The Atlantic web of bondage: comparing the slave trades of New York City and Charleston, South Carolina

Maestri, Melissa Amy
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University of Delaware
This dissertation compares the slave trades of New York City and Charleston, South Carolina. Although South Carolina's slave trade existed on a much grander scale than New York's, both ports engaged in a thriving traffic in humans. I chose to study these two locations to see how the most active trade in the South would compare to the most active trade in the North. In Manhattan, slavery in New York colony (and eventually state) was arguably the most entrenched of any northern city. Although northern ports such as those in Rhode Island imported some slaves and were prime carriers, New York's trade brought far more Africans to the region to labor over wheat in the nearby hinterlands. As late as the census of 1790, there were more slaves in the Empire State than in Kentucky. The presence of large slave populations in and around these important port cities in itself would justify a comparative examination of domestic slavery in these two regions. It is also relevant to scrutinize the slave trades and the reasons why slaves arrived at the ports of New York City and Charleston. Gazing backward with a knowledge of eventual regional distinctiveness, too many scholars suggest that it was always inevitable that Manhattan and Charleston would develop into very different societies. As is often the case, however, hindsight is the enemy of understanding. The slave trades of New York City and Charleston exhibited both fundamental similarities as well as significant differences. In this dissertation, I argue that although there were many differences between the slave trades of New York City and Charleston, the need for large numbers of slave laborers in Manhattan and the nearby hinterlands allowed for some remarkable similarities with Charleston's slave trade. By comparing the trades of New York and Charleston, I do not suggest that these trades were identical. But by using various points of comparison, I aim to break down some of the mythic notions that New York's slave trade was insignificant or existed on a small scale. In fact, at times and during certain periods, the demand for slave labor in New York and its surrounding hinterlands paralleled Carolina's trade.