Modern history

22

God Knows What We Shall Do with Those That Remain

“God knows what we shall do with those that remain, they are a most scabby flock . . .”

Henry Laurens, c. 1756, Charleston

“On avait pourtant réussi le miracle de ne perdre que vingt noirs. Mais le cargaison était en piteux état.”

René-Auguste de Chateaubriand

“On Thursday last arrived from the coast of Africa, the brig Royal Charlotte with a parcel of extremely fine, healthy, well limb’d Gold Coast slaves, men, women, boys and girls. Gentlemen in town and country have now an opportunity to furnish themselves with such as will suit them. . . . They are to be seen on the vessel at Taylor’s wharf. Apply to Thomas Teckle Taylor, Samuel & William Vernon. . . .”

Newport Gazette, June 6, 1763

AFTER FORTY TO FIFTY DAYS AT SEA, or in some cases, as we have seen, many more, the appearance of birds, or perhaps of grass smelling of marsh, would suggest to the captain of a slaver that he was near the Antilles; or, after a different length of time, by different routes, the coast of Brazil or of Virginia. Then, according to the nationality of the vessel, familiar ports might come into view.

The attention of those harbors would be caught by firing a gun, and that would attract a pilot and the visit of the doctor. The distant, but all the same vile, smell of vomit, sweat, stale urine, and feces wafting over the port concerned would let it know that a slave ship had arrived.

As usual, the arrival of the slaves in the fifteenth century in Portugal set the tone for what happened next. Once a ship carrying slaves had anchored off Lisbon, in the old days, several officials (the director of the Casa da Guiné, the treasurer of the port, a magistrate, a collector of taxes, and their guards and clerks) would be carried out to the ship to inspect the cargo; the slaves would be assembled on the deck and listed. They would then be taken to the Casa dos Escravos, where they would be divided into lots for the purpose of deciding the taxes due. The director and the treasurer would carefully examine each slave, who would be naked. A price would be fixed. This would be hung round the slave’s neck, on parchment. Buyers would then also make their inspections, much as the ships’ surgeons or others had made on the coast of Africa. Slaves were then sold as the merchants who had financed the expedition thought best, though sometimes they would ask the director of the Casa da Guiné to undertake the sale. Most slaves were sold through a broker, who would take 2 percent of all payments. Then there would be taxes to pay, and perhaps a present to the officials of the port, which sometimes amounted to a tenth of the value of the slaves carried.

That was the pattern. But every port in the Americas, from Brazil to New England, as well as in Lisbon, had its different way of marking this “ceremony of arrival.” Nearly everywhere, in contrast to Lisbon, the slaves were assembled onshore in a camp (not on board ship), where they would be fed, cleaned, and otherwise looked after, in such a way that they would lose all trace of the “fatigues” of the journey. Meantime, the vessels themselves would be disinfected or fumigated (by slaves, of course).

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The main Brazilian port for slaves from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth was Rio de Janeiro, “the most magnificent harbour in the world,” as it appeared to travelers who approached it by sea. Bahia, the old capital, was only half as prosperous and, by 1750, was beginning to be overtaken by Pernambuco, Recife, and Maranhão. All the same, slaves were sold there: “Who would believe it?” Amadée-François Frezier, a French engineer who traveled to South America in the early eighteenth century, in order to look at Spain’s and Portugal’s imperial fortifications, wrote of Bahia. “There are shops full of these wretches, who are exposed there entirely naked, and bought like cattle.” The traveler added, “I cannot think how they can combine this barbarity with the sayings of religion, which give [the slaves] the same soul as the whites.”1

“There being no difference between negroes and goods,” in the words of a Portuguese official in 1724, the sale of slaves in all these harbors was methodical, simple, and well organized.2 Few slaves went on from these ports to remote distances, for the sugar plantations of the northeast and even the gold mines of Minas Gerais were close at hand. In Rio, at the end of the eighteenth century, most slave dealers lived and dealt in large houses in a long street, the Rua Vallongo, which ended in a beach in the northeastern part of the city. The site was pretty, and travelers noticed red-tiled houses wedged between the tree-covered Livra-mento and Conceiçao hills. But every house seemed to have a large “ware-room,” in which three or four hundred slaves were “exposed for sale like any other commodity.” The merchants would live on the first and second floors, while the slaves would be lodged on the ground floors, in large rooms opening onto patios often kept fresh by sea breezes. There the slaves would be prepared to be sold, being shaved, fattened and, if necessary, painted (to give the illusion of health), often by slaves of their own nation. Food in African style (pirão, or manioc stew, and angu de fubá, cornmeal mush) might be prepared, in an effort to make the slaves feel at home. Some religious instruction might casually be available. Tobacco and snuff were sometimes given to slaves who behaved well, or to cheer them if they seemed melancholy. Slaves would also be made to dance and sing, in order to raise their spirits, in the same way as aboard the ship which had brought them from Africa.

