Modern history

Book Six

THE ILLEGAL ERA

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I See . . . We Have Not Yet Begun the Golden Age

“I see clearly that we have not yet begun the golden age.”

Tuscan diplomat, after the failure of the plans for suppressing the slave trade, at the conference of Aix-la-Chapelle, 1818

THE CONFUSION IN AFRICA after the abolition of the slave trade by Britain and the United States was considerable. In 1820, the king of Ashanti asked a British official, Dupuis, why the Christians did not want to buy slaves any more. Was their God not the same as that of the Muslims, who continued to buy, kidnap, and sell slaves just as they had always done? Since the Koran accepted slavery, some Muslims even persuaded themselves that the new Christian behavior was an attack on Islam.

Further, French, Portuguese, and even Spanish traders still acted as if they thought that slavery was ordained by God, just as the Anglo-Saxons had done up till 1807; though, of course, in the Napoleonic Wars, the first was an enemy of Britain, while the other two were allies.

It was years before these African attitudes began to change. There were, after all, more slaves in Africa in 1807 than in the Americas, even though there were also many more gradations of enslavement in the former. Mungo Park, traveling in Senegambia, had thought that “labour is universally performed by slaves”1 and guessed that “three-quarters of the population were slaves.” Probably slaves had constituted three-quarters of West African exports in the eighteenth century. “The slave trade has been at all times popular and is now,” commented an English businessman, John Hughes, after a visit to Cacheu-Bissau, or Portuguese Guinea, in 1828, adding, “I believe that every native African . . . would indulge in the slave trade if allowed to do so.”2

In the region of the rivers Sénégal and Gambia, much political power lay with the slave soldiers, the so-called ceddo, of the local aristocracies, who had from the early eighteenth century themselves gained wealth from selling slaves. The abolition of the Anglo-Saxon section of the European slave trade caused increased activity on the part of the ceddo, anxious to take advantage of what might seem the last days of the European interest in slaves; and the phenomenal rise, in the region of Senegambia, of the power of mullahs, at the expense not only of the ceddo but of noblemen and the temporal power, partly derived from the collapse of the European traffic. (These mullahs were at least as interested in slaving as their predecessors.) On the other hand, the emerging Sokoto caliphate in the Hausa city-states, a Sunni enterprise in the north of what is now Nigeria, was for a time hostile to the Atlantic slave trade. One leader there seems to have offered himself as a kind of “Muslim Wilberforce” to Africa in an attempt to stop the enslavement of free Muslims. But that prophet limited himself to saving his coreligionaries and anyhow he soon gave way to more traditional individuals, for whom slave trading and slave raiding were normal activities sanctioned by time and the Koran. The Hausa slave trade continued inland unabated, and about a quarter of the population of the caliphate may have been slaves at the end of the nineteenth century. Among the Ashanti, the most powerful of the kingdoms in Guinea, every man of property had slaves even if, since there were no plantations, their condition was more like being a member of “a family of friends.” The laboring people were still “mostly slaves” in the 1840s. “Many of the chiefs possess . . . many thousands of slaves,” remarked the Reverend John Beecham, a Methodist missionary in the Gold Coast in 1843.3 Slaves were still sacrificed at the death of kings in West Africa, often in a dramatic fashion, and in the kind of numbers which would have excited the approval of the ancient Mexica: perhaps a thousand or more on the occasion of the death of the king of Ashanti in 1824. Slaves dominated the military in certain kingdoms. Even in European settlements, “castle slaves” who had worked in the forts, including those in Cape Coast, remained, receiving payments till they died: they had only rarely been subjected to the indignity of being shipped to the New World. In Dahomey, a French visitor thought that two-thirds of the population were slaves: a statement which admittedly loses much of its force if it be realized that some argued that the inhabitants of Dahomey were legally “all slaves to the king.”4

Farther along the coast, in the delta of the Niger, most of the population seem to have been of slave descent. “There are not ten free people in Bonny,” a British businessman, J. A. Clegg, would tell a House of Lords select committee in 1843; and he continued: “At one time, there was not a chief in Bonny who was not a slave trader.” These slaves had attained their status by climbing within the curious system of “houses,” or associations of families, which remained the most important social authority in the delta. Inland, the Aros, the economic dictators of the region, were continuing to exploit their influence effectively and were reluctant to abandon the commerce which had brought them such riches. Slaves were for them, as for innumerable Africans, the main capital asset. Abolition by Britain brought for many in the Gulf of Guinea a fall in income, particularly for those who had depended on the tolls paid by African slavers and merchants, as well as the original enslavers, all the way up the rivers which had been the old routes of the traffic. Aristocracies often lost, with abolition, their only source of income.

A British trader, Francis Swanzy, recalled in 1843, “As soon as a man had made a little money he bought a slave; the people expended much money on the acquirement of slaves, which gave them power”; while a French traveler, René Caillé, thought about 1820 that a peasant’s first aspiration was to own ten to fifteen slaves.5

The abolition of the British slave trade and the subsequent efforts of the British to ensure that other Europeans followed their example, made available for the domestic African economies concerned many slaves who would otherwise have been exported to the Americas. In the region of upper Guinea, the masters employed more and more slaves to farm the goods approved of by the English as the “legitimate trade,” such as palm and kola nuts. The number of footloose slaves in West Africa even became a threat to established rulers and, just as slaves were held originally to have helped the development of states, they now assisted their disintegration; for example, in the Oyo empire, slave soldiers of northern origin came together under the flag of an Islamic jihad and hastened the demise of that power.

The slave trade from black Africa across the Sahara to the southern Mediterranean and Egypt continued after 1808, as it had throughout the era of the Atlantic trade. This accounted about 1800 for something in the region of two to three thousand captives a year, which probably expanded, after 1820, to at least 8,000. The Oyo, in 1810, before their fall, invaded the Mahi country, to their east, and brought back 20,000 slaves for sale at Lagos, and some of these went north across the Sahara, not west to the Americas. The slaves exported across the Sahara continued to include a substantial minority of much-sought-after and expensive eunuchs, favored as civil servants throughout the Muslim world in the nineteenth century. In the internal areas most affected by the Sahara trade, merchants might refuse in the 1820s to accept payment for goods in anything but slaves who, therefore, became something like the chief currency of the region around Bornu, near Lake Chad. Al-Nasiri, a Moroccan historian of distinction, complained of “the unlimited enslavement of blacks, and the importation of many droves of them every year, for sale in the town and county markets of the Mahgreb, where men traffic them like beasts.”6

To the south, in the Portuguese (and, before 1792, French) zones of Loango, Congo, and Angola, the slave trade continued after 1808 with, if anything, greater intensity: for the traders there began to fear that the British might use their superior naval power in order to insist on the end of the trade, so it seemed necessary to stock up with slaves while that was still possible.

The British House of Commons rebuked the committee of the still-surviving Company of Merchants Trading to Africa for failing to convince Africans that abolition was for the good of the local population. The committee replied, not unfairly: “Can the wildest theorist expect that a mere act of the British legislature should, in a moment, inspire . . . [the] unenlightened [sic] natives of the vast continent of Africa, and persuade them, nay more, make them practically believe and feel that it is for their interest to contribute to, or even to acquiesce in, the destruction of a trade not inconsistent with their prejudices, their laws, or their notions of morality and religion, and by which alone they have been hitherto accustomed to acquire wealth and purchase all the foreign luxuries and convenience of life?”7

Western European philanthropists talked much of persuading Africans to exchange the slave trade for other commerce. The charter of the newly founded Africa Institution, whose first president was the abolitionist duke of Gloucester,I made evident that it aimed at “diffusing useful knowledge and exciting industry among the inhabitants.” But when people tried to put the ideas of the institution into effect in Africa itself, they seemed a challenge to the existing order. Captain James Tuckey, an Irish-born geographer, during a journey “to solve the problem of the Congo” on the river of that name in 1816, wrote baldly: “The native merchants do not wish Europeans to penetrate into the country lest they should interfere with their business.”8

How could the peoples of West Africa who had been used to selling slaves to Anglo-Saxons build a new life? Dealing in salt was one possibility, a trade surviving indeed from the pre-Portuguese era: Captain John Adams, writing in the late eighteenth century, described how, at Warri, inland on the river Forcados, “neptunes, or large brass pans, are used during the dry season for purposes of evaporating sea-water to obtain its salt . . . and a great trade is carried on in this article with the interior of the country.”9 But it could not be a real rival to the trade in slaves.

More promising was palm oil, especially from the territory just behind the delta of the Niger, in which trade the towns along the rivers Bonny and Calabar would eventually play as big a part as they previously had with respect to slaves. Palm oil also was produced in the eastern part of the Gold Coast by the Akuapem people, who had been known as farmers in the days of the slave trade. It had been in use in Benin when the Europeans reached there in the fifteenth century and, in the 1520s, Portuguese sailors had been allowed to bring back a duty-free allowance of it of two jars apiece on their slaving voyages.

