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U.S. Merchants and the Foundation of the Cuban-based Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1790-1820

May 19, 2022 @ 1:00 pm - 2:30 pm

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Cuban elite set the goal of emulating the highly productive colonial plantation economies in neighboring Jamaica, Barbados, and Saint Domingue. As Cuban planters and merchants understood, a pivotal piece for boosting sugar production on the Spanish island was importing more enslaved Africans. But unlike the British, the French, or the Portuguese, Spain did not have a domestic transatlantic slave trading infrastructure to expand its slave-trading capabilities. There were no Spanish-flagged vessels, African trading outposts, or Spanish merchants involved in the direct purchasing and transportation of captives across the ocean. After the Spanish king deregulated the slave trade in 1789, the Cuban elite methodically created a domestic transatlantic slave-trading business, a transformation favored by the slave revolution in Saint-Domingue and the growing abolitionist movement. Since Cubans lacked expertise, networks, and technologies, they relied on foreign “mentors” to acquire the know-how, French, Portuguese, and British. Based on decade-long multinational archival research, I will discuss the role that American merchants, in particular, played in training the first generation of Cuban-based slave traders, connecting them with regions in Africa, and providing them with expertise in the human trafficking business. By 1820, when Spain banned commerce in people, the Cuban-based transatlantic slave trade had been established and will be in operation for the next four decades.