In studying the American Civil War, the Atlantic slave trade generally is not an issue that gets much attention from either history enthusiasts or academics scholars. Legal importation of slaves in the United States had ended in 1808. In the wake of the War of 1812, the small U.S. Navy joined with the larger Royal Navy of Great Britain to suppress this commerce in human beings by intercepting slave ships off the African coast and liberating the Africans in their holds. Yet the unquenchable demand for slave labor in the Americas, including the U.S. cotton states, made unscrupulous men in the business and maritime community willing to take the risks involved in the now illegal Atlantic slave trade because of the considerable profits from a successful trip.
Indeed, some white Southerners advocated the re-legalization of the Atlantic slave trade in the years before the Civil War, and at the Montgomery Convention that established the Confederate government in early 1861, there was an unsuccessful effort to make re-legalization part of Confederacy’s constitution. Jefferson Davis, the provisional president and a majority of the delegates in Montgomery blocked this initiative because they believed it would reduce the value of existing slaves and make it harder for European nations that abhorred the Atlantic slave trade to recognize the new Confederate government.
Antebellum Northerners also found odious the Atlantic slave trade, although they usually gave the issue little thought beyond supporting congressional funding of the navy’s suppression efforts. (A notable exception is the case of La Amistad, a Spanish slave transport that ended up off Long Island, New York in 1839, after the Africans aboard revolted and seized the ship.) The apathy of white Northerners allowed venal Americans to take part in the illegal Atlantic slave trade based in northern ports with little fear of prison or even arrest, even though participation in this commerce was formally a capital crime under the Piracy Act of 1820. It was not until Abraham Lincoln became president that a convicted slave ship captain, Nathaniel Gordon, was sentenced to death and executed in February 1862.
But Gordon was the exception as the following shocking article makes clear. It appeared in the New York Times on November 17, 1862, and makes clear just how alive the Atlantic slave trade was as late as 1861. The article was titled, “THE AFRICAN SLAVE-TRADE.; EXTENT OF THE TRAFFIC. Successful Efforts to Suppress It.” But despite the title the article suggested pretty much opposite. Little wonder that Secretary of State William Seward concluded an agreement with the British in April 1862 (the Lyons-Seward Treaty) that sought to make Anglo-American suppression activities more effective. This treaty, other diplomatic initiatives, and shifting attitudes led to the final end of the Atlantic slave trade by the late 1860s.
Perhaps no commerce was ever more profitable than the traffic in Africans, provided those engaged could go on unmolested. But the enormity of the crime is too great to be let pass, although for a time, money seemed to buy its success. Nor did the public know to what extent the traffic was carried. But the recent efforts to suppress it have brought out its extent and condition, and the manner in which it has been so long concealed and carried on.
The trade was never more flourishing than at the inauguration of the present Administration, not even before its abolition in 1808. With officials in power who winked at the fitting out of slavers, or used their badge of office but the better to insure a share in the profits, the traffic had become the bane of the civilized world.
A few vessels were seized and bonded or released in a manner which plainly indicated a want of earnestness in opposing the trade. We have the names of over one hundred and fifty vessels which were engaged in the Trade from 1858 to 1861, with the names of captains, lists of crews, and those who fitted them out, in a large majority of cases. Of this number thirty-eight were seized on the coast of Africa, a part after taking in cargoes, and over thirteen thousand negroes were returned to Africa. Thirteen of the vessels were seized on the coast of Cuba and vicinity, after landing all or part of their cargoes. Thirty-six have been seized at this and other ports in the United States.
We have the names of forty-five which are known to have landed their cargoes in Cuba, and a large number of cargoes are reported landed from vessels bearing no names or in which the names are unknown.
A correspondent high in official position, and who had the means of knowing, writing from Havana, November, 1860, stated the fact that upward of 30,000 Africans had been landed in the island during the single year previous.
July 3. — The bark Kate, Capt. OTTO, was seized at the Narrows, while on her way out of this port, and returned to the City. Her captain and a man named Dr. KOSTA, were arrested, but the bark was subsequently bonded and the prisoners released, and the Kate sailed on her voyage. She afterward landed a cargo of negroes in Cuba, and was seized at this port the second time. She has since been condemned and sold and again seized.
July 23. — The brig W.R. Kibley, Capt. BURNS, was abandoned after landing a cargo of negroes at Cuba, was seized and brought to this port, afterward condemned and sold. BURNS has since been arrested, and is the only man now awaiting trial.
Aug. 8. — The ship Erie, Capt. GORDON, was captured by the United States steamer Mohican, on the coast of Africa, with 897 negroes on board. The negroes were sent back, and Capt. GORDON, and Mates WARREN and HALL arrested, and sent to this port, and committed for trial. GORDON was convicted and sentenced November, 1861, and hung Feb. 21, 1862.