The most important use of palm oil in 1800 was soap; and, after that, candles. In Africa it was also made into a kind of gin (in the Gold Coast, when the question was asked whence came the capital used in the cocoa business, “palm oil and gin” was the usual answer). Palm oil was, too, an essential ingredient for lubricants. The coming of railways, and other new machinery in the nineteenth century, in Europe and North America caused an increase in demand for product on a large scale. The industrial revolution relied on this African export more than it did on slaves.

Some of the Liverpool merchants who had been busy with slaves until 1807 made a remarkable transition to this business: among them, the Aspinall brothers; George Case, Gregson’s partner in the ownership of the Zong; Jonas Bold, whose brother Edward was a pioneer in trading palm oil in the Benin River; and, above all, John Tobin, whose family were pioneers of Old Calabar. Tobin and Horsfall imported 450 tons of palm oil to England in 1807; in 1830, 4,000. Since the average price was £14 per ton in Calabar, and £28 in England, the profits began to be as high as they had been in the slave trade. The method of trading, too, was similar, to begin with, to what had happened in connection with slaves: textiles, iron bars, muskets, alcohol (especially rum), manilla bracelets, and cowries were all exchanged for the raw material. The irony was that many palm-oil groves were tended by slaves. European philanthropists thought that that labor force would eventually be substituted for by wage earners. But that liberal, or capitalist, alternative took several generations to develop.

Another possibility for “legal trade” was gum, especially from acacia trees along the sandy north of the river Sénégal. That product, sought after in all Europe, had already brought in for the region of that waterway half what the slave trade had done in the 1790s; by 1810, before French abolition, it was already equal in value to the trade in slaves.

Hides and beeswax were an equivalent to gum on the river Gambia and, by the 1820s, those products too exceeded in value the income from slaves. Ivory, gold, rice, timber (especially camwood), pepper, peanuts (later to play a great part in the valley of the Sénégal), and rice were other old African items of commerce which were renewed.

Yet, though the king of Bonny might sell palm oil to his newly moralistic old British friends, he was quite ready to continue to sell slaves to the Portuguese; indeed, to anyone who would buy them. Hugh Crow, one of the last Liverpool captains to go legally to West Africa—in 1807, with Thomas Aspinall’s Kitty’s Amelia, to carry 400 slaves to the West Indies—was told by the king of Bonny (in Crow’s customarily condescending rendering of the statement): “We tink trade no stop, for all we Ju-ju man tell we so.” The king of Dahomey sent an ambassador to the viceroyalty of Brazil in 1810 to reassure his customers that the traffic would be maintained.10

He need not have worried. For the governor of Bahia had had a clear instruction from Lisbon that “it is far from being the royal intention to restrict this commerce in any way. On the contrary, the royal authorities wish to promote and facilitate it in the best way possible.” The bishop of Pernambuco, José Joaquim da Cunha, for his part, had in 1808 denounced the “insidious principles of a sect of philosophers” concerned to preach abolition; he went on to insist that “the commerce of slavery is a law dictated by circumstances to barbarous nations.”11 Thereafter, several African kings found it convenient to have informal embassies in Brazil, directed, to be sure, by persons of Portuguese blood, to ensure the smooth working of the trade in the new circumstances. The long-standing exchange of slaves for third-rate tobacco between Bahia and the “coast of Mina” continued: 8,000 slaves were carried from the latter coast to Bahia in exchange for tobacco in 1807 alone; in 1810, Rio recorded its largest annual import of slaves, 18,677, in forty-two ships.

So, despite the high-minded efforts of the British, and despite the numerous acts of emancipation, soon to be introduced in some of the newly independent Latin American countries, the number of African slaves in the Americas in 1822 was probably twice what it had been in, say, 1780. Adam Smith’s contention in The Wealth of Nations that slavery was an uneconomic system had been widely read, but it was also almost everywhere rejected. In Brazil, as in Africa, wage labor was not available, and slave-powered agriculture seemed to prosper.

It therefore became appreciated soon after 1808 in London, if less so in Washington, that the abolition of the trade in slaves would be incomplete unless the British and American Acts of 1807 were followed by similar denunciations in the other slave-trading countries. Since they had abolished the slave trade themselves, it was scarcely in British interests to allow their commercial rivals to stock their colonies with slaves. That country’s diplomats, therefore, set about trying to convince other governments that they, too, should abolish their slave trades, in the hope that, eventually, that would lead to an end to slavery itself in the respective empires. A long crusade, usually misunderstood by other peoples, thus began.

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The abolitionists, whether they were in power (and many in Britain were now inside the administration, as civil servants, if not ministers) or whether they were still acting as a pressure group outside the government, faced three major challenges: first, one from Portugal, and her empire in Brazil; second, one from Spain, and her American empire, which in 1807 still seemed, from Mexico to Chile, unchanged and loyal; and, third, one from the United States. The war with France had for the moment put paid to the slave trade of the latter country, while the other European countries constituted lesser problems. Britain herself was the most law-abiding of nations in the early nineteenth century so that, when the act condemning the trade was passed, the business generally closed. But there was still some small-scale trading, and some indirect connections which would give rise to concern.

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Brazil was still the main market for slaves from Africa, as had generally been the case since the late sixteenth century, except for the second half of the eighteenth, when she had been overtaken by the clients of Britain. Half the population of the huge colony were slaves (nearly two million out of about 4 million in 1817). Slaves performed much of the productive work, working in mines, on sugar and coffee plantations, carrying sacks full of the produce of those enterprises to ships, and also acting as servants in the grand houses of the rich, as water carriers, or carrying their masters and mistresses, or merely escorting them along the ill-lit streets. The import of slaves was the most important part of Rio de Janeiro’s international trade, and accounted for a third of all commerce. Masters still believed that their supply of slaves needed constant replenishment, for the low birthrate continued as a result of the traditional, and deliberately contrived, shortage of women (two women to eight men at best were imported). In 1817, a British traveler, H. M. Brackenridge, reported once again that the natural increase of blacks was discouraged “from the calculation that it was cheaper to import full-grown slaves than to bring up young ones.”12

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Slavery still existed everywhere throughout the Spanish empire. But by now the old nerve centers of that colossal enterprise, the viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru, as well as the lesser territories of Chile and Argentina, employed more indigenous Indian labor than black slaves (10 percent only of the Mexican population were black or mulatto in 1810, and most of them were free; if a quarter of the population of Buenos Aires were black in 1810, Chile had only 5,000 black slaves all told). The only large employers of slaves in 1810 in the Spanish empire were the Cubans, followed by the Venezuelans (as they were soon to be).

Cuba had many things in common with Brazil. A lenient attitude to manumission, in both places, had made possible the rise of large free black populations. The colonists of both territories considered a substantial slave population essential for the economy. Both colonies depended economically on European countries whose national identities were protected during the Napoleonic Wars by Britain. But Cuba’s slave population was still small: a mere 200,000 in 1817, compared with Brazil’s 2 million. Cuba was an island, if a large one. That fact of geography dominated its history, as the historian Michelet would unsubtly emphasize with respect to Britain. (“L’Angleterre, c’est un île,” he would tell successive generations of French students in Paris.)

Thirdly, though Cuba was every year more prosperous, this “pearl of the Antilles” was nouveau riche, in comparison with Brazil, which had been receiving immense numbers of slaves from across the Atlantic for several centuries and had specialized in sugar even in the days of Philip II. By contrast, Cuba had, until the eighteenth century, primarily constituted a depot for Spanish treasure fleets.

Yet the most important product in Cuba was now sugar. Before the 1770s, planters in Cuba had neglected their opportunities for its production, though the soil was as suitable for its cultivation as that of Jamaica or Saint-Domingue; and there was much more of it. Still, by 1788, Cuba was already producing about 14,000 tons a year. By 1825, that figure had trebled to over 40,000 tons, grown on about 2,000 plantations. Soon Cuba would be exporting more sugar than all the other islands of the Caribbean put together—an increase made possible by the ceaseless growth in demand for the product in the United States and Europe; and this sugar was grown on slave-powered plantations.

As for Venezuela, the great landowners, the Uztarizes, the Toros, and the Tovares, the families who made money in the place, still needed slaves for their plantations of cacao in the beautiful valleys of Caracas and Aragua. In 1800, the slave population had admittedly been under 10 percent of the total population but, then, the criollos, or whites born in the New World, could only have been about 20 percent; the rest were mulattos, or free blacks. All the same, the landowners remained the masters of the colony, and Humboldt commented that these men were conservative in politics simply because “they believed that, in any revolution, they would run the risk of losing their slaves.”13 They had, after all, vivid memories of recent slave revolts, such as one in their own country which in 1795 had proclaimed “the law of the French Republic,” had caused much destruction, and had even led to the temporary occupation by rebel slaves of the town of Coro, on the coast opposite Curaçao.

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Another problem facing abolitionists after the Act of 1807 was the United States. The trade was prohibited. Several later acts of Congress refined the definition of the crime and toughened the penalties. But it was not till 1862, in the time of President Lincoln, that anyone was executed for the offense; in the meantime, the United States enjoyed a modest illegal international trade in slaves for fifty years.