Buyers would again patiently examine the wares, feeling the Africans’ limbs and bodies much as butchers handled calves. The slaves were often asked, as they had been told to do before leaving Africa, to show their tongues and teeth, or to stretch their arms. A “guide for the plantation owner” published in the nineteenth century (Imbert’s Manual do Fazendeiro) insisted that it was important to pay attention to the slave’s penis in order to avoid acquiring an individual in whom it was underdeveloped or misshapen and, therefore, bad for procreation. The slaves would be ranged according to sex, age and, sometimes, provenance. Often, slaves would be sold at auction by one or another of the houses which specialized in the business, the bidding being at the door of the customshouse. Occasionally, the merchants would seek to sell their slaves by hawking them, chained, from house to house. Usually, the purchase in Rio meant the slave was rebranded with the name of the new owner, and a 5-percent tax, the siza, was paid by the buyer to the government.

But in these showrooms the deaths due to heat, overcrowding, or illnesses contracted on the ships were just as frequent as in African prison trunks or on the ship, so that quite distant neighbors complained incessantly about the smell. Numerous huts were soon put up on the swampy shore; there, however, even more slaves would die in the next fifty years, of “scurvy, scabies, buboes [syphilis] and dysentery.” It remains curious that, leaving aside questions of common humanity, merchants who had gone to such trouble and expense to find and transport their captives did not take better care of them.

This avenue of tears, the Vallongo, now the Rua Camerino, had been allocated to the slave merchants by a philosophically minded viceroy, the marquis of Lavradio (he also brought rice for the first time to Brazil), in 1769; previously, he wrote, the slaves had done “everything which nature suggested in the middle of the street where they were seated on some boards that were laid there, not only causing the worst kind of stench on those streets and their vicinity, but even providing the most terrible spectacle that the human eye can witness. Decent people did not dare to go to the windows, [and] the inexperienced learned there what they had not known and should not know.”3

The counterpart of Rio de Janeiro as the main port for receiving slaves in the Spanish empire was Cartagena de Indias which, in “its best days,” in the early seventeenth century, received at least three thousand slaves a year, in about twenty ships. When a slave ship arrived there, it would undergo an elaborate (but nevertheless ineffective) inspection to ensure that there was no contraband. The log of the ship would be checked, and there would be a visit to the vessel by the royal health inspector, the protomédico, to see if there were diseases on board. If there were, the ship would be quarantined. But since slaves were always in such demand, the common procedure was that the obviously sick slaves would be held on land, in barracoons outside the walls of the city, and the healthy slaves would be received by the chief constables of the place, and by a representative of the Spanish government or even, according to the circumstances, by the governor. There were, in Cartagena, many documented instances of kindly behavior at the point of arrival, by priests and others: above all, by the Catalan-born Jesuit Fray Pedro Claver, the “saint of the black slaves” who, in the early seventeenth century, made a point of greeting affectionately the slaves at Cartagena, embracing and welcoming them, as well as assuring them that the colonists did not intend to boil them down for oil or for anything else.I On innumerable occasions, Claver entered the infested holds of the ships where the slaves were kept, and not only brought the captives spiritual comfort but bandaged their wounds and sores; sometimes he carried out the sick on his own shoulders. He also baptized slaves who had not been so welcomed into the Church before leaving Africa, as were most who left the Gold or the Slave Coast. Perhaps he christened as many as a hundred thousand slaves during his ministry, which lasted from 1616 to his death in 1654.4 Some Spanish priests also made noble efforts to bring dying slaves into the Church; others still tried to make up for the ineffectiveness of the baptisms which had been carried out in Africa by rechristening the captives, and giving them medallions to put round their necks.

