The Northern Slave Trade

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

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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