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The Slave Trade

The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440 - 1870



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About The Book

After many years of research, award-winning historian Hugh Thomas portrays, in a balanced account, the complete history of the slave trade.

Beginning with the first Portuguese slaving expeditions, Hugh Thomas describes and analyzes the rise of one of the largest and most elaborate maritime and commercial ventures in all of history.

Between 1492 and 1870, approximately eleven million black slaves were carried from Africa to the Americas to work on plantations, in mines, or as servants in houses. The Slave Trade is alive with villains and heroes and illuminated by eyewitness accounts.

Hugh Thomas's achievement is not only to present a compelling history of the time, but to answer controversial questions as who the traders were, the extent of the profits, and why so many African rulers and peoples willingly collaborated.


I remember as if it were yesterday the day when I began to be interested in the slave trade: it was thirty-three years ago. I was dining in London. At the table, among others, there was the prime minister of Trinidad, the historian Dr. Eric Williams. Hearing that I was making a study of the causes of the Cuban revolution, he expressed astonishment that I should contemplate writing such a book without reading his own works, such as A History of Trinidad and Tobago (completed, he spiritedly explained, in ten days while his people were celebrating Carnival) and, above all, Capitalism and Slavery, a copy of which came to my house next day, by messenger, from the Trinidad High Commission.
A swift perusal of the latter showed me the fascination of the eighteenth-century Caribbean, and I devoted much attention, in what became a history of Cuba, to slavery and the slave trade on that island.
I became particularly interested in a Basque, Julián Zulueta, the last great slave trader of Cuba (if you will permit the adjective) and, therefore, of the Americas, a man who started quite humbly, as a trader in all sorts of goods, in Havana in the 1830s but who, by the late 1840s, was a byword for iniquity in the minds (and logs) of the British naval patrol trying to prevent the slave trade; for Zulueta had his own large sugar plantations in Cuba to which he would bring, in fast clippers often built in Baltimore, five or six hundred slaves direct from Cabinda, just to the north of the river Congo.
Being a modern man, Zulueta would usually have his slaves vaccinated before they set off across the Atlantic and, by the 1850s, he began to use, for the passage, steamboats capable of carrying over a thousand captives; being a Catholic, he had his slaves baptized before they left Africa. What sort of man could he have been, I asked myself, who was carrying on the slave trade in a Christian colony four centuries after a pope, Pius II, had condemned the practice of enslaving baptized Africans? And how did Zulueta justify his insatiable demands for slaves almost a century after Adam Smith had dryly insisted that they were less efficient than free men? Why was he subsequently made marquis by the Spanish government; and, when he styled himself "marquis of Alava," was he thinking as much of the name of his sugar plantation as of his home province? And what happened to his great fortune? And to his papers?
At the time, I did not follow up these questions very far, but I did write an article on the subject in 1967 for the Observer, on the invitation of Anthony Sampson, to mark what appeared to be the centenary of the end of the slave trade. The subject continued thereafter to lurk in my mind, as did an interest in other slave traders, in other countries, other men who made money from "ebony" or "black cargoes," such as the Irish-Frenchman Antoine Walsh of Nantes who also carried Bonnie Prince Charlie to Scotland in a boat, the Doutelle, or James de Wolf, of Bristol, Rhode Island -- he became a United States senator; or other merchants who built beautiful houses, like so many slavers of Liverpool; or of Lisbon; or of Seville; or of Middleburg, the Roosevelts' home in Holland -- home, too, after that family had left for New Holland, of the largest Dutch slave-trading company, in the eighteenth century. In the 1980s, I even wrote a novel, Havana, about John Kennion, a Liverpool unitarian who had a commission to import slaves to Cuba in 1762, after the British capture of that island during the Seven Years' War.
I once walked round the still-elegant streets of Walsh's Nantes, many of which survived the Allied bombardment of 1944, and recalled how the onetime slave-trading residents of the mansions on the Ile Feydeau, in the 1780s, sent their dirty linen to be laundered in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), where the mountain streams were said to wash whiter than any in Brittany. David Hancock, in a fine recent book, named his central figure, Richard Oswald, "a citizen of the world" -- as well he might be called, for he had property in Scotland, London, Florida, Jamaica, and Virginia, as well as a share in Bence Island, off Sierra Leone, which he used as a depot for slaves (he and his partners built a golf course there for the benefit of waiting captains and others, on which the caddies were slaves in kilts). Because of his knowledge of America, Oswald was one of the negotiators at the Peace of Paris in 1783, along with, on the United States side, old business associates, such as Benjamin Franklin and, above all, Henry Laurens, of Charleston, South Carolina, the latter also, in his early life, a large-scale slave trader to whom Oswald had often carried black slaves. How curious it is to imagine the two of them there in Paris, in the Rue Jacob, by the corner of the Rue des Saints-Pères, rich men by virtue -- among other things, to be sure -- of innumerable slave transactions linking Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and negotiating the liberty of North America.
