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John Harris on the Illegal Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

JHarris PhotoJohn Harris is a Ph.D. Candidate at Johns Hopkins University. His dissertation is titled, “Yankee Blackbirding: The Illegal Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade of the Northern United States, 1850-1866.” In this interview, we ask him about the process of finding his topic, researching it, and its significance. If you’d like to learn more about the illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade, see his digital exhibit on the topic.

What drew your attention to the illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade? Whose work encouraged you to pursue this topic and enter this avenue of scholarly inquiry?

I was drawn to the topic indirectly by my upbringing in Northern Ireland. While I was an undergraduate at Queen’s University Belfast, the sectarian problems of home piqued my interest in divided communities abroad. During my Master’s degree (also at Queen’s), I began to seriously examine race and slavery in the Untied States. I soon discovered the Atlantic slave trade to be a fascinating and essential chapter in the history of U.S. race relations.

The illegal slave trade appeared clearly on my horizon when I read Vernon Burton’s 2007 work on Abraham Lincoln, which briefly mentions U.S. ships carrying captives from Africa to Cuba during the 1850s. I was surprised. How could the U.S. be connected to the Atlantic slave trade half a century after the U.S. government had banned it, and two decades after it was made illegal throughout the Atlantic world? My surprise seems naïve to me now, of course, but at the time there was very little detailed literature on the U.S. role in the illegal slave trade. The topic invited examination.

A few months later I completed a Master’s thesis exploring the illegal slaving voyage of the American brig Echo in 1858 from the perspectives of the captives, the slave traders, and the Federal Government. The project revealed that U.S. involvement in the mid-century traffic was mainly through foreign merchants based in northern ports. I’d found the bare bones of my Ph.D. dissertation.

What steps did you take after deciding on this topic to begin to explore this topic?  

The first years of my Ph.D. program really helped to equip me for research and to think more broadly and deeply about the topic. Hopkins’ strength in the history of the Atlantic world has been invaluable. The Department’s offerings enabled me to take classes on all areas touched by the illegal slave trade in this era (West and West Central Africa, Portugal, Spain, Cuba, and the U.S.), as well as to conceptualize those linkages. I also learned Spanish so I could properly research the topic.

While I was in training, my field was changing in positive ways. Historians such as Sylviane Diouf, Walter Johnson, Sharla Fett, and Randy Sparks were starting to write about the U.S. role in illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade. The broader “Second Slavery” concept was also attracting more followers and deeper research. Momentum was beginning to build behind the broad concerns of my dissertation, and I’ve been able to ride that wave to some extent, earning fellowships and presenting at conferences from the early days of my program.

The American slaver Wildfire, captured near Cuba with 510 Africans in 1860. 90 Captives had died during the Middle Passage. Harper's Weekly (June 2, 1860), vol. 4, p. 344.

The American slaver Wildfire, captured near Cuba with 510 Africans in 1860. 90 captives had died during the Middle Passage. Harper’s Weekly (June 2, 1860), vol. 4, p. 344.

What particular sources proved the most useful in your work? How did you find these sources?

I think researching illegal activity accentuates the highs and lows of archival work. Since slave-trading merchants burned their correspondence after voyages, it’s not obvious where to find sources on fundamental questions such as ‘how did the traffic work?’

But if piecing together a source base to answer that question has been tedious and frustrating, it has also been rewarding, particularly when I’ve conducted research outside the U.S. and in underutilized archives.

In London, I found hundreds of reports written by a Cuban merchant whom the British government hired to spy on slave ships fitting out in New York City. This source really opened up the mechanics of the traffic and showed me that I needed to think about Northern ports as international battlegrounds in the fight over the future of the trade in the Atlantic world.

The international networks of the traffickers became much clearer when I examined the archives of a secret fraternal order in New York. Its members organized about fifty slaving voyages in the 1850s, using their connections in distant Atlantic ports to secure safe passage for their ships.

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations?

I suggest that you share your work early, often, and in different forums. Ultimately, this is your dissertation, but it will be much richer when you allow other scholars to mold your thinking. It can be especially helpful to present your work outside your field. By doing so, you often get an important perspective that you’ve never considered.

I would also suggest that when you’re sharing your work, let your passion for the topic come across. Yes, a scholarly tone is important, but if you’re not excited about the topic, why should anyone else be? Hopefully, your enthusiasm will be infectious!

What would someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

It would probably be the porosity of borders. The obvious case is national boundaries, which slave traders, captives, and foreign states violated on a regular basis. There’s also the matter of how trade and traders operate along and across the border of legal and illegal exchange. Merchants of all stripes crossed that border in every slave-trading port. Even the abolitionist British government’s famed distinction between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ trade crumbled in practice as its own citizens invested heavily in all kinds of commerce – including the illegal slave trade – while London looked the other way. The same applies to merchants trading under the US flag. Perhaps most interestingly, even the cultural and political identities of my actors were fluid. So, in sum, the boundaries we sometimes take to be fixed and clear were actually shifting and murky.

For those interested in forced migrations generally, or present-day people trafficking, I would also emphasize that conditions for captives were often far worse during the illegal traffic than the legal era. Ships were usually extremely overcrowded. Sometimes outbreaks of disease caused mortality rates of over thirty percent during the Middle Passage. Perhaps most shockingly, in many cases, the majority of captives aboard slavers were children. It truly was, as historian David Murray has described it, an “Odious Commerce.”