The Slave Trade as a Commercial Enterprise in Richmond, Virginia The presence of slavery and the business of buying and selling bondsmen was an essential element in Richmond’s development as one of the preeminent cities in the south during the antebellum period.The city’s pivotal location in proximity to the agricultural fields of Tidewater and Southside Virginia, and North Carolina, the natural power source provided by the falls on the James River, and its accessibility as a shipping port and later as a railroad hub made Richmond an ideal place for manufacturing and exporting operations. Processing, marketing and exportation activities were concentrated near the James River around Shockoe Creek where Richmond was founded. Tobacco processing, flour milling, and iron production were prominent industries and the coalfields of Midlothian contributed yet another facet to the city’s wealth. In 1780, the Virginia state capital was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond further solidifying the city’s status as an industrial, political and economic center. Often overlooked in discussions of Richmond’s economic success in the antebellum period is the impact of the slave trade as a commercial enterprise.

“In the 1850s, Richmond’s biggest business by dollar volume was not tobacco, flour, or iron, but slaves. The first Africans arrived in the British colonies in 1619 at Hampton, Virginia. The great majority of imported slaves came directly from Africa but some were brought into the colonies from the West Indies. Their exact status as slave (lifetime service and inherited status) or servant is unclear but between 1640 and 1660 there is evidence of enslavement and by 1660 the concept of slavery was being solidified in the statute books of the colonies. In the Chesapeake area (Virginia and Maryland) more than anywhere to the northward, the shortage of labor and the abundance of land…placed a premium on involuntary labor.” The cultivation of tobacco in this region “required labor which was cheap but not temporary, mobile but not independent, and tireless rather than skilled.

Gabriel Forum 14th Annual Shockoe Bottom epicenter of The Slave Trade


In 1649, it was estimated that there were 300 slaves in Virginia. The number had grown to 2,000 in 1671 and by 1721, slaves accounted for over 50% of Virginia’s total population. The 1780 United States census enumerated 292,627 slaves in Virginia. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was conducted by British importers and intermediate commission merchants who had access to large amounts of capital and political connections. Importers and commission merchants often served in government offices and occupied privileged positions in Colonial society.

Northern ports carried on a large commerce in slaves who were transshipped to the other colonies, especially Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina. Southern ports convenient to the plantation regions grew up at Charleston, Savannah and Richmond. In the Richmond area, the earliest sales of imported slaves took place on board ships at the Manchester Docks, on the south bank of the James River Manchester and the settlement of “Shockoes,” on the north bank of the James River at the mouth of Shockoe Creek, were the first established settlements in what is now Richmond. Manchester, originally called Rocky Ridge, was the site of warehouses and other utilitarian buildings. An advertisement in the Virginia Gazette dated June 16, 1774 announced the sale of slaves in the town of Rocky Ridge. “To be sold 10th November at Rocky Ridge, 150 choice slaves, late the property of Jahn Wayles, dec’d by Francis Eppes and Henry Skipwith.” By 1778, the sale of slaves in Richmond had moved to the north bank of the James River. The port of Rocketts was located just east of “Shockoes”–Robert Rockett had operated a ferry landing at this location since 1730. By 1770, Rocketts was one of the busiest inland shipping ports in the colonies. A seven mile section of the James River and Kanawha canal was opened in 1790 that allowed upland boats to enter Richmond instead of having to transfer goods from bateaux to wagons to be transported into the city. The “basin on Shockoe Hill” subsequently became the port of embarkation for goods traveling to and from Richmond and points west on the James River. With the birth of a new nation, the debate over the importation of slaves rose to the level of material advantages over questions of general welfare and human rights.

In the northern colonies where many were resolutely hostile to the institution there was nonetheless much profit in the fitting out of
ships for the African-slave trade and a desire to preserve the enterprise. In Virginia, it was argued
that there would be a greater benefit if importations stopped. “Her slaves will rise in value, and she has more than she wants.” Other reasons offered for abolishing the international slave trade were the fear that newly imported Africans were more likely to rebel than those already accustomed to the conditions of slavery, and the immigration of “white persons” would increase. Between 1777 and 1804, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey ended slavery within their borders.

The Virginia General Assembly prohibited the importation of slaves in 1778. In 1783 and 1784 the United States Congress debated the issue of slavery, and Rufus King of Massachusetts introduced a resolution that after 1800 there should be no slavery or involuntary servitude in the United States. King’s resolution was defeated but a provision was included in the federal Constitution that the “importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.”12 By 1803, South Carolina was the only state that had not outlawed the importation of slaves. In 1808, the federal government enacted the African Slave Trade Act that made it illegal to import slaves, thus ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The early nineteenth century saw the expansion of the United States into the Lower South. Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama became states in 1812, 1817 and 1819, respectively, and Texas was declared a territory in 1836. The depletion of agricultural fields from the over cultivation of tobacco and the collapse of the tobacco market in the Upper South between 1819 and 1830 meant that many planters sought farming opportunities in the Lower South. “Virginia’s rate of population growth for free blacks plummeted from 35 percent in the decade before 1820 to 3 percent between 1830 and 1840. Planters typically took a small group of slaves with them when they moved and if successful they increased their work force by purchasing additional slaves from traders.