In my idle reading, I found, too, as good a candidate of my own to rival Hancock's "citizen of the world": Bartolommeo Marchionni, a Florentine merchant and banker in Lisbon, who had sugar plantations in Madeira in the 1480s; who financed the journeys of the great Portuguese travelers to Ethiopia in 1498; who had a ship in da Gama's expedition to India in 1498, as also in Cabral's expedition which discovered Brazil -- probably by mistake -- in 1500; who suggested to the king of Portugal that he should use his, Marchionni's, compatriot Vespucci for a journey to Brazil in 1501; and who was a monopoly trader in slaves from the Benin River in the 1490s, carrying captives not only to Portugal and Madeira but also to Elmina, on the Gold Coast, where he sold them to African merchants for gold, finding a better price from them than he would have achieved in Lisbon.
As a result of this interest, stretching back half a lifetime, I decided, a few years ago, to write my own history of the slave trade. It may be said that that is now such well-plowed ground that there is no room for any new cultivation; that Philip Curtin and his successors have counted the statistics of the slave trade as well as they can ever be; that every harbor and people concerned have their own historians, many of whom have been meeting at productive conferences all over the world for years. David Brion Davis has transformed the history of abolition by his wonderfully erudite volumes. The history of the cowrie shell (so much used as a currency in Africa for so long) has been written, as has the history of the Birmingham gun, much used as barter for so many slaves.
But any commercial undertaking involving the carriage of millions of people, stretching over several hundred years, involving every maritime European nation, every Atlantic-facing African people (and some others), and every country of the Americas, is a planet of its own, always with room for new observations, reflections, evidence, and judgments. Further, it was the slave merchants themselves, sitting in their fine counting-houses in London or Lisbon, men who often never saw slaves but profited from their sale, who interested me; and those had been rather ignored in the controversies over the exact number of slaves carried, and the percentage of profit.
The slave trade was, of course, an iniquity. All the same, its study can offer something for almost everyone. If one is interested in international morality, one can ask how it was that, in the seventeenth century, several Northern European countries hesitated so little before abetting a revival on a large scale of an institution which had nearly been abandoned in the region by the year 1100, and sometimes, as in England, with something like abolitionist tones in archbishops' statements against the practice. "We were a people who did not trade in any such commodities," proudly said Richard Jobson, an English trader, when offered slaves by an Arab trader on the river Sénégal in 1618 -- but, at much the same time, Sir Robert Rich, whose portrait by Van Dyck hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, was securing a license to take such captives to his new plantation in Virginia. If one is concerned about economic history, one can ask whether there is anything in the idea of Dr. Eric Williams that the industrial revolution in England was financed by profits from Liverpool slave traders. If church history is one's speciality, one can wonder why the condemnations of Pope Pius II and three other popes were ignored in Catholic countries, and how Jesuits managed to be as deeply implicated as anyone. It might be interesting, too, to explore the precise terms in which Pope Pius condemned the traffic in slaves, and perhaps speculate why Catholic philanthropists of the sixteenth century, such as Bartolomé de Las Casas, did not at first extend the generous sympathies which they so warmly offered to American Indians to the black Africans.
If the history of popular movements is a preoccupation, the abolitionist movement, so well organized by the Quakers in England and in the United States, must surely seem the first example of such a thing. If commerce with undeveloped countries concerns one, one can dwell on the role of the slave trade in Africa, and calculate, or at least speculate about, what lasting effect it had on the local economies, and also wonder (with a historian of Sierra Leone) whether there could have been any gains from the four hundred years of contact with Europeans on these terms: income, organization of trade, new crops, knowledge of new technology. Then one might put the question whether Britain's substantial participation in the slave trade during the eighteenth century -- the country's slave captains were carrying about thirty-five thousand captives across the Atlantic every year in the 1780s, in about ninety ships -- was compensated for by the lead which Britain's statesmen later gave in abolishing the commerce and, turning gamekeeper to the world after having been its poacher-in-chief, dedicated diplomacy, naval power, guile, and financial subsidies to bring the trade to a conclusion. In this connection, one can ask whether that British policy was the decisive element in concluding Brazilian slave trading in the 1850s or Cuban in the 1860s. While considering this