Aug. 14. — A brig, having no name, but fully armed to rob returning slavers, was seized, and taken to Key West. No trial reported. The brig Mary Frances Cloud, from this port same day, for Wilmington, sailed for Africa, and afterwards landed 500 negroes in Cuba.
Aug. 16. — The Thomas Achem, Capt. PARKER, was taken on the coast of Africa by the steamer Mystic, and the Captain and mate, SIBLEY, and second mate, arrested, and sent to this City. The vessel and prisoners were afterwards released on some pretext.
Aug. 28. — Ship Brutus, Capt. DUVALL, was overhauled at New-Bedford, but afterwards let to go to sea, and afterwards landed 500 negroes in Cuba, and was sold to some parties at Havana and her name changed.
Sept. 4. — The brig Titan, Capt. BUISSAN, was seized off the Coast of Cuba, after landing her cargo, and taken to Norfolk. Again went to sea, and again seized in the mouth of Congo River, and afterwards bonded. At this time two other slavers cleared from Havana for the Coast of Africa.
Oct. 5. — THOMAS MAYEN, Captain of the bark Orion, with the two mates, were convicted, at Boston, of engaging in the Slave-trade, and sentenced — the captain to two years imprisonment and a fine of $2,000, and the mates two years each. The Triton, which had been seized, with a cargo of negroes on board, and brought to this port, was afterward condemned and sold.
Oct. 1. — The slaver steamer City of Norfolk, Capt. CRAWFORD, was seized off the coast of Cuba, after landing half a cargo of 800 negroes. The captain escaped. The crew were sent to Key West, and the vessel condemned by a Spanish Court and sold.
Nov. 3. — The bark Ardenas, Capt. PELETIAR, was boarded at this port, where she had been lying under seizure for some time, and went to Havana, where she completed her outfit and sailed for the coast of Africa, Oct. 1.
The schooner Williams, PELETIER, master, was seized and taken to Key West with a cargo of negroes. The vessel was condemned and sold and again sailed. No arrests were made. She was again seized at Porte au Prince, Feb. 16, 1861.
At this time the trials of slavers were likely to come up, and Judge SMALLEY delivered an able charge to the jury, setting forth that it was the duty of all officers to make active exertions to suppress the trade. Notwithstanding this, and the fact that several vessels and persons engaged in the trade were under arrest, none came to trial.
Jan. 1, 1861. — There were ten slavers in this port under detention — the schooners Weather Gage, Cogswell and Josephine, barks J.J. Cobb, C.E. Fay, Cora and Kate, the brigs Achorn and Falmouth, and ship Erie. The Storm King and Triton were at Norfolk; the Cygnet and Williams at Mobile. The schooners Wanderer, Lyra, and steamer City of Norfolk, were at Havana. The Atlanta, Capt. SILVA; bark Buckeye, Capt. BOOTH; ship Brutus, and schooner Marguerita, Capt. BARRETT, were still on the Coast of Africa. The bark White Cloud, Capt. HATCH; bark Antelope, Capt. JOHNSON, and Iowa, Capt. JOHNSON, had all taken in cargoes, but had not been heard from.
The schooner Josephine, Capt. COSTER, and bark C.E. Tay, Capt. TRAINOR, were bonded and sailed for Africa. The bark Cora was condemned and sold, and again fitted out, and seized under suspicion, March 6, and afterward bonded and sailed.
April 15. — The bark Sarah, COUILLARD, Master, sailed for Cape Palmos, but was overhauled before getting to sea, and afterward condemned, appealed and bonded, and sailed. The bark Oneman, Capt. MONROE, cleared for Elizabethport, N.J., at the same time, and sailed for Africa. Four other vessels were in port, fitting out, at this time, and soon afterward sailed for Cadiz, to complete their outfit — the portion taken in here not being sufficient to warrant their arrest under the then existing law.
The utmost watchfulness of armed vessels was not sufficient to deter the fitting out of vessels, nor prevent a large number of them from taking in cargoes and escaping. In fact, the very spirit and letter of the law, paying a bounty of $25 for every recaptured negro, is for the interest of these vessels to permit slavers to take in cargoes for the purpose of capturing them. After the cargo was shipped the interest of the slaver was not to be caught, of course. The only means of suppressing the trade was to prevent vessels fitting out in any port, and to deal rigorously with parties interested in the trade, wherever they should be found.
The inauguration of the present Administration, with principles avowedly opposed to the increase of the African population in this country and of extending Slavery, although coming into power with a gigantic rebellion on its hands, had time, nevertheless, to displace officials derelict of their duty, and appoint others competent and disposed to energetically enforce laws for which they were appointed.
