Beyond  /  Book Review

Ships Going Out

In "American Slavers," Sean M. Kelley surveys the relatively unknown history of Americans who traded in slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Over the course of nearly 350 years, more than 12 million Africans were enslaved and sent across the Atlantic as laborers for the mines, ports, and plantations of European colonies in the Americas. Because a relatively small percentage of these people—some 388,000—disembarked in North America, general histories have tended to slight the African slave trade to the colonies that became the United States. American Slavers—at once social, political, economic, and military history—goes a long way toward filling that gap.

Kelley begins by distinguishing between “ships coming in” and “ships going out.” Until now scholarly attention has been focused on vessels, most of them British, bringing enslaved Africans to North America. He shifts our focus to a relatively unknown aspect of the slave trade—the American ships that left American ports to purchase slaves on the African coast and sell them, usually in the Caribbean. He also establishes a basic chronology of the trade, to distinguish among different periods during which American slavers operated.

Perhaps most importantly, Kelley brings a generation of Africanist scholarship to bear on the history of American slaving. It was established decades ago by John Thornton and others that European and American merchants were doomed to failure if they were not familiar with the regional differences and trading preferences of Africans who, Kelley writes, “subscribed to very different cultural values.” This is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that the slave trade flourished in part because from the earliest years of sustained contact, Europeans were struck not only by the differences but also by the similarities between themselves and Africans. Far from being “heathens,” Africans had recognizable religious practices. They were organized into states with governing hierarchies. And above all, Europeans encountered African merchants with whom they could profitably trade.3 Unlike European traders, however, Americans lacked the commodities—notably textiles—for which Africans were willing to exchange slaves. As a result, Kelley notes, they could “never be much more than poachers on the much larger trade of the Europeans.” Nevertheless some Americans did trade profitably in slaves, and Kelley’s book chronicles their history.

Before the American Revolution, slave trading was almost exclusively the business of New Englanders. In the seventeenth century, Kelley observes, it was a “very small…miniscule” enterprise, “not so much organized as disorganized.” New England’s maritime industry grew from cod fishing, of which slave trading was a minor offshoot. The colonists’ trading networks were “primitive” and their “links with merchants on the African coast were nonexistent.” But “perhaps the most important obstacle to a regular, profitable slave trade…was the lack of suitable trade goods.” Most of those who traded in Africa went only once, and so there was “no accumulation of knowledge, no building of networks, no learning from trial and error.”