Disembarcations also had their terrible side at Cartagena; for the barracoons in which the slaves were held were often “veritable cemeteries.” Fray Alonso de Sandoval, a Jesuit who was one of the inspirations for Fray Pedro Claver, described how he entered a patio in Cartagena to find two dead slaves, “stark naked, lying on the bare ground as if they had been beasts, face up, their mouths open and full of flies.”5 Sometimes slaves were held in estates outside Cartagena especially prepared to receive those who had been fraudulently disembarked on the coast before the ships entered the harbor, in order to avoid the port dues. Smuggling was, of course, at the heart of all American commerce, and in no region was this more true than in the territory of New Granada. But even smugglers wanted their merchandise to seem at their best, and so they would expect slaves to be well fed before sale. Physical defects which had escaped the eagle eyes of ship surgeons in Africa (eye defects, for example, or skin marks) lowered the price, but moral ones (a disposition to drink, thievery, or flight) did not seem to do so.

Before sale, slaves were usually submitted to yet another palmeo—that is, another careful examination, including a measuring and grading—and were also, as in Brazil, branded again by a carimbo, a silver iron designed to show that the slave had been legally imported.

Many buyers in the seventeenth century would come to the slave market in Cartagena, some from as far as Mexico, others from Lima. Cartagena was a stepping stone to both—above all, to Lima via Portobelo. Another long journey would then begin for the slaves, much of it by sea, followed by a long march by land if the destination was the City of Mexico. Subsequent resales must have seemed almost merciful affairs, such as those held in the Zócalo in Mexico City, the main square, under the arcades. Here, and in similar places far removed from the original dock, prices greatly varied: a prime male slave in the early seventeenth century might cost 250 to 275 pesos in Cartagena, 370 in Mexico, 500 in Lima, and as much as 800 in Potosí. Specialized slaves—bricklayers, agents of estates, dressmakers, cooks—would naturally cost more.

Buenos Aires by 1750 had become one of the most important slave harbors of the Spanish empire. It was a deposit for Córdoba, itself a center of distribution for Potosí, and upland Peru. At least 7,800 slaves carried by the South Sea Company to Buenos Aires were taken by that enterprise’s local agents to Chile, Bolivia, or Peru between 1715 and 1738, the caravans of walking slaves being conducted by Englishmen on horseback (who had, most unusually, been given permission to travel in the Spanish empire), accompanied by some Spaniards, one of them a surgeon. These terrestrial extensions of the oceanic Middle Passage added the new horrors of cold to those of excessive heat encountered on the way from Africa: in one caravan of 408 slaves dispatched in 1731, thirty-eight men and twelve women died of cold before they reached Potosí.

Curaçao and Saint Eustatius were the two main Dutch harbors of the Caribbean at the turn of the eighteenth century. Tiny though they were, they were much frequented by private merchants, interlopers, and independent traders, of all nationalities, who sold to planters in the English, the French, and above all the Spanish islands. Curaçao had its golden age in the seventeenth century; a hundred years later, Saint Eustatius had its turn to act as the “golden rock,” selling annually two to three thousand slaves. In both places, smuggling was as important as legitimate trade. Another important Dutch port was Berbice, New Amsterdam, in what was then the Dutch colony of Surinam. Here Dutch servants might often be seen inspecting the slaves before the auction. The Africans would be obliged “to go through every kind of motion, as if their limbs would be pulled out of joint, or their jaws cracked open. . . . One lady was not satisfied till she had forced a wench to screetch by squeezing her breast cruelly.”6

French journeys were concluded in much the same way as those of other countries. A vessel from Nantes or Bordeaux, or Honfleur or La Rochelle, bound for the El Dorado which Saint-Domingue seemed to be after 1750, would pass by the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico. There would then appear the northern coast of Saint-Domingue, the luxurious capital, Cap Français, “Le Cap,” where the merchants’ local agents would often hire a large field with some huts. There, as elsewhere in the slaving world, a combination of a few days’ idleness and good food would make the slaves ready for sale. The captives in Saint-Domingue were usually given strong drink to enliven them. The checking of captives seems to have been more rigorous in the French colonies than elsewhere; in Louisiana, an agent of the importing company (the Compagnie des Indes) might examine the assets of the planter to determine whether he could pay.

