The city of New York was at the center of the illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade during the 1850s and early 1860 conveying kidnapped and enslaved Africans from the coast of West Africa primarily into Cuba where there was an expanding sugar industry.
In The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage (Yale Univ. Press, 2020), John Harris, a professor of history at Erskine College in South Carolina, estimates that between 1853 and 1867, 474 shipments carrying almost 200,000 men women and children were brought to Cuba. Most of this was brokered by transplanted Brazilians and Portuguese known as the Portuguese Company, who shifted their operation to New York because of the decline of the Angola to Brazil slave trade in the 1850s. Harris argues they were supported by the pro-slavery faction of the city’s Democratic Party and its chief financial institutions.
The book opens in 1860 in what is now the nation of Benin with the story of a nineteen-year-old man, Oluale Kossola, who was captured by Dahomeans and transported to Mobile, Alabama on the schooner Clotilda, the last documented slave ship to arrive in the continental United States. The United States had officially banned the involvement of Americans in the slave trade in 1807 and its was made a capital offense in 1820. Because of this the Clotilda unloaded its illegal human cargo upriver from Mobile and then was burned. The ship’s captain was later prosecuted as a slave trader, but the case was dropped for late of evidence
Great Britain, with diplomatic offices in Havana, Washington DC, and New York, was much more vigilant than the United States in monitoring and trying to interrupt the illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 1854, it reported that Portuguese traffickers were shifting their operation to the city of New York where they would purchase and outfit ship for slaving voyages to Africa.
U.S.-built vessels were a major component of the slave trade dating back to the 1820s. To avoid high seas searches by Great Britain, these ships often were registered with shadow American owners and sailed under the American flag. The United States was reluctant to interfere in the trade because it was a major importer of Brazilian coffee and Cuba sugar.
The Portuguese Company established itself in New York because it was the largest port in the America’s with a vast trading network, an established financial center, and by the 1840s, it was Cuba’s largest trading partner. Harris argues the physical layout of lower Manhattan facilitated the operation of the Portuguese Company. Shipping was concentrated along lower East and Hudson Rivers docks in close proximity to banks, merchant houses, and warehouses.
One of the more prominent Portuguese traders maintained offices at 165 Pearl Street, five short blocks from 55 South Street, the office of prominent banker and slave trade financier Moses Taylor, who headed a predecessor bank of Citibank. The dozen or so Portuguese slave traders all had offices within walking distance of the South Street seaport where the restaurant Sweet’s was a well known meeting-place for slave traders. The Portuguese slave traders were also prominent members of a local Masonic lodge whose secrecy provided a protected space for planning voyages. All of this is well documented by Harris.
Harris provides detailed coverage of the 1854 trial of James Smith (a German citizen originally known as Julius Smidt), who captained the slave ship Julia Moulton, using the Julia Moulton story to examine the intricacies of middle passage voyages. Smith was convicted as a slave trader but received a light sentence because he was not a U.S. citizen.
Port officials in New York apparently were easily corruptible, willing to take bribes to look the other way as slave ships left port for African destinations. One of the few ships impounded before setting sale was the Braman, which was docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In August 1856, Walt Whitman wrote an article describing the slave ship and the slaving operation for Life Illustrated. Whitman claimed “It is safe to say that two or three slavers per month have fitted out and sailed from New York for at least the last ten years.”
I am always thankful when I am introduced to a source like the article by Whitman that I was previously unaware of. While Harris referenced the article by Whitman, he could have included extended quotes. According to Whitman, many of the ships purchased in New York by the Portuguese Company were virtual derelicts that were intended to last only one voyage before being abandoned or destroyed. They avoided scrutiny from port officials by clearing harbor and then loading additional supplies once past the narrows in Staten Island or off the eastern end of Long Island. Whitman was also suspicious of the lenient treatment of slavers if they ever were prosecuted in New York courts.
Harris does an excellent job of explaining how the Cuban sugar industry operated, acquired enslaved Africans through connections on the West African coast, financed expansion through American businesses, especially New York banks, and marketed its products. While focusing on the Portuguese traders, Harris only briefly mentions New York sugar merchants and bankers like Albert Horn and Moses Taylor and there is no reference to Mayor William Havemeyer, whose family owned the sugar company that eventually morphed into Domino. While the book is sub-titled “New York and the end of the Middle Passage,” most of the book is about Cuba, Brazil, and Great Britain or about national issues in the United States and is only tangentially about New York. It would have been an even better account of New York’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade if Harris looked at American institutions and individuals in greater depth.
Harris explains how the British employed an international spy network to trace ships involved in the trans-Atlantic trade and to eventual close thee trade down. Key figures in the network were an Englishman, James Groth, who operated a second-hand furniture store in Manhattan, and Emilio Sanchez, a Cuban immigrant to the United States. In New York, Sanchez served as a middleman in the trade between the United States and the Caribbean. Harris believes Sanchez decided to spy on slave traders after he was tricked into fronting for a slaving expedition that led to his arrest, but not conviction.
Harris ends the book where he began, with Oluale Kossola, who was freed from slavery at the end of the Civil War. Along with other survivors of the Clotilda, he helped to establish the community of Africa Town, Alabama, three miles north of Mobile.
Harris’ book supports and extends my own work on New York merchant and banker involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the sale of slave-produced commodities in New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth (SUNY, 2008) and New York’s Grand Emancipation Jubilee (SUNY, 2018). It is an important contribution to both local history and to our understanding of United States complicity with slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
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