“Get as many slaves as you can.”
It was a hurried command from a Charleston merchant in mid-1807, with mere months left before the federal abolishment of the international slave trade. Charleston had been basking in four years of economic glory, but the end was more than inevitable, it was expected. And the knowledge that these would be the last of the human cargo sent a flood of ships out of the Charleston harbor in hopes of capturing a profit.
In the three months that marked the end of the slave trade, more than 12,000 slaves would be processed through the Charleston port. Some would be stored in warehouses or in the belly of boats until the new law was in force so they would bring a higher price, often leading to disease for the weak and, some may say, death for the lucky. They were Charleston’s darkest days, largely forgotten among the city’s cobblestoned streets of historic charm.
Beginning with a ceremony on March 25 to mark the 200th anniversary of the British abolishment of the slave trade, local scholars, historians, and slave descendants will be leading efforts to recognize Charleston’s past as not only the home of a number of slaves, but the port of call for the thousands who passed through here during the last days of the world’s most abominable institution.
The recent movie Amazing Grace chronicled Britain’s long struggle with abolishing the slave trade, focusing on the movement’s strongest political supporter, William Wilberforce. The British events calendar is filled with programs honoring the bicentenary of the end of the slave trade, including exhibitions, a documentary, conferences, and a National Commemorative Service on March 27 that will include descendants of Charleston slaves.
There likely hasn’t been similar fanfare on this side of the pond for a number of reasons, most notably that Wilburforce’s American counterparts are hard to find. Northerners that had long opposed the slave trade bowed to demands from South Carolina and Georgia that the business go unimpeded for two decades after the U.S. was created. Not necessarily a history worth celebrating.
It seems like a confusing paradox, particularly with our 21st century binoculars, that the U.S. and England would abolish the slave trade in March of 1807 and yet preserve the institution of slavery for years (in America’s case, decades). In history books, the end of the slave trade is often glossed over, sacrificed for other arguably more important events like the Emancipation Proclamation or the end of the Civil War. But neither of those events is tied more closely to the roots of Charleston than the city’s slave-trading past.
The end of the slave trade was predestined since the first days of our new country, but the South’s affinity for slave labor led the founding fathers to leave it up to states to regulate the slave trade for 20 years. Even though South Carolina officials pushed for autonomy, the state wasn’t involved in the slave trade for more than half of the 20-year window. A state embargo on fresh slaves in 1792 was designed to combat a lagging market. The ban held until 1803, when it was evident that the federal government would act swiftly once the 20-year deal expired in 1807, says James McMillin, author of The Final Victims, on the post-Revolutionary slave trade.
“People knew this was their last shot at importing Africans and they went at it with a process that should embarrass us,” says McMillin, a Texas historian who scoured old Charleston port records and newspapers while researching for the book.
Beginning in 1804, South Carolina reopened its ports to slave traders and the reaction was almost instant.
Ebenezer Thomas, a Charleston bookseller at the time, noted, “a great change took place in everything. Vessels were fitted out in numbers for the coast of Africa, and as fast as they returned, their cargoes were bought up with avidity.”
Rice, tobacco, cotton, and other industries benefited heavily from the slave trade. Slaves up for sale had to be modestly clothed and meagerly fed, and buyers and sellers would often need lodging and food of their own. Local industries shipped out $18 million in goods to trade for the enslaved Africans. In his book, McMillin notes that “hundreds of additional ships docked in Charleston with more than $3 million in wet and dry trade goods, shackles, chains, clothing, supplies, and provisions for the African trade.”
“There was this boom from 1804 to 1807 where ships were outfitted, slaves were marketed, fed, and stored,” says McMillin. “It had a dramatic impact. The shipping activity through the port worked its way through the economy.”
By the end of the decade, more than 400 ships had arrived in Charleston. In the last two years of the legal slave trade, slave ships registered in Charleston did more business than every port in the world but Liverpool.
“Charleston was one of the great slaving ports of the world,” writes author Daniel Mannix in his book Black Cargoes. “It seemed that almost all the white population was infected with Negro fever.”
While the South was reveling in the slave trade, the rest of the country was impatiently plotting its demise. In late 1806, Thomas Jefferson called for the abolition of slave trading. By early 1807, he got his wisth and on March 2 he signed the federal law, abolishing the trade more than three weeks before Britain would make a similar move. But while the Brits planned on wrapping things up within three months, the slave trade to the U.S. had a 10-month reprieve, spurring a flurry of activity in Charleston to pull in more slaves from Africa before it was too late.
“They sponsored more than 90 slaving voyages in 1806 and 1807,” McMillin notes in The Final Victims.
“One Charleston firm, Gardner and Phillips, outfitted at least 15 vessels in 1807 alone for slaving voyages to Africa.”
As boats filled the coast of Africa, “quality” slaves were hard to find, forcing some slavers to return short handed
The influx near the end almost crippled slavers’ grabs at “quality” Africans, mainly young men that could be sold at a good price. Some boats returned half full or with aged or infirm people that didn’t sell well, if at all. McMillin notes that other slave ships didn’t make it back as insurrection in Africa prevented safe returns.
“The Charleston Courier gave no explanations for the loss of the ship Lydia at Rio Pongus in May, and brig Eliza lost in October on the coast. It reported fire destroyed the ship General Eatonin in June on the coast, and an explosion destroyed the ship Independence at Leango Bay. And a captain informed the paper that the brig Nancy was left at the Isles de Los in November with 94 slaves on board and all the crew dead.”
