Cuba and the United States in the Atlantic Slave Trade (1789–1820)

Co-directors Marial Iglesias Utset, Jorge Felipe Gonzalez (Michigan State University)

This project explores to what extent the vertiginous growth of the slave trade based in Havana after 1808 was driven by a substantial transfer of capital (human and financial) and expertise accumulated in the slave trade by the North Americans, who, after the abolition of the slave trade in the U.S., shifted their investment into Cuba. In the first years of the nineteenth century, driven by the sustained boom in sugar and coffee in Cuba and the rising strength of the cotton market in the southern United States, a large group of American merchants, from South Carolina to Rhode Island, joined forces (and capital) with traders and planters in Havana with the effect of prolonging the existence of the slave trade and the institution of slavery itself. The results of that success had long-term repercussions: Cuba ended up being the largest slave colony in all of Hispanic America, with the highest number of enslaved persons imported, and the longest duration of the illegal slave trade. About 800,000 slaves were imported to Cuba, more than double of the total number of slaves imported to the United States. Between 1808 and 1820, when, under the treaty signed in 1817 by Cuba and Great Britain, the legal trafficking of slaves in Cuba ceased, the Spanish flag sheltered many American slave trade expeditions and the networks between American and Havana merchants and the West African factors were consolidated. As a result the growth of the slave trade was staggering. Analyzing the archival sources in both countries and using the theoretical and methodological tools of Atlantic history, this project seeks to elucidate how the slave traders of Cuba, through the establishment of business networks and alliances with North American traffickers, created and consolidated a powerful infrastructure that allowed them to attain, in just a few years, a prominent share in the nineteenth-century Atlantic slave trade.

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