Saint-Domingue was a relatively new colony. Other customs prevailed elsewhere. Father Labat described how, on arrival at Fort-de-France, in Martinique, slaves would be ordered to bathe in the sea, and have their heads shaved. Their bodies would be rubbed with palm oil, and they would be persuaded to eat often, and little: “This good treatment, together with the clothes which they are given, and along with a certain kindness [douceur] which is showed them, makes them affectionate and causes them to forget their own country, and the unhappy state to which slavery has reduced them.”7 Sometimes, in Saint-Domingue, sales were effected on board the ship (it was easier to prevent flight there), sometimes in the field hired by the merchant where the slaves would have been “refreshed.”8

Then there were taxes. In 1715, Achille Lavigne, captain of the Grand Duc de Bretagne of Nantes, owned by the Bertrand family, complained that he was obliged, on his arrival in Martinique, to pay not only 2,750 livres to the governor, Abraham Duquesne, but 3,000 too to the intendant, Monsieur Caucresson, and 1,000 livres to Monsieur Meunier, the commissaire, “which sums they forced him to pay, without which he would not have been able to make his sale of blacks in the said isle. . . .”9, II

The best way for a captain to ensure a good sale was to have a subsidiary office in the American port and use a good agent there. This technique was well developed by French traders. Thus Jacques-François Begouën-Demeaux, probably the richest slave trader of Le Havre in the second half of the eighteenth century, was represented by his brother-in-law, Stanislas Foäche, in Port-au-Prince; and the Nantes firm of Riedy et Thurninger had a subsidiary company at Cayes Saint-Louis in 1791. The Charauds of Nantes were ill-served in the New World till they bought a fifth share in Guilbaud, Gerbier et Cie of Cap Français.

Ten to twenty days were needed at Saint-Domingue to dispose of five to six hundred slaves. Since fifty négriers arrived each year at Saint-Domingue in its prosperous days, the slave markets must have been continuous.

English ports such as Jamestown in Barbados, Charleston in South Carolina, or Kingston, by the late eighteenth century the main port of Jamaica, were less ceremonious and bureaucratic than their French or Dutch counterparts, but also apparently less careful of hygiene and less concerned to treat the slaves before sale. Thus sanitary arrangements seem to have been unknown in Kingston: “Dunghills abounded and, from these, the ruts in the streets and lanes were filled up after very heavy rain. In the early morning, negro slaves might be seen bearing open tubs from the various dwellings and emptying their indescribable contents into the sea.”10

After a sale in Kingston in 1773 of slaves intended (illegally) for Cuba, Thomas Dolbeare reported on the slaves, carried by the Ann, belonging to Aaron Lopez and Jacobo Rodrigues Ribera, of Newport, Rhode Island: “Fifty-seven were sold the first day averaging £63—clear of duty, fourteen the third day at £51, twenty-two the fifth day at £32, the remainder at £8 only. Had there been five times as many, and the negroes good, they would have sold at the price they did the first day, there were a number of old men, but the boys went off very high. . . . I have acted from principle, gentlemen,” Dolbeare concluded, in his letter to Lopez, “in the sale of this cargo and I hope it will be satisfactory. . . .”11

Slaves imported to Jamaica for subsequent sale in the Spanish empire were, however, normally treated more carefully. As usual, they would as a rule be fattened and acclimatized. The South Sea Company of London made elaborate arrangements to restore them to health after the voyage from Africa. At one time, it was thought best to bathe sick slaves in water in which the leaves of herbs had previously been soaked. These slaves might receive two meals a day, were sometimes given rum to drink and occasionally pipes to smoke. Then, after about a month, they would be sent by small ships to Cartagena or another of the great Spanish ports.

