An Antebellum Dillemma Uncovered

From William A. Percy
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"Venice was to be famous for her nudes, and even Giorgione's relatively demure "Laura" exposed tantalizing décolletage. Scholars have for some time assumed that the déshabillé ladies were courtesans, which makes sense, though the catalogue's observation that "there were more than ten thousand prostitutes in sixteenth-century Venice, not including the procurers, servants and others who depended on the commerce" suggests - in a city of some 100,000 inhabitants - the need for a historian amid the art historians."

As my old Princeton classmate Ted Rabb so wittily pointed out in his July 28, 2006 TLS review of Bellini, Giorgione, Titan, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting at the National Gallery of Art, scholars are often all too quick to accept numbers told to them without pausing to consider the logic (or lack thereof) behind the calculations. The following article seeks to refute the opinions regarding the level of illegal slave trade after it was banned in this country in 1808. We believe that it was carried on in much greater volume than most historians have heretofore been willing to admit. The paper is still a working draft, and comments or suggestions are happily welcomed.


Part One

“Although historians continue to debate the factors responsible for the atypical growth of the American slave population, their disagreements are less over the existence of these factors than over their relative importance. It is clear that for a variety of reasons American slaves had both higher birth raters and lower mortality rates than those elsewhere in the Americas. Among most New World slaves, deaths consistently exceeded births; in America, as we shall see in chapter 2, births [already] came to exceed deaths during the eighteenth century. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the slave population grew naturally at an annual rate of about 2 percent.” (Kolchin, p.23)

“This growth was entirely the result of natural increase, for the small number of slaves smuggled into the United States was probably exceeded by the number who escaped from slavery. What is more, although slavery disappeared from the Northern states and seemed well on the road to extinction in Delaware and parts of Maryland, in the south as a whole it showed no sign of retreat: in 1860, as in 1790, slaves constituted about one-third of the Southern population.” (Kolchin, p.94)

American exceptionalism is nowhere as unreasonable as in the discussion of the unprecedented increase in the population of African slaves. Percy has been criticizing this exceptionalism since he first arrived amongst the Yankees in 1947. Almost three score years ago when he was fourteen, he went from the heart of the Dixie in Memphis, Tennesse to Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, the stronghold of Yankeedom, proud station on the Underground Railroad, home of Thoreau, Emerson and the Alcotts, where what mattered most socially was how many ancestors you had on the Mayflower. The Yankee boys – Percy was the only southerner in my entering class of 33 – quickly taught him that the Negroes, as they called them, were just as good as we: they confidently asserted that it was the Irish, their predominant servant class, who were inferior. Percy, of course, was well aware of how awful the rednecks were. After all they had tossed out his father’s uncle LeRoy as United States senator in 1912 in the first direct election to the senate in Mississippi. Theodore Bilbo had been the campaign manager for their candidate Vardaman, and even his louche father recognized that Uncle LeRoy’s greatest achievement during the 1920’s had been keeping the Klan out of Washington county, Mississippi, where the county seat Greenville was the center of the Delta. (See Revolt of the Rednecks, 1964) All gentlefolk knew how horrid lynchings were and how stupid, brutal, and corrupt the poor whites, on top since 1912, were. As his Uncle Will wrote in Lanterns on the Levee (1941), from that time forward the bottom rail (the rednecks whom he considered inferior to the blacks) was on top and was going to stay there. But they didn’t protest segregation or the Democratic white primary. Nor did Percy know how brutal and lethal slavery had been, nor even how unfair and humiliating sharecropping was, until he came to study amongst the Damn Yankees.

When he went home on vacations, he began investigations into these northern boys’ claims. Professor Falls, as everyone dutifully called him, ran the school for blacks near his grandmother’s plantation. He told Percy that it was hard to keep the students in school, even though classes were suspended for the most intensive periods of cotton labor, planting and hoeing from spring until the fourth July and picking in fall. Their parents, without education themselves, saw little need for their children to receive schooling. Besides, children became useful on the farm at about age six, and in such hard times, as in the Depression, and even early, post-WW II South – especially on such poor soil as they had near Memphis – every hand was needed. Many didn’t attend school, Professor Falls claimed to Percy's astonishment, because they lacked clothes. That reminded him that during the summers he had seen many totally nude up to puberty, as had also been common in the days of slavery and reconstruction. But that was in the late 30’s, towards the end of the depression and as rural electrification, which had reduced the birth rate, was only beginning, courtesy of the T.V.A.

