Feature Suppression Of The Slave Trade

Find out more about the effort to halt the immoral trade of humans.

Suppression Of The Slave Trade

Slavery was one of the cornerstones of European colonization across the Americas. The first slaves – 20 Africans - arrived on a Dutch ship around1619 to the Virginia colony at Jamestown.

The demand for slaves grew quickly, fuelled by the New World’s growing agricultural economy. Tobacco, cotton, coffee, rice and sugar plantation owners needed cheap labor and the slave traders eagerly complied, transporting more than 12 million Africans to America. This transatlantic trade created a new global economy that peaked between the 17th and 18th centuries.

However, not everyone agreed with slavery and by the 18th century the Abolitionist Movement became a powerful political force. Governments were under pressure to suppress slavery but because it was so entrenched in the system it was a difficult and slow process. On January 1, 1808 the first great goal of the anti-slavery effort in the United States was achieved: Congress banned international slave trade.

Despite the passing of the bill the lucrative trade in humans continued. President Madison told Congress at the end of 1810, that "it appears that American citizens are instrumental in carrying on a traffic in enslaved Africans, equally in violation of the laws of humanity, and in defiance of those of their own country." Some of the trade was conducted clandestinely, under cover of other nations’ flags.

It was clear that the government’s effort to enforce their legislation was disingenuous and haphazard. So in 1819 a further bill was passed allowing the use of armed cruisers on the coasts of the United States and Africa to suppress the slave trade. A further act in 1820 ensured participation in the slave-trade came under piracy laws, which was punishable by death.

A more determined enforcement effort followed. Ships such as the USS Shark were despatched in 1821 on a mission to act against slave traders and pirates. On her maiden voyage she sailed by way of Madeira, Canary and Cape Verde Islands to Sierra Leone and returned via the West Indies. Over the next 15-years she made several trips to the coast of Africa, protecting slaves freed from captured slave ships.

Despite this improvement, participation of Americans in the slave trade continued, reaching its highest level from 1840 to 1860. Reports from the time suggest that American vessels were not actively pursuing the slave traders, and that much of their time at sea was spent away from the known slave market ports.

It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln became president that a concerted effort was made to abolish the slave trade. The Secretary of the Interior was charged with executing the slave trade laws and over the latter part of 1861 five vessels were seized and condemned, and four slave-traders were convicted. The Lincoln government was uncompromising in their pursuit of suppression, and was the first to hang an American slave trader.

Previous government attempts to negotiate an international solution to the slave trade had failed miserably. Within a year Lincoln opened negotiations with Great Britain and in 1862 a treaty was signed. The two nations agreed to work together to search merchant vessels, and prosecute suspected slave traders.Within a few years the slave trade diminished, and before the end of the Civil War it ceased.

Almost 60 years after that first Congressional Act slavery officially ended. Ratified by the states on December 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution declared that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall exist within the United States."