In the middle of 1856, the soon-to-be-celebrated poet Walt Whitman visited an impounded slave ship in Brooklyn. The taking of the ship was an unusual occurrence, as it was one of the few illegal slavers seized by an otherwise lethargic Washington, D.C., and Whitman wanted to give his readers a tour of the vessel, which had been designed to add even more enslaved laborers to the millions already ensnared in this system of iniquity, including of its hold, where those victimized were to be “laid together spoon-fashion.”
Whitman’s keen journalistic interest was a response to the feverish political climate in his homeland, featuring ever more overwrought cries demanding the relegalization and reopening of the Atlantic slave trade. Officially, this branch of flesh peddling had been rendered illegal by Britain in 1807 and by the United States in 1808, but it had continued nonetheless, with boatloads of kidnapped Africans being transported to the Americas, especially Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. It was likely that some of Whitman’s readers in New York City—the citadel of this illicit commerce—would have taken a decided interest in his grim reportage.
John Harris’s The Last Slave Ships offers a more comprehensive portrait of the illegal slave trade in the Atlantic, starting with the last slave ships to dock in New York Harbor. Mining the historical archives in Spain, Portugal, Cuba, and the United States, Harris demonstrates how, even as slavery was being abolished in the Northern states, it continued to flourish, since the slave system was not confined simply to below the Mason-Dixon Line. The financing of the slave trade’s illegitimate commerce was sited heavily in Manhattan: The ships passed through the waterways of the city’s harbor, and the denizens of Gotham also enjoyed the profits of this odious system, even as many of them publicly denounced it. After all, slave ships required crews, not to mention the need to grease the palms of corrupt officials at the harbor and elsewhere with attractive bribes. In sum, the wealth produced by slave labor built not only a region but a nation. Like Charleston, S.C., and Galveston, Tex., New York City benefited from the trade in human souls—which, in a sense, continues to undergird Wall Street.
Much of The Last Slave Ships concerns itself with the years immediately preceding the crushing of this ugly business as a consequence of the Civil War, and the book chronicles how the construction of swift ships was financed in New York, how the audacious smuggling persisted as a result, and how the breathtaking inhumanity that this smuggling created continues to bedevil this country even though it ended many decades ago.
Indeed, it does not require acrobatically inclined inferences to conclude that the vessel Whitman visited in the Brooklyn Navy Yard symbolized far more than the attempted impounding of slavery itself, which within five years was to ignite a bloody war. It also represented a moral economy that eroded the most basic human empathy. One might add that the story of how a slave ship wound up in New York waters also sheds light on how a would-be Manhattan Mussolini received 74 million votes in the presidential election of 2020.
After the triumph of the Haitian Revolution in 1804, which saw the successful overthrow of slavery by the enslaved themselves, the British Empire sensed the imminent danger both to its investments and to the lives of British settlers in the Caribbean, especially those living in the cash cows of Jamaica and Barbados, so it chose to curtail the country’s role in the African slave trade. In 1807, the House of Commons passed the Slave Trade Act, which made illegal the participation of British ships and citizens and ultimately helped to extirpate this pestilence more generally. By 1808, London’s spawn on the west bank of the Atlantic had moved similarly—at least on the surface—with the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which outlawed US involvement in the non-domestic slave trade. Had these laws been rigorously enforced, they would have spelled the beginning of the end of the Atlantic slave trade.
But the monarchy and the newly independent republic once ruled by it responded to these acts differently. The Royal Navy became the cop on the beat chasing down scofflaws. Meanwhile, many of the scofflaws it was chasing down were in US-built-and-flagged vessels that were maintained, at times, by crews from the purported revolutionary republic. Thus, in the first half of the 19th century, two parallel developments played a role in the evolving drama: British ships hunted down human traffickers, while US ships did their best to evade the long arm of the law. Even though the Atlantic slave trade had been officially outlawed in the United States, it persisted despite this fact, which meant that millions of captives still departed Africa for a hellish enslavement in the Americas. Indeed, Harris writes, “almost four million captives left African shores between the beginning of the century and the closure of the traffic in the 1860s, around a third of all captives who ever crossed the Atlantic.”
