John Harris. The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. ISBN: 9780300247336, 312 pages, with 21 black and white illustrations. $30USD.
By Erin Becker
New York City was a crucial part of the transatlantic slave trade and, later, the illegal slave trade to Cuba. In The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage, historian John Harris takes a fresh look at the illegal transatlantic slave trade. Harris argues that, during the 1850s and 1860s, the United States government went from ignoring (and in many cases, even abetting) the illegal trade of enslaved African men, women, and children to helping the trade close completely in 1867. He takes a particularly close look at the illegal slave traffickers based out of Lower Manhattan and sheds much needed light on their role as a crucial hub in the slave trade to Cuba.
The Last Slave Ship is organized into five chapters, plus an introduction and epilogue. The chapters move chronologically through Harris’ narrative. Harris opens his narrative with the recollections of Oluale Kossola, a man who had been kidnapped by Dahomeans, sold to an American sea captain, and forced aboard the Clotilda; he uses this story to highlight just how deeply entrenched American elites were in the economy of slavery, despite their promises to abolish the trade. In Chapter One, “The Final Triangle Takes Shape”, Harris discusses the rise of the illegal slave trade conducted under the American flag, on American vessels, and in and from American ports. He argues “the major force knitting these dark worlds together was exiles from the shattered South Atlantic trade who established a new hub in New York. Gotham was an ideal base, boasting a large port that lay within a nation determined to keep Britain at arm’s length and increasingly committed to the idea that Spain alone was responsible for illicit slaving” (Harris, p 55). In Chapter Two, “Slave Traders at Work,” Harris covers trade routes in the illegal slave trade, the prevalence of American vessels, and the financing strategies for illegal trafficking voyages. He argues “historically high slave prices in Cuba and the promise of record returns on investment fostered a new spirit of cooperation among speculators in New York, Cuba, and West Central Africa” (Harris, p 79).
In Chapter Three, “Aboard an Illegal American Slaver,” Harris uses the Julia Moulton as a lens through which to examine the changing demographics of captives, the conditions experienced by captives during the Middle Passage, and the suppression methods taken by governments; he draws evidence from the trial of Captain Smith. In Chapter Four, “Ring of Spies,” Harris discusses the slave trading zones as marketplaces for information, the British government’s spying campaign against the trade, and the rise of Britain’s most effective spy, Emilio Sanchez. Harris draws extensive evidence from the voyage and interception of the slave ship Pamphylia and argues “the slave trade and suppression networks broadly mirrored each other, as slavers sought to further the trade and suppressionists sought to end it” (Harris, p 169). In Chapter Five, “American Politics and American Suppression,” Harris discusses the problems with enforcement of the law, entrenched corruption, tensions in Cuba, and the impact of manifest destiny. He argues that, ultimately, Lincoln needed the GOP to take power in order for him to destroy the illegal slave trade; he stated “for the Republicans, obeying their principles meant not only limiting the expansion of slavery to the places where it already existed but extinguishing the slave trade, which was threatening to drive the institution into new territories” (Harris, p 234). In the epilogue, “Atlantic Reverberations”, Harris ties Spain’s isolation, the end of the United States’ participation in the illegal slave trade, and the Spanish government’s suppression efforts to the end of the trade in the 1860s.
Harris’ work is strengthened by his use of sources, attention to detail, and attention to the larger international context. To form his argument, Harris pulls extensively from the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, speeches from abolitionists, government legislation and memos, treaties, historic journals, poetry, and correspondence. Harris works to contextualize the illegal slave trade within the larger story of international relations, the impact of manifest destiny ideology, and the situation in Cuba. Harris engages with the historiography at the intersection of New York City history and slavery. The Last Slave Ships is particularly interesting when viewed in conversation with Kurt Schlichting’s Waterfront Manhattan: From Henry Hudson to the High Line (2018). These two works provide important – but slightly different- narratives attesting to New York’s entrenchment in the institution of slavery. In Waterfront Manhattan, Schlichting traces the rise of the port of New York to the cotton web; the cotton web depended on New York’s packet ships, slavery, and the industrial revolution. In The Last Slave Ships, Harris argues the illegal slave trade to Cuba hinged on New York; New York was an important port which provided traffickers a home base, ships flying the American flag, and protection. In addition, Harris does connect to the larger historiography on the history of slavery. His section on the Middle Passage, in particular, is interesting when viewed in conversation with Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. In The Last Slave Ships, Harris has woven a nuanced and impressive narrative which uncovers an important- and little known- aspect of both New York City history and the history of the illegal slave trade to Cuba.
Erin Becker is the Visitor Services & Volunteer Coordinator at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville, NY. Her research interests focus on the convergence of women, labor, and the environment through a global extractive maritime economy. Her work in museums grapples with investing local peoples in their resources (archaeological, historical, and environmental) as stakeholders through outreach, education, and the development of public programming. She has written for Gotham Center for New York City History, New York History Blog, Read More Science, and Global Maritime History. She is the cohost of the Scholars Beyond the Tower: Conversations from our Fields podcast. She can be found at @ErinE_Becker on Twitter.