Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Chapter 1: “New England Merchants and the Circum-Caribbean Slave Trade” (Excerpts)

Cambria Press: Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade
Cambria Press: Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Ten years ago we published a highly acclaimed volume, Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images, edited by leading slavery studies scholar Professor Ana Lucia Araujo (Howard University). The book continues to be an important resource, and in celebration of its ten-year anniversary, we will be highlighting excerpts from each chapter of the book. This is Chapter 1: “New England Merchants and the Circum-Caribbean Slave Trade” by Jennifer L. Anderson.

In 1770 Oliver Warner, a leading Rhode Island merchant, instructed Captain James Card to retrieve a slave named Newport from the Mosquito Shore on Card’s upcoming voyage. Originally “of the Gold Coast country,” Newport had been enslaved in New England before being leased as a woodcutter in two British mahogany-producing enclaves on the Spanish coast of Central America—the Bay of Honduras and, later, the Mosquito Shore. When Card arrived and began making inquiries, Newport apparently decamped into the rain forest. Card dutifully reported that he had searched for the “Negro man Newport … finding by Sum Negroes where his Wife Lived, but [I] Can’t Come at him … I believe it will not Be in my power to Git him.” Warner instructed Card to sell the missing man and conclude his business by investing any proceeds “in good merchantable Mahogany.” When no buyer emerged, Card departed. Newport, at last, enjoyed de facto freedom with his wife.

This case of an individual slave deployed from Rhode Island to the far reaches of the Atlantic region exemplifies how New England merchants and ship captains reshaped peoples’ lives as they redistributed labor through their carrying trade. As their vessels plied the waters from New England to the West Indies alongside the ships of many nations, the merchants put in motion a vast array of cargo, including goods, commodities, and enslaved people—often just a few people at a time. For most New England traders, the occasional buying, selling, and transporting of small groups of slaves was an incidental part of their overall business. Cumulatively, these transactions resulted in the constant, unrelenting, low-level forced migration of enslaved Africans. Often dispatched before ships ever reached their final destination, the slaves’ presence is elusive but nevertheless revealed in the accounts of New Englanders who exchanged people for “good merchantable Mahogany” and other plantation produce.

Drawing on my research into New Englanders’ involvement in supplying labor to the mahogany industry, this chapter analyzes how this type of slaving fit into their more generalized West Indies trade. Though it addresses only a narrow slice of a huge topic, the study offers some insights into the logistics of one facet of this often-overlooked trade in human beings. For although New Englanders’ participation in the transatlantic slave trade is now relatively well documented, their itinerant, opportunistic role in the intercolonial slave trade, especially within the circum-Caribbean, remains understudied. Indeed, as David Brion Davis has pointed out, historians have tended to focus on the movements of people through “the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, a subject worthy of attention, but then to portray [slavery as] a relatively static institution in which movement was peripheral at best.” On the contrary, in many slave societies, an unremitting undercurrent of movement was the norm; small numbers of slaves were constantly in transition as they were transferred among work sites, leased, or sold. Most scholarship on the intercolonial slave trade within the Caribbean has focused on the early nineteenth century, when the Caribbean trade was burgeoning after the ban on the African slave trade and before abolitionists began striving to curb it too. However, the forced movement of captives among colonial venues via the shadowy channels of the itinerant slave trade was also a harsh reality of slave life in the previous century. Indeed, to understand the complexity of the eighteenth-century slave trade and its human costs, one must factor in these sorts of forced moves and consider their cumulative effects as trading paths also became slaving paths.

Jennifer L. Anderson, Chapter 1 “New England Merchants and the Circum-Caribbean Slave Trade” in Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images edited by Ana Lucia Araujo (Amherst, New York: Cambria Press, 2011)

Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images edited by Ana Lucia Araujo is available in hardcover. It is also available as in different ebook formats, which start at $19.99 to purchase and $9.99 to rent. Professors who wish to use this book along with others in the slavery studies collection for their classes should use the Cambria Book Cloud, which allows for the bundling of ebooks at only $9.99 per title for each student.

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