During these discussions Percy's father, who saw nothing wrong with segregation except that it was enforced by rednecks instead of Bourbons, related how his uncle and guardian the Senator, who had died in 1929, had told him that his father Col. Percy, Princeton 1853, had related how slaves were being imported in great numbers up until the outbreak of The War. (We fervently hope that he was not buying them, but somebody sure was. Perhaps he did, even in spite of his Princeton education. He was hardly immune from the urgent need to enlarge or replenish his work force to keep up with the relentless demand for ever more cotton.) Uncle LeRoy told Percy's father that the Col had told him that the slaves were “broken in” in Cuba before being smuggled into the States – i.e. disciplined, taught to plow, etc., and some words of English so that they could be better exploited and belie the fact that they were recently imported. Ones transshipped from Barbados or other British islands (declining after the end of slavery there in 1833) already knew English of course.

Percy found such a claim about the large numbers of illegally imported slaves dubious, but he never forgot it. Over the years he has done work on demography in medieval Sicily, Renaissance Europe, and more recently in ancient Greece and Rome. Such work and passing acquaintance with comparative studies of slavery convinced me that the extraordinarily rapid increase in the number of African slaves in the Antebellum South, though doubtless undercounted by the census takers, could not possibly have come about by natural increase – even if all the slaves had been treated as paternalistically and benevolently as he had been taught to believe before living in Concord (Fitzhugh’s thesis Cannibals All, 1857) and learning otherwise. This dramatic increase could not even have been accounted for had all the slaveholders in the Old Dominion and other less heavily settled states of the Upper South with worn out land had concentrated exclusively on breeding, which they only very rarely did as it turns out. Never in all recorded history has the slave population grown so exponentially except, if one accepts the standard account, in the Antebellum U.S. and in Bermuda, or as some authorities say, also in the Bahamas.

Slave Population.jpg

From 1810 to 1860, the population increased by 2,819,765 people, a nearly 250% increase in fifty years, and an average of 56,935 people annually.

The reasons for this increase have long been the subject of debate. In the late twentieth century, the opinions of Philip Curtin, influenced by the demography work of J. Potter, prevailed. Asserting that the slave population was subject to a virtually unparalleled natural increase, which had already begun in certain parts of the country in the early eighteenth century, Curtin (The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1969), estimated that the nineteenth century’s staggering growth rate was nothing but a continuation of this phenomenon and that only 1,000 slaves on average were imported into the country annually after the ban. Strange allegations of slave breeding farms have also leaped out, though they have been dubious at best, and this opinion has now been judged as almost completely unsubstantiated. Both before and after independence and before the prohibition of importation, breeding was often “encouraged” in North America, even though we all know that males rarely need encouragement. Given world enough and time, some would do so continuously and unabated. If a master or owner had both male and female adult slaves, or a neighbor did, and they allowed couples to cohabit, or visit, they would breed. That was all the “encouragement” they needed. The women may or may not have been as eager, but they could be just as forced to have sex by black males as by white males. Furthermore during importation’s legal period, more men would have been brought over than women, making it difficult to rely on an adequate female population to breed the amount of children necessary to support a vast natural increase. Unfortunately, census data does not divide slave populations into male and female until 1820, so this is difficult to examine.

The ban on slave imports went into effect in 1808, as per the Constitution’s proviso, and for the first eleven years, it was upheld so poorly that it may as well have not existed. Slavers continued to bring cargo to their desirous customers. During discussions prior to the law’s signing, numerous congressmen noted that this would be exactly the case. Congressman Lowndes of South Carolina said in 1804, while his state had its own ban on imports, “With navigable rivers running into the heart of it [his State], it was impossible, with our means, to prevent our Eastern brethren, who in some parts of the Union, in defiance of the authority of the general Government, have been engaged in this trade, from introducing them into the country. The law was completely evaded, and for the last year or two Africans were introduced into the country in numbers little short, I believe, of what they would have been had the trade been a legal one.” (Spears, p. 122) Jubal Early said, “I tell you that slaves will continue to be imported as heretofore…You cannot get hold of the ships employed in this traffic. Besides, slaves will be brought into Georgia from East Florida. They will be brought into the Mississippi Territory from the bay of Mobile.” (Du Bois, p.99)

