In the Age of Reason, when philosophy celebrated the natural rights of man, there was nothing peculiar about the South’s “peculiar institution,” a term later applied to black slavery in the United States. In the eighteenth century, exports of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade exceeded six million, nearly three times the number shipped out from 1450 to 1700.1 Some 2.7 million of these eighteenth-century slaves were transported by Englishmen or Anglo-Americans, members of the supposedly freest and most progressive societies on earth. Although Brazil and the West Indies were the major markets for African slaves, accounting for 85 percent of the century’s total imports, approximately 16,000 landed in Buenos Aires. In the late eighteenth century there were 89,000 black slaves in Peru and 12,000 in Chile. In New York City the number of black slaves increased so rapidly that by the 1740s they constituted 21 percent of the city’s total population. In King’s County the proportion reached 34 percent. Even in Boston in the 1740s about one fifth of the white families owned slaves.

In French Canada, shortly before the British conquest, there were well over one thousand black slaves, to say nothing of several thousand Indian slaves. Under British rule, the number of Canadian blacks increased considerably, especially following the influx of American loyalists and their slaves during the War of Independence. Black slaves appeared in British Nova Scotia in the 1750s; in 1760 an auction at the Halifax beach advertised “two hogsheads of rum, three of sugar and two well-grown negro girls, aged fourteen and twelve.” 2

Ironically, the only New World colony that barred the importation of slaves was Georgia, whose founders sought a refuge for England’s deserving poor as well as a secure buffer between South Carolina’s menacing black majority and the hostile Spaniards in Florida, who were accused of inciting slave rebellions and encouraging runaways by offering freedom to those who escaped into Spanish territory. By 1749, however, Georgia’s trustees realized that it was impossible to exclude slaves from the colony and agreed to end their fourteen-year experiment with “free soil.”

Why did Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, and Danish colonists, in settlements extending from the tropics to the more frigid temperate zones, choose a form of labor that many colonists found dangerous if not morally distasteful, and that had long ceased to be indigenous in Western Europe? The very ubiquity of black slavery in the New World suggests the presence of some irresistible and inevitable force, though a temporary one if we are to believe the historians who see the decline and fall of New World slavery as no less irresistible and inevitable. But when we examine the way in which black slavery took root in particular societies, as Herbert S. Klein does in his remarkably concise and informative synthesis of recent scholarship on Latin America and the Caribbean, the process seems haphazard and subject to such random variables as the density of the native Indian population and its mortality from European diseases, the availability of white indentured servants, the supply and cost of black slaves on the African coasts, the crops or precious metals obtainable from a particular region, the state of sugar-mill or mining technology, and access to the expanding consumer markets of Europe.

In the early sixteenth century, for example, the Portuguese showed little interest in colonizing Brazil, which long remained a source for dyewood and a way station for the lucrative East India trade, until Britain and France established their own Brazilian bases. This strategic threat to Portugal’s Asian trade encouraged the Portuguese to develop Pernambuco and Bahia as major sugar-producing economies, modeled on the slave plantation system they had earlier perfected in Madeira and São Tomé. But even though Portugal initially dominated the Atlantic slave trade and transported Africans to Brazil and Spanish America as well as to the Atlantic islands, until 1570 most of the Brazilian sugar was grown by Indian slaves. According to Klein, it was not until the first years of the seventeenth century, after tens of thousands of Brazilian Indians had been killed by a smallpox epidemic and after three decades of large slave importations from Africa, that the number of black slaves equaled and then surpassed the number of Indian slaves.

No less fortuitous, it would appear, was the Brazilian sugar industry’s original dependence on Dutch shipping and commercial networks radiating from the great sugar-refining center, Antwerp. After the Spanish and Portuguese crowns united in 1580 and after Holland began winning its long struggle for independence from Spanish rule, the Dutch conquered the Portuguese not only in the Spice Islands of Asia but in the slave-trading stations of Africa and the rich sugar-producing regions of northeastern Brazil. It was Dutch naval and commercial power that opened the Caribbean to British and French colonization and to successful plantation agriculture. In 1619 a Dutch ship unloaded the first blacks known to have arrived in Virginia. The Dutch later supplied capital, slaves, and sugar technology to the British and French colonies from Barbados to Martinique and St. Kitts. When in 1654 the Portuguese finally expelled the Dutch from Brazil, the refugees helped to ensure that the Caribbean would become the world’s major source of sugar.


