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The Final Victims: Foreign Slave Trade to North America, 1783-1810

Author(s):McMillin, James A.
Reviewer(s):Misevich, Philip

Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

James A. McMillin, The Final Victims: Foreign Slave Trade to North America, 1783-1810. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004. xi + 207 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN: 1-57003-546-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Philip Misevich, History Department, Emory University.

Since the publication of Philip Curtin’s Census, we have moved steadily toward a better understanding of the movement of coerced African laborers throughout the Atlantic world. With its broad outlines sketched more than a quarter century ago, recent scholarship on the Atlantic slave trade has focused on more specific issues including the roles played by national carriers based in Europe and the Americas, studies of African points of embarkation and their relationship to the continent’s interior, and examinations of slave-importing regions across the Atlantic. The Final Victims takes the latter of these approaches, exploring the “foreign” slave trade to North America after the American Revolution. Despite the almost hegemonic influence that scholarship on North American slavery has had on slave studies as a whole, this work is the first book-length study of the post-Independence American slave trade to appear.

The book is organized topically. In five chapters, James McMillin (Southern Methodist University) examines the ideological and commercial factors that contributed to an increased demand for slave labor subsequent to the War, the volume of North American slave imports between 1783 and 1810, the origins of slaves transported to North America, merchant participation in the trade and the changing conditions captives endured while in transport. Evidence is largely quantitative in nature but qualitative information is also employed to good effect. Broadly speaking, McMillin argues that far more slaves were imported into post-Independence North America than previously estimated; that Revolutionary ideology did little to slow the import of African labor after the War; and that slave ship conditions worsened following the resumption of the North American slave trade in 1783. Although he does not challenge the notion that natural increase was the dominant factor that accounted for the growth of North America’s black population, McMillin argues persuasively that “the foreign slave trade contributed much more to the growth than previously thought” (13).

A thorough use of archival sources is one of the great strengths of the book. McMillin draws on census records, contemporary accounts, customs records and, perhaps most significantly, a list of more than thirty separate newspapers from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The variation in sources allows for three independent estimates of the volume of the North American slave trade, each calculated from a different method. The first is based on census records in 1790, 1800 and 1810 using a regionally-modified growth rate. Two additional estimates are then derived from shipping records, the first a summation of hard numbers of slave imports that appear mainly in newspapers and the second estimated from the total carrying capacity of vessels suspected to have delivered slaves to North America. Combining these approaches, a total volume of 170,300 slaves imported from 1783 to 1810 is advanced, a figure significantly higher than Curtin’s estimate (92,000) but much smaller than the 291,000 suggested by Fogel and Engerman in Time on the Cross.[1]

McMillin’s conclusions will do little, in the end, to change the bigger picture of the movement of unfree Africans across the Atlantic. The volume of the North American trade still accounts for barely five percent of the slave trade as a whole. Moreover, McMillin’s findings on the African origins of North American slaves are broadly consistent with the work of previous scholars, concluding that a disproportionately high percentage came from ports between Senegambia and the Gold Coast, though he does reveal slight changes in the years just prior to the abolition of the United States’ slave trade. But by focusing on a smaller slave-importing region, the author is able to highlight the ways in which American merchants struggled against the more powerful nations engaged in the African slave trade. The relatively disadvantaged position of North American businessmen following the War meant that when the African slave trade reopened in 1783, it was left in the hands of a few wealthy vendors. Indeed the concentrated nature of investment in the slave trade is clear from this work and it is perhaps here that McMillin makes his most significant contribution. In Charleston, 60 percent of all slaves imported were sold by a group of eighteen individuals and firms. The most active firm, Austin, Laurens, and Appleby, sold as many as 60 separate slave cargos. From these early years, the city’s trade grew to such an extent that from 1804 to 1808, Charleston became “one of the great slaving ports of the world” (94), its ships exceeding the number of vessels that made slaving voyages from London and Bristol, England, in the four-year period. As McMillin rightly concludes, the end of the slave trade surely dealt a major blow to the Charleston shipping industry.

Readers interested in an Atlantic World perspective may be disappointed in the near total lack of attention paid to the relationship between developments in Africa and their effect on the North American slave trade. Although the author recognizes that “geography and economic, political, and social forces, not only in North America, but in Europe and Africa as well, continued to bear on the trade” (71), New World factors are certainly privileged. However, scholars familiar with slave trader accounts written in Africa may question whether an American planter’s ability to “specify the quantity, gender, age and origin of slaves” (60) meant much to a captain struggling to complete a slaving voyage along the Guinea Coast, where slaves were often purchased two or three at a time and captains were rushing to avoid confrontation with deadly diseases. Now that the idea of African agency in the development of the Atlantic World is beyond question, pointing out such an omission is more than just the reviewer’s wish that the author had written a different book. Finally, McMillin is to be commended for providing a dataset of more than 1,700 slaving voyages, though as a pdf file some might find it difficult to work with.


1. Philip Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969, p. 140; Robert W. Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974, p. 25.

Philip Misevich is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University. His article, “In Pursuit of Human Cargo: Philip Livingston and the Voyage of the Sloop Rhode Island,” will appear in the August 2005 issue of the journal New York History.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century