The result of this change has been amply apparent, and furnishes abundant evidence that the trade can be completely suppressed. It was from this port that a large proportion of the vessels sailed, and in this City that the extensive organizations for the protection of the traffic existed, and consequently attention was directed here for its suppression. The extent of the traffic offered an abundant field for the exercise of vigilance, not only in tracing out and arresting guilty parties, but in securing evidence sufficient to convict. In this it was often necessary to use a guilty party simply as a witness, as in the case of CRAWFORD, Captain of the City of Norfolk, who has just been used as a witness to convict HORN, who fitted out the vessel.
The vessels might be destroyed or sold to other parties, or their names changed so that they could not be easily recognized. The officers otherwise engaged, the seamen on board of other vessels or so scattered purposely or by accident, that recognition and arrests would be difficult. With all these difficulties the public will be surprised to learn that not two thousand negroes have been landed in Cuba during the past year, and these by vessels fitted at foreign ports, and that there are few if any vessels in this port, or other United States ports, fitting for that purpose, while but eight have sailed during the last eighteen months, and some of them now rot under embargos at foreign ports. The eighth has not been heard from.
The tricks and subterfuges of the trade exceed that of all other kinds of commerce. In one instance the vessel would be fitted out in part or wholly, and clear for some port along the coast, and, when once at sea, “hard aport the helm,” and stand away to the Congo. In other instances, three or four vessels would fit out ostensibly for a foreign port, and loaded each with such a portion of a slaver’s outfit as would evade the law, and meet and exchange cargoes, fully equipping two or three of them for a voyage.
An organization of slave traders has existed in this City from time immemorial, and one is also known to exist in Havana with a capital of $2,000,000. One object of these associations is to protect those engaged in the trade and preventarrests or convictions. And the vigilance is such that witnesses are usually kept out of the war or tampered with, and it is a wonder that and important jury can be obtained at all.
The appointment of a United States Marshal at this port, in April, 1861, who had been Deputy Surveyor for four years, and another four years Harbor Master, and who knew every merchant in South or Beaver streets, and every Captain and “reefer in the vessels” engaged, did not favor the future prosperity of the traffic. The breaking out of the rebellion also naturally directed the attention of those of the South engaged in the trade to other affairs, and shut their ports against the traffic.
Several men and vessels were under arrest, but evidence was needed for their conviction. Several other vessels were on the coast of Africa, and the crews of former slavers scattered from the men-of-war in the Pacific to all other ports, both foreign and at home.
Several seizures were made of slavers on the Coast of Africa — among them the ship Nightingale, with 950 negroes on board, which were sent to Monrovia, while the Captain and a Spanish supercargo were allowed to escape; but the mates, HAYNES, WINSLOW and WESTERVELT, were sent with the vessel to this port for trial. Two of them have recently been bailed. June 30, 1861, the brig Fairy was seized off the coast of Africa with 550 negroes on board. About the same time a Spanish brig was seized in the River Pongas, and the brig Falmouth, Capt. SONAIS, on the coast, by a British steamer, and the Falmouth sent to this City, but the officers and crew went their way. As soon as appointed, Marshal MURRAY set about ferreting out these slave-traders, and soon had a large number under arrest, and was on track of others.
Aug. 10. — JOHN JAMES, mate of the brig Mary Francis, was arrested and turned over to the authorities at Boston on one charge, when he was examined and held to bail in $1,500. To obtain this bail he came to this City, and a meeting of the slavetraders was called and held at the Howard House. The money was raised and his bail indemnified, and, when released by the officer, again arrested by Marshal MURRAY, charged with a capital offence, but has since been set at liberty for want of evidence, and used as a witness.
Oct. 2. — The United States steamers Constellation and Mohican, of the African squadron, were boarded on arriving at port, and four of the crew of the Erie, under GORDON, and two others, were arrested.
Oct. 14. — Sixteen of the crew of the Nightingale were taken from the storeship Relief, of the African squadron, as she came in. Three others were taken from another ship at Portsmouth, and one from the Mystic at Philadelphia, and two from another vessel at Brooklyn.
Nov. 18. — Eighteen of the officers and crew of the Augusta were taken at Greenport, L.I. — among them, Capt. A. OAKES SMITH, who has since been tried, convicted and escaped from the jail at Charlestown, Mass., and is now in Havana.
In July Mrs. WATSON left for Lisbon, arriving at which place, she was requested to make some other place her headquarters, and went to Cadiz, where her passport was taken away. She has since died, and her vessels, intended for the trade in negroes, are under embargoes. Among the vessels seized are the bark Magaret Scott, seized Sept. 11, 1861, and Capt. SENDOW and two mates, and the owner, SKINNER, arrested. The bark has since been condemned and sold, and SKINNER convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of $1,000.
The arrest of J.A. MACHADO may be considered the “last of the Mahicans,” and with it the nest of Slavers’ in this city is completely broken up, and the trade has received a quietus which it will not recover from for the present.