americas on a large scale.21

Cuba was making headway as a sugar producer as well as a receiver of slaves. Production there in the 1770s was seven times what it had been before the English occupation of 1762-63. This change was simply the result of more plantations being cut out of the wild, more land being planted to cane, and therefore, of course, of more slaves being imported for the harvesting and for the clearing of virgin land: which in turn meant more capital being invested, and more money being borrowed, usually from those merchants in Havana who were themselves interested in sugar.

There was also expansion in North America, where a direct slave trade from Africa had opened in 1766 to Florida, a new colony for Britain after 1763, a development of which slave merchants soon took advantage. A note in the Massachusetts Gazette of December 24, 1767, reads that Captain Savery had just arrived in London “from St Augustine, on the brigantine Augustine, having carried there seventy negroes from Africa, the first ever imported directly from thence into that province. . . . Upwards of 2,000 were contracted for, by the noblemen and gentlemen in Great Britain . . . to be imported there from Africa the ensuing summer.”22 This ship was probably owned by Richard Oswald, the outstanding member of a circle of traders of London, already touched on,VIwho had also established plantations in Florida, to the south of Saint Augustine on the Atlantic coast (near Ponce de Leon Bay) in 1765: he was the main slaver among those early settlers, and spoke of the place as a “paradise” and “a new Canaan.” It was, however, a Canaan from which no milk and honey would flow for many years, despite Oswald’s slaves, for the land produced almost nothing.

Richard Oswald was the Glaswegian merchant based in London with whom Laurens had often traded slaves. The intimate adviser of Lord Shelburne to whom he had been introduced by their mutual friend, Adam Smith, Oswald had been a commissary of the British armed forces in Germany during the Seven Years’ War (“Oswald’s loaves” were famous there). He was a prominent dealer in slaves, selling them from Bence Island, in the Gambia River, which he had bought in 1747 with several London mercantile associates.VII He also tried to breed Africans in Florida, where he speculated in land with Benjamin Franklin. The size of his fortune, however gained, is clear in that, with an offer of £60,000, he was much the largest single contributor to the government loan of 1757 (the next-largest was the cotton-check merchant Samuel Touchett, with £30,000).

Originating in Caithness, Oswald had spent some years in the 1730s and early 1740s on the Chesapeake Bay, dealing in tobacco for his cousins, the founders of the firm which he himself came to dominate. He married an heiress in Jamaica, also of Scottish origin, Mary Ramsay. The most obvious symbol of his achievement was the large property which he bought in 1764—Auchincruive, near Ayr, where the Adam brothers built him a fine rural palace. By the time of his death in the 1780s, Oswald also owned two plantations in Jamaica and several commercial tracts alongside the James River in Virginia. He died leaving £500,000, as well as a name as a “truly good man,” in the phrase of Franklin.23

The American war, like all conflicts of the eighteenth century, had an adverse effect on the trading of slaves. Between 1771 and 1780, Britain carried fewer than two hundred thousand slaves—the figure being down from the 1760s precisely because of the fighting which, beginning in 1774, had a disastrous effect on Liverpool, as on the British West Indies. The trade to Barbados almost ceased, as did that to Antigua. The French, on the other hand, shipped only a little less than a hundred thousand slaves in the 1770s. The traffic of neutrals also kept up well, the Dutch Leeward Island of Saint Eustatius becoming again, as it had once been in the 1720s, a “golden rock,” where slaves were always available, and where the colonists of the British West Indies bought the food needed for their slaves and themselves alike. Saint Eustatius (“Statia” to the English) also supplied the rebel North American colonies with food till it was captured by Admiral Rodney in 1781. Other neutrals, the Portuguese or Brazilians, carried about 160,000 slaves in these years.

In this war, as had occurred on other occasions, many slave ships on both sides were turned into privateers. As in the Seven Years’ War, ex-slavers often preyed on slavers as well as other privateers. But though that did not help the planters, it saved the merchants and the captains. There were some curious incidents. For example, Captain Clement Noble, on the Liverpool slaver Brookes, armed fifty of his slaves to fight the French off Barbados; they fought “with exceeding spirit,” the captain reported, before proceeding to Montego Bay, Jamaica, to sell them.24

One alarming foretaste of the future—alarming to the merchants, that is—was also to be observed in the city of Liverpool during this war. Many merchants were unable to maintain old levels of employment. So there were riots in Liverpool over wages, inspired by crews of slave ships, an unheard-of development for those days. We hear how “the crew of the Derby, given only 20 shillings when offered 30, rioted, and were sent to jail. But that evening, 3,000 sailors assembled, broke open the jail, released their friends, and stopped all ships [even the slave ships] from sailing. In the meantime, constables fired—seven were killed and 40 wounded. The sailors this morning again assembled, upwards of 1,000, all with red ribbons in their hats, and . . . about one of the clock assailed.”25 In this attack, four persons were killed; the house of Thomas Ratcliffe, a prominent slave merchant, was wrecked, and those of Thomas Yates, John Simmons, and William James (a member of Parliament, who had twenty-nine vessels engaged in the slave trade) were also damaged. The rioters found the black page of the last-named hiding in a grandfather clock.

