Communities of Interest, Networks of Slavery: Atlantic Commercial Shipping and the Growth of the United States Coastwise Slave Trade, 1807–60

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM
Huron Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Calvin Schermerhorn, Arizona State University
Commercial slaving along the coast of the early nineteenth-century United States involved a network of financiers, mariners, slavers, and Atlantic merchants trading in a broad range of consumer goods and raw commodities.  This paper examines those connections and argues that through the profits they shared in moving enslaved Americans they forged a community of interest all but invisible in the contemporary discourse on slavery.

The coastwise American slave trade emerged nearly seamlessly with the growth of United States commercial shipping, but it was not a direct outgrowth of the Atlantic slave trade. That seeming paradox was the result of the geographic particulars of a growing slave market within an expanding continental empire and the peculiarities of the national government’s prohibition on the importation of foreign slaves.

In contrast to Atlantic slavers, vessels carrying slaves in the coastwise trade of the 1810s and 1820s were primarily engaged in transporting goods, many of them slave-produced. Atlantic slavers were slavers first and merchant vessels second; the United States coastwise slave trade saw that order reversed. Following the War of 1812, merchants and ship owners trading in goods that ostensibly had little to do with slave labor scooped up profits in the slave trade when they offered services to slave traders.

By the early 1830s, the leading slave traders were transforming the trade, relying less on merchant houses and commercial shippers who could haul their slaves and more on vessels specifically constructed for the coastwise trade, some bearing the names of their owners, and their own reserves of cash. The coastwise slave trade began to resemble its eighteenth-century forebear with a highly articulated network of slaving interests and a rationalized market for enslaved people.  Following the Panic of 1837, the coastwise commercial slave trade returned to an increasingly efficient and technologically advanced segmented market.

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