New England rum was a valuable commodity to trade African kings for slaves – one hundred gallons was sufficient to purchase a male slave in the Guinea trade. Newport, Rhode Island maintained a merchant fleet of 170 vessels in 1750, half of which were engaged exclusively in the slave trade and formed the basis of that regions financial wealth. The American South was the recipient, not the originator, of African slavery.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa 1865
Recognized and Entirely Legal African Business
“The ports of London, Liverpool, and Bristol were deeply involved in the [transatlantic] slave trade by the early years of the century, and by the 1760’s the prosperity of Liverpool, whose ships carried more than half the English part of the trade, was commonly thought to rest on the slavers.
[The Northern colonies in America] took to it, and early in the century Yankee slavers, chiefly operating out of Newport and Bristol in Rhode Island and in much smaller volume out of Boston, Salem and Providence, with a sprinkling of vessels out of Portsmouth, New London and New York, entered the business. In the main, they supplied the West Indies rather than the mainland; the vast majority of slaves brought to American shores came in British hulls.
Although some white men raided and kidnapped blacks along the African coast, such violence was neither prudent nor necessary. The vast majority of slaves were bought from native African slavers at or near the West African coast.
Whites knew almost nothing about Africa farther than fifty or a hundred miles into the interior, and for the most part the European trading companies were content to operate from coastal forts to which efficiently organized African societies were capable of delivering a steady supply of slaves.
Africa had a system or systems of slavery long before white men came to the Guinea Coast, and had regularly enslaved was captives and criminals. Once the European trade opened, the profits to be made from a large external slave market provoked more wars and instigated more rigorous punishment of crime by native chiefs.
Other persons sold themselves or their families for food during famine, or were kidnapped by native gangs. Many native kings ran profitable slave businesses, and responded eagerly to opportunities for greater profits. The slave trade became a recognized and entirely legal form of business in Africa.
Moreover, the Africans took to guns and gunpowder with a rapidity which, while lamentable in many respects, was highly protective in others. Africans had no more impulse toward racial solidarity than Europeans did toward Christian unity. [African kings could] charge Europeans substantial rents for permission to build trading forts, yet deny them the power to dominate any more land than the immediate territories around the forts.
[And it] was labor, not territory, that the whites wanted from Africa, and the African kings, through their commission merchants, were usually pleased to sell laborers, accustomed as they were to selling, exchanging, and sometimes giving away their own slaves. At the beginning they probably did not know what they were selling their slaves into, and in the end apparently did not much care.”
(America at 1750, A Social Portrait, Richard Hofstader, Vintage Books, 1973, pp. 75-77)