Over the arguments of whether to set slaves found to be illegally imported free or sell th at government auction, many voices raised up in support of setting them free or at least putting them into a limited term of indentured servitude. Arguing that government auction would continue to bolster the market they wished to stem, the side against sale of captured slaves claimed that the law would not serve as any detraction to the violators. Nevertheless, this decision was left in the hands of the states, many of which allowed for just such public sale, though quite belatedly, including the Alabama-Mississippi territory, passed in 1815, North Carolina, passed in 1816, Georgia, passed in 1817, and Louisiana. Proving the sound words of those against government sale, Louisiana’s law allowing public auction, with 50 percent of the proceeds going to whoever turned the slaves in, was utilized by the famous Bowie brothers not only to bring in slaves from Africa, but to then profit from the government’s sale of them.

Despite the repeated pleas of customs collectors in Georgia and Louisiana, the government was at best lax in response and at worst totally unresponsive to the knowledge of the illegal traders. The collectors gave specific information as to where the ships were coming in and to where they were sending slaves, and assured that they could stem the flow if they received approbation and assistance from the federal government, but almost none was forthcoming. The law’s oversight was not put into the hands of one department, falling first into the hands of the Secretary of the Treasury and then to the Secretary of the Navy, with sporadic interventions by the Departments of State and War, and a lack of central governance obviated a productive execution. In fact, it was not until Lincoln was president that the effort was consolidated into the hands of the Department of the Interior.

Slaves came in through Georgia, Florida, Mobile, and Galveston, from where they could easily be brought to New Orleans. A ferry from Havana to Pensacola, while Florida was still Spanish territory, made regular trips. “ On January 22, 1811, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton wrote to Captain H.G. Campbell, the commanding naval officer at Charleston, S.C. saying: “I hear, not without great concern, that the law prohibiting the importation of slaves has been violated in frequent instances at St. Mary’s (Ga.), since the gunboats have been withdrawn from that station…Hasten the equipment of gunboats…and dispatch them to St. Mary’s with orders to use all practicable diligence.’” (Spears, p.123) In 1817 the trade in Galveston was reported to the Secretary of the Navy: “the slaves are smuggled in through the numerous inlets to the westward, where the people are but too much disposed to render them every possible assistance. Several hundred slaves are at Galveston, and persons have gone from New Orleans to purchase them. Every exertion will be made to intercept them, but I have little hopes of success.” (Du Bois, p. 113)

In 1818, the United States admitted failure by passing a bill described as, “An act in addition to ‘an act to prohibit the introduction of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the first day of January in the year of our lord 1808,’ and to repeal certain parts of the same.” Ten years later, the law of 1808 had proved so ineffectual that the Federal Government felt it necessary to make a new law whose essential purpose was to uphold the original law, this time raising the penalties and offering half of all monies collected in relation to the seizure to the informer. In 1819, Congress passed a law pushing the President to send out armed ships along the United States and African coasts, granting a $100,000 appropriation . A year later, Congress passed a third bill which outlined slavery as piracy and sought to punish slavers with the death penalty, though the first man to suffer the full force of the law was Captain Nathaniel Gordon of the Erie, in 1862. A month before the 1819 bill passed, in a speech to the House, General James Tallmadge claimed, “Our laws are already highly penal against their introduction, and yet, it is a well known fact, that about fourteen thousand slaves have been brought into our country this last year.”

Known accounts of slavers in the decade 1810-1820 run strong. Louis d’Aury, occupier of Galveston Island, a known trader established with the help of Xavier Mina, ran a healthy trade from Texas and later Amelia Island in Georgia. Operating out of d’Aury’s abandoned Galveston mansion, Jean-Pierre Lafitte kept his trade alive until 1821 or 1822, his most famous customers being the Bowie brothers. We have the autobiography of Captain Richard Drake, Revelations of a Slave Smuggler, in which he relates his work in the trade from 1807 to 1857, over which time he claims to have brought over half a million slaves himself. Many are wary of relying on his work, as much of what he includes seems quite dubious, particularly his information about slave breeding farms in Florida. However, even if his half a million claim is four times larger than what he really transported, this alone would account for a 250% increase over Curtin’s annual estimate. So lucrative was the trade that Georgia governor David B. Mitchell resigned his post in 1817 to engage in the illicit practice, operating a smuggling business while serving as United States agent of the Creek Indians, an office more amenable to the trade, nestled in a remote landscape awash with rarely traveled paths seemingly perfect for the clandestine business.