A ray of sunshine in this cumulus of gloom came in the mid-19th century. At least by some accounts, the bulk of this horrendous merchandising of human souls reached a zenith in the 1840s in Brazil, the largest market of all, and then began to slow. But even following a military defeat of the enslavers in the United States in 1865, the slave trade limped along in Brazil and Cuba until the 1880s. As Harris shows, much of this bondage survived as a result of financial and diplomatic support from the nation that had proclaimed itself a “shining city upon a hill” and, in particular, from its shiniest city: New York.
The obscenely profitable slave ships were financed in New York City, and as Whitman discovered, the ships departed from there, too. Moreover, when New Yorkers sipped their morning coffee or sweetened their morning tea, it was often coffee that had been produced by slave labor in Brazil and sugar produced by slave labor in Cuba. A number of New York’s elected representatives may have been officially opposed to the slave trade, but they nonetheless represented a city and a state that profited from it immensely.
As Harris writes, during the Atlantic slave trade’s later stages, slave ships embarked from many points along the Eastern Seaboard, but New York City accounted for two out of every three departures. Investors in the illegal trade were willing to assume the risk, since, during this era, the average return on investment was an eye-watering 91 percent. Just as later generations of Wall Street wizards devised collateralized debt obligations and other devious instruments designed to maximize profit, their predecessors acted in a manner that anticipated today’s financial engineering. Revealingly, Lehman Brothers, the Wall Street firm whose 2008 bankruptcy was said to have triggered a financial crisis that required massive bailouts and almost brought capitalism to its knees, began by capitalizing lucratively on the production of cotton picked by enslaved labor in Alabama.
Insurance companies also wallowed in the filthy lucre of this odious business. Then as now, the financing and insuring taking place in New York proved to be a transnational business. This unclean interchange may have originated in Gotham, but it involved and benefited investors in Western Europe (especially Portugal and Spain) and in Cuba and Brazil. Also implicated were the ship-building industries of Maine and Maryland, often kept afloat by Manhattan investors, along with many other New Yorkers who lived in a city whose economy was still buoyed by slavery.
While certain New Yorkers were diabolically investing in the illegal slave trade, across the ocean in London, the British government began to invest in spies in order to keep track of it, devising publications to chart the movements of slave ships and subsidizing the Royal Navy, which was authorized to halt their devilry.
The overly optimistic observer might have imagined that the United States would move in a similar direction. Yet while London proved to be an often fierce watchdog, Washington proved to be a toothless terrier, protestations about an antislavery Constitution notwithstanding. From 1851 to 1860, 159 individuals were prosecuted under US slave trade laws in the republic; of these, 99 were acquitted, encountered a deadlocked jury, or were otherwise ordered released. Twelve were tried and convicted but endured only a slap on the wrist, and nine managed to escape custody somehow. The outcomes for the remainder are unclear, though it is fair to assume that they too eluded punishment. Prosecutors failed to file charges against 21 others, because of the distinct possibility they would not be convicted.
The Africa Squadron of the United States, ostensibly intended to quash this illicit trading at the source, was hardly robust. Based in Cape Verde, it was stationed far from the Congo-Angola region used by enslavers—to say nothing of similarly hounded Mozambique, on the opposite side of the sprawling continent. The Africa Squadron’s placement was akin to basing the Los Angeles Police Department’s anti-bank-robbery squad in Racine, Wis. The US Navy was incompetent, typically dispatching fewer than five vessels to Africa, while London posted about 30. Predictably, from 1843 to 1858, the US Navy captured 20 slavers, while during the same period the Royal Navy, based more sensibly in Luanda, Angola, captured over 500. Perhaps worse, the United States sought vigorously to bar the Royal Navy from searching suspected slave ships bearing the Stars and Stripes.
The dictates of monograph writing—hard-pressed publishers seeking to cut costs by shrinking page counts, assisted by hawkish peer reviewers eager to insist that authors remain in their narrow lane—likely helps to explain why Harris’s otherwise informative book does not engage with the strategic reasons for this geopolitical fiasco. But the United States’ slothfulness in responding to such rampant illegality did serve to deliver an enormous gift to its monarchical foe in the form of those African Americans willing to take their side.
