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A Poisonous Legacy: New York City and the Persistence of the Middle Passage


By John Harris

In the middle of 1856, the soon-to-be-celebrated poet Walt Whitman visited an impounded slave ship in Brooklyn. The taking of the ship was an unusual occurrence, as it was one of the few illegal slavers seized by an otherwise lethargic Washington, D.C., and Whitman wanted to give his readers a tour of the vessel, which had been designed to add even more enslaved laborers to the millions already ensnared in this system of iniquity, including of its hold, where those victimized were to be “laid together spoon-fashion.”

Whitman’s keen journalistic interest was a response to the feverish political climate in his homeland, featuring ever more overwrought cries demanding the relegalization and reopening of the Atlantic slave trade. Officially, this branch of flesh peddling had been rendered illegal by Britain in 1807 and by the United States in 1808, but it had continued nonetheless, with boatloads of kidnapped Africans being transported to the Americas, especially Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. It was likely that some of Whitman’s readers in New York City—the citadel of this illicit commerce—would have taken a decided interest in his grim reportage.

John Harris’s The Last Slave Ships offers a more comprehensive portrait of the illegal slave trade in the Atlantic, starting with the last slave ships to dock in New York Harbor. Mining the historical archives in Spain, Portugal, Cuba, and the United States, Harris demonstrates how, even as slavery was being abolished in the Northern states, it continued to flourish, since the slave system was not confined simply to below the Mason-Dixon Line. The financing of the slave trade’s illegitimate commerce was sited heavily in Manhattan: The ships passed through the waterways of the city’s harbor, and the denizens of Gotham also enjoyed the profits of this odious system, even as many of them publicly denounced it. After all, slave ships required crews, not to mention the need to grease the palms of corrupt officials at the harbor and elsewhere with attractive bribes. In sum, the wealth produced by slave labor built not only a region but a nation. Like Charleston, S.C., and Galveston, Tex., New York City benefited from the trade in human souls—which, in a sense, continues to undergird Wall Street.

Much of The Last Slave Ships concerns itself with the years immediately preceding the crushing of this ugly business as a consequence of the Civil War, and the book chronicles how the construction of swift ships was financed in New York, how the audacious smuggling persisted as a result, and how the breathtaking inhumanity that this smuggling created continues to bedevil this country even though it ended many decades ago.

Indeed, it does not require acrobatically inclined inferences to conclude that the vessel Whitman visited in the Brooklyn Navy Yard symbolized far more than the attempted impounding of slavery itself, which within five years was to ignite a bloody war. It also represented a moral economy that eroded the most basic human empathy. One might add that the story of how a slave ship wound up in New York waters also sheds light on how a would-be Manhattan Mussolini received 74 million votes in the presidential election of 2020.

Read entire article at The Nation