Occasionally, after these English journeys, the sale of slaves would be a “scramble”: Dr. Thomas Trotter, surgeon on the Brookes, recalled how “people who wish for slaves are ready, when the signal is given them, to open the sale to apply their tallies to the slaves [whom] they wish to purchase, by rushing all at once among them. This unexpected manoeuvre had an astonishing effect upon the slaves; they were crying out for their friends with all the language of affliction at being separated.” Equiano, the slave autobiographer, left a description of how this kind of sale was carried through. He was sold in Barbados “after the usual manner, which is this: on a signal given (as the beat of a drum), the buyers rush at once into the yard, where the slaves are confined, and make choice of that parcel they like best. The noise and clamour with which this is attended, and the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers serve not a little to increase the apprehensions of the terrified Africans. . . . In this manner, without scrupule, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see one another again.”12 Sometimes, though, merchants were much more considerate: Jean Barbot, for example, described how in 1679 he sold an entire family to a single master, “since he did not care to separate them.”13

Slaves who excited no interest, or were too ill to do so, “refuse slaves,” were often left to die unattended on the quayside of the port of entry into the Americas. James Morley, a gunner, a sailor in the trade in the 1760s, recalled seeing such captives “lying about the beach at St Kitts, in the market place, and in the different parts of the town, in a very bad condition, and apparently nobody to take care of them.”14

Sometimes, too, there were incipient rebellions among the cargoes at the port of arrival. Also at Saint Kitts, on March 14, 1737, one slave captain “found a great deal of discontent among the slaves, particularly among the men which continued till the 16th about five o’clock in the evening when, to our great amazement, above a hundred slaves jumped overboard, and it was with great difficulty we saved as many as we did; out of the whole, we lost thirty-three of as good men slaves as we had on board. . . . The reason (I have learned since) of this misfortune was owing to one of their countrymen who came on board, and told the slaves, in a joking manner, that they were first to have their eyes put out and then to be eaten. . . .”15, III

Charleston, South Carolina, was the biggest port of entry for slaves in North America (even if the merchants were established in Rhode Island or at Bristol, England). Outside the port, ships carrying slaves would have to wait at the pesthouse on Sullivan Island for ten days for clearance; and, if they turned out to be suffering from smallpox, they would have to wait a month or so in quarantine. The sales were usually in the open-air exchange behind the post office, at the foot of Broad Street, a short walk from the wharf where the slaves arrived; the women in blue flannel dresses, the men in blue cotton trousers. In winter, humane traders sometimes gave the slaves shoes and warmer clothing.

Henry Laurens, the most interesting of the slave traders of this city, described in 1755 how “our common method of selling slaves, arrive at what time they will, is for payment in January or March following. If they are a very fine parcel, purchasers often appear who will provide the ready money in order to command a preference. The engagements we enter into in the slave trade are . . . to load the ship with such rice as can be got, pay the coast commissions and men’s half wages, and to remit the remainder [to Bristol, for example] as the payments shall grow due.” Apropos of a sale in Charleston which did not do well, Laurens wrote to Samuel and William Vernon, his partners in Newport, Rhode Island, that, on June 29, 1756, he had put up for sale some slaves from Sierra Leone who had been brought in one of the Vernons’ vessels, the Hare (which he, Laurens, had insured): “We had as many purchasers as we could have wished for had we had three times the number for sale but, in taking a transient view of them, before they were landed, many of them became extremely angry that we should invite them down from eighty or ninety miles distance to look at a parcel of ‘refuse slaves,’ as they called them and, with some difficulty, [we] prevailed on them to wait the sale. . . . We were willing to believe that Captain [Caleb] Godfrey obtained the best [slaves] he could but, really, they were a wretched cargo, such a one as we would not have touched could we have been excused from it for three times our commission.

“We have this day sold forty-two to the amount of £7,455-12 shillings [in] currency,” Laurens went on, “in which are included that sold at vendue [auction] for only £35-12 shillings. They seemed past all hopes of recovery. God knows what we shall do with those that remain, they are a most scabby flock. . . . Several have extreme[ly] sore eyes, three very puny children and, add to this, the worst infirmity of all others with which six or eight are attended, viz. old age. . . . Poor Godfrey seems very distressed that he should not have been able to do better. . . . We had a sloop arrive with a hundred and fifty prime slaves from the factories at Gambia and Bance [Bence] island the evening before the sale of your negroes which would not have at all injured your sale had they been good, for we did not discover what a prime parcel they were till after the first day’s sale was over.”16 (These were the years when William Vernon and Abraham Redwood, also of Newport, were buying slaves in Africa at the rate of 115 gallons of rum a man slave and ninety-five gallons for women.)

