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A Secondary Source
Anonymous Review of Du Bois's
The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade

Anonymous Review of Du Bois's The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade. The Nation, Vol. 63, No. 1644 (31 December 1896): pp.498-500.

Online Source:
This review can be accessed at Google Books: start page. Also the entire Volume 63 of The Nation can be read online or downloaded at Google Books.

Robert Williams' Notes:
1. W. E. Burghardt Du Bois's The Suppression of the African Slave-trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (NY: Longmans, Green and Co., 1896) is available at the Internet Archive or at Google Books.

2. I have annotated portions of this review by providing page references to the quotations from SAST.

3. The words "Negro" and "Negroes" were not capitalized in the original text.
— Robert W. Williams, Ph.D.  [Bio]  


The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America. By W. E. Burghardt Du Bois. [Harvard Historical Studies, Vol. I] Longmans, Green & Co. 1896. Pp. xi, 335.
Mr. Du Bois has at last given us a critical and, we think, definitive account of the efforts put forth for more than two centuries to suppress the African slave-trade to the United States. His work is founded upon an exhaustive and discriminating examination of the primary sources, as found in colonial, State, and national statutes, Congressional documents, publications of foreign governments (particularly Great Britain) and of various societies, and personal narratives. The title of the volume accurately defines its scope: it is a history of the suppression of the slave-trade, not a history of slavery. Into the general subject of slavery, either at home or abroad, Mr. Du Bois does not go, save in so far as is necessary to make clear the movements in connection with the slave-trade itself. To the narrative portion of the volume, about two-thirds of the whole, have been added valuable appendices containing chronological lists of colonial and State laws, from 1641 to 1871, aiming to restrict the slave-trade, a list of more than a hundred typical cases of vessels engaged in the American trade, and an excellent bibliography. The wealth of material indicated is extraordinary, even in this day of learned monographs; but out of it Mr. Du Bois has produced a book by which every judgment on the subject of which it treats must be tested, at least for many years to come.
The slave-trade to America seems to have begun with the Dutch, who in 1619 landed twenty "Negars" in Virginia; but the English were not far behind, although it was not until 1672 that the first successful English company was chartered. By 1700 the colonists were declaring in favor of the trade, and the English policy had become one of encouragement. Between 1698 and 1707 probably 25,000 slaves were brought to America annually, an increasing proportion going to the continent. The rapid growth of the slave population, however, had early bred in the colonies a "condition of vague dread and unrest," never afterwards wholly absent; and by 1698 South Carolina had sought to lessen the danger by passing an act to encourage the immigration of white servants. The attempt of Virginia in 1710 to restrict the trade by imposing a duty was defeated by the veto of Gov. Spotswood; in 1772, however, the Burgesses petitioned the King in favor of checking the trade, and in 1778 it was finally prohibited by law. The trade in Maryland, never large, had nearly ceased of its own accord by 1769, although importation by sea was not prohibited until 1783. In Georgia the efforts of Oglethorpe and the London proprietors to prevent the slave-trade received little support from the colonists, and the trade probably continued without restriction until the Revolution.

