The trade has always posed problems for those seeking to portray slavery
as a benign and paternal institution in which slave owners saw their main
mission as "civilizing Negroes." Long after slavery ended,
conservative white Southerners still pretended that the slave traders
had been social outcasts and that their business had been of minimal importance to Southern life. In his 1904 history of the trade, the Southern historian
Winfield H. Collins wrote that their ill repute was such that "They
were accounted the abhorrence of everyone. . . .Their descendants, when
known, had a blot upon them and the property acquired in the traffic as
well." Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, traders
were very often prominent citizens and respected leaders of their communities.
Slave trading was not a poor mans occupation. A
of forty slaves might cost the trader well over $30,000 in cash, a huge
sum in the nineteenth century that is equivalent to about $600,000 today. Major traders nearly always came from wealthy planter
families. The traffic in human beings made them even richer.
Some examples from South Carolina during the 1850s show the kind of social
positions that traders held. The very high profile traders Alexander McDonald,
J. S. Riggs, Thomas Ryan, Ziba Oakes, and A. J. Salinas served as aldermen
in Charleston. Col. C. Weatherly of Marlboro District combined extensive
trafficking with his role as a member of the state's House of Representatives,
later serving in the State Senate.
Major George Seaborn was another trader/planter and a gentleman of very
high standing. In 1850, a financial agency reported that he was a "planter
aged 50, v[ery] fine char[acter] and w[orth] in land and negroes some
$20,." He was also joint editor and publisher of the
Farmers and Planters Magazine.
In the early decades of the trade, its speculators did attract some criticism
in the South. Some feared that slaves from the Northern and
middle colonies would bring with them undesirable ideas of freedom. Prosperous
planters in older sections of states - sections where the system was
long established and where planters no longer felt the need for new importations - resented
traders who brought enslaved people into the newer, still-growing regions in their
states. They were greatly concerned that any increase in the black population
would undermine the prices of both crops and labor. Despite these apprehensions,
they were quite happy to sell to traders as long as they transported their
purchases out of state. Many planters also resented the profit gouging
and crooked practices with which some traders were identified.
The traders high social status was deliberately concealed in the slaveholders
propaganda efforts. The truth about "Negro speculation" would
have made it impossible to defend the "morality" of slavery.
As James Stirling, a Scottish visitor, observed in the 1850s: "The
slave traffic was a sore subject with the defenders of slavery. . . .
They fain would load all the iniquities of the system on the traders
unlucky back." Thus, the trader was invariably portrayed as an outcast
and a scoundrel in pro-slavery novels and polemics, in marked contrast
to the picture they painted of a righteous, humanitarian plantation owner
who only sold slaves as a last resort to clear his debts.
T. Randolphs 1852 novel
"The slaves...were all purchased to remain in the district. Even among
those planters who showed little concern for the ruined Courtneys, there
was a sentiment of honor on this point. A trader who made his appearance
was hustled away rather rudely by one or two present, so that after
making a few ineffectual bids, he thought it prudent to retire."
Southern whites and their Northern sympathizers would pass down this
self-serving view of slavery over many generations. It still resonates
today. Guides routinely tell tourists visiting the grandly restored plantations
throughout the South: "On this plantation they never sold any of
their slaves," and "they never broke up families." This
flies in the face of evidence that virtually all owners would have
dealt with traders.
After the Civil War, chains of evidence that might otherwise have led
historians to the trade were often deliberately broken. White Southerners,
keen to invent and promote a history of the benevolent Southland, tended
to write the trader out of history. In obituaries, biographical directories,
and county histories, profiles of prominent citizens who had been slave traders tended to omit that aspect of their lives. When the notorious
trader and prominent South Carolina politician T. C. Weatherly was discussed
in an 1897 history of his county, his political career was referenced,
but his slave trading went unmentioned. The death of the highly successful
slave trader Charles Logan in 1903 was well covered in South Carolinas
The State. He was remembered as one whose wealth had been accumulated through "speculative
deals of various sorts," and as a benefactor of the Catholic Church,
a hospital, a school and to officials charged with preventing cruelty
to animals. Without the faintest trace of irony,
concluded, "Next to the care of children, kindness to animals is
the mark of a good heart." No mention was made of his slave-trading
Apart from the deliberate hiding of slave traders, the nature of surviving
documentary records complicates the task of reconstructing the trade.
Slave traders advertisements in antebellum newspapers provide hugely
valuable clues. It is clear, however, that this source of evidence reveals
only a fraction of the trade. This is shown by the fact that a very important
trader like Ziba Oakes of Charleston, South Carolina, almost never used
newspaper advertisements. For itinerant rural traders, newspapers often
did not circulate quickly enough to be of great value either in achieving
sales or in making purchases, and most found it better to approach their
customers directly rather than through advertisements.
Official state records sometimes provide significant data. This is especially
so for the coastal branch of the trade. Anti-smuggling legislation connected
with the closure of the African slave trade in 1808 required coastwise
shipments of human cargo to be officially recorded: this means that for the
coastal branch of the trade we have a store of ships manifests which,
although incomplete, is still massive. The vast bulk of the trade, however,
was not coastal but instead operated in the countryside and in villages
and small towns scattered across the South. Since in this land-based trade there was rarely any legal requirement to record trading activity, considerable
effort is needed to reconstruct this highly dispersed traffic.
Some help in identifying traders is provided by occupational descriptions
in the federal censuses of 1850 and 1860, but these descriptions are complicated
by the fact that traders were often men of considerable wealth, with interests
including planting and perhaps a general store. On a great many occasions,
therefore, individuals known to have been active slave traders appear
simply as "merchant" or "planter" rather than "Negro
trader." Furthermore, the census often abbreviated "Negro trader"
or "Negro speculator" (see Glossary) to "trader" or
"speculator" (see Glossary). A combination of census data, advertisements,
traders letters, business documents, and court records reveals, however,
a traffic of massive proportions.