One significant and possibly surprising fact about the Atlantic slave trade, the massive human-trafficking business that shipped more than 10 million Africans to the Americas between 1501 and 1867, is the small role of the United States in it. About 400,000 Africans were loaded onto slavers and shipped to Virginia, South Carolina and other North American destinations, but this was less than 5 percent of the total. About 3.5 million Africans were shipped to the Caribbean (Barbados, Cuba, Haiti and elsewhere) and almost 4.9 million to Brazil. Nor was the United States a leading player in the traffic itself. While about 300,000 Africans crossed the Atlantic in US-owned ships, 1.1 million crossed in Spanish vessels, 1.4 million in French ships and 3.3 million in British ones. Precisely because of Brazil’s leading role as a slave trade destination, the Portuguese topped this list as well: Portuguese-owned slavers carried 5.8 million Africans across the Atlantic.
These larger and smaller numbers, of course, have no moral significance. Even the lower figures are shockingly high. But even if they weren’t, the relevant crime was any participation in the slave trade—or slavery itself—rather than some degree of participation. Still, as historian David Eltis explains in Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a monumental trove of information publicly available online, the most striking point about the morality of the slave trade was that, for most Europeans, "the shipping of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic was morally indistinguishable from shipping textiles, wheat, or even sugar." Americans of European descent did not think any differently. From Rhode Island to Rio de Janeiro, slaving was usually treated as a legitimate business that built respectable commercial fortunes.
There have been some striking modern reckonings with this history. Brown University, founded and endowed by prominent Rhode Island slave-trading families, established a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2003 that was charged, according to its 2006 report, with examining not only "the University’s historical entanglement with slavery and the slave trade" but also "the complex historical, political, legal, and moral questions posed by any present-day confrontation with past injustice," a reference to the thorny problem of whether and how to pay reparations to African-Americans for the injuries and injustices of slavery. The report presented a great deal of research, ranging well beyond Rhode Island slave trading to the larger history of American racial oppression and worldwide efforts to cope with past injustices (reparations, prosecutions, truth commissions). While its conclusion was anticlimactic and even somewhat self-serving—"If this nation is ever to have a serious dialogue about slavery, Jim Crow, and the bitter legacies they have bequeathed to us, then universities must provide the leadership"—its intellectual earnestness and moral sincerity are beyond reproach.
In 2007 Britain commemorated the bicentennial of its abolition of the slave trade on a lavish scale, spending $20 million on programs across the country, ranging from the solemn and scholarly (museum exhibits, public lectures, theatrical works) to the more or less fanciful (a school project intended "to celebrate the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and encourage community cohesion" by developing a nature trail and erecting a freedom statue). Kicking off the proceedings, Prime Minister Tony Blair embraced the anniversary as an opportunity "not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was" and "rejoice at the different and better times we live in today" but to propose increased aid to Africa, celebration of African and Caribbean contributions to British culture, eradication of continuing racism in Britain and a campaign to end modern slavery and human trafficking. The US version of this commemoration a year later (the United States banned slave importation in 1808, the first opportunity under the slave trade clause of the Constitution) was more muted; although Congress passed a law "to ensure a suitable national observance," it stripped the funding before passage. President George W. Bush did not participate.