• "vague dread" from SAST, Ch.1: Sec.2 (p.6)
In the middle colonies, also, it was reserved for the English to develop a trade which the Dutch had begun. In spite of revenue duties, the slave traffic in New York grew rapidly in importance, and was all the more profitable because the traders took care not to overstock the market. The first American protest against the slave-trade came from Pennsylvania in 1688, but it was not until 1780 that an act for the gradual abolition of slavery was passed, while "participation in the slave-trade outside the colony was not prohibited until 1788." Both importation and exportation were prohibited in Delaware by the Constitution of 1776 and by law in 1787. In 1786 New Jersey put importation under the ban. The fear of political insurrection, which furnished the chief motive for restrictive measures in the South, was little thought of in the middle colonies; instead, those colonies, as Mr. Du Bois shows very clearly, limited the slave-trade "mainly because it did not pay." Only in Pennsylvania did the opposition take on a moral aspect. In New England, on the other hand, moral repugnance to the trade grew less and less, overborne by the great profitableness of slave voyages. Rhode Island eventually became "the greatest slave-trader in America," and Massachusetts, by the act of 1705 allowing a rebate of the duty on negroes [sic] upon reexportation, turned her ports into exchange markets for slaves. "Not until the years 1787-1788 was slave-trading in itself an indictable offence in any New England State."
• "participation in the slave-trade" from SAST, Ch.3: Sec.13 (p.24)
• "mainly because" from SAST, Ch.3: Sec.15 (p.25)
• "greatest slave-trader" from SAST, Ch.4: Sec.20 (p.34)
• "Not until the years" from SAST, Ch.4: Sec.18 (p.29)
At the time of the Revolution, therefore, the early efforts to restrict the slave-trade by the imposition of duties had given way to positive attempts to regulate it, or to prohibit it entirely. It was the general opinion that both slavery and the slave-trade would shortly disappear; "there were, in 1787, few things to indicate that a cargo of five hundred African slaves would openly be landed in Georgia in 1860." Prohibition of the trade by the "Association," under the Continental Congress, was undertaken as a war measure, as part of an attempt to enforce general commercial non-intercourse with Great Britain, but its permanent effect was slight, while the stoppage of importation, and the consequent rise in the price of slaves, swelled the trade after the Revolution to nearly the same proportions as before. Not only did economic prostration at the close of the war appear to demand a reopening of the trade, but the divergence of opinion in different sections of the country as to the length of time within which slavery would probably disappear led to the adoption of a policy of non-interference. Under the Confederation, accordingly, action against the slave-trade was State, not national, while in the Convention of 1787 the subject was disposed of by one of the most famous of the constitutional compromises. Yet the discussion in the Convention had served to show ominous differences of moral attitude towards slavery. "The South," to quote Mr. Du Bois, "apologized for slavery, the Middle States denounced it, and the East could only tolerate it from afar; and yet all three sections united in considering it a temporary institution, the cornerstone of which was the slave-trade." When government under the Constitution began, the slave-trade was legal in Georgia and the Carolinas, and not actively antagonized in any other State.
• "there were, in 1787" from SAST, Ch.5: Sec.23 (p.40)
• "The South" from SAST, Ch.6: Sec.36 (p.61)
The first twenty years of the constitutional period saw several attempts to suppress the slave-trade. The excesses of the Haytian revolution, begun in 1791, filled the South once more with the old dread of negro [sic] uprisings. In 1792 South Carolina prohibited the importation of slaves for two years, and renewed the act from time to time until 1803. Georgia passed a prohibitory law in 1798, which was never repealed. Similar measures followed in other States. The early debates in Congress at length bore fruit in the first national act against the slave-trade, that of 1794. This act was strengthened in 1800; and a third act, prompted, like the preceding, by continued apprehension of danger from Hayti, was passed in 1803. In the meantime the State laws had proved ineffectual in checking the growth of the trade. "It was notorious that New England traders carried on a large traffic." South Carolina, whose Representative in Congress had publicly declared that the State was unable to enforce its laws, gave proof of his accuracy, in 1803, by repealing its law against importation. In 1804 Congress partially opened the Louisiana Territory to the slave-trade, and removed all restrictions, except as to the foreign trade, in 1805; but in practice, as Mr. Du Bois shows, the whole trade was foreign, "for the slavers merely entered the negroes [sic] at Charleston, and immediately reshipped them to New Orleans." In 1806, after long debate, "the last attempt to tax imported slaves ended, like the others, in failure." The fear of the planter and the philanthropy of the Quaker had alike gone down before the mercenary demands of the trader.
• "notorious" from SAST, Ch.7: Sec.50 (p.85)
• "slavers merely" from SAST, Ch.7: Sec.52 (p.90) Footnote 1
• "last attempt" from SAST, Ch.7: Sec.53 (p.92)