In Charleston in 1755, most people thought that the new war—the Seven Years’ War—would dampen the prices of slaves. On the contrary, with respect to a cargo of slaves imported by Captain Robert Bostock of Liverpool, on the Prince George, “ ’twas so much the reverse that some of the buyers went to collaring each other”—so Laurens reported—“and would have come to blows, had it not been prevented, in contending for the choice which gave the seller an excellent opportunity to make them pay what price he pleased and, through them, he got £300 for some.”17 Still, a year later, Laurens would write to Richard Oswald, part-owner of the factory on Bence Island, off the river Sierra Leone, that he had not sold all the slaves whom he had sent: “We still have several remaining of your nine, two of them [from] Gambia which we would part with on very moderate terms could we find the person who would make the offer, but nothing will tempt them but prime young people.”18

English slave traders, like their French counterparts, would by the eighteenth century usually have their representatives in the New World. For example, Isaac Hobhouse of Bristol, who sold so many slaves in Virginia, had agents all over North America, many of them deeply involved in the local tobacco trade, or perhaps indigo.

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Many captains of slave ships looked on their task as, as a rule, complete when they had delivered their slaves to the West Indies. But it was often impossible to realize the proceeds of the sale of slaves fast enough to provide the ship concerned with a return cargo of sugar. Merchants and captains could not be certain of the prices which they would receive at home for goods taken on their own account. Planters might take several years to pay for the slaves. Sometimes, the European merchant preferred to have remittances from the West Indies in bills of exchange than to have sugar, indigo, cotton, or ginger in exchange for the slaves, because the prices of these goods in London were either unpredictable or low. Planters might prefer to give their own bonds for five years to pay for slaves, instead of bills of exchange for twelve to eighteen months. These could be used to make payments, but the planters sometimes were obliged to stop payment when owing considerable sums to suppliers (assuming they were English) in London or to manufacturers in Manchester and Birmingham. So, sometimes, the return journeys of many slave ships, belonging to all the major countries concerned, might be in ballast. Captains might be told by their owners that they should return quickly “unless a freight offers . . . worth staying a fortnight for.” But such return journeys were unusual: out of three hundred ships which left Jamaica in the last years of the eighteenth century, only twelve left in ballast.

North American and Caribbean planters mostly had bank accounts at home (whether that meant England, France, or Holland). They usually did one of three things when they made their purchases: they paid in cash for the slaves, in money “of the islands” (the French livre there was worth a third less than its equivalent in France); they asked for credit from the merchant, which might be a matter of up to two years (even ten years, exceptionally); or they might settle the bill in merchandise, rarely for the entire amount, frequently for a small percentage. This last might, according to the colony concerned, be sugar (first and foremost), semirefined or raw; indigo (in decline after 1750); cotton; and coffee (first mentioned in the Caribbean in 1730 and popular with captains of slave ships thereafter). Irregularly, there were reports of ginger, vanilla, tobacco, and skins. Snuff also played a part.

Full payment upon delivery of the slave was rare. Although the value of the debts was expressed in colonial currencies, payments were often made in commodities which had a clear value in Europe. Probably the most normal procedure in the 1780s was for 25 percent of the bill to be paid immediately, either in cash or cargo, with the rest to be paid over eighteen months. The planter would give the agent of the merchant a series of bills due on certain dates, usually at intervals of thirty, sixty, or ninety days. Portions of the bills were sometimes paid with receipts for earlier sales of slaves, the balance still owed in a bill of exchange drawn on a guarantor in Europe.

Payment for slaves brought to the Spanish colonies as part of the asiento was almost always in silver: pieces-of-eight.IV That was why the Spanish market had always been so attractive, and indeed why Havana would become a popular market for United States slavers once the trade was authorized there after 1789: “Get what hard cash you possibly can,” one Rhode Island captain was advised by his ship’s owner.

Portuguese sales in Brazil were complicated since the slaves themselves were, by the late eighteenth century, usually owned by Angolan merchants until their sale in Rio or Bahia or elsewhere. Payments in kind or in cash were made into the bank of the merchant concerned in Brazil. The transaction was, therefore, simpler than the practice of Northern European merchants.

The heart of the matter was the hunger of the colonists for slaves. They were always buying up to, or beyond, their limit, as if this transaction were their last chance of obtaining essential labor. Thus planters borrowed, and extended the system of agricultural credit beyond all bounds. Most slaves sold in Charleston and elsewhere in British North America in the eighteenth century were bought on credit. Many slave merchants, therefore, did not know when they would be paid. That eventually led them, especially those in Liverpool, to insist on “immediate remittance,” which caused a merchant’s colonial agent to send back on the slave ship a receipt for the purchase in the form of bills of long maturity drawn by the factors on their guarantors in England.

