Letter to The New York Times regarding David Firestone’s article on Gwendolyn Hall’s research of the origins of African-American slaves
The New York Times
2 August, 2000
To the Editor:
David Firestone’s scintillating and important article into on Gwendolyn Hall’s research the origins of African-American slaves quotes Ms. Hall as saying, “In the English colonies, there was almost no information like this. The French just seemed more interested in the origins of people, who they were, and where they came from. Maybe it’s because they had a much longer history of slave trading posts in Africa.”
I would like to point out that two other factors, one well documented, the other not, explain why slaveholders of British descent differed so dramatically in their record-keeping practices from slaveholders of French and Spanish origin. First, countries with Romance-language heritages, including Portugal as well as France, Italy, and Spain, continued the ancient Latin notarial tradition, even through the Dark Ages, of maintaining scrupulously detailed records of virtually all commercial transactions. In Britain, on the other hand, the notarial tradition, along with the Latin tongue and even literacy itself, disappeared under the ruthless Anglo-Saxons who held sway through the early medieval period. In short, the French were trained to take notes, the Brits weren’t.
Second, people of whatever derivation who imported slaves to the U.S. hit a big problem with record-keeping when, in 1808, such traffic became illegal. Received wisdom has it that not many slaves were in fact imported after that date.
1803: Louisiana Purchase: Spanish tradition disappeared
Cuba: outlaw place: Spanish held sway until 1898. No notaries.
Anglo law: oral transactions were honored.
The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, 1896. W. E. B. Du Bois: p. 180, para 88: “Notorious Infractions of the Law: This decade (1850’s) is especially noteworthy for the great increase of illegal importation into the South.” Passim, pp. 180-181.
“Two parties of Africans were brought into Mobile with impunity. One bark strongly suspected of having landed slaves, was seized on the Florida coast. Another vessel was reported to be landing slaves near Mobile. A letter from Jacksonville, Fla, stated that a bark had left there for Africa to ship a cargo for Florida and Georgia. Stephen A. Douglass said, ‘That there was not the shadow of doubt that the Slave-trade had been carried on quite extensively from a long time back, and that there had been more slaves imported into the Southern states, during the last year, than had ever been imported before in any one year, even when the slave trade was legal. It was his confident belief, that over 15,000 slaves had been brought into this country during the past year.’” (1859)
Amistad: slave insurrection: illegally imported? Going to Cuba, legally under Spanish law. The plan was to take them to some other Spanish colony. “Outlandish Negroes.” They had to be “seasoned.”
William A. Percy