The act of 1807, prohibiting the African slave-trade under heavy penalties, and restricting the coastwise trade, could not be regarded as a great victory by the anti-slavery men, nor, on the other hand, did it satisfy the South. Mr. Du Bois has collected indisputable evidence that the act speedily became, in practice, a dead letter. In the face of unanswerable proof that its provisions were systematically violated, the federal Government remained apathetic, neglected to issue necessary instructions to collectors and prosecuting attorneys, and failed to prosecute offenders actually captured. Certain obvious weaknesses in the act itself were sought to be remedied by supplementary acts in 1818, 1819, and 1820. The first, by encouraging informers, sought "to remedy defects by pitting cupidity against cupidity." The last made direct participation in the trade piracy, punishable by death, but not until Lincoln's Administration was the penalty inflicted. Smuggling declined, but the slave-trade thrived. Spasmodic attempts to enforce the law resulted, between 1818 and 1821, in the capture of eleven American slavers; in consequence, slavers took clearance papers from foreign ports, hoisted foreign flags, and carried on their operations securely in defiance of the American cruisers. At home, attempted enforcement of the law grew less and less, and "red-handed slavers, caught in the act and convicted," did not need to despair of Presidential pardon. Mr. Du Bois shows that such pardons were granted by every President from Jefferson to Jackson, inclusive. In short, the efforts of the United States to suppress the slave-trade had failed, and failed primarily because of the criminal negligence of Government officials. There remained the final resource of "energetic and sincere international cooperation."
• "remedy defects" from SAST, Ch.8: Sec.64 (p.119)
• "red-handed slavers" from SAST, Ch.8: Sec.65 (p.128)
• "energetic" from SAST, Ch.8: Sec.65 (p.130)
The story of the conduct of the United States in the long negotiations over the international treatment of the slave-trade forms one of the most discreditable chapters in the history of American diplomacy. That England's contention for an international right of search should have been resisted by other European Powers was but natural, considering the naval supremacy of Great Britain; nor had Americans forgotten their own recent grievances. The inability of the United States to cope with the evil single-handed had, however, been abundantly demonstrated, and in 1822 a committee of the House of Representatives reported "that the only method of suppressing the trade was by granting a right of search." But the United States, while urging the nations of Europe to declare the slave-trade piracy, refused to allow the right of search to be extended to American waters or to have any application "to citizens chartering the vessels of a third nation." England refused assent to such an emasculated treaty, and negotiations were broken off. As one European nation after another granted the right of search, the share of the United States in the slave-trade increased, while the importation of slaves into North and South America reached, by 1837, the enormous figure of 200,000 annually. Yet, in spite of this, to quote Mr. Du Bois, "the only answer which this country for years returned to the long-continued exposures of American slave-traders and of the fraudulent use of the American flag, was a recital of cases where Great Britain had gone beyond her legal powers in her attempt to suppress the slave-trade. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Secretary of State Forsyth declared, in 1840, that the duty of the United States in the matter of the slave-trade 'has been faithfully performed.'" In 1841 Lewis Cass, United States Minister to France, entered a "theatrical protest" against the proposed establishment of an international right of search. Even the provision of the Treaty of Washington, in 1842, for joint cruising by English and American squadrons, was "never properly carried out by the United States for any length of time." By 1860 the American slave-trade had come to be carried on "principally by United States capital, in United States ships, officered by United States citizens, and under the United States flag"; yet Cass, now Secretary of State, refused even to allow this country to be represented at the London conference proposed by Lord John Russell, and later declined a proposal for joint cruising off the coast of Cuba. Not until 1862 was a treaty finally made with Great Britain granting the long-resisted right of search. The coastwise trade was prohibited in 1864, and by the end of the war the slave trade was at last suppressed.
• "only method" from SAST, Ch.9: Sec.70 (p.138)
• "citizens chartering" from SAST, Ch.9: Sec.70 (p.140)
• "only answer" from SAST, Ch.9: Sec.72 (p.144)
• "faithfully performed" from SAST, Ch.9: Sec.72 (p.145)
• "theatrical protest" from SAST, Ch.9: Sec.72 (p.146)
• "never properly" from SAST, Ch.9: Sec.73 (p.147)
• "principally" from SAST, Ch.10: Sec.79 (p.162)
The economic conditions which tended to strengthen the hold of both slavery and the slave-trade in the South are set forth by Mr. Du Bois with great clearness in the chapter entitled "The Rise of the Cotton Kingdom." The increase of the cotton crop from half a million bales in 1822 to five million in 1860, together with enlarged consumption of cotton goods, established firmly the "large plantation slave system," and increased the demand for slaves; and when this demand could no longer be met by the border States, the foreign slave trade was looked to for further supplies. Census returns showed a rise in the average price of slaves from $325 in 1840 to $500 in 1860. Very interesting, and, historically, of especial importance, is Mr. Du Bois's discussion of the forces underlying the Government policy of inaction, and of the lengths to which violation aud evasion actually went. The presence of a strong Southern element in every Cabinet from 1820 to 1850 strengthened the hold of the South upon the Administration, and, in so doing, effectually prevented active efforts to put a stop to the slave-trade. Where the national Government was not actually negligent, official judgment was prone to construe the law in favor of the slave-traders, and the courts could not be depended upon to punish clear cases of violation. The attempts to check the traffic by stationing cruisers on the African coast were ridiculously impotent.
• "large plantation" from SAST, Ch.10: Sec.74 (p.153)
"When it is considered," writes the United States consul at Rio Janeiro, in 1847, "that the Brazil station extends from north of the equator to Cape Horn on this continent, and includes a great part of Africa south of the equator, on both sides of the Cape of Good Hope, it must be admitted that one frigate and one brig is a very insufficient force to protect American commerce, and repress the participation in the slave-trade by our own vessels."
