A New Demography

One striking and under-recognized feature of the illegal slave trade was a shift in its demographic composition. Over two centuries of the traffic there was a steady climb in the share of males. The male ratio increased from 55 percent in the mid-seventeenth century to nearly 75 percent in the last quarter century of the trade. But a more dramatic change occurred in the share of children. Between the last fifteen years of the eighteenth century and the final era of the slave trade, 1851-67, that share more than doubled, to 43 percent, and several slave ships carried only children. The rise in the male ratio was largely accounted for by boys rather than men, and as the adult ratio fell and the proportion of males increased, the volume of women carried across the Atlantic fell both absolutely and relatively to its lowest recorded level in this era.

More broadly, in Atlantic migration as a whole, this period saw European women come to predominate numerically over African women for the first time in the "re-peopling of the Americas." Taking together as a unit coerced African migrants and free and indentured European migrants, it might be said that whereas four out of five women crossing the Atlantic before 1820 had been African, this ratio was reversed in the middle decades of the nineteenth century as mass migration from Europe got under way.  The reasons behind these patterns are still not clear. As for children, perhaps, they were easier to smuggle into the Americas, in that they blended into large plantations more easily. But such patterns may well have more to do with social structures and attitudes in Africa than changes in the conditions of transportation and in what slave owners in the Americas were demanding in the way of labor.

But whatever the cause, the consequences in cultural terms must have been considerable and have so far been ignored. One immediate impact of these changes was a sharp decline in rebellions aboard slave ship. The greatest incidence of revolts occurred in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. However, while the rate declined, it might be noted that the most successful shipboard revolt in the history of the slave trade occurred in 1859, when three hundred Africans overpowered the crew of a French vessel, successfully returned the ship to the Windward Coast, and disembarked with few casualties.