On the other side of the Atlantic, there were different kinds of upheaval. At Newport, Rhode Island, two thousand citizens, including the most effective trader, Aaron Lopez, left the city during the prolonged British occupation, and died soon after. The magnificent house of the leading slaver, William Vernon, abandoned by its owner, was used first by the English and then the French as their headquarters, the Vernons themselves having taken a major part in protesting against the British policies before the war.

Yet these disturbances seemed temporary. The long-term prospects for the slave trade appeared excellent in, say, 1780, provided only that the nations could live in peace. Thus, on April 12, 1775, David Mill (governor of the British fort at Cape Coast, a member of an influential West Indian planters’ family) wrote: “The trade has rather fallen off in the last six weeks, attributed in great measure to the Fantees being down to Leeward settling a dispute between the Accras and Akims. It is, however, likely to be equally as good as last year; a good number of slaves having already been shipped for the West Indies.”26 All the commanders of the British forts—John Dixon in Commenda, Thomas Trinder in Fort James, Accra, and Lionel Alson in Fort William, Whydah—reported that trade was bad because of difficulties among the Africans, not because of the war; and Richard Miles, Mill’s successor at Cape Coast, reported that “a greater number of slaves” had been purchased there in 1780 than ever before and that “the present prospects looked good.”27

In the 1780s, the slave trade, indeed, was not only restored, but attained its highest levels, even if, to begin with, the extension of the Navigation Acts to ban trade between the West Indies and the new United States adversely affected the economies of the British West Indies. The French and Spanish empires were also excluded from trading with the new country. All the same, all these colonies recovered their poise; the increase in Jamaican sugar production, for example, continued steadily in those years, after a steep decline at the end of the 1770s.28

So, in the ten years between 1780 and 1790, at least three-quarters of a million slaves were carried across the Atlantic: perhaps 325,000 by Britain, Liverpool being as ever the dominant city. If Newport, Rhode Island, ruined by the long British occupation in the years of the revolution, was no longer in the forefront of the United States’ trade, the nearby ports of Bristol and Providence, as well as Boston and Salem in Massachusetts, not to speak of Philadelphia and Charleston, made up for it. Perhaps forty ships a year sailed from the new United States for Africa in the 1780s: again, nothing in comparison with old Europe, but what seemed a good beginning to independent commerce.

We could do worse than linger on this new slaving port of Bristol, Rhode Island. Pre-eminent among the merchants there was Simeon Potter, who had begun life as a cooper on board ships sailing to the Caribbean for molasses and mahogany. By 1744, he was a captain, and sailed as a privateer in the wars of the forties and fifties. By 1756, he had made enough money to retire from the sea, and he invested his savings in slaving voyages which were undertaken by his brother-in-law, Mark Antony de Wolf (or D’Wolf), and that adventurer’s sons. This de Wolf had signed on in Guadeloupe as a sailor during one of Potter’s journeys, though he is said to have been of United States stock—perhaps descended from a bastard line of the Dutch de Wolffs of New York in the 1670s.VIII

Simeon Potter’s first slave journey was that undertaken by Mark Antony’s son Charles in the Phoebe in 1757. Potter’s instructions to his captain, William Earle, on his slaver King George, seven years later, indicate his character as well as his literacy: “Worter[sic] yr. rum as much as possible and sell as much by the short mesure [sic] as you can.” Five of Mark Antony’s sons, Potter’s nephews, afterwards engaged in the slave trade, beginning in the 1780s. Of these, the youngest, Levi de Wolf, abandoned the business after one journey, apparently in disgust. His brother Charles had no qualms: he once told the local parson of the Congregational church, “Parson, I’ve always wanted to roll in gold.”29 He proceeded to lie down on a pile of canvas sacks full of that metal. William and John de Wolf, after making money in the slave trade, became respectively an insurer and a farmer. The great success, though, of the family was James de Wolf, later a United States senator and cotton manufacturer, who made a fortune between 1780 and 1808 in carrying and selling slaves, as will be seen in a subsequent chapter.IX

In the 1780s, French captains, meantime, carried 270,000 slaves. Nantes, still dominant, was responsible for 35 percent of this trade in 1785. But that port was pursued closely by ever more ardent rivals, such as Bordeaux, La Rochelle (seeking to compensate for the loss of the Canadian fur trade after 1763), Saint-Malo, and Honfleur.

