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Published by EH.Net (April 2024).

Nicholas Radburn. Traders in Men: Merchants and the Transformation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023. xii +341 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0300257618.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Matthew David Mitchell, The University of the South.

 

Among historians of business generally, it goes without saying that firms innovate to gain advantages over their competitors, yet until very recently, this fundamental principle was largely lacking from scholarly analyses of the transatlantic slave trade. Nicholas Radburn’s new book is a well-written, thought-provoking, and fascinating addition to a growing body of literature that portrays the slave trade not as a static business, conducted the same way for more than 350 years, but instead as a business whose contours changed over time because of profit-seeking decisions by merchants. Despite the focus on merchants, Radburn keeps the impact of these decisions upon the African men, women, and children forced into the trade firmly in view. Across five chapters corresponding to five areas of innovation, Radburn unfolds this story of slave-trading merchants whose business practices developed over decades—in fragmented and experimental ways at first, but converging on a set of “industry standards” by the end of the eighteenth century.

Radburn illustrates this transition from divergence to convergence particularly well in his first chapter, on the expanding geographic reach and social composition of transatlantic slave trade participants. Up until about 1730, Radburn convincingly argues, Britain’s slavers were primarily Londoners of elite or near-elite social status: first, the directors of the Royal African Company [22], and then “separate traders” like Humphry Morice, who usurped the RAC’s previous dominance through his innovations in the discovery and use of information on what African consumer markets demanded in exchange for their slaves [32-33]. The Bristol- and Liverpool-based merchants who in turn usurped the London independents were more socially marginal men, and while they shared Morice’s understanding of the importance of African market information, they were also risk-hungry enough to invest in developing this information for areas beyond the familiar slave-purchasing ports of the Gold Coast and the Bight of Benin. To the west at the Windward Coast, and even more so to the east at ports such as Bonny and New Calabar on the Bight of Biafra, the new market entrants found African merchants ready to trade enslaved persons in large numbers at prices all the lower due to their previous neglect by the London-based market incumbents [33-35].

What’s more, the “merchants” Radburn identifies in his title were not only the Britons who owned and operated the slave ships; they were also the African merchants who dealt with them. Like their British counterparts, these were “equally fringe people who also saw opportunities to elevate themselves through slaving” and who “realized that their success hinged on making their homes efficient markets for the sale of people, attracting British vessels that might otherwise sail elsewhere” [22]. One of the most compelling features of Radburn’s work is the skill with which he weaves together existing studies of both coastal and inland polities with evidence from accounts written by European slave traders to offer a plausible portrayal of how people groups such as the Fante of the Gold Coast or the Aro and Efik of Biafra “developed the physical infrastructure that enabled enslaved people to be moved to the coast in enormous numbers” [49]. Done less skillfully, this attention to African developments might feel “tacked-on”; in Radburn’s hands, it stands up to comparison with his analysis of how, for their part, “Britons established the market infrastructure needed to source the complex assortments of trade goods demanded by African consumers in exchange for slaves.” The result: “Commercial relationships between African and British merchants therefore connected the frontiers, linking previously peripheral people together in a mutually beneficial arrangement that enabled both groups to thrive in the slave trade—a business from which they had previously been excluded by more established merchants” [22].

This convergence of African and British business practices extended to a shared understanding of the order in which goods and slaves would be offered for sale during a particular ship’s visit to a specific port. The individual preferences of both buyers and sellers were subsumed in this system, under African slave sellers offered only women, boys, and girls to ships that had only just arrived in port, while at the same time trading “prime” adult male slaves to ships in the later stages of their visit in exchange for their highest-value “commanding articles” of trade [81-84]. As Radburn puts it: “[A] captain thought of his vessel as occupying a place in an orderly line of ships, awaiting his ‘turn’ to purchase people; the few captains who tried to leap the queue by offering higher prices early raised the ire of their fellow mariners” [85].

Radburn also has much to say about the work of the “Guinea factors” of the American colonies who conducted the sale of enslaved Africans from off the newly arrived transatlantic ships, and whose function developed because it spread the risks of the transatlantic trade more efficiently than did the salaried agents once employed by the Royal African Company [133]. A system similar to that which ordered the embarkation of enslaved persons on the African coast also structured their disembarkation in the Americas, and although existing literature makes much of instances in which arriving slaves were sold individually at auction, or by “scrambles” in which many purchasers were let into a slave enclosure to literally catch those that they wanted and then negotiate the price, Radburn argues that these were relatively rare modes of sale [182-185].

