The Atlantic slave trade was one of the most important demographic, social, and economic events of the modern era. It extended across four centuries and fostered the involuntary migration of millions of African peoples from their homelands to forced labor in the Americas and elsewhere around the globe. In the process, it reshaped African societies and provided much of the raw material for constructing new social, economic, and political structures in the New World. It also left an unfortunate legacy of racism by establishing a connection between servility, barbarity, and peoples of African descent.
The major stream of African labor went to sugar-producing regions in the West Indies or Latin America. Britain’s North American colonies were different. They did not grow sugar and therefore did not command much of the slave trade. Over the course of the trade’s existence, Britain’s North American colonies absorbed no more than about five percent of Africans brought into the New World. But South Carolina, where by 1715 blacks exceeded whites by about forty percent, resembled plantation societies such as Barbados or Jamaica more than it resembled Virginia or Maryland. Eighteenth-century South Carolina was the continent’s leading importer of slaves, importing approximately 100,000 Africans. Not all of these people remained within the colony. Many were transshipped to other regions along the southeastern coast between the Chesapeake and Florida. Beaufort and Georgetown received small cargoes, but the major and most dependable trade was in Charleston.
Three kinds of trade brought Africans to South Carolina: direct trade with Africa; trade with the West Indies; and trade with other North American colonies. Only the first was strictly a slave trade; the other two involved different exchanges in which slaves were occasionally included. No more than twenty percent of slaves brought into Carolina in the eighteenth century stopped first in the Caribbean. No more than one percent came from other continental colonies. The contrast between these two figures underscores South Carolina’s closer relationship with the islands, and the colony was sometimes referred to as part of the West Indies. Slavers brought more slaves (around two hundred or so per voyage) to the colony and also used larger ships than those involved in coastal or local West Indian trade. The average size of slavers frequenting South Carolina was about one hundred tons, while coastal or West Indian trading vessels averaged about half as much.
Crowded and unsanitary conditions, poor food and inadequate supplies, insufficient drinking water, epidemic diseases, and long voyages conspired to make slave ships legendary for their foul smell and high death rates. These rates decreased from a seventeenth-century average of as high as twenty-four percent to an average range in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of from ten to fifteen percent. Despite harsh conditions, ship captains had to have reasonable consideration for their cargoes as their wages and commissions often depended on the number delivered safely to port. To guard against the importation of epidemic diseases, incoming ships were quarantined on Sullivan’s Island until the cargoes could be certified as safe.
European profits ranged from as low as three percent to as high as fifty-seven percent in the eighteenth century. A slave that cost £9.43 in Africa in the 1720s fetched £25 in South Carolina in the same period. Prices rose during the century, and a similar slave in the 1760s cost £14.10 and sold in South Carolina for £35. Since costs included the price of trade goods and customs, tolls, and taxes paid to the African potentates who controlled the African coast, the percentage profit on any one transaction is not easy to calculate.
To avoid loss by sudden weather change, the slave trade was largely a seasonal affair, with Carolina’s optimum period of trade running between March and September. The largest number of slaves, carried in vessels from Africa, arrived in the span between May and November. Planters normally asked for slaves in proportion of two men for every woman, and slave ships generally approximated this ratio. The reason that slave cargoes indicated a pattern of twice as many men as women has as much to do with African desires as American demands. African sellers proved reluctant to part with women and children. They could absorb these individuals into their own societies. They were more willing to sell men, who could prove dangerous to have on hand.
South Carolina joined with other colonies to forbid the trade during the Revolutionary era and was the only state to reopen it at the war’s conclusion. The state’s delegates prevented the trade’s abolition during the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia, effecting a compromise guaranteeing its continuation for twenty years. In the five years before federal prohibition in 1808, almost forty thousand Africans entered the port of Charleston. Many of these slaves were transported beyond the limits of the state to newly developing regions in the West. Sullivan’s Island has been styled the black man’s Ellis Island because large numbers, perhaps even the majority, of enslaved Africans who settled in the American South passed through the island.
The internal slave trade in the colonies and later the United States began in earnest during the late eighteenth century as frontier areas in the old Southwest opened up to settlement and labor was needed to clear and cultivate the virgin soil. Once fields were cleared and large-scale planting began, the demand for slave labor increased exponentially.
Ending the Atlantic slave trade ensured that the internal slave trade would become increasingly profitable. Some Africans were smuggled into the United States after the ban, but the labor demands of these developing plantation regions were filled by the sale and transportation of slaves from east (especially the Chesapeake) to west. While the number of slaves sold to traders and taken out of South Carolina is unknown, the practice was common, and by the 1820s the state became a net exporter of slaves.
Transportation improvements made it easier and quicker for traders to ship their human cargoes, and by the 1830s traders regularly shipped slaves by railroad. Most towns of any size in South Carolina had slave jails or pens where traders could temporarily keep their human property, and cities such as Columbia and Charleston had larger auction and jail complexes. Many Charleston traders centered their operations downtown around Chalmers Street. Slave trading was big business in South Carolina, as a casual perusal of any antebellum newspaper will attest.
The impact of the slave trade on the slaves themselves was considerable. At a master’s whim family and friends could be permanently separated by sale. The former slave Jacob Stroyer, describing the scene after a railroad car had been loaded with the purchased slaves, wrote, “As the cars moved away we heard the weeping and wailing from the slaves as far as the human voice could be heard; and from that time to the present I have neither seen nor heard from my two sisters.” This drama was played out thousands of times in South Carolina and across the South as slaveowners and slave traders went about the business of selling people. Abolitionists pointed to the slave trade as one of the most reprehensible aspects of slavery, and writers made it a central theme of their works–for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is impossible to understand the impact of slavery as a whole without understanding the legacy of the internal and external slave trade.
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Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.