On Jan. 1, 1808, the Charleston Courier had only a brief note on the abolishment:
“The importation of slaves from Africa ceases this day, according to act of Congress. There have been imported, since our ports have been opened, the following number
1804 — 5,386
1805 — 6,790
1806 — 11,458
1807 — 15,676
The slave trade wasn’t immediately vanquished. In the same issue of the Charleston Courier, ads ran for the sale of slaves from ships that had ported prior to Jan. 1. Other boats that missed the deadline would have their cargo seized, but the slaves would eventually be sold anyway.
Some slavers who did make the deadline held their cargo so that they could mark up the price once the new law was in place, McMillin says. In late 1807, there was a notice in the Charleston Courier requesting a meeting of all those interested in the slave trade.
“That sounds very suspicious to me,” McMillin says. “It doesn’t say why they were meeting. When you look at the arrival of the slave ships, it appears there was some holding off on the market.”
While they waited out the market, slaves were left in boats or shelved in warehouses. Many of them died before being sold, with one observer noting about 700 deaths in three months, with carpenters making caskets for the bodies daily.
While Charleston industries would soon exit the slave trade, there was little to replace it in a market that had grown to revolve around the trade routes. “Perhaps, if they would not have been constrained by a slave society, the merchants could have channelled their ‘vigorous spirit of enterprise’ into other branches of commerce and fulfilled the promise of the Revolution,” McMillin writes in The Final Victims. “Although numerous factors contributed to its decline, after two decades of growth and prosperity, Charleston shipping and commerce slumped soon after the slave trade ended in 1808. It remained in the doldrums throughout most of the antebellum era.”
The Last Chapter
While Charleston’s role as the hub of the international slave trade could be sufficiently closed by 1810, its history of oppression of both free blacks and slaves continued well into the 19th century. Local and state laws would limit when blacks could be out on the streets, where they could go, and how many of them could congregate in the same place. For a time, freed slaves who left South Carolina would be subject to slavery if they returned and those who traveled into Charleston’s harbor among a ship’s crew had to be locked up until the ship left our “friendly” shores. The state placed nearly insurmountable obstacles in front of masters who wished to free their own slaves. Slave owners began renting out their slaves for work, forcing them to wear tags that marked them as slave labor.
Rumors of planned slave revolts like the one that got Denmark Vesey and nearly three dozen other blacks hanged led the city to implore the state for assistance, which spurred the formation of the Citadel just outside the city’s boundaries in the 1820s. Slaves continued to be sold around the Old Exchange Building, eventually relocating to nearby street corners before finally moving into the Slave Mart, now known as the Old Slave Mart on Chalmers Street.
In 1853, nearly half a century after the brief reestablishment of the slave trade that made Charleston an international slave hub, South Carolina legislators made a final attempt to reinstitute the slave trade. The idea was floated first in Charleston newspapers The Standard and The Charleston Mercury by slave supporters who saw the growing number of European ex-patriots in the north as tipping the scale of power and influence. Their argument was that the only way for the South to combat this influx of willing immigrants was to find a few unwilling immigrants. By 1856, the like-minded Gov. James H. Adams called for reinstituting the slave trade.
That call was, as history tells us, the South’s attempt to pick a fight. Trade supporters may have been able to garner some support in the South but knew that the North would have no part of it. That kind of fight could, and some say eventually did, spur secession and eventual war.
This burp of “Southern aggression” didn’t make it far. While plantation owners were largely supportive, white and free black laborers in Charleston were already weary of slaves being rented out for work who were taking jobs, and they didn’t want further competition. The growing cotton industry had also made slaves more costly, pricing a lot of whites out of the market for buying slaves, leaving the number of supporters too small to make inroads in more affluent circles. In 1858, opponents of the slave trade won elections and pronounced an end to the debate over the slave trade’s return.
While the debate was still going strong, Leonidas W. Spratt, editor of the Charleston Standard, had made a prediction about Charleston’s growing number of Northerners that helped evolve perceptions of slavery:
“They will question the right of masters to employ their slaves in any works that they may wish for; they will invoke the aid of legislation; they may acquire the power to determine municipal elections; they will inexorably use it; and thus this town of Charleston, at the very heart of slavery, may become a fortress of democratic power against it.”
The villains and victims of that era are long dead and time has done its part to transform Charleston, sometimes the memories of these times are given prominence, like the recent reunion of descendants of slaves and family members at Drayton Hall. More often these stories are pushed aside to focus on the city’s “charm.” The local ceremony on March 25 is just the beginning of a year of events calling attention to Charleston’s slave past that will include reopening the Old Slave Mart Museum this spring. While much of the nostalgia for Charleston’s long history is about honoring the past, sometimes it’s important just to remember the hard truth.
Commemorating the Bicentenary
There have always been random reminders of Charleston’s role in slavery, but beginning with a ceremony later this month remembering the abolishment of the slave trade, Charleston will be working to spotlight its darker, unflattering history while recognizing how far we’ve come and what more can be done.
On Sun. March 25, there will be an interfaith memorial service beginning at 3 p.m. at Liberty Square. The event recognizes laws signed in March 1807 in both Britain and England to end the slave trade, even though it was decades before slavery was finally abolished.
“We think it’s an event that actually draws attention to Charleston’s place in world history,” says Simon Lewis, director of the Program in the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World at the College of Charleston. “That’s something that we haven’t really paid a great deal of attention to in Charleston. It’s kind of swept under the rug.”
Gallery exhibitions, theatrical performances, documentary screenings, and memorials will all be unveiled over the next year and the city will be reopening the Old Slave Mart Museum this spring after extensive renovations. The events will lead to an international conference this time next year with historians and speakers from England, Canada, the Caribbean, and Africa traveling to Charleston for “Ending the Atlantic Slave Trade: A Bicentenary Inquiry.”
“It’s a way to get people to think about slavery, but it’s a way to think about slavery in the bigger American story of freedom,” Lewis says. “In the end, we emerged from it.”