Author Interview--John Harris (The Last Slave Ships) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:


Today we feature John Harris to talk about his new book The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage, published by Yale University Press in November 2020.


John Harris is assistant professor of history at Erskine College, South Carolina. Hailing from Northern Ireland, he graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with an M.A. and completed a Ph.D. in history at Johns Hopkins University.


John, could you tell us how you came to writing a book about the last stages of the slave trade?


JH: I was reading Vernon Burton’s Age of Lincoln during my master’s degree in 2008 and found a few paragraphs on the Echo, an illegal slave ship that the U.S. Navy captured and brought into Charleston, South Carolina in the late 1850s. I wanted to know more about how the traffic was being carried on half a century after federal abolition, so I wrote my thesis on the Echo’s voyage. Five years later I was doing my Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins and I decided to write my dissertation on the illegal trade as a whole during that era. It turned out there were hundreds of slaving voyages leaving U.S. ports, often New York, for the African coast in the 1850s and early 1860s. Almost all captives who survived the middle passage ended up in Spanish Cuba. The Last Slave Ships is a revised and expanded version of that dissertation project. 


What do you argue in The Last Slave Ships?


JH: I argue that the ruling Democratic Party had a long history of blaming Spain for the trade to Cuba to bolster the case for U.S. annexation of the island and had little interest in suppressing growing U.S. involvement in the traffic to Cuba in the 1850s. Their position, in conjunction with the shipping facilities and financial services provided by big American ports and the refusal of the U.S. government to permit the powerful British to search American ships, enabled slave traders to conduct a very large illegal slave trade from U.S. ports and under the U.S. flag until the early years of the Civil War, when the anti-slavery Republicans were in power and acted vigorously against the traffic.


Speaking of the Clotilda, were you excited that in 2018 the ship was discovered? How do you think the ship should be preserved and its story told? How does the Clotilda fit into your story?


JH: The discovery of the Clotilda is really stunning. We have very few remains of slave ships from any period of the traffic, especially the illegal era when traffickers typically destroyed vessels after voyages had been completed. I think if it’s possible to raise the vessel we should. It’s a great public education opportunity. But I do think the descendants should be consulted; many still live in Alabama, where the voyage ended. The Clotilda does feature in the book, but one of the main points I make is that it’s not a typical voyage. The main slaving network in this era ran from New York to West Central Africa and then to Cuba. The Clotilda’s voyage ran outside that triangle and the main group of slave traders who operated it. In fact, the Clotilda is one of only a few voyages that ran from the U.S. South to Africa and back to the South. So, while I’m delighted that the Clotilda story is getting so much attention, one of the aims of the book is to expose the bigger picture of U.S. involvement the trade. That story is more about U.S. connections to Cuba and sugar than about the South and cotton.


You offer your readers something intriguing in your subtitle, that New York, a northern port city in a country that in 1808 outlawed the trade, was at the center of the late stages of the trade--how did that happen?


JH: In 1850 the Brazilian government shut down the massive illegal slave trade to its shores, causing a crisis in the slaving world of the South Atlantic. Many traffickers in Brazil and West Central Africa quit the trade, but some moved to New York where they became known as the “Portuguese Company.” Their plan was to break into the slave trade to Cuba, the final open market for illegally trafficked Africans. Posing as merchants in legal commerce, they bought up ships for the trade and sent them to Africa on supposedly legitimate voyages. They were active in New York for about a decade and even branched out to other U.S. ports such as New Orleans, Boston, and New Bedford.


It is interesting that you had Brazilians working in New York on shipping slaves from Africa to Spanish Cuba--how much more transnational can a study be! On a related note, some Atlantic Historians claim that by the 1850s the Atlantic World was gone and globalized, you seem to suggest differently with your book?


JH: If you are looking at the slave trade, the Atlantic framework still works for this period in my view. There are certainly global influences connected to the slave trade; for example, this is a moment when Cuban sugar planters, fearing the end of the traffic, are also importing indentured laborers from China. But the slave trade and the factors that impinge upon it are running mostly within Atlantic currents, as they had for generations. It’s probably one of the strongest examples of Atlantic persistence in an increasingly globalized world. 


Considering this transnational group, did that add to the difficulty of destroying the slave trade?


JH: It did. This is a period when nation states largely steered their own course when it came to suppressing the slave trade (notwithstanding British attempts to get everyone on the same page through treaties and an international network of slave trade courts). Some nations were more earnest that others. In that context, traffickers moved from place to place, pressing where the fabric of suppression was weakest. Another problem in the U.S. case was that many of the federal laws against the trade applied only to American citizens. For foreign slave traders, that was attractive feature of operating out of the United States.