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In the American port, however the bill for the slaves was settled, and whether the place concerned was part of the British, Spanish, French, Dutch, or Portuguese empire, the captain would reorganize his crew, for some sailors would not want to return to Europe, and few journeys would have been completed without several deaths among the ship’s company. Those sailors who planned to go home, having usually been away a long time, always wanted to do so quickly, as usually indeed did the captain.

The average return voyage from the West Indies to Europe across the Atlantic might take between two and three months. Then would begin the sale of such merchandise as had been brought home; and the reckoning of the profits, if there were any.

The question of profits is a complex one. Henry Callister, a Manx agent in charge of the warehouse of the Liverpool slave merchant Foster Cunliffe, on Chesapeake Bay in the 1740s, wrote to his brother, Anthony, on the Isle of Man, “The Africa trade is quite dangerous for life and health, though most profitable.” His neighbors, the merchants Thomas Ringgold and Samuel Galloway, disagreed: “There are more disasters in those voyages than any other whatsoever,” the former wrote to the latter in 1762. What is the truth of this matter?19

To put matters at their simplest: in 1783, the firm of Giraud et Raim-baud of Nantes sent its 150-ton ship La Jeune Aimée to Angola and obtained 264 slaves, whom it sold in Saint-Domingue. The price of the ship had been 6,000 livres; with other expenses (the crew, the cargo, the slaves at Mayombe), the initial costs came to about 156,000 livres. The slaves and some other goods were sold for a total of over 366,000 livres. The profit, then, was 210,000 livres, or about 135 percent. That was, however, the ideal voyage, the voyage of which merchants dreamed, the voyage which caused them to risk so much, in money and lives (including so many European sailors’ and captains’ lives). It was that kind of voyage also which inspired captains who themselves thought, with reason, that one day they, too, might become merchants; and it fired the imagination of younger officers who thought that they too one day might become captains. But when John Newton was asked in the House of Commons in 1790 if he thought that the trade was profitable, he replied: “My concern in it was not profitable to my employers [Joseph Manesty of Liverpool]: there were gainful voyages, but the losing voyages were thought more numerous. It was generally considered a sort of lottery in which every adventurer hoped to gain a prize.”20 Those who heard that the RAC was buying slaves in Africa for a little over £3 a head and selling them in the Americas for £20 often did not take into account that the company had to manage its forts in Africa, and transport its cargo from London to be exchanged there. Some slave merchants ruined themselves. For example, Noblet Ruddock of Bristol, after “managing” thirty slave voyages between 1698 and 1729—more than any other single merchant in that city except one (James Day)—was bankrupt by 1726 (he later became a mere slave factor in Barbados).

Sometimes, though, and despite the skepticism of Newton, “miracles” did occur. Thomas Leyland, thrice mayor of Liverpool, made a profit of £12,000 from a voyage of the ship Lottery, whose captain was John Whittle; in 1798, the ship carried 460 slaves, from the river Bonny to Barbados. Indeed, Leyland’s accounts suggest that he had repeated successes: Captain Cesar Lawson on the Enterprize in 1803,V Captain Charles Kneal on the Lottery in 1804, Captain Charles Watt on the Fortune in 1805 all performed very well, bringing back an average profit of about £40 per slave delivered.

For most of the history of the slave trade, profits were made by independent traders. National privileged companies, on the other hand, often made losses, because they were staffed at home, and in Africa, by officials who all assumed that they were there to make a private profit out of the enterprise. On the other hand, sometimes even privileged companies were fortunate. Accounts of the RAC’s journeys to the Windward Coast in Africa—between Sierra Leone and Cape Three Points—are available for 1680 till 1687. There were ninety-five voyages. In these eight years, three cargoes showed a net loss; the largest profit was 141 percent; the average was 38 percent. In the early eighteenth century, the South Sea Company also seems to have made a profit of nearly 30 percent on its trade with Buenos Aires; and no director complained then that the costs of the traffic were too heavy.