The 1820’s and 1830’s were a period of sporadic international involvement for the United States. The appropriations granted in the 1819 became smaller and not quite annual. Only $11,000 was given out in 1837, with a mere $5,000 having been granted in the previous two appropriations of 1833 and 1834. Though the 1819 bill was intended to establish regular naval patrols off of Africa’s West Coast, this did not happen until 1839, and the efforts were far from exhaustive. In the immediate wake of the bill, some ships were sent over sporadically for limited patrols. One of the first ships, the Cyane, reported knowledge of one hundred slavers and herself captured five. Yet Commodore M.C. Perry of the Shark, sailing in the same year, reported no knowledge of any American slaver.

Though there was an international effort to suppress the trade, the U.S. proved to be mostly a hindrance to other nations patrolling African waters. Largely because of remnant tensions from the War of 1812, search of any ship flying an American flag was forbidden to anyone but an American naval cruiser. In fact, until well into the 1840’s, another country’s ship could not even detain anyone flying an American flag. Thus the trade ran under our flag’s protection. Captured slavers had blank American papers, ready to be filled out in just such trouble. By June of1841, the President declared that the illegal trade was on the rise, and in December of the same year he acknowledged that most likely the bulk of it was carried on under the American flag.

In August of 1842, America and Britain signed the Ashburton treaty to, “maintain in service, on the coast of Africa, a sufficient and adequate squadron or naval force of vessels, of suitable numbers and descriptions, to carry in all not less than eighty guns, to enforce, separately and respectively, the laws, rights, and obligations of each of the two countries for the suppression of the slave-trade.” (Article 8) Squadrons were assigned to regular patrols along the coast of Liberia, yet it took the U.S. eight months from the signing of the treaty to get its first command in place. British ships were still forbidden to search American ships, but the idea of “joint cruising,” a British and an American ship patrolling together, had been strongly advocated in response. It came to pass, however, that this suggestion was rarely heeded. “Says the chaplain to the African squadron in the years 1855-57, himself a believer in slavery, in his book Adventures and Observations on the West Coast of Africa (p.318): ‘The joint cruising has been from the first in spirit and letter dead. It is hardly worth while to inquire upon which party the greater blame rests in the non-fulfilment of this provision; but it is certainly true that the object of the treaty could be better carried out by a hearty and well-understood co-operation. The prevailing indifference on this subject may be seen by the following statement: the flagships of the American and British squadrons met but once, and that at sea. They were two miles apart; they recognized each other by signal, and by the same means held the following communication: ‘Anything to communicate?’… ‘Answer.-‘Nothing to communicate.’” (Spears, p.154) Worst of all, the Americans never managed to muster anywhere near as many ships as the English, and certainly not enough to be called “sufficient and adequate” to patrol the roughly 3,000 miles of coast to which they had been assigned.

Employed ships.jpg

Meanwhile, the average price of slaves in the Upper South increased from $521 to $1,294: more than 100% in thirty years from 1830, and the price in the Deep South soared to nearly $1,700 by 1860.

Slave prices.jpg

“Demand for bondsmen was so strong throughout the antebellum period that even with more than a 200-percent increase in the slave population from 1850 to 1860, prices, as will be seen, nearly doubled.” (Campbell, p.69) As Du Bois noted, “the enhanced price of slaves throughout the American slave market, brought about by the new industrial development and the laws against the slave-trade, was the irresistible temptation that drew American capital and enterprise into that traffic.” (p. 162) The 1850’s, seeing a growth in most sectors of agricultural commerce, brought about a revived interest in the trade. In this decade, Southerners tired of the law’s hindrance, made numerous and fervent proposals to reopen the trade. In 1859-60, the trade may have seen the largest number of transports it had in years. “Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic leader, said he thought that 15,000 slaves had been landed that year in the United States by North Americans. He himself claimed to have seen 300 in a pen at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and also some in Memphis, Tennessee.” (Thomas, p.771)