ambivalent British position, perhaps one should examine why it is that John Hawkins remains a national hero, although his three voyages to the Caribbean in the 1560s, one of them with Francis Drake on board, were primarily slaving voyages. If one is interested in Jewish history, one can also explore Mr. Farrakhan's accusations that Jews dominated the traffic in African slaves. But one would be hard put to find more than one or two Jewish slave traders in the Anglo-Saxon traffic (Aaron Lopez and his father-in-law, Jacob Rodrigues Ribera, of Newport, Rhode Island, are the only ones known to me). It is true that much of the slave trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Lisbon was financed by converted Jews, New Christians, or conversos; though whether such a person is to be seen as a Jew is not something on which I should wish to pronounce: several of the traders concerned proclaimed their or their forefathers' Christian conversion as genuine to the very last torture afforded by the Inquisition, even if the Holy Office caused to be burned to death in Mexico and in Lima several prominent slave merchants, whom they accused of "judaizing." If one is as critical of Islam as Mr. Farrakhan is of Jewry, one can explore how far the medieval trans-Sahara trade in black Africans, from the coast of Guinea, was managed by Arab mullah-merchants, in the first centuries after the Muslim penetration of Africa, long before Prince Henry the Navigator's ships were seen in West Africa. One can ask, too, whether there is truth in the off-repeated claim that the Portuguese treated their slaves better in "the Middle Passage," from Angola to Brazil, than the Anglo-Saxons who carried similar cargoes to the Caribbean, or to the southern colonies of North America.
If one is interested in the history of the British monarchy (and who, it often seems, is not?), one could do worse than explore the role of James, Duke of York (after whom New York is, so inappropriately, named), as president of the Royal African Company, whose mission was partly to trade in slaves. Or one could wonder if it is true, as Wilberforce's most recent biographer, the late Robin Furneaux, suggested, that that tantalizing comment in Thomas Clarkson's History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade (that there was something, he could not say what, about Pitt's inability to make the end of the slave trade a government issue) is to be explained by King George III's hatred of the abolitionist -- as strong as that of his son, the future William IV who, as duke of Clarence led the House of Lords' opposition to Wilberforce, Pitt, Burke, Fox, Sheridan, and Canning, and all the others of "the brightest and the best" of the 1790s.
If one is looking for villains in this matter, and some are, one should certainly indeed look at royal families more severely than at Jewish ones: I am partly thinking of the rulers of Benin; the kings of Ashanti, Congo, and Dahomey; and the Vili rulers of Loango, who sold great numbers of slaves over many generations, but also of monarchs in Europe, such as one of my own heroes, Ferdinand the Catholic, king of Aragon. "Athlete of Christ," as he was named by the pope, he gave the first license to carry slaves on a large scale to the New World, since he wished them to extract gold from the mines of Santo Domingo. But, then, perhaps Ferdinand cannot be blamed specially for agreeing to the transfer of slaves from one part of his dominions to another, for his agents seem to have bought the Africans concerned in Seville, they having been carried there by merchants of Lisbon such as Bartolommeo Marchionni. Like everyone in his age, Ferdinand would have supposed that, unpleasant though it might be to be a slave, to be owned by a Christian master was infinitely better than being a subject of an infidel. One could find King John III of Portugal responsible for an even more dangerous innovation for he, in 1530, agreed that slaves from Africa might be taken direct to the Americas. And how can we exclude the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, from our selective castigation, for his ministers agreed to pay a bounty for every slave delivered to the New World -- a bounty that was still being paid in 1790, the year when Thomas Clarkson, in Paris to publicize the cause of abolition, was told by the minister, Necker, recently recalled to power, that he dared not show the diagram of how slaves were stowed on the ship Brookes of Liverpool to the Sun King's successor-but-one, Louis XVI, because it would distress him too much.
Still, historians should not look for villains. I would hate to be reproached for reading Alice in Wonderland because the author was a great-grandson of the slave trader Lutwidge of Whitehaven; or Chateaubriand because the writer's father, at Saint-Malo, was both a slave merchant and, once, a slave captain; or Gibbon because the ease which enabled him to write his great work without other occupation derived from a fortune accumulated by his grandfather, a director of the South Sea Company, whose chief preoccupation was to carry African slaves in British ships to the Spanish empire. Who would refuse to visit Brown University, that fine foundation in Providence, Rhode Island, because it owes so much to John Brown, who was happily trading in slaves in that city in the 1770s? No one, surely, would refuse to take seriously John Locke, even as a philosopher of liberty, because he was a shareholder in the Royal African Company, whose initials, RAC, would be branded on so many black breasts in Africa during the last quarter of the seventeenth century.
