Introduction: Ending the Transatlantic Slave Trade: Bicentennial Research, Reflections, and Commemorations

Article excerpt

"Denial--It's not just a river in Egypt."

The year 2008 marks the bicentennial of the end of legal participation of United States citizens in the transatlantic slave trade. Under the terms of compromises that were made to gain southern slaveholders' support for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, members of the Congress were banned from prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans into the United States until 1808. In light of the successful slave revolt on Saint Domingue leading to the birth of Haiti, the second republic in the New World (1791-1804); Gabriel Prosser's unsuccessful slave insurrection in Virginia in 1800; and the decision by the members of Parliament in 1807 to outlaw British participation in the transatlantic slave trade, the Congress voted to ban the importation of enslaved Africans into the United States as of 1 January 1808. (1)

Whereas in the United Kingdom there were commemorations and exhibitions mounted throughout 2007 to mark the bicentennial of this momentous event, there have been no large exhibitions, few conferences, and only a handful of scholarly publications devoted to commemorating the bicentennial of the end of legal participation of U.S. citizens in the international slave trade. The silence has been deafening, but not altogether unexpected given most Americans' failure to face up to the inhumane and deadly practices of slavery and slave trading that created the wealth of the nation. Historian Eric Foner suggested that "it is easy to understand ... why the [international] trade's abolition appears so anticlimactic. Banning American participation in the slave trade did not end the shipment of Africans to the Western Hemisphere. Some three million more slaves were brought to Brazil and Spanish America before the trade finally ended. With southerners dominating the federal government for most of the period before the Civil War, enforcement was lax and smuggling of slaves into the United States continued." (2) Indeed, in 2007 historian Sylviane A. Diouf published her prizewinning book on "The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America." These African captives were smuggled into Mobile, Alabama, in 1860, one year before the outbreak of the Civil War. (3)

In order to acknowledge the bicentennial anniversary, this Special Issue of The Journal of African American History includes new scholarly studies on the history of the legal and illegal transatlantic slave trade, reflections on the bicentennial commemorations that took place in the United Kingdom in 2007, and an essay review on the important new study by historian Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History. (4) Over the last decade an important new area of research regarding the international slave trade has emerged: the health conditions and diet of those African captives forced into the Middle Passage. Sowande' Mustakeem in her article "'I Never Have Such a Sickly Ship Before': Diet, Disease, and Mortality in 18th -Century Atlantic Slaving Voyages" describes the food products taken on board and used to feed African captives, and the diseases that afflicted those who were captured and enslaved in the "barracoons" on the African coasts and subjected to the Middle Passage. The food products preferred by ship captains--yams, rice, beans, salted-meats, "slauber sauce"--were those capable of lasting through the often lengthy slaving voyages. But they did not prevent the deaths of large numbers of captives due to scurvy, the flux (dysentery), smallpox, venereal and other diseases. Through a detailed examination of shipping records, captains' logs, and reports from ship surgeons, Mustakeem found that the Middle Passage was a deadly and disease-filled experience for captives and those who chose or were forced to participate in transatlantic slave trading in the 18th century.

Those captives who survived the voyage and made it to North America brought with them cultural beliefs and practices that helped to sustain them in the hostile New World environment. …