“The policy of pretence that prevailed in connection with the slave-trade was infinitely disgraceful to the nation.” (Spears, ix) The U.S. authorities didn’t want to admit that they could not or would not stop what might be described as the massive importation that may have peaked in 1859 and 1860, when no less than two slave ships were embarking from New York every month. (Farrow, Lang & Frank, p.123) Along with Douglas, Du Bois also made this claim. Du Bois, Douglas and my great grandfather suggested fascinatingly, without hard statistical data, very large numbers. Du Bois guessed that between 1808 and 1860, approximately 250,000 illegal slaves were imported. (Gray, p.649) He must have known many personally and known many more who knew many, many more personally. In 1859, 1860, and1861 the largest crops ever would support the theory of Du Bois and Douglas that the illegal imports surged again along with prices in 1859 and 1860. Many more slaves would have been needed to produce the crops averaging about 3.5 million after 1855 than the 2.4 million from the previous 8 years. So urgent was the need for more easily imported slaves in the South that Louisiana succeeded around 1858 to pass a bill in the House allowing a company to import 2,500 Africans for indentured servitude for “at least” fifteen years. It lost by only two votes in the Senate.

Part Two

“The following, from the N. Y. Herald of August 5, 1860; gives a hint concerning our method of importation. ‘Padre Island, or rather Father Island, is called so, from being the largest of a number of similar islands along the Gulf coast of Texas, and is about a hundred and twenty-five miles long, by from one to two miles in width. It is an island, because between it and the main shore of Texas there exists a regular belt or estuary of the sea, extending from the harbor of Brazos Santiago to Corpus Christi. Its adaptability has made Padre Island a resort for the initiation of those measures which were necessary in order to make popular a matter of vital importance to the South. To have boldly ventured into New Orleans, with negroes freshly imported from Africa, would not only have brought down upon the head of the importer the vengeance of our very philanthropic Uncle Sam, but also the anathemas of the whole sect of philanthropists and negrophilists everywhere. To import them for years, however, into quiet places, evading with impunity the penalty of the law, and the ranting of the thin-skinned sympathizers with Africa, was gradually to popularize the traffic by creating a demand for laborers, and thus to pave the way for the GRADUAL REVIVAL OF THE SLAVE TRADE. To this end, a few men, bold and energetic, determined, ten or twelve years ago, to commence the business of importing negroes, slowly at first, but surely; and for this purpose they selected a few secluded places on the coast of Florida, Georgia and Texas, for the purpose of concealing their stock until it could be sold out. Without specifying other places, let me draw your attention to a deep and abrupt pocket or indentation in the coast of Texas, about thirty miles from Brazos Santiago. Into this pocket a slaver could run at any hour of the night, because there was no hindrance at the entrance, and here she could discharge her cargo of movables upon the projecting bluff, and again proceed to sea inside of three hours. The live stock thus landed could be marched a short distance across the main island, over a porous soil which refuses to retain the recent foot-prints, until they were again placed in boats, and were concealed upon some of the innumerable little islands which thicken on the waters of the Laguna in the rear. These islands, being covered with a thick growth of bushes and grass, offer an inscrutable hiding place for the ' black diamonds.'” (Drake, Introduction, pp. vii-viii)

Cotton Production.jpg

A recent, unfortunately titled book, The Last Victims, pointed out that the importation of slaves accelerated in the last two or three years before the trade became illegal. Of course it did, because already in that short a time since Eli Whitney had invented, worked on, and perfected earlier crude models of the cotton gin like Fulton had the steam boat (so useful for getting the cotton down the river and hauling to market), one could see the need for more slaves.

Cotton production increased at staggering rates throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, more than quadrupling between 1838 and 1859, and increasing over fifty percent in only five years between 1850 and 1855. “At the close of the War of 1812 cotton produced in the United States was estimated at less than 150,000 bales. The crop produced in 1859 amounted to 4,451,000 bales, an increase of over thirty fold. During the first five years following the close of the War of 1812 production approximately doubled. By 1826 it had about doubled again….Between 1830 and 1837 the crop doubled again…by 1851 the crop was again approximately double that of 1837. The crop of 1859 was more than double that of 1849.” (Gray, p.691) And as the output in bales increased, so did the size of the bales. “In 1824 all bales of American cotton imported at Liverpool averaged 266 pounds, and by 1832 they averaged 319 pounds. In 1835 the bales used in the South Atlantic States averaged 300 to 325 pounds, but those from the Gulf States 400 to 500 pounds each. By the forties the majority of Texas bales weighed 500 pounds. Watkins estimates the average weight for the entire South by decades as follows:

1790-1800………………..225 1830-1840………………..368
1800-1810………………..247 1840-1850………………..415
1810-1820………………..269 1850-1860………………..436

Even if the planters had had mechanical cotton harvesters roaring across their field, as the soi-disant historian Shenk recently claimed in Lincoln’s Melancholy, natural increase and shipments from the Upper South together could never have supplied nearly enough hands to plant and chop all this product, no matter how good the weather!