Klein does not really explain the failure of the much earlier Spanish efforts to cultivate sugar cane in Santo Domingo, Cuba, Jamaica, and other Caribbean colonies. The Spaniards owned black slaves and they knew how to build sugar mills and how to grind, boil, and manufacture sugar and molasses. Yet Spanish colonists did not become major producers of sugar (in Cuba and to a lesser degree in Puerto Rico) until the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To complicate matters, the British never anticipated that Virginia, Maryland, and even Barbados would become dependent on black slave labor. For plantation agriculture they relied with considerable success on white indentured servants—in the Chesapeake colonies for a period of some seventy years.

Klein offers no theory or thesis to account for the intermittent spread of black slavery through the New World. He takes no note of the fears and prejudices that were often aroused by the unrestricted importation of blacks and that led in the Caribbean to ineffective laws designed to ensure a minimal ratio between blacks and whites. But his book is especially useful in providing a wealth of detail on the African slave trade, the extraordinary adaptability of black slave labor, and the tensions within Afro-American cultures.

Here, for example, are some of the conclusions that may surprise readers unfamiliar with the specialized studies on which Klein has drawn. Asian textiles, followed by bar iron manufactured in Europe, were the leading commodities that Europeans exchanged for African slaves. African traders controlled the supply of slaves and conditions of sale, and were responsible for the preponderance of male slaves sold to Europeans, since for a variety of reasons Africans were reluctant to sell women and “women had a higher price in local internal African markets than men.”

European merchants knew that in the Americas black women performed the heaviest plantation labor and often outnumbered men in the field gangs cultivating sugar, coffee, and cotton. But male slaves monopolized the skilled crafts and trades (except for the work of seamstresses), and in Brazil worked on cattle ranches, whalers, and even as deckhands on slave ships. In Brazil’s first national census, in 1872, slaves made up 19 percent of the nation’s construction workers and 11 percent of the total industrial work force. As Klein and other scholars have demonstrated, black slave labor could be applied successfully to a variety of urban and industrial tasks. Black slavery flourished economically even when mixed with other forms of labor and even after the majority of a nation’s blacks had won their freedom, as in nineteenth-century Brazil.

Although Klein discusses many aspects of slavery from religion and resistance to manumission, he conveys little sense of New World bondage as part of a larger world economy. He makes no effort to clarify or even comment on the historical relationship between slavery and capitalism. As Sidney W. Mintz has recently reminded us, the New World’s slave plantations transformed exotic luxuries, such as tobacco and sugar, into “proletarian necessities.” By 1750 it was said that the poorest English farm laborer’s wife took sugar in her tea. According to Mintz, the consumption of slave-grown sucrose, coffee, cocoa, and other products “was the direct consequence of deep alterations in the lives of working people, which made new forms of foods and eating conceivable and ‘natural,’ like new schedules of work, new sorts of labor, and new conditions of daily life.”3

Klein is by no means the only historian who limits our understanding of the New World slave systems by considering them apart from the emerging free labor societies that consumed their produce and supplied the ships, slaves, investment capital, and manufactured goods that were parts of a larger Atlantic commercial system. For several decades historians have been so intent on exposing the serious errors and weaknesses of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, that they have usually lost sight of Williams’s vision of an interdependent Atlantic economy that was fueled by the labor of African slaves. Since Klein has written a useful survey that will probably be assigned in many college courses, it is unfortunate that his readers will never suspect that Caribbean sugar plantations linked Pennsylvania farmers and New England fishermen with the iron manufacturers of Birmingham and the textile workers of Nantes.

It is clear that Klein hopes his book will evoke comparisons with slavery in the United States, though by treating Latin America and the Caribbean as a single unit he obscures the distinctive and important economic and ideological ties between the Caribbean and North America. Any reader interested in drawing comparisons must also be wary of erroneous or misleading statements. For example, Klein asserts that “in 1787 the United States Congress abolished the slave trade as of 1808.” But in fact the United States Constitution prohibited Congress from ending the slave trade until 1808 and even excluded this provision from constitutional amendment. The French National Assembly did not grant citizenship in 1789 to colonial free blacks and mulattoes; the measure was passed in 1792, after much vacillation, debate, and violence. In 1794 the Assembly did not apprentice the colonial slaves it emancipated, as Klein maintains.