• "When it is considered" from SAST, Ch. 10: Sec.77 (p.159)
As the struggle for the extension of slavery grew more bitter, and the growing demand of the South for the removal of all restrictions on the trade in slaves began to be formulated with more and more definiteness, there came about, as Mr. Du Bois's researches show, "such a remarkable increase of illicit traffic and actual importations in the decade 1850-1860 that the movement may almost be termed a reopening of the slave-trade." The evidence which he has collected on this point is startling. New York was the centre for the equipment of slavers, eighty-five being fitted out in that port during eighteen months of 1859-'60. In 1856 it was estimated that "forty slavers cleared annually from Eastern harbors, clearing yearly $17,000,000." Stephen A. Douglas declared "his confident belief that over 15,000 slaves had been brought into this country " during 1859. "Negroes, newly landed, were openly advertised for sale in the public press, and bids for additional importations made." The efforts of the national Government, in the meantime, grew constantly weaker, while those of the cruisers on the African coast went to the verge of ceasing altogether. "A letter from on board one of them shows that, out of a fifteen months' alleged service, only twenty-two days were spent on the usual cruising-ground for slavers, and thirteen of these at anchor; eleven months were spent at Madeira and Cape Verde Islands, 300 miles from the coast and 3,000 miles from the slave market." Finally, the attitude of the Confederate Government towards the article in the Constitution of the Confederate States prohibiting the importation of African negroes [sic] is shown by its circular-letter of instructions to its foreign ministers, extracts from a copy of which, addressed to Hon. L. Q. C. Lamar, Commissioner at St Petersburg, are given by Mr. Du Bois (pp. 189-190). The letter disclaims absolutely any power in the Confederacy to interfere with the slave-trade; such power being, it declares, reserved to the States.
• "remarkable increase" from SAST, Ch.11: Sec.87 (p.178)
• "confident belief" from SAST, Ch.11: Section 88 (p.181)
• "newly landed" from SAST, Ch.11: Section 89 (p.182)
• "A letter" from SAST, Ch.11: Sec.89 (p.186)
One can but be impressed in reading this volume with the pervading weakness of the moral opposition to the slave-trade. Mr. Du Bois gives full credit to the influence of the various anti-slavery and abolition movements in arousing the public conscience, but he does not hesitate to point out that these efforts were weakest at the very times when it was most necessary that they should be strong. Even in colonial days "experience proved that an appeal to moral rectitude was unheard in Carolina when rice had become a great crop, and in Massachusetts when the rum-slave traffic was paying a profit of 100 per cent." Mr. Bois utters no reproaches, and he rarely moralizes.
• "experience proved" from SAST, Ch.12: Sec.93 (p.195)
"It may be doubted," he says in his final chapter, "if ever before such political mistakes as the slavery compromises of the Constitutional Convention had such serious results.  .  .  .  It was the plain duty of the Constitutional Convention, in founding a new nation, to compromise with a threatening social evil only in case its settlement would thereby be postponed to a more favorable time. This was not the case in the slavery and slave-trade compromises; there never was a time in the history of America when the system had a slighter economic, political, and moral justification than in 1787; and yet with this real, existent, growing evil before their eyes, a bargain largely of dollars and cents was allowed to open the highway that led straight to the Civil War.  .  .  .  No persons would have seen the Civil War with more surprise and horror than the Revolutionists of 1776; yet from the small and apparently dying institution of their day arose the walled and castled Slave-Power. From this we may conclude that it behooves nations as well as men to do things at the very moment when they ought to be done."
• "It may be doubted" from SAST, Ch.12: Sec.96 (p.197)
• "It was the plain duty" from SAST, Ch.12: Sec.96 (p.198)
• "No persons" from SAST, Ch.12: Sec.96 (p.199)
This, of course, is both admirable and true. The slavery and slave-trade compromises of the Constitution were, unhappily, part of the price paid in order to have a Constitution and a Union at all. The Providence which, from seeming evil, thence educes good, ordained that the Union itself should be the instrument of abolishing slavery in one-half of it. On the other hand, it may be allowed that the utmost straining of the mental vision could hardly have enabled the fathers to look very far into the future; while as to other qualities "one cannot," as Mr. Du Bois himself says, "demand of whole nations exceptional moral foresight and heroism."

• "one cannot demand" from SAST, Ch.12: Sec.96 (p.198)
Mr. Du Bois is a negro,[sic] a graduate of Harvard, and a professor in Wilberforce University. His story of the suppression of the slave-trade is told with simplicity, directness, and convincing force, and in an interesting style rarely found in monographs. We have falled [sic: failed] to note in the book a single important statement of fact for which specific authority is not adduced; but there is an entire absence of anything like pedantry, and irrelevant matter has been rigidly excluded. That this study will long remain the authoritative work on the subject of which it treats may be confidently predicted. Amid all the discussion over the probable future of the negro [sic] in this country, it is matter of profound significance and great encouragement that a member of the race which, scarcely more than a generation ago, was openly bought and sold and hunted in our streets, should have traced, out of abundant knowledge and with unbiassed [sic] mind, the course of our national connection with that unholy traffic, from its beginning to its close, in a volume which is an honor alike to its author, to the university whose approval it has received, and to American historical scholarship.
[End of the original text.]

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