The primary crop grown in the Lower South was cotton, a labor-intensive operation dependent on slave labor. Because of the 1808 prohibition on the importation of slaves from Africa, planters in the Lower South had to look elsewhere for a labor source and the interstate slave trade rose to meet the demand. “Statistics show a massive relocation of slaves from the Upper South to the Lower South
once the former region’s agriculture started to decline. One estimate has placed the average movement at 20,000 bondsmen per year from 1820 to 1860, or 10 percent of the Upper South’s slave population…

Virginia, possessing the most slaves, supplied 300,000 bondsmen between 1830 and 1860.Virginia was exclusively a slave-exporting state and Richmond was the best place in the state to sell slaves. “Speculators, planters, farmers, urban purchasers of domestic servants for their own use all preferred to go to Virginia, especially to Richmond, for negroes, because this indicated a certain social as well as a financial advance.

Richmond was known as the greatest market for slaves in the United States, second only to New Orleans.17 Richmond’s profitable industrial economy, its location as a central transportation hub, and its importance as the state capital and a center of banking and commerce, all contributed to the success of the slave trade in the city. The long history of slavery in Virginia and the comfort of many with the presence of the institution set the framework for the development of slave trading as a commercial enterprise. “The Richmond Enquirer’s editorial article about ‘Our Slave Market’ demonstrated that slave-trading was recognized as both an honorable and an important business.The failure of tobacco plantations in the 1820s created a surplus of slaves in the Upper South, which coincided with an increased demand for slaves in the Lower South where many farmers had migrated, seeking new agricultural opportunities. “Many a Virginia ‘country gentleman’ or ‘planter’ was unable to keep his family in comfort and feed and clothe his negroes decently without ultimately selling some of them or running deeply in debt. Many owners sent excess slaves to Richmond either to be sold or hired out. The process of hiring out was a unique aspect of slavery in Richmond because of the presence of manufacturing interests in the city. A niche developed for agents who specialized in the hiring out of slave labor. Often owners worked with an agent to negotiate the terms for the hiring of a slave, or they negotiated with a potential employer directly, and in some cases slaves were allowed to hire themselves out, seeking their own employment and housing. “Under this system, owners allowed slaves to go to Richmond to find work for a specified period of time.

This system became popular among owners who cared little for paying an agent or for the hassles of finding employment for their slaves. According to this practice slaves were required to pay their
masters a stipulated sum of money but whatever they could earn above that amount was theirs to do as they wished. a small amount of cash with which to secure his food and lodgings. Between the years of 1800 and 1840, Richmond experienced considerable economic development and the demographics between those years reflect an increase in the number of slaves, most of whom were owned by or employed in Richmond industries. In 1800, Richmond had a population of 5,737, of whom 2,293 were slaves and 607 were free blacks. By 1840, 20,153 people lived in Richmond, including 7,509 slaves.21 The demand for hiring slaves was high because they were considered the most efficient workforce in many industries and for large construction projects like the James River and Kanawha Canal. Tobacco, iron and mill operators experimented to find the most efficient blend of workers – slaves, free blacks and whites. Because there were so many slaves employed in industries that were dependent upon the rise and fall of market demands, slaves switched jobs frequently. The system of hiring out allowed businesses to, in essence, lay off slave workers when they were not needed. Because manufacturing and ancillary businesses required fewer laborers than farming there was an excess of slaves available for exportation to other areas. Thus the domestic slave trade was born to move surplus slaves from the Upper South to the Lower South and western territories where they were in high demand.

The trade in slaves grew as an industry just as tobacco processing and flour milling did The 1845 Richmond Directory identified nine agents associated with the slave trade. The 1852 directory listed twenty-eight “negro” traders and by 1860 it listed eighteen “negro” traders, eighteen agents, and thirty-three auctioneers, all of whom were engaged in the business of selling slaves.22 Such a large increase in the numbers of those involved in the business suggests that slave trading as a commercial enterprise was viable and financially successful. “The editor of the Warrenton Whig wrote that the gross amount of the Dickinsons’ (referring to the Richmond auction house of Dickinson and Hill) sales in 1856 reached the enormous sum of two million! The entire sales for other houses of similar kind in Richmond would make the amount go over four millions, and still the business is increasing.”23 In 1857, the Richmond Enquirer estimated that receipts for Richmond’s slave auctions totaled $3,500,000.24  By the 1840s, the slave trade had become such a large economic factor that the city of Richmond began to look forrichmonds-slave-trade-strat-1009-46-728richmonds-slave-trade-strat-1009-51-728richmonds-slave-trade-strat-1009-50-728richmonds-slave-trade-strat-1009-17-728 ways to regulate the business and benefitfinancially In 1842, Richmond City Council required that auctioneers be licensed to sell slaves. In 1852, the city charter allowed a tax to be levied on slave jails and slave traders. This tax ranged from $20 to $50 annually depending on the volume of trade. The Virginian General Assembly did not attempt to regulate the slave trade until 1860 when it imposed a licensing fee on auctioneers. In 1861, the city of Richmond realized $10,000 in revenue from the licensing and taxing of the slave trade.

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