The Economic History Review

‘No commercial activity leaves greater benefit’: The profitability of the Cuban-based slave trade during the first half of the nineteenth century

Volume 77 Issue 1
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Authors: Jose Miguel Sanjuan-Marroquin, Martin Rodrigo-Alharilla
Published online: July 8, 2023DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13272

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In this paper, we discuss the basis of the illegal slave trade between Africa and Cuba, measuring its volume and profit during the first half of the nineteenth century. Due to its illegal nature, the sources for exploring this trade were systematically destroyed, but we have been able to locate the accountancy of 17 expeditions that gives us a comprehensive understanding of the profits, margins, and risks. The basis to understanding this business was the murderous use of enslaved persons in the sugar mills, which forced a continuous repositioning through an illegal, although tolerated by the Spanish authorities, business. We demonstrate that from an economic point of view, the slave trade after illegalization was highly profitable, as the financial return of successful expeditions was near 100 per cent of the invested capital in less than a year. The risk of capture by the British authorities, associated with its illegal nature, was only high during the initial moments, and became steadily lower afterwards. In terms of volume, the trade of a half million enslaved persons illegally smuggled into Cuba produced what was probably the island’s most important market.

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