The eminent Frederick Douglass was among the legions who expressed a love for Britain at a time when the two powers were at each other’s throats. But Douglass was hardly the first African American to do so: Many of the republic’s enslaved people—the greater number of them by far—backed the redcoats during the 1776 war for this very reason, opposing the ultimately victorious rebels. During the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain, enslaved people also defected en masse to the Union Jack, including during the sacking of Washington in August 1814, when enslaved Africans fled on retreating British vessels to Trinidad and Tobago, where they received land grants and where their descendants continue to live.
Perhaps the Yankees realized that this pro-London stance was unlikely to last forever and comforted themselves nervously with the thought. Yet there was doubtless fear when Douglass announced that “in the event of a British army landing in the States and offering liberty to the slaves, [the enslaved] would rally round the British at the first tap of the drum.”
In sum, the allegiances of the enslaved were situational. After all, those with longer memories may have recalled the Stono Revolt in colonial South Carolina in 1739, when the enslaved were assisted by Spanish Florida in the bloodiest slave revolt of the colonial era in British North America. Others may have recalled the time in the late 16th century when it was Spain’s turn to worry, as the maritime John Brown—Jacques Sorie, a French corsair—terrorized Madrid’s settlements from South America to the Florida Straits by offering freedom to the enslaved. Or that just before the US takeover in Florida 200 years ago, the British sponsored the well-armed Negro Fort, staffed by Africans and their Indigenous comrades, which was the beginning of several decades-long wars, some of the bloodiest fought by the US military. Unsurprisingly, as the Stars and Stripes were unfurled on the peninsula, a steady stream of ships overflowing with Africans headed south to Cuba, unwilling to wager that the allegedly antislavery US Constitution would—eventually—reveal itself.
Washington, D.C., had good reason to believe that London was determined to harass its former colony and use the enslaved as a bludgeon with which to accomplish this ambition, which is often what London did. In 1858, it placed a “man of color,” Sir James Douglas, as its chief executive in British Columbia, inducing many Africans—enslaved and otherwise—to flee there and to other sites along the elongated border with Canada just as Washington sought to claim the vast Oregon Territory.
Hastening the scurrying of Texas into the Union was the fear that Britain was determined to create yet another Haiti in the Lone Star State, thus jeopardizing neighboring Louisiana and Arkansas and the slave-holding South as a whole. Circling the wagons around fellow republicans was thought by the US government to be a way to guarantee this fate would not befall what became a bulwark of secession. It also helped convince the otherwise audacious Texans that the better part of wisdom was in joining the like-minded Yankees and liquidating their own imperiled independence.
The British were hardly a pristine ally of the oppressed. At the same time that the officialdom in Whitehall was denouncing republican pretensions in the United States with full-throated fieriness, redcoats were repressing South Asians as a result of the Sepoy Revolt in 1857. But wrestling with this contradiction was hardly unique to the enslaved and their allies. Strategic flexibility is almost always an unavoidable reality when confronting humanity’s forms of barbarism.
While Harris occasionally considers this strategic flexibility and the countless heroic African Americans who were largely responsible for sabotaging the republic’s—and New York City’s—dirty role in sustaining this bondage, he could have written more about African American resistance, especially in Manhattan itself. Consider, for example, the heroic David Ruggles, who was a one-man battering ram against actual and potential enslavers. Ruggles, a mariner—a labor force that often included the most militant of proletarians—applied the organizing acumen he learned at sea to the abolitionist movement, which in turn embodied the truism that the working class as a whole could not be liberated if African Americans in the republic were branded with the indelible badge of inferiority. Unsurprisingly, the mass struggle for an eight-hour workday, and the liftoff of unions more generally, only occurred after the abolition of slavery.
