This Week in History: Slave Importation Ceased

On March 2, 1807, the United States Congress passed “The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.”


by William “Doc” Halliday

Slavery itself can be documented at least as far back as 594 BC when Athenians utilized enslaved peoples from outside the (historical) Attica region which enabled them to become prosperous. Beginning in the second century BC, the Roman Empire is also documented using enslaved people. Slavery had existed in Europe from Classical times and continued after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Slaves remained common in Europe throughout the early medieval period. Slavery became increasingly uncommon in Northern Europe and, by the 11th and 12th centuries, had virtually been eradicated in the North.

Serfdom did persist in the North well into the early modern period. In Southern and Eastern Europe, slavery remained a normal part of society and the economy. As trade across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic seaboard expanded, it meant that African slaves began to appear in southern European countries well before the discovery of the Americas in 1492. Beginning in about the 8th century, an Arab-run slave trade flourished, with much of this activity taking place in East Africa, Arabia, and the Indian Ocean. Many African societies also had forms of slavery.

At least by 1452 Portugal was using African slaves on a sugar plantation on the island of Madeira. In June of that year, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull authorizing the Portuguese to conquer and reduce the station of any non-Christians (specifically Muslims and pagans) to slaves.

The Portuguese completed the first transatlantic slave voyage from Africa to the Americas in 1526. Ship owners and their Captains considered the slaves freight that was to be transported to the Americas as quickly, and of course as cheaply as possible. The Atlantic slave traders led by the Portuguese, Brits, French, Spanish, and Dutch established bases on the African coast where they purchased African slaves from local African leaders. In his book, The Black Diaspora: Five Centuries of the Black Experience Outside Africa © 1995, Ronald Segal states that 11,863,000 slaves were transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. In his book Slavery: A World History © 1993, Milton Meltzer states the mortality rate during the voyage as 12.5%.

In 1619, the Dutch brought 19 or 20 captured slaves to the Jamestown colony in Virginia. Slavery spread throughout the colonies. In his book In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period © 1975, A. Leon Higginbotham documents that in 1641, the Massachusetts Bay Colony became the first of the colonies to authorize slavery by law.

In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserted that King George III was violating the rights of life and liberty of the people by making them a part of the “execrable commerce” of slavery. It is ironic that Jefferson and other slaveholders were striving to find some way out of a practice that had marked commerce in the colonies for a century and a half. Most of the colonies were inclined to accept a ban on the importation of slaves, but South Carolina and Georgia would not accept a quick end to the Atlantic slave trade. As a result, the lengthy list of charges against the monarch in the declaration did not include slave trading.

Without mentioning slave trading, Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution that was adopted in September of 1787, asserted that a certain “migration or importation” of people would not be prohibited prior to the year 1808.

While Congress could not prohibit the importation of slaves until 1808, the Third Congress regulated it in 1794. They prohibited the use of ports for ship building and outfitting for the trade in the “Slave Trade Act”. Additional legislation in 1800 and 1803, sought to discourage the trade by limiting investment in import trading and barring importation into states that had abolished slavery, which most in the northern states had done by that time.

Two hundred and nine years ago today, on March 2, 1807, The United States Congress passed “The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.” This law disallowed the importation of new slaves into this country beginning in 1808. This was just eight days after Britain had abolished the slave trade in that nation. Britain finally abolished slavery itself in 1833.

William “Doc” Halliday is an historian and writer who lives in Texas. He can be reached at

William "Doc" Halliday

Historian, Political Commentator

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