No Longer a Triangular Trade

Except for the revived French traffic, which operated out of the ports of France between 1813 and 1831, illegal slave ships were owned and voyages organized overwhelmingly in the Americas. At least seven thousand ventures sailed for Africa from ports in Brazil and Cuba after 1820, with Havana, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro predominating. Slave vessels also left from U.S. ports after 1840.

How many were owned by Americans is unclear, but there were at least two voyages bringing Africans to the U.S.

Others were purchased and fitted out in the U.S. but owned by Portuguese and Spanish nationals. Ownership of transatlantic slaving ventures had always been broadly based, but became even more so in the nineteenth century as investors sought to spread risk in the face of attempts to suppress the trade. In Havana, a nascent stock exchange operated in the 1830s, where the shares of ventures were traded down to the moment of the return of the vessel. Shopkeepers and local tradesmen participated in this, although plantation owners and merchants based in Spain were the source of most of the funds invested in the Cuban slave trade.

In Brazil, Portuguese merchants formed the largest single group of investors. But some of the funding ultimately came from Britain. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the manufactured goods carried to the coast to exchange for captives were largely made in Britain, and in both Brazil and Cuba goods were advanced on credit by British merchants, with payment due at the end of the slaving voyage. Alcohol and tobacco, the produce of the Americas, formed a large share of the remainder of the outbound cargo, particularly in Brazil. Many British citizens were thus benefiting from the illegal traffic even as the British navy and the Foreign Office led the campaign against it.

As the treaty network spread and governments in the Americas slowly began to pass and enforce measures against the slave trade, it becomes more difficult to discern ownership. In the 1840s vessels often sailed without any registration papers, or alternatively they carried sets of papers (and flags) of more than one country. These would be changed in response to naval activity; even more often, the U.S. flag, of which the British were wary, would be used on the outbound voyage and some other flag (or no flag at all) would be hoisted once the captives were taken on board.