This mostly flowed through Texas (part of the Spanish empire till 1821, then of Mexico till 1835, and finally independent till 1846), Florida (Spanish till 1818), and South Carolina. In Florida, in particular, slaves could easily, and legally, be landed at Pensacola and then shipped up the Escambia River into Alabama, or escorted by land into Georgia. Baltimore shipbuilding firms such as Samuel and John Smith, William van Wyck, John Hollins, and Stewart and Plunkett were still involved after 1808, as they had been before, in building ships for the trade and buying slaves in the West Indies. Underwriters in Boston still insured slave ships: thus N. P. Russell wrote to Messrs. J. Perkins in 1810: “At your particular request, I have offered to the underwriters in my office the two African risks, viz: the San Francisco de Asis and the schooner Carlota. . . .”14 Some Rhode Island slave merchants, including members of the de Wolf family, continued as such: (General) George de Wolf, not his uncle, James, was the biggest shipper in these illegal days though he was concerned principally to import slaves into Cuba, not the United States. He celebrated his new wealth by building a magnificent house, with Corinthian columns and Palladian windows, Linden Place, in Bristol, Rhode Island. In Providence in the same state in 1816, an unidentified correspondent wrote to Obadiah Brown, philanthropist and pioneer of cotton manufacture, saying: “The impunity with which prohibited trade is carried on from this place has for some time past rendered it the resort of many violators of commercial law. . . . The African slave trade is one of this description now most successfully and extensively pursued.”15 The truth is still concealed by deliberately contrived confusion. For example, in late 1809, the Africa Institution of London reported the coast of West Africa to be “swarming” with ships flying Spanish flags which derived from the United States. The Smiths of Newport, not to speak of Francis Depan and Broadfoot of Charleston, as well as John Kerr of New York, were all implicated. So, judging from a letter written by James de Wolf of Bristol to his brother John, was the well-known merchant Samuel Parkman of Boston: “I learn that Parkman of Boston sends you a schooner to Bristol [Rhode Island] to be outfitted for an expedition to the eastward, and that you have refused to have anything to do with her, which, in my opinion, is a very proper determination of yours.”16

On January 11, 1811, the United States secretary of the navy, Paul Hamilton (himself a slaveowner and planter who had earlier urged the legislature of South Carolina to abolish the slave trade), wrote to Captain Campbell, the naval commander at Charleston: “I hear, not without great concern, that the law prohibiting the import of slaves has been violated in frequent instances at [the port of] St Mary’s [Georgia], since the gunboats have been withdrawn. . . . Despatch them [the gunboats] to St Mary’s with orders to use all practical diligence”; and President James Madison, whose opposition to the slave trade had been continual, if occasionally tactical, told Congress, in his message of December 10 of that year: “It appears that American citizens are [still] instrumental in carrying on a traffic in enslaved Africans, equally in violation of the laws of humanity and those of their own country.” He added: “The same just and benevolent motives which produced the interdiction by force against the criminal conduct will doubtless be felt by congress in devising further means of suppressing the evil.”17 “Doubtless” turned out to be rather a strong word in the circumstances. Sometimes, it is true, a slaver would be caught by an enterprising customs officer (such as the Eugene, captured off New Orleans), but its disposal was another matter.

Louisiana, newly acquired from France, was a specially difficult problem: Governor William Claiborne was quite unable to enforce the abolition of the trade in slaves, and dealing with the smuggling of them “proved to be one of the most troublesome problems in the administration of the prohibitory legislation.”18

As for South Carolina, as early as 1804, Representative William Lowndes of that state said: “With navigable rivers running into the heart of it [the state], it was impossible, with our means, to prevent our eastern brethren [that is, New Englanders] who, in some parts of the Union in defiance of the general government, have been engaged in this trade, from introducing them [slaves] into this country.”19 Several other states of the Union, such as North Carolina, had always been dependent on slaves brought in by land (mostly from South Carolina), not by water, so there are no entries recorded in the books of the Customs.

The United States Slave Trade Act of 1807 only prohibited the international slave trade. It condemned neither the internal nor the coastal traffic. There was no limit to the number of slaves who could be so traded, nor any regulation as to the way they should be carried. The size of this commerce was large: slaves were carried either by sea or, more often, by land, to New Orleans or Charleston, and there sold to shippers who might take them elsewhere in the United States or even (illegally) to Cuba. Thus the Virginia Timeswould boast in 1836 that 40,000 slaves had been sold for export the previous fiscal year. The journey from Virginia to the market in New Orleans might take as many days as the “middle passage” from Africa.

The mention of Virginia raises an interesting subject. From the beginning of agriculture there in the seventeenth century, proprietors on tobacco plantations had, as has been pointed out, increased their stock of labor from home-bred slaves without excessive recourse to the international market. By 1800, slaves on some plantations were being deliberately bred there for sale. The idea had often been canvassed in the West Indies (for example, in Jamaica and on the estates of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) as an alternative to the slave trade. The Gadsdens of Charleston, the Campbells of New Orleans, and Nathan Bedford Forrest of Memphis were the outstanding names in this new business, but there were others, in Alexandria, Savannah, and Richmond, though most of them saw the breeding of slaves as an incidental, rather than a dominating, business.

The United States was more successful in producing slaves by natural increase than any other slave-employing society in the Americas. Was this because special attention was coldly paid to “breeding women,” to those who were “uncommonly good breeders”? Did some Virginian slaveowners realize that slave children were, as it were, a return on capital which could increase their wealth? The testimony is slight and a little tainted: Richard Drake described seeing such a breeding farm near Alexandria, Virginia, but no one has been able to decide on the reliability of his vivid account of thirty pregnant women and the huts swarming “with piccaninnies of different shades.”20 The argument that female slaves would have more children if well treated had been often used during the debates on abolition; for example, Captain Thomas Wilson, of the British navy, who had had experience of both the West Indies and mainland America, did so in evidence to the House of Commons in London in 1790: “I always thought them [the slaves of North America] better treated and clothed—they appeared more domestic and happy—marriages are more frequent among them—there are fewer imported in proportion.”21

The concern whether a slave population could be maintained by breeding was also a consideration of the abolitionists in the 1790s; though, usually, the answer which they received to their questions about the West Indies was of the order of “I understood from one planter to whom I spoke on the subject that the slaves in general were too hard-worked to breed.”22 Dr. Harrison, a doctor who, like Captain Wilson, had experience in both Jamaica and the North American colonies (before 1778), explained, “In South Carolina, the slaves were well fed, well clothed, less worked and never severely whipped; in Jamaica, they were badly fed, indifferently clothed, hard worked, and severely whipped.” In Brazil, “the Portuguese do not hesitate to tell you that it does not pay them to breed slaves, and bring them up, as the woman is kept away from her usual duties for so many years that it would not remunerate them for loss of time, and the cost of feeding them. Besides that, the mortality among children is said to be great.”23 Later, with the coffee boom in Brazil after the 1830s, that attitude would change, since “children of a very tender age can go and pick coffee.” But even then, J. B. Moore, the chairman of the Brazilian Association of Liverpool, said that he was not “aware of any distinct establishment [in Brazil] for the breeding and sale of home-grown slaves.”24

In 1790, slavery in North America, as opposed to North American participation in the slave trade to Cuba and elsewhere, seemed to be in decline. But Eli Whitney’s fateful invention of the cotton gin, on Mrs. Nathanael Greene’s plantation at Savannah, Georgia, during the spring of 1793, and the realization that, with this removal of the great hindrance hitherto to the large-scale cultivation of cotton (the taking of the lint from the seeds), “one negro could produce fifty pounds of cleaned cotton a day,” was already transforming the position. The figures are remarkable if well known; in 1792, the year before Whitney’s invention, the United States exported a mere 138,328 pounds of cotton, which placed her on the same level as a producer as Demerara (Guiana); in 1794, already, the figure had leapt to 1,601,000; in 1800, she exported 17,790,000; and in 1820, cotton exports reached thirty-five million pounds.

This triumph, depending on the cultivation on a large scale of green seed-cotton in Georgia and the Carolinas, marked the conversion of this crop into the most important item in North American exports, and caused an unprecedented demand for slaves; especially women, since it was supposed that the sensitive harvesting of cotton demanded female labor.

This latter perception had demographic consequences. In 1790, there were only half a million, well-acclimatized slaves in the United States, most of them of the second or third generation. Between 1800 and 1810, slaves within the United States increased by a third, and there was an increase of nearly another third in the next ten years, to 1820. By 1825, the slaves in the United States numbered over a third of all slaves in the Americas. This trend would continue. But the slave trade into the United States was tiny. Why should the smallest slave importer have the largest slave population? The reason for the increase in slaves in North America must have been linked to the use of female slaves on the cotton plantations.

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United States shippers continued to provide slaves to Cuba and other parts of the Spanish empire and also, though in smaller numbers, to Brazil. In 1807, for example, in the nine months for which the record survives, thirty-five United States ships entered Havana, out of a total of thirty-seven (the other two were technically “Danish”). The fact that the license to foreigners to import slaves into Cuba ended in 1810 mattered little: the appropriate officials in Spain considered what should be done, and some of them (the Consulado of Cádiz, for example) expressed humane hopes but, with the country at war, the best course seemed to be to do nothing; and, in the meantime, the trade to Cuba continued without impediment. The official returns for Havana list only five United States ships between 1808 and 1819.II But there were certainly others, under a variety of flags, and landing slaves in a variety of ports. In May 1808, Captain Madden’s Pitter carried sixty-two to Matanzas, where Captain Wilbey delivered eighty-six in the Venusin February 1809. Numerous ships which sound by their name to have been Anglo-Saxon—for example, the Rebecca, under Captain Colquhoun, in March 1810; or Captain Beale’s Tripe in June 1810—were probably from the United States.