No scholar has until now heard Col. Percy’s assertions. The Colonel was one of the greatest planters in the Mississippi Delta – the flood plain between the bluffs on which Memphis and Vicksburg were erected – 220 miles apart as the crow flies. It was the richest cotton producing area in the world in 1860, still being cleared and in desperate need of slave labor. Natchez, just south of Vicksburg, became the richest per capita city in the country. Where there is such a demand, a supply will almost always materialize. It is a law of economics. See how much liquor was consumed during prohibition. How much dope today? How many illegal immigrants do we have today? Much of the commodities and many of those people were smuggled in just as slaves were up to 1860, into the bayou lagoons and swamps along our porous gulf coast, and also across the Rio Grande into Texas.

True, prices sagged from 1815 to 1830, but the output continued its steady climb, and demand increased much more after Andrew Jackson virtually emptied the South this side of the Mississippi of Native Americans by 1830 – the year he and two other speculators founded Memphis, which became rich from selling mules, slaves and cotton. (It only became a major emporium for hardwood after the end of slavery.) The demand for cotton escalated every year thereafter until 1860. Likewise did the demand for slaves had to have risen. There was most likely a sag in imports in the 1820’s and early 30’s. But, “The demand for slaves was manifested in the illicit traffic that noticeably increased about 1835, and reached large proportions by 1860.” (Du Bois, p.155) Cotton was indeed king, and the labor supply had to be secured, as it is today by illegal aliens coming in. So much did cotton production increase that the price moved up only moderately and sporadically after 1844.

Cotton Prices001 01.jpg
(Fogel & Engerman, p.91)

In some West Indian islands, slaves were supposedly often worked to death in an average of seven years, because they were so cheap that they didn’t need to be preserved much less bred, as was the case in late Republican Rome when Cato in De Agricultura, copying Carthaginian manuals, recommended brutal exploitation and no breeding for maximum profit. Slaves almost always had a longer life expectation and more offspring in the North American colonies, with generally less murderous work than on the sugar islands, and in the U.S., however, than in the Caribbean or Late Republic Rome, but they weren’t superhuman breeders. Furthermore, “It was, for example, found cheaper to work a slave to death in a few years, and buy a new one, than to care for him in sickness and old age; so, too, it was easier to despoil rich, new land in a few years of intensive culture, and move on to the Southwest, than to fertilize and conserve the soil. Consequently, there came a demand for land and slaves greater than the country could supply.” (Du Bois, p.155)

Cotton cultivation was usually less lethal than tobacco, even perhaps when tobacco was grown in commercial quantities almost exclusively in the Chesapeake as in the colonial era, a more temperate zone than the lower South. Very little cotton was grown anyway beyond the east coast until after the Revolution. Only with Whitney’s gin did large quantities of short staple cotton begin to be grown in the Southern interior. Tobacco, like cotton, was undoubtedly less lethal than sugar cane. Large quantities of rice were also grown in coastal Georgia and South Carolina, but the slaves there worked on a quota system, and the most efficient might finish their day’s work by early to mid-afternoon; however, labor in the rice paddies was unhealthy, physically exhausting, and dangerous because of snakes and insects.

The threat to ship recalcitrant slaves “down the river” from cotton to cane cultivation was often enough to get more cooperation from the victim, but some were actually shipped down the Mississippi from the cotton to the cane fields in Louisiana. Slaves in the upper South were also threatened with being sold down, though not necessarily down the river, but to the cotton fields of lower Dixie. Working in the cotton fields of the Red River Valley was certainly no picnic. Treatment by masters as well as type of work and climate caused variations in life expectations and reproduction rates, but nothing except illegal imports can possibly explain the extraordinary increase recorded by the census takers, and for various reasons, likely due to lack of diligence or the hiding of newly imported slaves, they doubtless undercounted.