Denmark Vesey’s failed conspiracy to mount a slave insurrection did not coincide in 1831 with Nat Turner’s slave revolt, but occurred nine years earlier. It is not true that positive natural growth rates among the native-born or Creole slaves were achieved “only in those regions where the slave trade died out before the end of slavery.” In Virginia, as Klein surely knows, the slave population reached a high rate of natural growth by the 1730s, at a time of reasonably heavy imports from Africa and forty years before importations ceased.4 While it is true that slave manumission received far more encouragement in Latin America than in North America, Klein presents a misleading picture when he talks of the effective curtailment of the numbers of North American freedmen by the end of the eighteenth century. In actuality, the free black population in the United States increased by 82 percent between 1790 and 1800 and by 72 percent between 1800 and 1810. Until the 1830s, when restrictions against manumission began taking effect, free blacks were the fastest-growing segment of the southern population.

We still have much to learn about the connections and interactions between various New World slave regimes. As Klein makes clear, the Atlantic maritime states long participated in the common venture of transporting millions of Africans to American colonies. For an Angolan or Mende captive there was little difference between a Dutch or Portuguese ship or between the work to be done on a Jamaican or Brazilian sugar estate. While each colony followed its own path of cultural and political development, slaves thoughout the Americas heard reports of the great Haitian Revolution; their masters were attuned not only to prices on the world’s sugar, coffee, and cotton markets but to news of slave insurrections and abolitionist agitation.

This interrelationship of slave regimes is brought into sharp focus by Howard Jones’s well-documented study of the Amistad affair, arising from a slave revolt aboard a Spanish slave ship in 1839. To understand the import of Jones’s lively but somewhat confined narrative, it is essential to glimpse the wider setting. In the 1830s, as Britain pursued the risky experiment of emancipating 800,000 colonial blacks, slavery was expanding and flourishing in Cuba and the southern United States. Cuba’s prospects as the world’s leading producer of sugar were enhanced by the triumph of British abolitionism and the subsequent economic decline of Jamaica and other competitive British colonies. But unlike the United States, which could afford to express official outrage over the nefarious and illicit Atlantic slave trade, Cuba still relied on large imports of Africans, many of whom were purchased with British goods and British credit and transported on ships built and outfitted in the United States. During the 1830s Cuba illegally imported approximately 181,600 slaves from Africa.5

For some twenty years the British navy had been engaged in a vigorous and expensive campaign to suppress the entire slave trade by enforcing treaties that Spain and other countries had been bribed or coerced into accepting. Having already lost most of its New World empire, Spain sought to placate the British without angering the Cuban and Puerto Rican colonists who devised various subterfuges to ensure a continuing supply of African labor. From 1834 to 1845, however, Spain was shaken by civil war and continuing uprisings that raised the threat of British and French intervention. American interest in Cuba was heightened by the fear that Britain might seize the colony on the pretext of slave-trade treaty violations or undermine the slave regime, as part of a quest for global domination, by less direct means. Washington viewed this prospect much as recent administrations have viewed Soviet aid to “liberations” in Cuba and Central America.

In late August 1839 a United States revenue cutter seized a mysterious schooner, the Amistad, off the coast of Long Island. Equipped to transport slaves along the Cuban coast, the Amistad contained four African children and thirty-nine adult males including Joseph Cinqué, the de facto commander, who had ordered Pedro Montes, one of the two surviving whites on the vessel, to sail from Cuban waters to Africa. On the night of July 1 Cinqué had led his compatriots in a sudden revolt that resulted in the slaying of the captain and cook and in the unexplained disappearance of two sailors. Montes, a former skipper, had been able to deceive Cinqué by steering northward at night, hoping to encounter another ship or friendly port.