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Continuing English involvement in the trade is more difficult to analyze. A few dealers established in West Africa or islands off the shores continued to play a part. A few English captains sailed under United States flags, and later under Swedish, Danish, and even French ones. More important, probably, several prominent firms participated in the trade after 1807 by investing in or even owning theoretically Spanish- or Portuguese-owned ships.III British sailors helped to teach Cuban-based Spaniards the tricks of the trade. Many English firms still supplied the “trade goods” for slave voyages of Portuguese and Spanish ships. But most important English firms did drop out. They even abandoned the slave trade between the Caribbean islands.

•  •  •

The first move in the British policy of seeking to restrict the international traffic in slaves came as early as April 1807, when Lord Strangford, the British minister in Lisbon,IV sought to persuade Portugal to abolish the traffic; or, at least, to ensure that the Portuguese trade remained within its existing limits. The Portuguese foreign minister, Azevedo, however, thought that it was impracticable for his country to adopt any measures on the subject. Lord Strangford, the father of George Sydney Smythe, the model for Disraeli’s Coningsby, should have known all about the slave trade, since his American-born mother was a Philipse of New York, a great-granddaughter of a famous merchant in slaves, Frederick Philipse, of a hundred years before; but perhaps the significance of that genealogy was hidden from him, for the family had recently been through many vicissitudes. Strangford had gone on, however, in August, 1807, to persuade Dom João, the regent of Portugal (his mother, Queen Maria, was mad), to reject Napoleon’s ultimatum demanding that he close Portuguese ports to the English or be invaded. This defiant act led him and the Portuguese Court, and a great number of businessmen, to sail in English ships to Brazil. Strangford had let it be known that England would “occupy Brazil” if the royal family were to allow themselves to fall into the hands of Napoleon.

The change of residence was a great success for Brazil. The mere presence of the regent and the court transformed Rio. No matter that the regent himself was an easy-going amiable and flabby bourgeois prince. Rio began to think of herself as a capital. From then on, all the trade which used to go to Lisbon went to Rio. A bank was founded in that city, not to speak of a mint, a public library, as well as a botanical garden and a new theater. There were newspapers, and a Portuguese edition of The Wealth of Nations, with its skepticism about the value of slavery, was published. To cap the arrangements, the regent agreed to sign, under the kind of courtly duress which diplomats from London could then inspire, a commercial treaty with Britain (giving that country a “most-favored-nation” status, with a preferential tariff for her goods), as well as a treaty of alliance, by whose Article 10 the regent agreed to cooperate to ensure the “gradual abolition of the slave trade.” Dom João also undertook that Brazil would thenceforth take slaves only from those parts of Africa which were already part of the Portuguese zone of influence. That meant that they could trade legally in Loango, Angola, and Mozambique, at São Tomé and Principe, and at Whydah but not at Lagos, where there was no Portuguese fixed presence. The treaty was in some respects vague: for example, there was no guarantee that Portugal, once re-established at home and at peace (if that were to happen), would legislate against the slave trade. For the time being, too, the increased quantity of British manufactured goods now brought into Brazil, legally, could continue to be used in the trade to Angola, and in exchange for slaves: a weakness in the schemes devised in London which the Foreign Office had overlooked. Whether the regent envisaged that anything serious would come from his signature on the document is a matter for the imaginative novelist rather than for the historian: though he would not have known the figures, Dom João must have realized that, after his arrival, the import of slaves had increased in Brazil (from, say, ten to twenty thousand a year), a good business in which he himself is said to have invested.

With this treaty, meantime, the British demonstrated that, almost overnight, they had changed their international posture: from having been the great practitioners of the trade in slaves, they had become philanthropic opponents of it on moral grounds. The transformation puzzled all those with whom they came into contact. Opportunistic motives were naturally suspected. The French, the North Americans, and the Spaniards thought that the British crusade against the slave trade was a way of consolidating their navy’s command of the sea. For, immediately after the passage of the bill prohibiting the slave trade, a British West Africa Squadron was established to ensure the implementation of the law: to ensure first and foremost that no British captain, from any British port, traded slaves along 3,000 miles of African coast. The Act of 1807 also permitted the seizure of pirates, and any vessels which carried false papers would automatically be judged pirates, at least according to English law.V A bounty of £60 per male, £30 per female, £10 per child would be paid by the Admiralty to naval officers and some other beneficiaries, including Greenwich Hospital, for every slave liberated (these rules meant that captains of slavers would never be indicted as pirates, because, had they been so, the bounties would not have been paid).

After the report of some transgressions by English merchants (for example, the discovery of the Commercio del Rio, a fully equipped Spanish slave ship, in the Thames), the penalties for breaking the law were made more severe. In 1811, a new bill, the consequence of more agitation by the abolitionists, steered through Parliament by the mercurial Henry Brougham, made slaving a felony, and punishable by transportation (to Australia) for fourteen years. Brougham instanced the ship Neptune which, as well as carrying wood and ivory from Africa, had taken thirteen slaves to the isle of Principe. Then the George was also observed setting off to carry slaves. The navy stopped a ship with 109 slaves, called the Marqués Romano, which turned out to be the Liverpool vesselPrince William. Other Spanish disguises were the Galicia and Palafox, in reality the Queen Charlotte and the Mohawk. The judges at Sierra Leone had found that over a thousand slaves had been produced for emancipation at their court.25

This further legislation seems to have had a decisive effect on would-be British slavers. Transportation, after all, was tantamount to a life sentence. Few accusations of British slave trading were subsequently made, although surreptitious investment in the Spanish and Portuguese ships continued, and though British goods remained popular among slaving captains.VI

The first British West Africa Squadron at first consisted of only two ships, the frigate Solebay (thirty-two guns, Commodore E. H. Columbine) and the sloop Derwent (eighteen guns, Lieutenant E. Parker). They made a trial journey to the West African coast in 1808. The two ships were small, slow, and incapable of restraining a multimillion-dollar commerce. Then, in 1811, after the Anglo-Portuguese treaty, which seemed to permit the use of naval power against Portuguese or Brazilian slavers plying between Brazil and Africa, a larger flotilla was dispatched, under Captain Frederick Irby, a veteran of Camperdown and the Glorious First of June. He had at his disposal the Amelia (thirty-eight guns), the Ganymede (twenty-four), the Kangaroo (eighteen), and the Trinculo(eighteen). His task continued difficult because both of the length of the coast which he had orders to supervise, and of the ambiguity of the laws under which he was operating. Since the country was at war, Britain claimed the right to board and search the ships of all neutral and enemy nations: that included those of the United States as well as France. But the two largest slave shippers were then Spain and Portugal.

A story from one of Irby’s voyages explains much. Having been told that forty-five Portuguese ships were loading slaves between Cape Palmas and Calabar, Irby set off from his headquarters at Sierra Leone just after Christmas 1811. On December 31, he met the Portuguese brig São João, full of slaves. Irby intercepted and sent her, with an escort on board, to Sierra Leone. A few days later, he met another Portuguese vessel, the Bom Caminho. She had no slaves on board, so she was released, even if Irby observed that she had recently bought two canoes, which (he believed) must have been intended for carrying slaves from Cape Coast to the ship. Irby reported this to the (British) governor of Cape Coast, and warned him never to sell canoes again if they could be used for slaving. He continued to Whydah, where he saw that three Portuguese brigs were openly trading for slaves. But since the Portuguese had a trading post there, Irby could do nothing. A little farther on, near Lagos, at Porto-Novo, the British found three more Portuguese ships, in the process of buying slaves. There was there no permanent Portuguese post, so he thought that he was entitled to seize them and sent them off, again with an escort of British officers on board, to Sierra Leone. Irby did the same at Lagos itself, again sending three ships to Sierra Leone, though leaving three others. After a brief stop at São Tomé, Irby returned to Sierra Leone.

These and similar actions caused fury among the Portuguese, though the captains of their merchant ships were quite unprepared to fight the navy of their ancient ally. But many ships of countries other than Portugal had left the ocean because of the continuing war; and their slavers for a time habitually used the Portuguese flag.

The colony of Sierra Leone, so long a center of the trade, and the recently bankrupt philanthropic colony of a private company, now became the headquarters of Britain’s antislaving activities. A prize court under the Admiralty had been set up at the new city of Freetown, on the estuary of the river Sierra Leone, with a judge and officials fully imbued with Wilberforcian ideals. It seemed for a time possible that, in this new role, Sierra Leone might, after all, become “the cradle of African civilization.” When a slave ship was captured, the naval officer concerned would send her there with a prize crew. If the vessel were condemned, as it almost always was, it would be confiscated and sold, and the slaves would be maintained at government cost for a year. After that, they had to shift for themselves, unless they volunteered to go to the British West Indies as apprenticed laborers. Almost all, however, remained in Sierra Leone, which thus became a microcosm of African tribal differences. The governor of that colony, usually a retired naval officer, was at the same time made generally responsible for all British interests in West Africa.