And it was not only cotton production that increased in the nineteenth century. Between 1840-1860, export of tobacco was nearly 60% higher than it had been in 1790. In 1857-1860, it was double. (Gray, p. 753) Sugar cane output also grew. From 1828 – 1832, the output of cane doubled. “As a result of technical progress the productivity of slave labor in the sugar industry was greatly increased during the first half of the nineteenth century…The estimated yield per slave for slaves of all ages averaged 3.14 hogsheads in 1845 and 2.55 hogsheads in 1853. Receipts per hand above $300 were not uncommon, and it is probable that receipts of $250 were usual for well managed estates.” (Gray, p. 743) “Almost all of the sugar grown in the United States during the antebellum period came from Louisiana. Louisiana produced from one-quarter to one-half of all sugar consumed in the United States. In any given year the combined crop of other sugar-producing states in the South was less than five percent of that of Louisiana. Louisiana's sugar harvest rose from 5,000 hogsheads (a large barrel that held an average of 1,000 pounds of sugar) in 1802 to a high of 449,000 hogsheads in 1853, peaking at an average price of $69 each in 1858, bringing the total value of Louisiana's sugar crop to $25 million.” [(]

Already a known importer of slaves, Louisiana’s sugar industry, deadly as the harvesting of sugar is known to have been, would have required a great influx of workers, and was already accustomed to the mechanics of procuring them illegally. Slaves were known to have been brought into Galveston at least as late as 1836, when “An English schooner reportedly landed blacks from Grenada at Galveston in January, 1836. In March of that year, William S. Fisher reported from Brazoria that the schooner Shenandoah had landed 170 Negroes belonging to Monroe Edwards and that Sterling McNeel had brought a cargo of Africans to the coast. The ‘traffic in Negroes,’ Fisher said, ‘is increasing daily.’” (Campbell, p.46)

Cuba Slave Figures.jpg

“The African slave trade, even when illegal, continued to supply hundreds of thousands of slaves to Brazil until 1851 and to Cuba until 1867 ( Davis, p.28) If correct, Curtin’s estimates for Cuba are ten times that what he estimated for American annual imports in the same period. No doubt they are fairly accurate, as reasonable data exists between Cuban census reports and the notes of the British Foreign Office for many of these years. However, few scholars have discussed what traffic lay between the United States and Texas. Of course, such an illegal activity is impossible to calculate. However it is known at the very least that there existed trade from Cuba to Texas and also to New Orleans, and knowing that the demand for slaves was what it was, it is not unreasonable to assume that a greater traffic than most wish to postulate existed between the island and our country. Though most reports come from the 1830’s, they continued thereafter, even after Texas was annexed to the U.S. Meanwhile, the known import to Cuba rose significantly.

“The consul at Havana reported, in 1836, that whole cargoes of slaves fresh from Africa were being daily shipped to Texas in American vessels, that 1,000 had been sent within a few months, that the rate was increasing, and that many of these slaves ‘can scarcely fail to find their way into the United States.’ Moreover, the consul acknowledged that ships frequently cleared for the United States in ballast, taking on a cargo at some secret point. When with these facts we consider the law facilitating ‘recovery’ of slaves from Texas, the repeated refusals to regulate the Texan trade, and the shelving of a proposed congressional investigation in these matters, conjecture becomes a practical certainty. It was estimated in 1838 that 15,000 Africans were annually taken to Texas, and ‘there are even grounds for suspicion that there are other places…where slaves are introduced.’ Between 1847 and 1853 the slave smuggler Drake had a slave depot in the Gulf, where sometimes as many as 1,600 Negroes were on hand, and the owners were continually importing and shipping.” (Du Bois, p.165) “Joseph Crawford, the British vice-consul at New Orleans, reported in 1837 that slavers from Cuba had landed Africans in Texas. Francis Sheridan, Britain’s colonial secretary, visited Galveston in 1840 and complained that Texas was doing too little to enforce its laws against the African trade and urged that British cruisers be ordered to extend their antislavery activities to the Gulf Coast. During the same year, a visiting English lawyer, Nicholas Doran P. Maillard, claimed that American ships were carrying one hundred slaves from Cuba to Texas twice a month. Such charges persisted well into the statehood period. Oral tradition has it that the United States War Department’s experiment with camels as pack animals on the southwestern ‘deserts’ served as a cover for the importation of a shipload of Africans at Indianola, Texas, in 1856. Arthur T. Lynn, the British consul at Galveston, reported in 1858 that a new state law permitting free blacks voluntarily to enslave themselves was in fact a scheme to cover the importation of Africans.” (Campbell, p. 53)

