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Boston University Symposium: 200th Anniversary of the Ending of the U.S.-Atlantic Slave Trade

Posted April 13th, 2008 by

After participating in the White Privilege Conference in Springfield, my book tour schedule took me to southern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. I thought I might be in New York after that for publicity purposes, but that has been rescheduled. So I found myself back in Boston for a few days prior to a reading at the Harvard Coop bookstore on Monday, April 14.

I learned about this symposium at Boston University the day before it was scheduled to take place. My cousin James DeWolf Perry and I attended. There is so little being done in the United States to acknowledge–let alone commemorate–the 200th Anniversary of the outlawing of the slave trade in the United States that our Traces of the Trade family is doing what we can to highlight the activities that do take place around this seminal event in our nation’s history.

The symposium lasted most of the day. There are two additional events scheduled (April 17 and May 1) as part of this commemoration.

The highlight of the day for me came right at the beginning. Professor David Eltis of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, spoke about the new 0pen access Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (though the link will take you to the site, it is anticipated that it will become fully functional around the beginning of June 2008 and will be inaccessible whenever it is being updated–which will be often during Spring 2008).

I used Dr. Eltis’s “The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment” from the William and Mary Quarterly (2001) as a valued resource in my research for Inheriting the Trade, so I looked forward to meeting him. The information I relied on for numbers of enslaved Africans transported through the middle passage in my book was based primarily on evidence available through 1999. A tremendous amount of additional information has added to–and refined–that information. Additional documentation of ship records, captain logs, and other resources will contribute to further refinement of the database. This information will continue to contribute greatly to our knowledge of the magnitude of the forced migration of African people into the so-called “new world” (“…as late as 1820 nearly four Africans had crossed the Atlantic for every European…”–from the introductory essay).

B.U. professors Linda Heywood and John K. Thornton discussed the dynamics of ethnicity of the African people transported in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Who were they and where did they come from? 76% of the Africans brought to Rhode Island came from the Gold Coast (which is where we traveled while filming Traces of the Trade; we have evidence of the DeWolfs having traded at Cape Coast).

Professor Steven Deyle, from the University of Houston, discussed how the move toward–and the ultimate success of–outlawing the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade led to the more significant and tragic “second middle passage” within the United States that led to massive relocation/forced migration (and separation of families) of Africans to the South and West. Between 1790 and 1860 more than 1,000,000 African Americans were moved from the upper South to the lower South; 2/3 through sales (compared to just over 300,000 Africans brought to the U.S.–both pre-and post-independence from Great Britain–as a result of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Finally, Professor Walter Johnson, from Harvard University, spoke about the attempt–in the mid-19th century–to re-open the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. France, Uruguay, Nicaragua, and even the British actually reopened the trade–to a small degree–at points between 1830 and 1860. The high price of purchasing enslaved Africans in the United States led the drive to re-open the trade here and laid the groundwork for secession by southern states.

The two remaining sessions of the symposium will feature distinguished University of Maryland professor Ira Berlin speaking on the closing of the slave trade and the transformation of slavery in the United States on April 17. Gary Nash, professor of history at UCLA will conclude the series on May 1 with a lecture on Agrippa Hull, a free African who lived in Massachusetts and fought with the colonial army in the Revolutionary War.

Next up for my cousin Katrina Browne and me in raising awareness of the 200th anniversary of the outlawing of the slave trade will be our joint appearance in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center on April 24. We’ll be part of their year-long series of events “The Legacy of 1808.” There will be two screenings of Traces of the Trade (the first screening is for members only; the second screening is open to non-members) as well as a book signing for Inheriting The Trade.

One response to “Boston University Symposium: 200th Anniversary of the Ending of the U.S.-Atlantic Slave Trade”

  1. James says:

    I would add a point for your readers, Tom, of which you're already well aware: that the data provided by Professor Eltis and others in the 1999 version of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database were also the basis for the estimated figures for the D'Wolf slave trade used in Traces of the Trade and Inheriting the Trade.

    Without their superb work, our estimates on such issues as the numbers of enslaved Africans transported, ports visited or mortality rates would have been cruder or much more difficult to obtain. There would also have been no way to properly compare the patterns of the D'Wolf trade with the rest of the trade, to learn how our ancestors' trade was typical and the ways in which it was unique.

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