It seemed to be an ideal solution. But difficulties began when Commander Irby, acting as “the new champion of the cause of humanity and justice,” in Ambassador Strangford’s words or, in the new style of English “global moralism,” to use the historian Pierre Verger’s phrase, interpreted (or misinterpreted) parts of the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty as showing that Portugal considered the slave trade to be generally illegal. Irby and his captains captured twenty-four nominally Portuguese or Brazilian slave ships in four years, 1810-13, of which twelve came from Bahia. There were continuous outcries from Lisbon. The new foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh, had to write to the Admiralty in May 1813 “to desire that your lordships will be pleased to instruct His Majesty’s cruisers not to molest Portuguese ships carrying slaves bona fide on the account and risk of Portuguese subjects from the ports of Africa belonging to the Crown of Portugal and the Brazils.” Irby and the prize-court judges in Sierra Leone protested in turn. What was the former to do? The question was not soon to be answered. James Prior, of the navy, wrote, also in 1813, that all other considerations in Bahia faded “into insignificance in comparison with the slave trade; Portugal and Spain, England and France, Wellington, Bonaparte, the Prince Regent can all vanish into the land of shades; what does it matter provided that their dear traffic, the subject of their dreams, day and night, can be maintained? This attachment, no power of reason can shake, only the argument of force can have any effect.”26

British naval captains had also to stand by if they saw ships from the United States at work on the African slave coast. The United States might have abolished the international slave trade, but they had no intention of allowing British naval officers to inspect their ships, criminal or no. Nor, for the time being, were they thinking of a naval patrol of their own off Africa.

There was a hectic anxiety about the slave trade in these years which contrasted with its stability before 1788. No one knew how long it would continue. Planters who had always used slaves now bought them at inflated prices, since they feared that they might not find any more. The problems worsened (for the slave users, that is) as several Latin American countries, anxious for British commerce, recognition, and protection, and themselves no longer dependent on the institution of slavery, hastened to abolish their slave trades. Britain, with a virtual monopoly over all tropical produce, then had the only navy which could intervene in every continent. Thus Brazil, Argentina, even Mexico and several other ex-Spanish colonies were her virtual dependencies: Canning would candidly say, in 1824, “Spanish America is free and, if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly, she is English.”27

Bolívar thought that abolition of slavery was the key to Spanish American independence, and liberated his own slaves. The Supreme Junta of Caracas, the first government of an independent Venezuela, abolished the trade in slaves in 1811; and, in New Granada (Colombia) in 1812, the liberator Miranda promised freedom to any slave who would fight the Spaniards for ten years (scarcely a generous concession). In Buenos Aires, the first revolutionary triumvirate, in a rare lucid moment, in 1812, prohibited the slave trade in the grandiose terms to which their compatriots had become used, though a clandestine commerce continued for a few more years. (The liberator, San Martin, thought that, in his army, “the best infantry soldier we have is the black and the mulatto.”28) His equivalent in Uruguay made a special appeal to blacks to rally round him, even calling on the slaves in Brazil to do the same. In Chile, the Revolutionary Congress in 1811 agreed to a proposal by a humanitarian liberal, Manuel de Salas, to abolish the domestic slave trade—a proposal which aroused the old guard who, as elsewhere, thought that the measure would shake the social order; even though that was anyway shaky. Then Morelos, in his rebellion in New Spain (Mexico), ordered all masters to free slaves within three days, and promised that such emancipated captives should have equality with Spaniards. But at that time there were few black slaves in the country; in any case, Morelos was soon defeated. Only in Cuba, as in Brazil, did a continuing demand for slaves seem to characterize the new era—and, partly for that reason, independence was delayed for nearly another century. Francisco de Arango, bewailing the decline in the introduction of slaves into Cuba in 1809 to a mere 1,162, insisted that no foreigner could provide Cuba on the scale which she required: “All our hopes,” he declared, “center on ourselves alone, and our entire attention must be directed to that end.”29

Ourselves alone, nosotros solos! The new leading merchants of Havana who dealt in slaves, mostly peninsularesVII in origin, now led by Santiago de la Cuesta y Manzanal, Francisco Hernández, and Juan Magín Tarafa, with the support of the governor, soon set about carrying out the suggestions of Arango. In 1809, they jointly dispatched a brigantine, the San Francisco, to London, with instructions to buy goods there which could be exchanged for slaves in Africa. Other ships followed: the Zaragoza went direct to Loango, the Junta Central to Calabar. The intendantVIII of Havana, Juan de Aguilar, wrote to the Council of the Indies explaining how he was trying to encourage more direct journeys from Africa to Cuba, in Spanish ships, captained by Spaniards. Further, for all Arango’s declaration of insular self-reliance, the Cuban slave dealers were in close touch with North American shipbuilders and merchants, in Baltimore and Philadelphia.30

But this new traffic brought Spain immediately into difficulty with the British, theoretically allies of Spain, just as the Portuguese-Brazilian commerce had done. The British foreign secretary had, in both 1808 and 1809, asked his representative in Spain to urge the desirability of a gradual abolition of the Spanish slave trade throughout the Spanish empire. Wilberforce also wrote to the minister in Spain, the marquis Wellesley, and they talked about the matter in 1810. But if, in the capitals, the British were diplomatic, at sea they were less so.

Thus, in the two years 1809 and 1810, Irby and his naval patrol intercepted nine ships out of about twenty-four which left Cuba for Africa to seek slaves, and sent most of them to Sierra Leone, where they were declared prizes and sold off, their slaves being liberated there. Most British officers believed that the Spanish slave trade was carried on by non-Spaniards and that, therefore, these vessels were fair game. True, there were some North Americans among the captains of these ships. But had not the United States abolished the trade as well as the English? So it was assumed that those accused would have to prove by their own laws that they were innocent. The Spanish ambassador in London—Pedro Alcántara de Toledo, the duke of Infantado, a friend of King Ferdinand VII—complained: the slave trade had not been abolished by Spanish law. A British tribunal could not cause British laws to apply to Spanish ships. The British government, triumphant in the long war, paid no attention. Her insensitivity to the national pride of a great nation fallen on hard times in the long run damaged the great abolition cause.

The seizure of these ships was usually attended by a complex drama. Take, for example, the case of the brigantine Hermosa Hija, which belonged to Francisco Antonio Comas, of Havana. This vessel left Havana for Africa in 1810 and had almost returned again, with its cargo of several hundred slaves, when the British vessel Dark, under Captain James Wilkins, captured her. Wilkins put on board a prize crew and gave orders that the boat be taken to Sierra Leone. Within twenty-four hours, the Spanish crew had mutinied and overthrown the British sailors and, for four days, the ship was sailed back to Cuba. Then the British managed to recover control and, chaining both slaves and Spaniards, set off again for Freetown. There the Spaniards were accused and condemned, not of slave trading but of the more serious crime of insurrection.

Cuban slave merchants had other difficulties than those presented to them by moralistic British naval officers. Once, one of their vessels was seized by Haitians, and the slaves were set free in that liberated but unfortunate country. The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States also made it legitimate for the British to seize ships with North American flags. But it also legalized privateering, and United States ships, including some owned by the de Wolfs of Bristol, captured British merchantmen. The traders in slaves often found themselves caught in the crossfire between the navies of the two Anglo-Saxon powers. The Caribbean was full of pirates in the early nineteenth century, no less brutal, if less picturesque, than those of the past. For example, a French corsair, Dominique You, on the bark Superbe, captured the United States ship Juan, with 134 slaves on board, belonging to Cuesta y Manzanal of Havana; another French pirate, Captain Froment, on the Minerve, seized the sloop Hiram, with sixty-one slaves intended for David Nagle also in Havana. Another coup of a different nature was that of the French Captains Brohuac and Morisac, who before 1808 seized a British merchantman on her way to Jamaica and sold the 220 slaves whom they had found on board.

All the same, for abolitionists, the first promising news after 1808 did seem to come from Spain. In full war, with Napoleon’s armies in control of most of the country, the new liberal constitution made possible a legislative assembly representing the empire as well as the peninsula. José Miguel Guridi y Alcócer, an eloquent deputy for Tlaxcala, New Spain (he was a priest also), on March 26, 1811, presented to the Cortes of Cádiz the first formal Spanish project for the abolition, not of the slave trade, but of slavery as such, which, he said, adapting his Wilberforcian ideas to Latin phraseology, was contrary to natural law. He demanded the immediate abolition of the trade, freedom for all children of slave mothers, wages for surviving slaves, and the automatic right of slaves to buy their freedom if, through one way or another, they could lay their hands on any money. He hoped, too, to guarantee better treatment for all who remained in slavery. But in reply, a deputy from Bogotá, José Mejía Lequerica, said that, although he agreed that the abolition of the trade was an “urgent necessity,” that of slavery itself required much more thought. The Cortes decided to refer the matter to its commission on the new constitution. It remained there. Then, on April 2, the radical deputy Agustín de Argüelles (who had had, he said, “the sweet satisfaction” of having been in the House of Lords in London in 1808, on the night when it passed the bill of abolition) proposed the condemnation of the trade. He insisted that “Spain ought to be in line with Britain.”31 The British should be assured of that, so that the two most enlightened opponents of Napoleon could work together. Argüelles, it seems, had heard that the British ambassador, Henry Wellesley—brother of the marquis of Wellesley, then British foreign secretary, as of the duke of Wellington—was about to make a request to this effect and had persuaded him to hold his hand, so that the idea of abolition could be made to seem a Spanish one.