But the real profits at that time were made by “interlopers” who would usually sell slaves in the West Indies, or on the mainland of both North and South America, to New Englanders as to Brazilians, for more than twice what they cost on the Congo coast. These traders did make considerable profits, sometimes as much as 200 percent, as, for example, one ship from Nantes did. More usual figures for Nantes in the early eighteenth century ranged from 50 to 100 percent. The news of such great profits became well known; it is that which presumably led Humboldt to suggest that a profit of 100 percent was normal, and some polemicists to assume an average profit of 300 percent.VI

The prices on the two sides of the Atlantic at the end of the eighteenth century were drawing closer. The cost of slaves in Africa, as we have seen, was about the equivalent of £50 by 1780: ten times what it had been a hundred years before. It can hardly be surprising, therefore, that profits fell: in the second half of the eighteenth century, the merchants of Luanda who traded with Bahia sometimes found that slaves were “sold for less than they cost.” The accounts of Aaron Lopez in Newport, Rhode Island, suggest a remarkable change from earlier in the century: out of fourteen voyages which he financed to Africa between 1760 and 1776, only between four and seven of them made a profit. Reasonably accurate information survives for twenty-five slavers sent from Nantes in 1783-90. Ten made profits, six of them gaining more than 19 percent; six lost money; one expedition broke even; and eight were apparently about to lose money when payments ceased at the end of 1792, thanks to the revolution in Saint-Domingue.VII In the last sixty years of British slaving, the annual returns seem to have been less than 10 percent.VIII Another estimate for the British slave trade between 1761 and 1807 was a profit of 9.5 percent, with a high level of 13 percent achieved in 1791-1800 and a low one of 3.3 percent in 1801-7.21 John Tarleton of Liverpool told a British inquiry in 1789 that “10 percent ought to be the net profit in the African trade.” The average profit in the accounts of the Liverpool slaver William Davenport was 10.5 percent over seventy-four voyages, and his overall annual profit averaged 8 percent. In this connection, an analysis of the profits made by the London Scottish circle of Richard Oswald, Augustus Boyd, and Sir Alexander Grant, who, it will be remembered, traded extensively from Bence Island, off Sierra Leone, seems to suggest that their nearly sixty slave voyages made a profit of £30,000, a benefit of a mere 6 percent.

Of one hundred journeys by Dutch ships in the second half of the century, forty-one seem to have registered losses. A careful analysis of Dutch slaving expeditions undertaken both by the Dutch West India Company and by interlopers suggested profits of little more than 3 percent, with an annual gain of 2 percent at most on investments. A study of the Middelburg company suggested that, between 1761 and 1800, it must have had an annual profit of only 1.43 percent, though it had cleared over 8 percent in 1751-60.

A similar study of the Maranhão Company of Brazil in the mid-eighteenth century suggested a profit of 30 percent, but that figure did not take into account many costs.

From the early eighteenth century onwards, there were always voices within the Danish West India Company arguing that the slave trade bought losses: Frederik Holmsted, the company’s bookkeeper from 1708, was a critic of the trade for that reason.IX

To sum up: considerable profits were made in the slave trade in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At the end of the latter era, however, prices of slaves rose considerably in Africa so that profits averaged 8 to 10 percent, the same kind of percentage obtained in much more ordinary commercial undertakings. But some skillful, or lucky, merchants continued to prosper greatly. At all times, the costs of the privileged companies in salaries, upkeep of forts, and other bureaucratic activities limited their profits. The decline in profitablity of the traffic at the end of the eighteenth century was undoubtedly in the minds of some traders in slaves by 1780; but that does not seem to have had much effect of the extraordinary course of events then about to transpire.


IClaver was canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1888.

IIThe intendant and the commissaire were important officials in France, and the offices had been extended to the empire.

IIIFor another joke which went horribly wrong, see page 718.

IVA piece-of-eight was a peso, or Spanish dollar, equal to eight reals.

VSee Appendix 4.

VIAlexander von Humboldt, traveler, naturalist and polymath, author of Voyage aux régions équinoxiaux du nouveau continent.

VIIFor which see page 523.

VIIIEarl Hamilton carried out thousands of calculations when working on his admirable history of the effects of the import of gold and silver on prices in Spain.

IXBut the company never listened. Its directors always believed that the colonies in the West Indies—Saint Thomas, Saint John, and Saint Croix—had to be served.

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