From The Archive: The Unanswered Question
James Walvin praises Arnold Whitridge's study of the Atlantic slave trade, first published in History Today in 1958
Arnold Whitridge’s handsomely crafted essay, though more than 50 years old, stands up remarkably well when set against the current scholarship of the Atlantic slave trade. Indeed in many respects it is a prophetic article raising a number of critical issues which have formed the core of recent studies of the subject.
‘The American Slave Trade’ opens a complexity of historical problems, each of which remains a continuing challenge for historians of the Atlantic world in the 18th and 19th centuries (though the ‘Atlantic’ was not widely-accepted as a major intellectual concept among Whitridge’s colleagues). It covers roughly the period after the British and Americans had abolished the slave trade in 1807-1808, through to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Indeed the most perplexing aspect of the Atlantic slave trade is the way it was brought to a close: piecemeal, in a fragmented fashion and with many vested interests still doggedly resistant and keen to continue what for them was a lucrative trade.
Whitridge’s concern is with North America, though American slavers did not dominate the Atlantic trade in the way the British had in the 18th century. Even so, the American role in the 19th century trade was much more important than many recognised and the politics and diplomacy of abolition proved a fractious issue in Anglo-American relations.
Whitridge did not know, of course, the precise size and sheer scale of the slave trade. But today, thanks to the Slave Trade Database (slavevoyages.org), we know that more than two million Africans crossed the Atlantic after 1808, largely to Cuba and Brazil. The old links between the slave trade and New England (lubricated by rum and molasses) laid the foundations for an illicit trade which continued well into the 19th century. The use of Spanish, Brazilian and Portuguese flags by American traders granted them the subterfuge of appearing not to be American at all. But British diplomatic and naval efforts to intercept slave ships in the Atlantic faced the continuing reluctance of the US to grant the Royal Navy the right to stop and search vessels (however specious their flags might prove to be).Here was a cause of political and diplomatic friction which lasted from the presidency of John Quincy Adams to that of Abraham Lincoln.
Whitridge is, moreover, clearly interested in the broader,more fundamental issues which underpin the struggle about the slave trade, notably the economics of slave labour, the role of humanitarianism and the impact of black resistance. The last point is perhaps more marginal than a modern historian might like and his comment that the Haitian revolution worried proslavery supporters now seems odd. That revolution sent terror rippling across the enslaved Americas – and set back the cause of political abolition, while confirming slavers in their resolve to have no truck with ideas of black freedom. Equally his portrayal of the French as interlopers keen to snap up the morsels offered by American slave traders overlooks the powerful French slave trade industry.
Still, there is much here to satisfy the modern historian: his treatment of the logistics of slave trading (the packing and treatment of Africans on board ship); the levels of profit generated by the trade (too high here perhaps); the frictions between metropolis and colony (London and North America); and the role of Quakers in abolition. Finally, and inevitably, there is the transformative impact of cotton, grown in America’s Deep South but destined for British factories.All speak to a genuinely Atlantic vision of slave trading.
Whitridge leaves us with a conundrum which continues to perplex: 19th-century abolitionists attempted to find an international legal solution to an international problem when any such solution would inevitably impinge on sovereign national rights and sensitivities. Equally, he asks the still unanswered question: how did the British, the major slave-trading power of the 18th century, become the most aggressive abolitionist force of the 19th century? And how precisely did British pretensions to global dominance conflict with embryonic US power and selfinterest in the Atlantic? The story of the American slave trade, persuasively sketched by Arnold Whitridge, remains as lively, as important and perplexing today as it did in 1958.
James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of York and the author of The Slave Trade, part of Thames & Hudson's new series of publications, History Files.
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