This discussion caused panic in the Spanish empire, above all in Cuba, whose planters were horrorstruck, and whose captain-general, the marquis of Someruelos, Salvador de Muro, a subtle administrator whose motto was “know everything, pretend much, punish little,” sent back a message to the Cortes on July 7, 1811, which requested the government to treat the idea of abolition of the trade with reserve, “in order not to lose this important island.” The municipality of Havana on July 20 sent a ninety-two page memorandum to the Cortes, blaming Bishop de Las Casas for the slaves in Cuba in the first place: but “the slaves have come and are here, to our misfortune; not by our fault, but of those who first initiated and encouraged this commerce in the name of law and religion.” Now the economy of Cuba depended on both slavery and the slave trade, and that fact had to be faced. There was not a property on the island which had the slaves which they needed. The document was well-written, showed a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the debate on abolition in London and indicated that the criollos in Cuba would be formidable enemies of the British abolitionists. The precise knowledge which the author also had of the growth of “slave philanthropy” (filantropia negrera) was a warning to the government of Spain not to take the loyalty of Cuba forever for granted.32

Then, also in the Cortes, as deputy for Cuba, there was the economist Francisco de Arango, who made a skillful rearguard defense of the existing position—much in the style of Henry Dundas in 1792. Though accepting the injustice of the trade, Arango opposed, as equally unjust, an overhasty resolution of the problem, arguing that the Cortes should wait till a constitution for Spain had been worked out, and suggesting that, since Britain and the United States had in effect given their planters twenty years’ notice of their plan to abolish the trade, Spain should be allowed to do the same. The planters of Cuba, and other places which had come to depend on slaves, should, in the meantime, encourage the import of female slaves for the purposes of reproduction.

The following year, on November 23, in another debate in the Cortes (on a bill to remove the purchase tax known as the alacabala on the sale of slaves), Isidoro Antillón—the gifted geographer who had first among the Spaniards suggested the abolition of the trade, ten years before—proposed the full abolition of slavery. Arango again skillfully secured that the proposal was lost, by confining discussion of it to the oblivion of a secret session. The friends of slavery, of whom there were many, came to realize that they could influence opinion when they hinted that the abolitionists were covert allies, or even agents, of the English. That accusation made everything much more difficult, even if the English were allies of Spain. All the same, the municipality of San Juan in Puerto Rico did instruct their deputy, Ramón Power y Giralt, to support all measures in Madrid which favored the immigration of Europeans and the gradual extinction of slavery, which they termed “the worst of ills from which this island suffers.”33

These debates were signs that abolition might be proposed in the Spanish Cortes, but the violent reaction in Cuba suggested that the planters were unlikely to conduct themselves in the law-abiding way which had characterized their companions in Jamaica. There was an indication that that lawlessness might spread to the mother country too when Antillón, some days after his speech, was beset in the streets of Cádiz by three thugs, who inflicted wounds so severe that he died a year later. It would, however, be difficult to say that this was the first murder of an abolitionist, for the identities of Antillón’s assailants were never made clear.

The British government were determined to prevent the use of the Spanish flag by their subjects to carry slaves to Cuba. So Henry Wellesley was in May 1811 ordered to ask Spain “to take all necessary action” to prevent the use of Spanish colors and documents by British as well as American slave captains. The British navy would be available to assist the Spanish government in putting its new regulations into effect. Suspicious ships—for example, off Tenerife—could be captured and judged, unless “the whole concern” were positively shown to be the bona-fide property of Spanish subjects.

The Spanish government, needing British help against Napoleon, gave a conciliatory reply. They said that they would instruct the authorities in Tenerife to act as appropriate, in the light of Brougham’s accusations. But, not surprisingly, they gave no sign whatever of enthusiasm for the offer of British naval assistance.

•  •  •

In November 1813, the Portuguese, under the influence of their British friends, who insisted on the benefits of Sir William Dolben’s Act of 1788 (itself an adaptation of an old Portuguese law), agreed to a new limitation on the number of slaves carried: five per two tons’ weight of ship in any ship up to 201 tons; in larger ships, there could be only one slave per ton.

This measure had several consequences. First, it favored Portuguese merchants who had re-established themselves in Rio de Janeiro, sometimes with British financial backing and occasionally with equipment bought from Liverpool slave traders. At the same time, brandings with hot irons, which had been used in Africa to identify slaves since the fifteenth century, gave way for a time to marking with a metal bracelet or a collar, though in 1818 the old system was restored, using a silver implement, on the ground that captains cheated the customs by substituting healthy slaves whom they shipped on behalf of others for captives of their own who died.

The new rule also gave the British navy a pretext to inspect Portuguese ships. So, by 1814, Captain Irby and his West Africa Squadron thought that they would shortly be able to bring to an end the slave trade by threat and by bullying in support of the new Portuguese law.

The impression was confirmed by the Treaty of Ghent of December 1814, which ended the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. By that document’s article 10, Britain and the United States agreed “to use their best endeavours” to end the slave trade. But the United States still had no intention of permitting the British navy to inspect American ships. No one in the new country could forget that the issue of search-and-seize had indeed helped to cause the War of 1812. After that war, the United States attached a meaning to the phrase “freedom of the seas” with which Britain never agreed. In 1817, John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state, would tell the United States minister in London that the “admission of a right in the officers of foreign ships of war to enter and search the vessels of the United States in time of peace under any circumstances whatever would meet with universal repugnance in the public opinion of this country.”34 The British minister in Washington, a few years later, asked Adams, after he had become the sixth president of the United States, whether he could think of an evil greater than the slave trade. The president replied that he could: to grant the right of search, and “so to make slaves of ourselves.”35 Yet, at that very time, some of those fast Baltimore clippers which, 300 tons burthen, and 100 feet long, had been built as privateers during the late war with Britain, were being adapted as slave traders, often being sold to traders in Havana, carrying a crew of forty.

Meantime, the worthy English abolitionists were beginning to irritate the statesmen whose imaginations they had almost captured. On July 29, 1814, the duke of Wellington complained to his brother Henry Wellesley, in Spain, that the pressure by Wilberforce and his friends to secure the end of the trade was so strong that they seemed to want Britain “to go to war to put an end to that abominable traffic; and many wish that we should take the field in this new crusade. . . . I was not aware till I had been here [in London] some time of the degree of frenzy existing . . . about the slave trade.”36 Lord Castlereagh was just as annoyed: he knew that “morals were never well taught by the sword.” All the same, he, too, wrote to Wellesley in Madrid: “I believe there is hardly a village [in England] which has not met and pronounced upon it”; and his correspondent, passing on his government’s desire to bring the trade to an end, told the Spanish foreign minister, the duke of San Carlos, that the pope, Pius VII, following his re-establishment in the Vatican after his Avignon-like exile, was going to try and persuade all the Catholic nations to abolish the trade. The duke of San Carlos was incensed: it was “inconsistent with his duty as head of the Catholic Church, by which he was bound to use his best endeavours to make converts to the Catholic faith; and that every Negro became a Catholic from the moment he set his foot in any of the Spanish possessions.”37

Still, at the Congress of Vienna, Wellington and Castlereagh sought, on Britain’s behalf, to secure a joint declaration from all the nations present that they wished to abolish the slave trade, though the delegations of both Spain and Portugal opposed the plan. Castlereagh proposed an international police force to suppress the slave trade: a notion very far ahead of the times. The Spanish plenipotentiary, Pedro Gómez Havelo, marquis of Labrador, for his part, repeated Francisco de Arango’s argument, that the British colonies had had twenty years to consider abolishing the trade, and so it was not unreasonable that Spain should wish to allow their colonists to stock up, even doubling the number of their slaves. Spain’s participation in the war, the marquis insisted, had prevented their sending slave ships to Africa for some time (a scarcity not noticeable in Havana). Anyway he thought it too soon to abolish the trade.

The problem of the French slave trade now also became a preoccupation. The overthrow of Napoleon in 1814 had brought the Bourbons back to Paris and, of course, an end to the war. Neither the restored Louis XVIII nor his foreign minister, the astute Talleyrand, was an enthusiast for the abolition of slavery or of the slave trade—though the latter did secure an agreement from his monarch that he would be willing to “discourage the efforts of a few of his subjects to renew the commerce in slaves.” That was not what England had expected. Nothing less than full condemnation was now adequate. But the government of the Restoration was the heir of Louis XV, not of Montesquieu. France thought that any agreement to allow the British to inspect and, if necessary, seize ships suspected of slaving would give Britain command of the seas; and the suggestion, at the Congress of Vienna, that the return of the French West Indian colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique (occupied by Britain during the war) might depend on their abolishing their own trade understandably infuriated the government.