Texas, where many immigrated at Steve Austin’s behest, was fertile in the east, and thus a flourishing cotton market took off, increasing the need for labor, and as the labor size increased, so did production. In 1833 a convention on Texan statehood condemned slavery, the reason being that a slaver from Cuba had recently landed at Galveston. However, by 1835-6, in the midst of the chaotic separation from Mexico, it became easier for slaves to reach Texan shores. However, newcomers to Texas ignored the resolution and continued to import Africans thereafter. (Campbell, p. 39)

Curtin notes that “The imports into the Bahamas, and perhaps into British Honduras, were probably en route to the United States,” (p. 236) yet he does not suggest that any came in from Cuba, despite the fact that between 1841-1861, when 170,900 slaves at least were imported into the island, the slave population there dropped by 69,100. He notes that this is a slightly starting rate of natural decrease – about 3% - yet counts it as plausible, owing largely to a cholera epidemic. True, much of Cuba’s labor was devoted to sugar, a dangerous and often fatal occupation, but it does not guarantee that the supply of slaves all stayed on the island, especially when reports came to the U.S. about slave exports. “ ‘There is certainly a want of proper vigilance at Havana,’ wrote Commander Perry in 1844, ‘and perhaps at the ports of the United States’; and again, in the same year, ‘I cannot but think that the custom-house authorities in the United States are not sufficiently rigid in looking after vessels of suspicious character.’” (Du Bois, p.161) Footnote 3 on the same page: Trist to Forsyth: House Doc., 26 Cong. 2. sess. V. No. 115. “The business of supplying the United States with Africans from this island is one that must necessarily exist,” because “slaves are a hundred per cent, or more, higher in the United States than in Cuba,” and this profit “is a temptation which it is not in human nature as modified by American institutions to withstand.”

In Inhuman Bondage (Oxford, 2006) David Brion Davis, the dean of all those students in the Atlantic slave-trade and slavery in the New World, has summarized the prevalent interpretations, many of which result from his own theories, most prominently advanced in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1966 The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966). In the half century that his publications span, opinions about that history have changed spectacularly.

Though not himself a statistician, Davis accepts wholeheartedly the revised statistics about the slave trade within Africa, the transportation to the New World, and the recalculations concerning Africa itself, the middle passage, the life expectancy and reproduction rates of Africans in the Americas and also the demographics of the native Americans, which have undergone even greater reappraisals than all of the others.

On imports Davis has accepted the consensus: their case an old one, little modified since the appearance of Curtin’s book, which itself on this topic basically accepted the theories of J. Potter – namely that the cotton kingdom only imported 1,000 on average every year from 1808-1860. Interesting to note is that one reason Curtin gave for the likelihood of such small numbers is that because one would expect the number of males to outweigh the number of females by the end of the period surveyed – males being the more attractive group to import – he was surprised to find the female population higher in the 1860 census. However, we have found that he was incorrect. According to Census data, there were 1,981,395 males and 1,959,151 females. (figures courtesy of Geostat Center Historical Census Browser)

He says the prohibition on slave imports into the U.S. in 1808 did not reduce the slave population, because primarily raising tobacco and more and more cotton, they had achieved (in healthy climates with less demanding labor routines) a remarkable rate of increase, while that of the whites had not, who continued to be increased by trans-Atlantic migration. We have much much more evidence to compute the demographics of the trans-Atlantic slave trade than that out of Africa before Columbus, or of pre-Columbian native American population, and their post-Columbian die-off; however we do not have enough to make the resolute, unswerving convictions that historians would often have their readers believe them to have attained. It was no one’s intent to admit the significance of the illicit trade – not the government’s who failed to stop it, the apologists who openly and brazenly condemned it, while exalting the benevolent paternalism that their native born slaves enjoyed (better than that of the Irish immigrants laid off and left to starve by their Yankee mill masters during recessions), and most of all not the slave importers or their customers. “The dimensions of the nineteenth-century slave trade have always been a matter of controversy – political controversy at the time and historical controversy since. The outcome is hardly unexpected…The result was a great deal of writing about a subject on which no one could possibly be very well informed.” (Curtin, p. 231)

Please check out the review of Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race in the December 2008 issue of NY Review of Books. Here is an excerpt from the article. (as pdf)

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