Ambiguous Anniversary: The Bicentennial of the International Slave Trade Bans

By Marks, John Garrison | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Ambiguous Anniversary: The Bicentennial of the International Slave Trade Bans


Marks, John Garrison, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Ambiguous Anniversary: The Bicentennial of the International Slave Trade Bans. Edited by David T. Gleeson and Simon Lewis. The Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. xxiii, 216; $49.95, hardcover.)

In 2008, just a year before the inauguration of the United States's first African American president, the anniversary of a major event in the history of New World slavery passed largely unnoticed in this country: the two hundredth anniversary of the banning of the international slave trade. Great Britain, meanwhile, celebrated the bicentennial of their ban on the international slave trade in 2007 quite remarkably, with exhibitions, conferences, and cultural events held throughout the year. Ambiguous Anniversary: The Bicentennial of the International Slave Trade Bans, edited by David T. Gleeson and Simon Lewis, emerged from one of the few American events to commemorate the occasion, a conference sponsored by the College of Charleston's Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program that examined the wider intellectual and historical problems associated with the slave trade bans and the celebration of their anniversaries. This volume challenges the reader to critically consider the different paths taken by the United States and Great Britain to ban the slave trade and what bans on the Atlantic trade meant for the future of slavery in North America and the British Caribbean. It also asks us to do the same for the legacy of the slave trade bans and their commemorations on either side of the Atlantic.

Because of South Carolina's extremely prominent role in the importation of Africans to the United States-three-fifths of all enslaved people imported came through the state's ports, the vast majority disembarking in Charleston-South Carolina figures prominently in this volume. In the first and second chapters, Kenneth Morgan and Jonathan Mercantini, respectively, address the complicated political calculations that ultimately made the United States's 1808 ban possible. Morgan argues that the ban was a "subdued process, and not the result of a sustained abolitionist crusade" (p. 2). Rather, politicians conceived the slave trade more in economic terms than moral ones, as individual states placed various proscriptions on slave importations long before 1808. This made the final ban less climactic than some have contended. Mercantini also delves into the politics of the slave trade ban, analyzing South Carolina's role in securing a constitutional guarantee that the trade would continue for at least twenty years after ratification in 1787. Mercantini notes that historians have underestimated South Carolina's leverage in constitutional debates about slavery and the slave trade. He argues that South Carolina delegates to the Constitutional Convention played a crucial role in winning concessions over slavery, particularly the guarantee that the slave trade would remain open for at least two decades. According to Mercantini, the South Carolina delegates "had a long-demonstrated commitment to slavery first and everything else-independence, union, and equality-second" (p. 47). This commitment, coupled with their "political culture of brinksmanship," ensured that the constitution would be a proslavery document (p. 47).

South Carolina plays a role in several of the other essays as well. Gregory E. O'Malley, for instance, discusses how for many Africans, the Atlantic slave trade did not end with disembarkation. …

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