International Emancipation – Spring 1862

It is often easy given the gripping nature of emancipation in the American Civil War to forget that it was part of a larger story across the Americas. In addition to North America, African slavery had established deep roots in Brazil, the Caribbean, and other places in the continent. Even as the conflict in the United States was destroying the peculiar institution, various events were occurring to dismantle other pockets of remaining slavery in the Americas, and to suppress once-and-for-all the Atlantic slave trade.

In March 1862, the Dutch decided to emancipate the remaining slaves in their Caribbean colonies, joining the British, who had freed their slaves there in 1830s, and France which ended slavery there for good in the 1840s (except for Haiti where it ended earlier in violent revolution). On March 25, 1862, the New York Times noted:

While in Russia serfdom is becoming traditional, and in the United States the system of African Slavery has pulled down upon itself the pillars of its own temple, so that its death is simply a question of time, we see that a project of emancipation has been adopted for the Dutch Islands in the West Indies. The following extract from the Surinam Weehbland, of Feb. 15, indicates the chief features of the plan which has been adopted:

“The slave question in the Dutch West India colonies has been settled. All slaves in those colonies will be set free on the 1st July, 1863, under the following conditions: 1. Compensation of three hundred guilders for each slave — man, woman or child — to be paid to the owner. 2. Slaves to remain under apprenticeship on the estates for a term of three years, during which time they are to be paid wages for their work, half of such wages to accrue to Government.”

Thus it is that the last strongholds of human bondage are falling before the irresistible influence of Christian civilization. And unless the Great Republic — greater to-day than ever before — shall make haste to purify her institutions from the anomaly which has been their danger and their reproach, she will see herself the last of all the nations in the race for universal freedom. The President in his recent message pointed the way; we have only to put his prescriptions in practice.

The Times was referring, of course, to Lincoln’s message to Congress of March 6, 1862, where he recommended the federal government offer help to the states that wished to enact gradual, compensated emancipation. Of course, the paper was wrong that if the nation failed to enact Lincoln’s plan the United States would “see herself the last of all the nations in the race for universal freedom.” Slavery was still alive the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil, and it would survive in both places until the late 1880s. Indeed, about 10,000 former rebels and their families that did not wish to live in a South without slavery decamped for Brazil after the Civil War, where they and their descendants became known as “Confederados.”

The Lincoln administration in early 1862 also moved against the remnants of the Atlantic slave trade. Abraham Lincoln’s Justice Department had vigorously prosecuted Nathaniel Gordon, an American captain captured off the coast of Africa in August 1860 with a cargo of 897 Africans. He was convicted and sentenced to death in November 1861 and hanged on February 21, 1862, becoming the only person ever put to death under American law for engaging in the international slave trade. On April 7, 1862, the U.S. concluded an agreement with Great Britain to cooperate in suppressing the international slave trade, known as the Lyons-Seward Treaty, after the British ambassador and U.S. Secretary of State that negotiated it. Clearly, it was not just inside the United States in Spring 1862 where the Lincoln administration was acting against the peculiar institution.


About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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1 Response to International Emancipation – Spring 1862

  1. Pingback: International Emancipation – 1862 | Western Mass Civil War Sesquicentennial

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