Instead, the usual method up to around 1670 was to divide a cargo of enslaved persons “into uniformly sized ‘Lotts’ that included a mixture of adults and children, the healthy and the sickly. Each person within the group was sold at the same price regardless of age, gender, or health, ensuring that affluent colonists could not use their superior market power to pick out the healthiest captives at high prices” [161]. After that date, as the different colonies (Barbados first and others such as Jamaica and Virginia later) developed more stratified social structures, Guinea factors began to give preferential treatment to the most affluent purchasers. These were allowed early access to slave ships and the opportunity to organize their own lots and negotiate their bidding price for them. This allowed these preferred customers to buy up most of the “prime” slaves, leaving those of lower value to be sold to the general public, with chronically ill or disabled persons cruelly known as “refuse slaves” being sold last [162-163]. These had also been the last sold at African points of sale, and Radburn painstakingly shows how a special set of institutions linked across the Atlantic to market, transport, lodge, and funnel them to the lowest-status white British colonists. Like the socioeconomically marginal slave sellers of the Bight of Biafra or slave shippers of Liverpool and Bristol, these socioeconomically marginal colonists harbored high appetites for risk—in this case, the risk of purchasing and providing medical care for “refuse slaves” in hopes of vaulting into the ranks of enslavers on their backs [191-194].

British, African, and American ports and their hinterlands were sites where the merchants of Radburn’s title carried out “the transformation of the transatlantic slave trade,” but so too was the Middle Passage itself. In his third chapter, Radburn dates the key innovations in this phase of the trade to the last three decades of the seventeenth century. Jean Barbot, a French-born owner and captain of English slave ships, led the way in instituting a system that allotted the smallest amount of space physically possible to each enslaved person in the hold of his ship, and allowing breaks from this treatment only in carefully scheduled and controlled excursions above deck, as offering the most profitable combination of security, numbers, and health [95-99]. To Barbot’s own account, Radburn adds the memoir of a contemporary slaving captain, Thomas Phillips, as well as Royal African Company documentation to demonstrate that this “tight-packing” method became general throughout the trade by 1700, offering reduced mortality and increased profitability compared to previous practices under which Africans were shackled belowdecks for the entire voyage [102-103].

In an epilogue, Radburn addresses the longstanding “capitalism and slavery” debate, arguing in favor of the “econocide” interpretation that sees the slave trade as a going concern that could have continued beyond 1807 if not abolished, rather than a backwards institution that had been rendered obsolete by industrialization in Britain. Indeed, Radburn argues that the politics of the Age of Revolutions, even as it turned public opinion against the slave trade, offered new opportunities for the shrewdest and luckiest slave traders to realize greater profits than ever before [197-198]. One example he offers of this paradox is Dolben’s Act—the legislation of 1788 that placed statutory limits on the degree of crowding in slave ship holds. Yet these “regulations ultimately benefited slave traders because they substantially reduced shipboard mortality: death rates halved, from 10 percent to 5 percent of embarked Africans… Abolitionist efforts to improve shipboard conditions for captive Africans therefore inadvertently improved the efficiency of slave traders’ businesses” [204].

This may well have been true, but it also presents a puzzle for which Radburn here offers no solution. British merchants, he argues in chapter 3, converged on “tight-packing” as a standard practice “through a careful process of experimentation at the turn of the eighteenth century” [126]. Yet if Parliament’s 1788 mandate on the use of hold space actually improved efficiency, we are left to consider that this “careful process of experimentation” had resulted not only in a compounding of the moral failure that was the transatlantic slave trade; it had also resulted in a market failure. To note, however, that this specific problem here goes unresolved is not to question, but rather to confirm, the importance of Radburn’s contribution towards the development of a literature on the business of the transatlantic slave trade that views its subject in a developmental way.

 

Matthew David Mitchell is Associate Professor of History at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He is the author of The Prince of Slavers: Humphry Morice and the Transformation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1698–1732 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

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