From the s until the last slave ship arrived in Cuba in , the illegal portion of the traffic grew steadily until it encompassed the whole of the slave trade.
The precise point at which this happened is unclear, but it was probably in By then, all the major plantation areas of the Americas had prohibited arrivals from Africa, but some countries still allowed their citizens to participate in such activity. Much slave trading was in contravention of treaties rather than laws, and the sanctions entailed confiscation of property rather than fines, imprisonment, or death. Conventionally, "illegal" slave trading has been taken to cover arrivals in the British Caribbean after May , in the U. By this definition, about 1. In fact, the decade from to was actually one of the busiest, and as this suggests, the slave trade did not decline gradually, nor did slave owners decide they no longer wanted enslaved labor.
Rather, some form of prohibition was essential to the trade's disappearance.
The illegal slave trade was driven by rising demand for plantation products, mainly in Europe, and steady improvements in the productivity of the enslaved population, which in turn increased the value and therefore the price of coerced labor. The three major slave economies of the world in the mid-nineteenth century were the U. The U. By contrast, the people of African descent in Brazil and Cuba experienced either negative or very small positive natural population growth. About , Africans came into Cuba over the same period that the U. The slave trade became illegal midway through this inflow, and one way of seeing its importance is to recognize that the inflow provided for the Cuban and Brazilian planters what natural increase generated for the U.
In the U.
Brazil: a society shaped by slavery
Behind this pattern lay a dramatic increase in the spread between the prices of captives in Africa and slaves in the Americas. South, Cuba, and Brazil alike. On the African coast, by contrast, prices declined with the volume of the traffic. Historians have often compared prices on either side of the Atlantic and called the difference "profits," as though transportation and risk did not exist. In fact, illegal slave trading could be extremely costly.
Slave vessels avoided established ports and the facilities they offered.
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Their owners obtained fraudulent and thus expensive registration papers. The ships themselves were faster than most other vessels, and often a single venture involved more than one ship, as owners sent out goods and equipment on a different ship as a subterfuge. Slave trading in its final stage entailed increased risks of capture, more costly delays on the African coast, higher shipboard mortality for the victims, and, most important in financial terms, considerable bribes to officials of the region into which the Africans were introduced.
As with the modern trade in illegal drugs, potential profits were high though they were never simply the price of the enslaved person in the Americas, less the price of the captive in Africa , but so were potential losses. Some of the largest slave traders went bankrupt, including Pedro Blanco, whose name is associated with nearly fifty voyages to Cuba before ; he assumed the role of captain, owner, and factor on the coast of Africa —mostly Sierra Leone and Liberia—at different times in his long career. In some sense, the voyage itself and the captain became much less the center of the overall operation than was the case in earlier centuries.
In major markets such as Whydah in Benin and Lagos, Nigeria, it was still possible for a transatlantic vessel to seek captives without prior arrangement, but on most of the coast more elaborate and costly organizational structures were required. The captain's role became less important and the key slave trading personnel operated on shore, on both sides of the Atlantic, rather than on the vessel itself.
The major decisions on bringing together or "bulking" the required number of captives, assembling provisions and equipment, and timing the departure were now made on land. In the Americas, knowing which officials to bribe and trying to dispose of captives in open-market conditions to maximize returns became more difficult than in the pre-suppression era and required more manpower and a different set of skills.
On the voyage itself, captains might find themselves sailing an empty ship out to the African coast, or at least one without the fittings of a slave ship, given that the discovery of such equipment on board increased the risk of conviction in a court of law.
Barrels for water which always occupied by far the largest amount of space on a transatlantic slave vessel , planks for slave decks, irons, a large boiler for cooking, and the provisions themselves were frequently loaded in Africa just prior to departure. In the last few decades of the illegal slave trade, the complete shipment was frequently rushed on board just before leaving for the Americas.
On the African coast, pronounced shifts in both regions of provenance and the strategies of slave traders occurred during the illegal era. The slave trade had not evolved in all areas of Africa at the same time, nor, indeed, did it decline uniformly in response to attempts to suppress it. The sheer human and environmental diversity of sub-Saharan African societies made such an outcome unlikely. Rather, a series of marked or stepped declines in individual regions contributed to a more gradual trend for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.
Although the overall dominance of West-Central Africa in the transatlantic slave trade is well recognized, it is not generally appreciated how important the region was in its last half century. In this period, that area dispatched more people than all other regions combined. Reviewing the patterns of the traffic from north to south, we can see that in Upper Guinea Senegambia, Sierra Leone, and the Windward Coast slave trading gradually declined after before ending rather suddenly in the early s, though it ended first on the Windward Coast.
On the Gold Coast, departures after were occasional and never more than a few hundred a year, but a further forty years passed before the traffic ended completely. In the Bight of Benin, traffic peaked in the first half of the eighteenth century. It was nevertheless the part of West Africa where the slave trade persisted longest.
Almost all the captives leaving the region after passed through Lagos and Whydah, with the latter port remaining active into the mids. In the adjacent Bight of Biafra region, by contrast, the traffic ended in the early s, while the relative role of southeast Africa, heavily involved in the Indian Ocean slave trade, increased in the closing half century of the transatlantic traffic. Overall, in the nineteenth century, the center of the slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa shifted strongly southward. These patterns held considerable implications for the ethnolinguistic composition of the illegal slave trade.
Of all major American regions of slave disembarkation, British North America after , the United States was ahead only of the Danish Caribbean during the whole period of the transatlantic slave trade. At the other end was Portuguese America after , Brazil , which received almost five million enslaved Africans between and At the turn of the nineteenth century, however, the Luso-Brazilian and the recently created U.
In both cases, the business was controlled by merchants based mainly on the American side, unlike the British and French slave trades of the eighteenth century.
Specific American products such as Bahian tobacco and New England rum played a key role in transactions on the African coast. The volume of the traffic carried by Luso-Brazilian and U. It was the federal act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade to the United States after January 1, , that stopped what had the potential to be the largest branch of the transatlantic slave trade in the nineteenth century. Some contraband in enslaved Africans continued during the s, but new legislation by the end of that decade turned participation in the slave trade into a crime of piracy punishable with death.
More solid evidence of a contraband slave trade in the United States would reappear only by the s, in the context of a movement for the reopening of the transatlantic slave trade to the country. In the four decades after , however, most enslaved people carried to the cotton frontier—almost one million individuals—came from old slave states such as Virginia and Maryland.
By closing its frontiers to the entrance of enslaved Africans from the outside, slaveholders managed to temporarily isolate U. While the United States closed its doors to the importation of enslaved Africans, Brazil continued to depend on the transatlantic slave trade as the main source of labor for its coffee plantations.
In , the country also passed a federal law formally abolishing the traffic in human beings. But unlike in the U.
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