Nevertheless, Harris does illuminate some of the dilemmas that today face those seeking to resist the poisonous legacy of slavery. Though dimly understood, even by those who consider themselves class warriors, class struggle—often emblazoned in a blindingly fierce anti-racism—has characterized the travails of enslaved Africans in North America from the start of their resistance and was given even fiercer determination as a result of the illegal slave trade. Perhaps the harshest, most cruelly antagonistic and draconian of class relationships is that between the enslaved and the slaveholder. As such, the class struggle of the enslaved has shaped the contours of this land, defining not only resistance to slavery but, ultimately, the political configuration that continues to this very day.
When, in the 1520s, the Spanish dispatched a complement of the enslaved from their perch in Santo Domingo to the region stretching north from Florida, the enslaved had other plans: Recognizing their common class interests with local Native groups, they revolted with their Indigenous comrades and chased the would-be settlers back to the Caribbean. When, by 1607, the English had established a foothold in the land they called Virginia, the Spanish due south wanted to intervene but were too busy fighting the Africans and their Indigenous allies once again in Florida. In short, class struggle by the enslaved helps to explain why today we are communicating in English.
Alternatively, settler colonialism—a phrase curiously missing from the vocabularies of many of those who consider themselves radical in the United States—was also a product of class collaboration from its inception. At the behest of the English crown, small businessmen, tailors, goldsmiths, teachers, and others arrived in the land to be known as North Carolina in the 1580s. Sponsoring those who arrived in 1607 were grandees, including leaders of the East India Company—London’s vector of exploitation in South Asia—and various pillagers of West Africa.
This class collaboration between the grandees and the hoi polloi reached its ultimate expression during the Civil War, when nonslaveholders were the main fighting force for the so-called Confederate States of America, which sought to destroy the republic in order to maintain slavery. The shedding of their blood for enslavers was not altogether an expression of misplaced class interest, since many of the common soldiers sought to become enslavers or thought that maintaining their castelike privilege was something worth defending. Yet a victory would have meant a further downward pressure on wages and working conditions driven by slavery. This dastardly display illustrates that class collaboration can often take the form of the highest stage of white supremacy, and vice versa. Correspondingly, no more dramatic example of class struggle can be found than that of tens of thousands of formerly enslaved people fighting with arms in hand in order to terminate slavery and remain “forever free.”
Similarly, in New York City, as Harris suggests, during the heyday of the illicit slave trade, the perpetrators relied heavily not only on older mercantile interests but also on working-class Euro-Americans, as evidenced by the racist “draft riots” of 1863, when a deadly revolt unfolded, ostensibly against conscription, that amounted to a bloody anti-Black pogrom.
Today, this supposed odd coupling of economic royalists and commoners manifests itself in the remaining strongholds of conservatism in the city’s five boroughs—from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the mostly red Staten Island. Unsurprisingly, campaign donations and foot soldiers for Trumpism have emerged from these two areas. Equally unsurprisingly, the vanguard of the US electorate—descendants of the enslaved—emerges from those marinated in class struggle, who vote against the right wing at rates as high as 9 to 1. Meanwhile, the working class is split, as some persist in believing that the clock of history can be put into reverse and that a system that once expropriated the Indigenous of their land, frequently on behalf of less affluent Euro-Americans, can be restored.
Not long after the guns of war roared at Fort Sumter, Nathaniel Gordon of Maine was the first (and only) slave trader executed pursuant to US law, and with the Civil War on, the Union finally moved to match London with a treaty facilitating a further crackdown on this ugly business, especially in New York, with Secretary of State (and former New York governor) William Seward sagely informing Abraham Lincoln that this was “the most important act of your life and of mine.”
Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the successful prosecution of the Civil War necessarily vitiates this extraordinary claim, and Harris’s smoothly written, well-researched book provides further credence for the proposition, illuminating an often forgotten yet crucially important chapter in US history in which the republic continued to support and promote the Atlantic slave trade after it had been declared illegal. But another important theme in this history also emerges from his book: that a divided working class, fractured along the lines of those involved in class struggle and those in class collaboration, can hardly prosper, just as a nation can hardly exist half slave and half free, as Lincoln once argued. Harris’s timely tome helps clarify why this is so and helps remind us why, in today’s republic, uplifting organized labor—especially those in the ranks thought to bear the badges and indicia of inferiority—remains a pressing priority.