Four months earlier the Africans, mostly Mendes from the Sierra Leone region, had been forcibly enslaved and shipped to Cuba, smuggled ashore at night, and then brought to the notorious barracoons in Havana. There they had been purchased by Montes and José Ruiz, who routinely secured fraudulent papers affirming that the blacks were Ladinos, or assimilated and legitimate slaves who had not been imported from Africa after 1820, when the prohibition went into effect. After assigning the Africans fake Spanish names, Ruiz and Montes had chartered the Amistad and set out for a Cuban plantation district some three hundred miles from Havana. But the Africans, suffering from short rations and physical brutality, had struck for freedom.

President Van Buren was determined to maintain control of the affair as soon as news arrived that the Amistad had been captured and towed to New London, Connecticut. Already weakened politically by a disastrous economic depression, Van Buren faced an uphill struggle for reelection in 1840. Any prolonged controversy involving slavery could bring acute embarrassment to the reigning Democratic party, whose power depended on appeasing the increasingly volatile South. For nearly twenty years Van Buren had been almost obsessed with the need to suppress sectional discord; in New York State his supporters had taken the lead in anti-abolitionist riots and demonstrations intended to reassure the South that the northern public would not tolerate antislavery “fanatics.” Van Buren and his proslavery secretary of state, John Forsyth, were prepared to bypass the judicial system if necessary to prevent abolitionists from exploiting the Amistad affair.

The White House and Spanish ministry had legal grounds for confidence even though the federal district judge in Connecticut, Andrew T. Judson, refused to surrender the Africans to the Spanish consul in Boston. Treaties concluded with Spain in 1795 and 1819 contained detailed provisions for the return of ships and other property rescued from pirates or robbers. American courts had no jurisdiction over Spanish subjects or crimes (aside from piracy) committed on Spanish ships. Unlike Britain, the United States had never signed a treaty with Spain for suppressing the slave trade; in 1825 the United States Supreme Court had even ruled that the slave trade, though outlawed by most nations, was sanctioned by the law of nations. Since slavery was legal in both Cuba and the United States, it appeared to the Van Buren administration that American courts had no right to question the Amistad’s papers, which affirmed that the blacks were bona fide slaves, or to interfere with the president’s prerogative to comply with Spain’s demands.

As the White House soon discovered, however, a number of circumstances made the Amistad case a crucial test of the American judicial system. The blacks had clearly been free and in command of the ship when they anchored off Long Island and sent a party ashore in search of food and water. By what authority, then, were they seized and held in custody in a New Haven jail? American law prohibited the enslavement of imported Africans and provided for the return to Africa of blacks illegally brought in for the purpose of sale. It should have been evident that these regulations did not apply to the Amistad captives; but it was also clear that they would not have been held in jail if they had been whites who had forcibly freed themselves from kidnappers or pirates.

Spanish law, like American and British law, defined the African slave trade as piracy, a crime punishable by death. Witnesses testified that when José Ruiz was first rescued from the blacks, he had admitted that they were not Ladinos but Africans who had been recently enslaved and illegally transported to Cuba. The captives could speak only African languages, not Spanish. Later, abolitionists found Africans who could translate the captives’ testimony (in time, some of the captives learned English). Expert witnesses described how Cuban officials openly defied the antislave trade laws and how they evaded British cruisers and the mixed commission court at Havana. Even at the initial trial before the United States Circuit Court in Hartford, the district attorney admitted, to everyone’s surprise, that the Amistad captives were not legal slaves. But this maneuver, according to Jones, was intended to keep the blacks within the control of the White House.

By 1839 American abolitionists had largely failed in their efforts at “moral suasion,” and they were desperately searching for ways to challenge any national authorization of slavery, such as the government’s allowance of the interstate slave trade, slave markets in the nation’s capital, and the settling of slaves in the common territories. Once the circuit court determined that the Amistad captives fell under the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary, abolitionists saw the coming trial before the United States district court as a providential opportunity to dramatize the illegal violence in which all slaveholding had originated. The central issue, as Jones repeatedly emphasizes, was the glaring discrepancy between American positive law and natural rights.