The British government perhaps thought that France would show herself so grateful to the British for defeating Napoleon that she would accept British policy towards the slave trade, and bring it immediately to an end. The French government, facing a hundred pressing problems, hesitated. This vacillation infuriated the determined British abolitionists. So, in 1814, the British antislavery movement excelled itself in relation to France. No fewer than 800 petitions were sent to the British government urging them to persuade the restored French monarchy to end the slave trade. Three-quarters of a million people signed. Similar appeals for support were sent to the tsar of Russia, a form of communication with which that autocrat was unfamiliar. There were public meetings on an unprecedented scale. Samuel Whitbread, the brewer and a philanthropic, though distrusted, member of Parliament, thought that “the country never has, and I fear never will, express a feeling so general as they have done about the slave trade.”38 Yet, while these firm views were being presented to the governments of both Britain and France, the latter administration was beginning to receive other petitions, from their maritime citizens: the merchants of Nantes, for example, were restoring their relations with Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Cayenne, while the Chamber of Commerce of that first city of négriers were explicitly demanding the re-establishment of the slave trade in order to revive the sugar industry in the islands. All Frenchmen remembered how, a short time ago, the trade had not only been honored, but even subsidized, by the State.

Still, at the First Treaty of Paris, signed on May 30, 1814, the restored government of France agreed to join Britain in doing everything possible to secure the suppression of the traffic in slaves. Abolitionists in Britain were distressed, not only that the collaboration was unspecified, and that the treaty restored to France her colonies (though not Tobago, St. Lucia, and Mauritius), but also that Talleyrand had secured that King Louis XVIII would agree only to abolish the slave trade within five years. With respect to the latter qualification, in the House of Commons on June 6, Wil-berforce, still most active in the abolitionist movement, declared, grandiosely, that Lord Castlereagh had brought back the angel of death under the wings of victory. What ruin, he declared, could not be accomplished in five years! If France were to set about reconquering Saint-Domingue (for which adventure many in Paris were still hankering), there would be still more demand for slaves. Lord Holland thought that 20,000 slaves would be exported a year from Sénégal alone if France were permitted her five years. Madagascar, he knew, was full of slaves ready for export.IX Lord Grey, Fox’s old lieutenant, meantime told a meeting in June 1814 that some English slave merchants were hoping for a return to the slave trade with the same provisions as in France.

All the same, and though the French government were already doing what they could (by tax concessions) to encourage French slave merchants to make the best of those five years, King Louis had made a crucial admission. How crucial, it is easy to see from the outrage of French maritime interests. The harbormaster of Bordeaux in these years, Auguste de Bergevin, had been thinking not of abolition, but of persuading the government to revive the old bounty on delivery of slaves; and sixty shipbuilders of Le Havre protested their “douleur” at government policy, while Nantes talked of British hypocrisies.

In October 1814, Wilberforce wrote to Talleyrand asking for his support in general terms over the slave trade, but especially over the French commerce. He dispatched similar letters from Clarkson to both Tsar Alexander I and the duke of Wellington. That to the tsar ran in part: “It is to be presumed you are totally ignorant of what takes place on the continent of Africa. [But] not to put an end to crime when you have the power makes you accomplice to it. . . . Divine providence has restored you to your former comforts and to your hereditary dominions. . . . Let the era of your own deliverance be known in the history of the world as that of the deliverance of others also. . . .”39 Talleyrand replied that Wilberforce’s argument had convinced him, yet he had still to convince France. The ex-bishop of Autun was perhaps more influenced by a pamphlet of the historian Sismondi, De l’intérêt de la France à l’égard de la traite des nègres,X which argued that the economic interests of the country would be served better by an end to the slave trade. Even more important, Sismondi suggested that France could (and should) never hope to recover Saint-Domingue.

Finally, in February 1815, the governments of Britain, France, Spain, Sweden, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Portugal were prevailed upon, by Castlereagh, to sign a general declaration that, since “the commerce known by the name of the African slave trade is repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality,” those powers possessing colonies accepted that it was their “duty and necessity” to abolish it as soon as possible. The timing, however, like the detail, was a matter for negotiation. Indeed, it was conceded that no nation could be made to abolish the trade “without due regard to the interests, the habits, and even the prejudices” of its subjects.40

Despite that extraordinary qualification, this statement seemed a triumph for Castlereagh, for humanity, and for Britain. These negotiations were accompanied, too, by what seemed further positive achievements with respect to both Portugal and Spain. Thus Britain and Portugal concluded a treaty in January 1815; the former agreed to pay the latter £300,000 to compensate for the thirty or so ships illegally seized (as the Portuguese thought of it) since 1810; Britain also gave up hope of recovering a previous loan of £600,000; in return, Portugal agreed to abandon their slave trade everywhere north of the equator—a measure by which the ancient traffic from Whydah or Benin to Bahia would in theory be ended. She also agreed to draft a treaty at some time in the future to set a date for the complete abolition of the Portuguese slave trade. Suspected slave ships north of the equator would be taken before either a mixed commission in Sierra Leone, or another in Rio de Janeiro (there would be a judge and commissioner from each nation in each place, the secretary appointed jointly). Ships of each power could be inspected by those of the other, though it was at that time inconceivable that a Portuguese naval vessel would take any action against a slaver.

The shortcomings of the arrangement became evident. For example, the new courts took a long time to be established. The Portuguese government explained that it was hard to secure good men willing to undertake such unprofitable tasks in a bad climate. Nor did the treaty state anything about the trade from East Africa, and it was that which a new generation of Brazilian slave merchants—such as José Nunes da Silveira, with his brig Delfim, capable of carrying nearly four hundred slaves—was now exploiting.

Wilberforce thought this new treaty “full of hypocrisy, wickedness and cruelty” and told Castlereagh as much. All the same, the British navy were given their instructions to seize Portuguese slavers anywhere north of the equator.

Those captains were also ordered to seize ships of Spain if there was any indication that the slave ship concerned had any contact with a British insurer, investor, or even port. Often, though, the seizures of Spanish ships which were made had not even that modest justification. Still, in July 1815 Spain—in a Treaty of Madrid with Britain, distinct from the Congress of Vienna’s final document—express, as the reformer Argüelles would no doubt have liked, conformity with the British over the iniquity of the slave trade, promising also to prohibit Spaniards from supplying foreign countries with slaves. They agreed to limit slaving, even for the benefit of their own empire, to the seas south of the line drawn ten degrees north of the equator; and Spain added that they would abolish the trade completely in eight years. It is true that, for the time being, the Spanish commitment went no further than this statement of intent, and they made no immediate move to carry this first agreement into their domestic law. The Spanish government continued to complain about British high-handedness. Another Spanish ambassador to London, the count of Fernán Núñez, declared that two ships belonging to a merchant of Barcelona had been seized by the English frigate Camus in the Old Calabar River. The captains concerned were conducting themselves entirely legally, however: the trade did not end for several years more, and there was no British “equipment” or stores on board.

The abolitionists remained dissatisfied, but even they could not fail to be impressed by what seemed yet more good news from France. There had still been no sailings by slave ships since the peace, and the return of Napoleon to France in March 1815, had a most positive effect. In the course of “The Hundred Days,” on March 29, the emperor, who, in 1802, had shocked so many of his foreign admirers by permitting the revival of slavery with no qualifications, now, equally with no qualifications, abolished the French slave trade, having been influenced, on the one hand, by his enlightened minister, Benjamin Constant, and, on the other, by his hope that he would thereby win over British opinion. Further, the consequence was that, on July 30, Louis XVIII, after Wellington and Blucher had destroyed “l’Usurpateur” at Waterloo, felt obliged to confirm the policy of his enemy and, contrary to what he had agreed in 1814, with no delay; so, in November 1815, in the Second Treaty of Paris, Britain, France, Austria, Russia, and Prussia engaged themselves to concert their efforts for the “entire and definite” abolition of a trade “so odious and so strongly condemned by laws of religion and nature.” The declaration of February was also attached to the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna. Pope Pius VII’s representative played a part in these discussions, enough to cause that pope to feel he had assisted the enlightened cause—though not enough for that intervention to be recorded by Castlereagh.

But the battle for abolition within France was still far from won. French shipowners on the Atlantic coast, in the old slave ports, had been ready to dispatch their ships to Africa, and several had already declared their cargoes and destinations before the return of Napoleon, while they were still supposing that abolition would wait for five years. They argued that, in the national interest (the restocking of the Caribbean colonies), they should still be allowed to set off, and with the approval of the Ministry of Marine. In the summer of 1815, a few ships did indeed leave for Africa, including La Belle of Bordeaux, Captain Brian, financed by Jean-Marie Lefebvre and the Hourquebie brothers, a Calcutta-built vessel (seized from the English in 1806) which would be intercepted in September 1815 off Dessada, Guadeloupe, by the British naval vessel H.M.S. Barbadoes, with 501 blacks from Angola on board.

