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The Northern Slave Trade

The hidden history of slavery in New York calls myths of American morality into question

BY Phyllis Eckhaus

Americans excel at ego-boosting myths of exceptionalism: It’s our ingenuity, energy and can-do attitude that explain our rise from frontier to world power. But what if slavery were the real secret of our success?

We like to condemn slavery as an exotic evil perpetrated by plantation Southerners, but two new books and a museum exhibit provide nightmarish reminders that slavery was the norm in the early years of this country, and that up through the eve of the Civil War, Northern bankers, brokers and entrepreneurs were among slavery’s staunchest defenders.

In Complicity, a team of Hartford Courant journalists investigates this history, producing 10 stories that explore how deeply the fortunes of New York and New England were tied to the slave trade. “Slavery in New York,” an exhibit at the New York Historical Society through March 5, reveals New York as a city substantially built by slaves. The companion book of the same name, elegantly designed and illustrated, anchors the exhibit in a series of scholarly essays. Together, these works echo and amplify each other, providing a kind of surround-sound opportunity for an anguished identity crisis: If our supposedly freedom-loving forebears were not “good guys,” what were they? And what are we?

From the get-go, Americans were profiteers, and plundering the New World was backbreaking work. Writing in 1645 to John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, his brother-in-law Emanuel Downing complained, “I do not see how we can thrive until we get a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business.” Further south, in New Amsterdam, slaves built Wall Street’s wall and cleared what became Harlem and Route 1. When a new shipload of slaves proved insufficiently hardy, Director General Peter Stuyvesant expressed his displeasure to the Dutch West India Company, insisting that the company supply the best slaves to Christian and company enterprises, while unloading the feeble on “Spaniards and unbelieving Jews.”

For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, New York boasted the largest urban slave population in mainland North America. Slaves made up one-fifth the population. And white New Yorkers lived in terror of slave revolt. An alleged 1741 plot led to the jailing and torture of scores of slaves, 30 of whom were executed, 17 by burning at the stake.

For slaves, the Revolutionary War was a liberating experience–but only if they fought for the British, who promised them freedom. Though George Washington sought to reclaim the colonists’ slaves, British General Guy Carleton oversaw the evacuation of more than 3,000 black Loyalists, who fled New York for Nova Scotia and other British outposts.

New York slowly and reluctantly abolished slavery; federal census figures showed slaves in the state until 1850. But the death of slavery in New York scarcely impeded the city’s business in the slave trade. In the peak years of 1859 and 1860, two slave ships bound for Africa left New York harbor every month. Although the trade was technically illegal, no one cared: A slave bought for $50 in Africa could be sold for $1,000 in Cuba, a profit margin so high that loss of slave life was easily absorbed. For every hundred slaves purchased in Africa, perhaps 48 survived the trip to the New World. By the end of the voyage, the ships that held the packed, shackled and naked human cargo were so filthy that it was cheaper to burn some vessels than decontaminate them. 

Law-abiding Northerners made money off slavery through the cotton trade. “King Cotton” was to antebellum America what oil is to the Middle East. Whole New England textile cities sprang up to manufacture cloth from cotton picked and processed by millions of slaves. In 1861, the United States produced more than 2 billion pounds of cotton, exporting much of it to Great Britain via New York. No wonder then that as the South began to talk secession, so too did New York Mayor Fernando Wood, who proposed that Manhattan become an independent island nation, its cotton trade intact. 

How do we reconcile these facts with our mythology of the Civil War and our convenient conviction that the evils of slavery were contained within the South? Obviously, we can’t. Slavery was such a huge and gruesome enterprise, supported by so many, that it explodes inflated notions of American character. Instead, we might appropriately draw parallels between antebellum America and Nazi Germany.

This is not to assert that ordinary Americans were “evil,” but rather that our insistent sorting of the world into “good guys” and “evildoers” distorts reality. Today, progressives are justly suspicious of the high-flown “freedom” rhetoric our government deploys to advance American empire. But we need always to be skeptical of reductive, righteous narratives. Far from promoting morality, such fictions allow us to hide our worst impulses from ourselves.

Phyllis Eckhaus is an In These Times contributing editor who has written essays and book reviews for the magazine since 1993, covering everything from the history of Mad Magazine to the economics of terrorism. Her work has also appeared in Newsday, The Nation, the Guardian (U.S.) and the Women's Review of Books, among other publications. Trained as a lawyer and social scientist, with degrees from Yale, Harvard and New York University, she works in nonprofit management and lives in New York City.

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