Counting the Slave Trade

Counting the Slave Trade June 14, 2019

No worthwhile account of American history – or of its religious history – can fail to pay proper attention to the impact of slavery and its legacies. I recently came across some specific information about that topic that took me aback. Perhaps I am ill-informed here, and others will know this better, but let me present what I found. I’ll also include a suggestion about how we might revise our teaching of US history in light of all this.

A recent story in the Economist discussed the heritage of slavery in Brazil, and its modern commemoration. In the process, the article tried to offer some solid numbers. The source is the highly credible Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database run out of Emory University, which offers a lot of tables and resources online. One of the best from my point of view allows you to count the total number of Africans enslaved and transported across the Atlantic (the project does not address Arab slavery in North and East Africa). The numbers are, of course, horrific. Overall, 12.5 million Africans were “embarked” between 1525 and 1875, of whom 10.7 million were disembarked in the New World. Right there, that tells us that 1.8 million failed to survive the crossing, which is beyond words.

Where did those “disembarked” – the survivors – end up? Here are the destinations that account for the vast majority of cases, again emphasizing that we are dealing with a very long period:

REGION                                           Slaves disembarked (thousands)

Brazil                                                       4,864

British Caribbean                                 2,318

Spanish Americas                                1,293

French Caribbean                                1,120

Dutch Americas                                    445

Mainland North America                   389

Danish West Indies                             109

I was surprised to see what a relatively tiny share of the whole trade involved what we would today call the US (excluding parts that were originally Spanish or French ruled, such as Florida). Before anyone asks, I am absolutely not saying this to minimize or trivialize the horrors of the US-directed trade. Rather, I am asking this question. If we know the vast impact that the slave trade had in the US – not least in religious matters – how inconceivably greater must it have been in other regions that are basically unknown to Americans who are not academic specialists? There is a world most of us just do not know, and we must.

To put this in context, by far the most intense period of the mainland British North America trade fell between 1725 and 1775, which brought in some 225,000 slaves. In a comparable fifty year period, the peak years between 1801 and 1850, Brazil imported 2.05 million, roughly nine times as many. Overall, Brazil accounted for 46 percent of all slaves imported throughout this whole period, compared to a mainland British North America figure of just 3.6 percent. That includes all the slaves brought into the Carolinas, to Georgia, to the Chesapeake, all combined.

Am I the only person to be surprised that the slave trade to the Dutch colonies involved significantly more victims than were brought to mainland North America? Among other great centers of importation, British-ruled Jamaica “disembarked” over a million in the whole period; French St. Domingue (Haiti) 773,000; Spanish Cuba 778,000. The single island of Barbados (British) brought in 493,000, far more than all imports to North America. I am not sure how many of those were imported to work there, as opposed to being traded further afield.

Explaining those atrocious numbers, slaves in Caribbean and Tropical settings faced a very short life span, owing to intolerable work conditions and rampant diseases, so that populations needed to be refilled and replaced on a regular basis. Death rates were appalling, on a scale we would associate with modern day concentration camps. Better climate and health conditions in North America meant significantly longer life-spans, and less need for replacement – hence the much lower levels of importation.

To put this in context, and using very crude numbers, the US presently has around 37 million African Americans. Jamaica’s population, in radical contrast, is under three million, and that of Barbados is 286,000. The fearful lesson is that the overwhelming majority of slaves who arrived in those Caribbean colonies stood next to no chance of leaving descendants. That is chilling.

Americans (white, black, or other)  tend to see the slave trade very much through US/North American eyes. As Henry Louis Gates writes, “Perhaps you, like me, were raised essentially to think of the slave experience primarily in terms of our black ancestors here in the United States. In other words, slavery was primarily about us, right?” In fact, as Gates goes on to note, we are seeing only one part of a vastly larger whole, which was far more pan-European than strictly American, or even Anglo-American. Put another way, what we now call the United States was a distant outlier of the enormously larger New World slave system.

Who knew? Or rather, if we do know, do we think through the implications?

A semi-serious suggestion: maybe none of us should be allowed to study or teach US history without including at least one free-standing course on the Caribbean? That would apply throughout the pre-Civil War period, when US history was so often shaped by the maxim that “The South always looks south.” Southern states always had to debate just how much they were to become like the booming slave economies of the Caribbean, whether that was a dream or a nightmare. White elites were shaped by the dread of slave revolts like those of the region, reinforced by the arrival of white refugees and exiles. In the 1840s and 1850s, they had the persistent dreams of carving out whole new slave empires in and around the Caribbean, perhaps led by independent piratical filibusters. (See Scott Martelle’s recent book on William Walker’s Wars). Black populations, meanwhile, had their own fascination with Haiti.

But not just in the Antebellum years.  I think of some of the later immigrants who had such an impact in US history: Marcus Garvey came from Jamaica. Even Malcolm X’s mother was from Grenada. I have myself written about the impact of popular culture depictions of Voodoo on racial rhetoric and stereotypes in the US from the 1920s onward. And then we factor in the long and detailed stories of Cuba, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. See for instance Daniel Immerwahr’s wide-ranging recent book on How to Hide an Empire. The more we think through all that, the clearer we understand how regularly and pervasively US history has been shaped by relations with those regions, above all in racial terms.

The South always looks south. If the concept is not new, can I at least patent the phrase?



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