Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel on Wikimedia Commons

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”

Sean M. Kelley—

You’ve probably never heard of William Vernon, a lifelong resident of Newport, Rhode Island, but he was one of the biggest slave owners in American history. According to the best figures we have, he owned between five thousand six hundred and six thousand three hundred people—the exact number is uncertain. Whatever the total, it greatly exceeds the number of people held by the biggest planters in the U.S., although as a slave trader and not a planter, most were “his” only for a few months.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of William Vernon. There is a good reason why: three-quarters of the people he owned never set foot on the North American continent. In other words, his particular chapter in the history of American slavery unfolded largely outside the boundaries of the United States. That was true for thousands of other American merchants who, over a two-hundred-year period, engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. Vernon happened to have mercantile connections in South Carolina and Virginia, so he dispatched a few of his vessels there. Like most American slavers, he sent a majority of his ships to Caribbean destinations, including Barbados, Jamaica, Cuba, Martinique, and Suriname. Because so much of this activity took place outside of North America, it has been overlooked by most U.S. historians, a case, it seems, of out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

When you say “slave trade” to most Americans, they very naturally think about the arrival of some 450,000 Africans into what is now the United States, what I call the “ships coming in” definition of the American slave trade. That’s perfectly reasonable, but most of these incoming vessels were actually British, not American. The Americans did dispatch their own vessels to Africa, but most of these carried their captives to the Caribbean, in what I refer to as the “ships going out” version of the American slave trade. In all, these American vessels transported over 300,000 people. Although there were occasional periods in which these two slave trades overlapped, for the most part they were quite separate.

The American slave trade lasted for over two centuries, and during this time it underwent a series of reconfigurations. Only a few vessels sailed in the seventeenth century, but things really picked up in the eighteenth and first decade of the nineteenth centuries. About eighty-seven percent of all American slave ships sailed between 1730 and 1807. During these years, wealthy merchants from Rhode Island dominated the trade, but they were joined by people from practically every deep-water port on the east coast. After the trade was made illegal in 1808, some slavers moved operations to Cuba, their main market for captives, but they were soon pushed out of the business by Cuban traders. For the rest of the nineteenth century, most American slavers were merely front men for trans- and multi-national networks of slavers focused on Cuba.

As a result of this activity, certain American ports developed long-term relationships with foreign ports, not just in the Caribbean, but in Africa—a fact that has received little attention from US historians. Newport, Rhode Island, the leading American slave port of the eighteenth century and hometown of William Vernon, developed particularly strong connections with the Gold Coast port of Anomabu, in modern-day Ghana. Newport’s slavers enjoyed a particularly strong relationship with Richard Brew, a former Royal African Company employee who built his own slave-trading castle there. Brew did favors for the Rhode Islanders, such as the time in 1758 when he ransomed two American ships and their imprisoned crews from the French. There is no understanding the history of a place like Newport without grappling with its decades-long entanglement with Anomabu. At the peak of the town’s slave trade in the late-colonial era, about one out of every five Newporters was enslaved, with most having arrived via Anomabu and nearby points on the African coast.

Benjamin Curtis was another American slaver, and like Vernon, the vast majority of his activity unfolded elsewhere. A native of Massachusetts, Curtis set up a slave-trading installation in the present-day Republic of Guinea in the 1790s. We’ll never know exactly how many people he shipped, but it was likely over five thousand and may have even have topped ten thousand. Despite these totals, Curtis is an obscure figure to most US historians, even more so than Vernon, because nearly all his activity took place offshore. Although a good proportion of Curtis’s captives were shipped to South Carolina, a clear majority were sent to the Caribbean, in keeping with the general pattern of the American slave trade.

And that’s really the point. The American slave trade has been overlooked because most of it took place somewhere else. The activities of people like Vernon and Curtis remind us that American slavery encompassed more than plantation agriculture and reached far beyond the boundaries of the modern United States.

Sean M. Kelley is professor of history at the University of Essex. He is the author of The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina and Los Brazos de Dios: A Plantation Society in the Texas Borderlands, 1821–1865. He lives in Colchester, UK.

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