The instructions to Captain Brian of La Belle show how everything had been arranged for the reception of the slaves at Guadeloupe: “You will address yourself to Mesdames Bosc and Briard, with whom you will arrange to sell your slaves at the highest price possible.”41

The French government was meantime divided: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs inclined towards abolition, since they wished to please the English; the Ministry of Marine, beset by shipbuilders, and by shipbuilders’ friends in the ports, such as the presidents of the chambers of commerce, wished to allow at least some ships to depart. While the government vacillated—and France was still within two months of the disaster of Waterloo—Robert Surcouf of Saint-Malo, a shipbuilder of great reputation as a “corsair” (he had captured many English ships during the war), and a man whose family had been concerned in the slave trade during the ancien régime, sent his Affriquain—212 tons, twenty-nine crew, Captain Pottier—to Angola on August 15, 1815. The government did nothing. To denounce Surcouf, who was colonel of the National Guard of his city, would have been to act against a national hero. Other slave merchants soon followed Surcouf’s example. The Ministry of Marine had no idea what to do. Their indecision suggested to the shipbuilders that, after all, the trade was open. Surcouf—“simple, brusque, generous, and brave beyond the call of duty,” as his hagiographer calls him—was, therefore, the father of this new stage of the French slave trade.42, XI

The British navy then played into the hands of the French slave merchants. They seized three French ships: La Hermione as well as La Belle both of Le Havre; and Le Cultivateur, of Nantes. It is true that several other ships arrived at Africa and eventually their Caribbean destination; and that others soon set sail, without approval, and reached their markets. But the outrage in France caused by the seizures extended far beyond the ports. French feeling was inflamed; for in French maritime life, a ship was supposed to be something sacrosanct: “Le navire, c’est un pays.” How could the English be allowed to set foot on a French merchantman? The builders of slave-ships, with their excellent relations in the ministries and, to some extent, even among the politicians—the minister of marine after 1815, Baron Portal, was a Bordeaux man with experience of the sea—used their opportunity to advantage, gaining, if not approval for their mercantile activities, at least official neglect. In 1816, no fewer than thirty-six ships left French ports on slaving missions: a small figure in comparison with the eighteenth century, yet an important begining to the new stage of French commerce, in which the denunciations of the slave trade by Montesquieu, Voltaire, and the Abbé Raynal, and even the very existence in the past of an old Société des Amis des Noirs, were forgotten.XII Whatever their talk of serving the national interest, the French slavers from Nantes were in these voyages serving Cuba as much as, or even more than, the French Caribbean. These vessels seem to have visited and taken on slaves nearly everywhere on the West African coast from the Cape Verde Islands to Angola; and they also went to Madagascar and Zanzibar.

In 1817, the quarrel with England came to a head with the seizure of the French slaver Louis on her way between Africa and Martinique by H.M.S. Princess Charlotte, after a regular battle in which twelve English sailors were killed. The Louis was from Nantes and its captain, and probable owner, was Jean Forest. She had obtained twelve slaves between New Sestos and Cape Mesurado when, about forty miles off the shore, she met the Princess Charlotte. There was a subsequent judgment, then a condemnation at Sierra Leone. Captain Forest, well advised, appealed to the Admiralty Court in London, where Sir William Scott gave a decision in favor of France. For that honest judge wrote, “I can find no authority which gives us the right of interruption to the navigation of states in amity upon the high seas.” No government, he added, could force the way to the liberation of Africa by trampling on the independence of other states in Europe. Sir William, who had already declared his irritation with the language of the Portuguese treaty of 1811, concluded that “to procure an eminent good by means that are unlawful is [not] consonant with private morality.”43 The British government then had to order her navy to cease to interfere with French merchant ships, even if they were plainly slavers. The naval officers complied, with reluctance, for there was nothing which they enjoyed more than to continue action against the French, even if the Bourbons were back in Paris.

This setback to British naval hopes was accompanied by others in relation to Spain. It is true that the navy did stop and seize several Spanish slave ships. In June 1815, W. H. G. Page, a lawyer who was acting as the Cuban planters’ agent in London, complained to the Foreign Office that over two hundred ships belonging to Spaniards had been seized or condemned, all illegally. He tried to ensure that Spanish slave shippers whose vessels had been wrongly taken would be compensated. He was unsuccessful. All the same, the Spanish trade prospered and when, in February 1816, the Council of the Indies, the powerful body which had advised the Spanish Crown for three centuries about imperial questions, proposed to King Ferdinand that the slave trade should be immediately abolished, the subtle Cuban Arango, a new member of that body, asked what the haste was. Had there not always been slavery? The Cubans believed that they needed slaves, and there were plenty of merchants ready to provide them, whatever the British might formally desire. The Spanish apoderado (representative) of the Consulado de Havana in the postwar years, Francisco Antonio de Rucavado, a confidant of Arango, wrote in 1816 that he was “himself persuaded that there was no just reason for fearing that there would be an end to the traffic;” in September 1816, the treasurer of Cuba, Alejandro Ramírez, a Castilian with wide experience of the West Indies and Guatemala, told the intendant of Santiago de Cuba that there it was “not necessary to obtain permission from the captain-general for expeditions to Africa to fetch slaves.”44

A sign that, even in Britain, there were hesitations about overhasty abolition in the Spanish empire was given in the rejection of a bill introduced into the House of Commons in May 1815, which would have proscribed the slave trade as an investment for British capital (the Foreign Slave Trade Bill). Alexander Baring—member of Parliament for Taunton, a director of the Bank of England (married to the daughter of William Bingham, the richest senator in the United States), a man of “singularly large and enlightened views,” according to Sir Charles Webster, the historian of that time; “the greatest merchant perhaps England ever had,” according to Disraeli, and until then a declared abolitionist—opposed this measure on the remarkable ground that it would “extinguish” Anglo-Spanish commerce.XIII

The debate on this bill produced some other remarkable statements: for example, that of Joseph Foster Barham, member for Stockbridge, who argued that British capital was responsible for the Spanish slave trade (a statement apparently supported by Henry Wellesley), not to speak of half the Danish and a great part of the Portuguese. The bill was eventually defeated in the Lords, as so many earlier bills had been in the days of the great campaign of Wilberforce.45


IKnown in the royal family as “Silly Billy,” presumably because he was enlightened; the first secretary of the Africa Institution was the zealous ex-governor of Sierra Leone, Zachary Macaulay.

IICaptain Coburn’s Catalina, carrying 103 slaves in November 1810; Captain Mayberry’s Eagle, carrying only three slaves to Havana; Captain Dunbar’s Rosa in June 1812, carrying 116 slaves; Captain Intoch’s American, carrying twelve slaves; and Captain Perry’s Thistle, in September 1819, bringing 698 slaves.

IIIFor example, McDowal, Whitehead and Hibbert; M. R. Dawson; and Holland and Co., both of Liverpool; and Clark and Co. of London.

IVDescribed by Byron as

Hibernian Strangford, with thine eyes of blue,

And boasted locks of red or auburn hue.

VThis would cause a lot of trouble later—for example, when, in 1816, the ship La Nueva Amable, carrying 388 slaves, was seized off Sierra Leone, as a French ship under the cover of false Spanish papers.

VIThe continuing inadequacy of the law was, however, shown when the governor of Sierra Leone arrested, and brought to trial, several factors established nearby who were clearly concerned in the slave trade, three of them English (Dunbar, Brodie, and Cooke). But the sentence of transportation was quashed on the ground that the court was unable to try the prisoners.

VIIThat is, men born in Spain. The tension between them and criollos, men and women born in the colony but of Spanish blood, constituted the main problem of the later Spanish empire, and explains the movement for independence.

VIIIThis was a new official established in Spain in imitation of a similar one in France, and transferred to the empire, in order to improve the efficiency of the administration.

IXLord Holland’s Jamaican-born wife, the admirable Elizabeth Vassall, had in 1800 inherited from her grandfather Florentius Vassall two prosperous Jamaican sugar plantations: “Sweet River”, and “Friendship and Greenwich”, with some three hundred slaves. The Vassalls were an enormous family, descended from Samuel Vassall, the slave trader of the 1650s, with Bostonian connections.

XHis Histoire des républiques italiennes du moyen âge had already made him famous.

XISurcouf was responsible for at least three more voyages, all in the vessel Adolphe: whether this armateur was teasing Benjamin Constant, one of the great opponents of the slave trade, by using this, the name of his great novel, is unknown. Surcouf has a fine street called after him in Paris, and a statue in Saint-Mals looking out to sea.

XIIThe minister of marine for a time in 1815 was de Jaucourt, a nephew of the philosophe of the same name who had written the article about the slave trade in Diderot’s great Encyclopédie.

XIIIBaring later became president of the Board of Trade and was the Lord Ashburton who in 1841 concluded an important antislaving treaty with the United States. His father-in-law, Senator William Bingham, had begun his career as British consul in Saint-Pierre in Martinique and had then been the continental representative in the West Indies throughout the American Revolution, laying there the foundation of his fortune in “ownership of privateers and constant trade.” He subsequently became a founder of the Pennsylvania Bank, later the Bank of North America, under the onetime Philadelphia mayor and slave trader, Thomas Willing. For other connections between Barings Bank and Cuba, see pages 648 and 681.

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