The French profited greatly from the American Revolution, and recovered their old headquarters on the Sénégal at the peace in 1783. They re-established their interests, thereafter, in the trade south of that river. Ships leaving French ports for the Antilles averaged fifty-three a year during this war, in contrast with a mere eleven during the Seven Years’ War. Pierre-Paul Nairac, the leading slave merchant of Bordeaux, in 1777 paid the largest taxes in his city; as did Pierre Meslé at Saint-Malo, the leading slaver there. Businessmen in France were confident. One of the leading shippers of Nantes would write, in the early 1780s, to his brother: “The slave trade is the single branch of commerce which presents a perspective of benefits.”30 Marseilles also entered the slave trade seriously after 1774, though one slave ship had gone to Guinea from that city every four years or so since 1700. The single colony of Saint-Domingue, the “Eden of the West,” was now importing nearly forty thousand slaves a year; and, if the “grands seigneurs” of that rich colony slept “au pied du Vésuve,” as Mirabeau would shortly put the matter, their feasting hours in their lovely houses were full of gaiety.31

Spain, too, was expanding her slave traffic. In 1777, she gained from Portugal the neglected islands of Annobón and Fernando Po, in the Gulf of Guinea, in order to have bases from which to supply her colonies with the much-needed slaves in the now permitted direct trade to Africa. Portugal also agreed that Spain should be able to engage freely in the slave trade from Cape Formoso, at the mouth of the Niger, and Cape Lopo Gonçalves, south of the estuary of the Gabon (she did not occupy them, though).

So it was that, in 1780, the African trade in slaves seemed an essential part of the economies of all advanced countries, both a traditional thing, and one which was being adjusted to meet all modern opportunities: the cotton cloth of Lancashire—above all Touchett’s cotton checks, the very symbols of the new industrial process—were exported to secure African slaves. In France, too, cotton, unknown before 1700, was, as we have seen, being developed, and also in imitation of Eastern fabrics, in order to please the Africans: hence the pretty “indiennes” of Lille and Saint-Denis, as well as of Nantes, not to mention the cotton velvet of Evreux, Amiens, and Dieppe. Bordeaux seemed to be within reach of overtaking Nantes as the major slaving port of the country, making special efforts on the east coast of Africa, where her merchants were busy carrying slaves to Ile de France and Bourbon, as well as round the Cape of Good Hope to the Americas. French slave merchants even brought themselves sometimes to carry the popular and cheaper English cottons. The French also were expanding their African interests; for example, in 1778, Jean-François Landolphe created a trading post at Ughoton, on the Benin River, where the Portuguese had first begun to deal in slaves and pepper in the 1480s, nearer the sea than the capital, in succession to the Dutch there.32 Merchants in Nantes were adapting effectively to the times by christening, as the Montaudoins did, their ships the Jean-Jacques and even the Voltaire. (Liverpool merchants were less imaginative and remained with ships named the Charming Nancy or the Betty until the end of the traffic; but James de Wolf, of Bristol, Rhode Island, did own a slave ship which he called the Monticello.) All forward-looking planters of sugar realized that the new Otaheite cane, brought from the South Seas, would further increase the yield of well-organized sugar plantations and, for that reason, the planters in French colonies were already producing more than their Jamaican neighbors.

North American colonists continued to hold Indian slaves throughout the eighteenth century. But for reasons unrelated to morality, some colonies prohibited their import: for example, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island (between 1712 and 1714). The same prohibition later occurred in Jamaica (in 1741). The fear was that indigenous captives could, through their restlessness, inspire wars with the tribes from which they came. Other Europeans restricted the use of Indian slaves to certain tribes: the French in Canada seem to have used only the Pawnees.X These restrictions seem to suggest the need for an even greater emphasis on African labor.

Until this time, few in Europe or the Americas doubted that, however vile the condition of a slave might be in a sugar plantation or a gold mine, in Jamaica or in Brazil such a life was superior to anything which the person concerned might encounter in Africa. But these years of the greatest level of the Atlantic slave trade also saw the beginning of a discussion whether it was, after all, the right way for civilized men to make a fortune.


ISee page 297.

IISee page 486.

IIISee chapter 15.

IVMinorca had earlier been captured by France, and Pitt’s friend the sugar king, William Beckford, lord mayor of London 1762–63 and an MP, apparently advised that France would certainly exchange Martinique for Minorca at the peace.

VTwo hundred and seventy slaves were sold in Havana by Laurens’s rivals, the Charleston firm of Smith, Brewton and Smith.

VISee page 486.

VIIFor the pleasures of Bence Island, see chapter 17.

VIIISee page 187.

IXSee page 534.

XThe 1750s also saw the final formal prohibition of the enslavement of Amerindians in Brazil.

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