In Ronald Dworkin’s terms, justice could not be approximated without violating the “integrity” or internal consistency of American laws and customs, which depended on communal understanding between free and slave states. Yet as Jones fails to realize, that integrity of legal practice had already been seriously compromised when Congress outlawed the slave trade and declared it piracy. If it was a capital crime to transport an African captive to the New World, why was it legitimate to buy or sell a captive or her descendants who by chance had arrived in Cuba before 1820 or in the United States before 1808? The Spanish were at least consistent in thumbing their noses at an externally imposed law. In the United States, as the Amistad case demonstrated, slavery had indeed become a peculiar institution.

While the trials evoked grotesque outbursts of racism, they also confirmed, after a half century, the strength of revolutionary ideals. As the aging John Quincy Adams explained to William Jay, the abolitionist son of the first chief justice, the blacks had “vindicated their own right of liberty” by “executing the justice of Heaven” upon a “pirate murderer, their tyrant and oppressor.” Adams’s view that the Africans had freed themselves by “self-emancipation” won surprising support from the northern press.

Even Andrew T. Judson, the racist and violently anti-abolitionist district court judge, affirmed that the blacks had revolted against illegal bondage only out of “desire of winning their liberty and returning to their families and kindred.” And after Van Buren had succeeded in appealing Judson’s decision to Roger Taney’s southern-dominated Supreme Court, where the captives’ case was strongly argued by John Quincy Adams and Roger Baldwin, Justice Joseph Story ruled for the court that the captives had exercised their right of self-defense since they had been kidnapped in Africa and unlawfully transported to Cuba. They were not legally slaves and therefore could be allowed to go free.

Both Judson and Story, however, scrupulously upheld the positive law that sanctioned black slavery and restricted the application of natural law to situations in which no positive law applied. Indeed, Jones goes so far as to rebuke the abolitionists for ignoring “the central meaning” of the Supreme Court’s final decision: “that positive law had triumphed over natural law.” But his is an excessively narrow interpretation. If the abolitionists failed to win judicial approval for their higher-law doctrines, the arguments of Baldwin and Adams before the court exposed the irreconcilable contradictions between American slavery and American conceptions of law and justice. It was Adams, the seventy-four-year-old congressman and former president, who exemplified the noblest meaning of the revolutionary heritage.

Jones is understandably disturbed by the efforts of the Van Buren administration to subvert the judicial system and deprive the blacks of their right of due process. At the time of the district court trial, the president diverted a naval vessel to New Haven harbor and issued secret orders to the district attorney to have the captives smuggled to the ship in the event of an unfavorable decision. Because of lack of space below, the blacks would then be chained to the deck in the icy winter and shipped back to Cuba. Later, the administration obstructed every effort of the defense to obtain copies of official documents and was probably responsible for what Adams called a “scandalous mistranslation” of Spanish words that, if undetected, would have destroyed the entire case of the defense.

Van Buren’s precise motives remain hidden, but Jones is too charitable when he excuses the president of “illegal intentions” and emphasizes his political anxieties over the coming election. Executive interference in the case persisted long after Van Buren had lost the election. Jones seems harsher in censuring the abolitionists’ own illegal intentions to rescue the captives if the Court or the president tried to surrender them to the Spanish. While he ends with a tribute to “America’s legal system [which] had performed its function of securing justice,” he makes no judgment on a system that denied the captives bail. For some eighteen months, while their case was argued, the thirty-six men were imprisoned in a thirty-by-twenty-foot room, subject like animals in a zoo to the gaze of thousands of visitors who paid twelve-and-a-half cents for the sight of African “savages.”

Without the aid of Lewis Tappan, Joshua Leavitt, and other abolitionists, whose “extreme positions” did not preclude skillful organization, fund raising, and tactful cooperation with nonabolitionist attorneys like Baldwin and Adams, Joseph Cinqué and his compatriots would surely have been shipped back to Cuba and executed. That outcome might well have provoked a British blockade of Cuba and American military intervention, which the Van Buren administration had in fact threatened. As things turned out, private donations and funds raised from public exhibitions paid the cost of returning the thirty-five surviving Africans to Sierra Leone.

Jones should have provided much more information about the captives themselves and the efforts to aid them by white abolitionists and American free blacks. He mentions in an end note that some of the Amistad captives, including three girls, stayed in Sierra Leone and worked with Christian missionaries. Most of the blacks returned to their Mende homeland, and Cinqué eventually worked as an interpreter for the American Missionary Association.

This Issue

November 5, 1987