I have a personal reason for hoping that the sins of no collateral ancestors can be visited on the present generation: in the Archivo de Indias in Seville (that best and greatest of imperial archives, to which the American scholar Irene Wright dedicated a sonnet), where I have, in researching the conquest of Mexico, spent some of the most fruitful days of my life, I discovered that a ship bringing twenty slaves to Havana Bay in 1792 was captained by someone from Liverpool by the name of Hugo Tomás.
I have tried in this book to say what happened. In seeking the truth, I have not thought it necessary to speak of outrage on every page. But all the same the question is, How was the business tolerated for so long? In my chapters on abolition I have touched on that; but, at the end of some years spent writing this book, I now cannot think of the traders in slaves, or the captains of the slave ships, as "worse" than the slaveowners, who after all constituted the market. There were brutal owners of slaves, such as Frederick Douglass's putative father, and reasonably kind slave captains, such as John Newton. A few African rulers tried to escape from participation in the transatlantic trade. Mostly they failed. All were caught up in a vast scheme of things which seemed normal at least till 1780.
For only a few parts of this book have I done archival research (for example, Ferdinand the Catholic's decision to send black slaves to the New World in 1510; the career of Bartolommeo Marchionni; the license to carry slaves granted by the Emperor Charles V; various moments of the Spanish slave trade; and some aspects of the end of the trade to both Cuba and Brazil). But I have tried to look at original sources, where available. In this respect, I wish to pay special thanks to: the late Elizabeth Donnan, whose Documents Illustrative of the Slave Trade to America was a great assistance; and also to Philip Curtin, whose The Slave Trade: A Census was a wonderful guide and whose figures I have only modestly revised. Enriqueta Vila Vilar's remarkable studies on the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish trade, especially Hispanoamerica y el comercio de esclavos, were the best introduction to that theme. Thomas Clarkson's The abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, 2 vols. (London, 1808), remains the best introduction to the abolition movement. Charles Verlinden's L'Esclavage dans l'Europe médiévale opened my eyes to the persistence of the institution of slavery during the ages of faith.
I am most grateful to the directors of the libraries and archives where I have been able to study: in particular, those of the Archivo de Indias in Seville; the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid; the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid; the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid; the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; the New York Public Library; Widener Library, Harvard; the Murger Memorial Library of Boston University; the London Library; the library of the House of Lords (the librarian, David Jones, and his assistants); the Cambridge University library; the Public Record Office; Kew; and the British Library. This will be the last time that I shall express my gratitude to those who work as assistants in the last named's inspiring Round Reading Room, the most beautiful library in Europe, about to be destroyed by the ignorant philistines who have recently directed British cultural life. I am also grateful to a number of people who read chapters of the book at an early stage -- for example, Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones and Dr. Felipe Fernández-Armesto -- as to Oliver Knox and my wife, Vanessa, who kindly read the proofs and made many invaluable suggestions. My gratitude to Michael Korda, at Simon & Schuster, is profound; he was a constant encouragement. I am also grateful to Tanya Stobbs, of Macmillan's, for her care and assiduity. Gillon Aitken and Andrew Wylie, my agents, were admirable. An immense amount of hard work on this book was done by Gypsy da Silva, also at Simon & Schuster; I must thank her and copyeditor Terry Zaroff-Evans for their patience and meticulous attention to the details of the production.

Copyright © 1997 by Hugh Thomas

About The Author

 Hugh Thomas is the author of The Spanish Civil War, Conquest, and many other books. A former Chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies (U.K.), he was made Lord Thomas of Swinnerton in 1981. He lives in London.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 3, 1999)
  • Length: 912 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684835655

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Raves and Reviews

Robert B. Edgerton National Review Hugh Thomas has given us the most comprehensive account of the Atlantic Slave Trade ever written.

Gregory Kane Baltimore Sun The Slave Trade is more than just a history of the transatlantic peddling of human flesh. It is the story, in microcosm, of four continents: Europe, Africa, North America, and South America. Thomas weaves a tale of merchants and slaves; of diplomats and clergymen; of philosophers, statesmen, abolitionists, and rulers that readers will find surprisingly engaging.

John Thornton The New York Times Book Review Well researched...engaging...a fine narrative history.

Hardy Green Business Week Masterly....With its uncompromising show of erudition drawn from a wealth of original and secondary sources, The Slave Trade is an indispensable account of a repugnant institution.

Barbara Stanton Detroit Free Press Thomas has taken a sprawling subject and turned it into a disciplined, compelling narrative.

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