History of the African slave trade in North America

Before we moved to Rhode Island last year, I was familiar with Newport as the home of the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals. Indeed, we attended one afternoon of performances at the Newport Jazz Festival this summer. Newport is only an hour from our home in Rumford RI.

Recently, I read in The New York Review of Books that Newport RI was once the epicenter of the North American African slave trade. This surprising (to me) news provoked me to read “American Slavers: Merchants, Mariners, and the Transatlantic Commerce in Captives, 1644–1865” by Sean M. Kelley.

Indeed, during colonial times, Newport became the major North American port through which British slavers disembarked their captives. Eventually, ships going out to Africa from Newport added to the trade and created a large cadre of experienced sailors and captains to exploit the African captive market.

Lacking much in the way of goods to exchange, eventually Rhode Island slavers settled on rum, which eventually displaced French brandy among the African slave sellers. This led to the infamous triangle of molasses in the West Indies to Rhode Island for rum, then rum to West Africa for slaves, then slaves back to North America.

American Slavers is segmented into (1) the colonial trade from 1644 until the American Revolution, (2) the American trade from the Revolution until 1808, when importation of slaves from Africa became illegal in the US, and (3) from 1808 until the end of slavery in the US at the end of the Civil War. The book gives detailed numbers of ships sailed, captives traded and destinations during these period, as well as specific anecdotes to illustrate the typical voyage and its economics. In addition to North America, the Caribbean and South America feature prominently as destinations for captives, while England, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal were major sources of capital, ships and legal support at various times.

There is a detailed chapter on the human experience of the African slave trade, both from the point of view of the African captives and the African politics that sustained their capture and sale, to the experiences of the captains and crews of the ships that transported them.

For those curious about the economics that drove the African slave trade, both on the African and North American sides, this book is an excellent resource. The writing is lucid and there are some useful tables and charts. US history right up to the present is intimately tied to slavery and its legacy. For those who want to learn more about the drivers for “The Peculiar Institution” and its complex and fraught history, I can recommend this book.