The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage

Yale Univ. Nov. 2020. 312p. ISBN 9780300247336. $30. HIST
In this engrossing study, Harris (history, Erskine Coll., SC) traces America’s shifting relationship with the transatlantic slave trade during its last illegal period, from 1850 to 1867. Using New York and other Northeastern ports as a backdrop, Harris’s astonishingly well-documented work examines how and why the United States remained in the outlawed transatlantic slave trade after 1850 but abandoned the country’s involvement in the 1860s. The author also investigates the international results of its decisions. His findings reveal that U.S. participation was made possible not only by the work of the traffickers who often avoided arrest at home and abroad, but also by many Americans’ fervent wish to annex Spanish Cuba. Harris shows that U.S. business and geopolitical strength bolstered traffickers with means necessary for maintaining the trade and aided Washington, DC, in blocking international condemnation of its weak approach to suppression. It was not until the GOP took power following the 1860 presidential election, Harris concludes, that Lincoln could begin the destruction of this nefarious trade. This study also reveals, among other topics, the role of the British Foreign Office in its maritime interagency antitrafficking activities, which included an extensive American spy network.
VERDICT A signal contribution to U.S. antebellum historiography. Highly recommended for U.S. Middle Period, African American, and Civil War historians, and for all general readers.
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