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Patrolling The Middle Passage

July 2024
14min read

Congress agreed to join Britain in suppressing the brutal and cunning slave trade, but Southern influence hamstrung the Navy when it came to enforcing the law

The American merchantman Mary Ann was primly named, but she had a scandalous history. In i8j8 she cleared lor West Alrica, ostensibly on a trading voyage lor such products as palm oil, which the new American railroads and factories used as a lubricant. He mates and crew seemed to have signed on unaware that any other scheme was in the wind. Eut the course her captain set took her not to the mouths of the Niger, locus of the palm oil trade, but to the Gallinas River area, notorious for its bootleg slave markets.

Forty years beTore, Great Britain and the United States had outlawed the slave trade, and eventually the whole western world followed suit. Subsequently the United States had declared slave trading to be piracy, subject to capital punishment. Dut booms in sugar and colTee kept Cuba and Brazil hungry lor slave labor, and immense profits from slave smuggling brought unscrupulous seamen and shipowners—“the matured villainy of the world,” a U.S. Navy commander called them—Hocking like buzzards into a rich racket.

The captain of the Mary Ann was one of these. Hut his crewmen were not, and at the sight of the dismal Gallinas shore they decided they wanted no part whatever in the skipper’s plans. So, taking things into their own hands, they put him ashore and sailed olf down the coast looking for a U.S. Navy vessel to which they could surrender. Finding none, they took the Mary Ann back to New York, turned her over to the federal authorities—and promptly found themselves in serious trouble. From one point of view they had most commcndably refused to become accessories to the foulest of seagoing crimes. Hut from another, they had committed mutiny, perhaps barratry, and a few other odd maritime sins. The court held that there had been “probable cause” for the arrest of the Mary Ann as a slaver, but it was lenient with the members of the crew, and let them off with no heavier penalty than forfeiture of their wages for botli outward and homeward voyages. Considering the innocence of their motives, the penalty seems heavy enough.

Now contrast this with the history of another American ship, the Rebecca, also primly named, also West Africa-bound on an ostensibly legitimate voyage in 1859. She was a Baltimore-built clipper of a design renowned for speed, and she was transporting fortyodd freed Negroes from New Orleans to settle in Liberia; from there she was to continue to the Congo River with two Spanish traders and their stocks of goods. Ncaring Liberia she was overhauled by the steamer H.M.S. Viper , a small British man-of-war on antislaving duty. The Viper ’s commander, apparently well aware that the Rebecca enjoyed a dubious reputation, was much annoyed to find her on so innocent a mission, but he allowed her to proceed. She duly landed the emigrants and their belongings and then, once at sea again, she assumed her true character- that of a slaver procuring Negroes for the great, quasi-official slave market in Cuba.

Her real owners were not the New Orleans fhm that had registered her as American, but the two Spanish “passengers.” They had sought this Libcrian errand as a way to secure unimpeachable clearance papers, and they now took over as captain and supercargo. They mustered the crew and signed the ship’s company to new articles at wages eloquent of how well slave bootlegging paid: captain and mate were to receive 55,000 each for the voyage; second mate, Sg.^oo; carpenter, $3,000; seamen, .S 1,500 each—this at a time when a dollar bought six or seven times what it does now.

After some mischances and delays, the Rebecca entered the Congo to size up the situation and, if possible, to get “slaved.” Just at that most inopportune moment, H.M.S. Tigris , another British patrol ship, apparently also well alerted, came prowling along and set an armed boat’s crew to keep round-the-clock watch on the Rebecca . Then appeared a Portuguese cruiser—even less welcome because, whereas the British usually turned slaver crews loose alter confiscating the ships, the Portuguese had lately developed a nasty habit of sending slavers to their rugged penal colonies. H.M.S. Vixen (a third Britisher) and the last-sailing U.S.S. Vincennes were also rumored to be in the vicinity. There were altogether too many men-ol-war thereabouts, and sulkily the Rebecca dropped down the river still un-“slaved,” let the hovering Tigris know that trade had been poor and that she was returning stateside disconsolate—and ostentatiously put to sea on a northwesterly course.

When she was well over the liori/oii her Spanish commander had her hove to, stripped of all identifying marks, and further disguised with a coat of black paint, lie then sailed back, landing well south of the Congo to get “slaved” quickly and away. It was a calculated risk, but it paid off. In a short time the Rebecca had taken aboard almost 1,200 Negroes, mostly men and boys, who woidd letch perhaps .8400,000 at Cuban prices. Just as the last few were coming on board, the Vixen hove in sight. As the Rebecca hastily weighed anchor, the Vixen , finding her warning shots ignored, opened fire in earnest at long range. But her gunnery was not all it might have been. The Rebecca got to sea unscathed anil, thanks to her Baltimore breeding, soon showed her heels to the puffing little teakettle.

The homeward voyage was uneventful. The slaves were landed on a small island oil’ the south coast of Cuba to be shifted a few at a time to mainland plantations. The beautiful clipper was scuttled and burned so as to leave no trace of these doings, and her crew went their separate ways with bulging pockets. Even alter paying them oft and destroying a valuable 550ton ship, the Rebecca ’s owners probably netted $150,000 on the voyage, the equivalent of three-quarters of a million dollars today.

Between them, the caper ol the Rebecca —curried out under the Stars and Stripes—and that ironical miscarriage ol justice in the Mary Ann case point up two curious, interconnected scandals that were at their ripest a hundred years ago: the genius of American shore authorities lor making the antislaving laws look foolish, and the U.S. Navy’s poor record in bringing slave ships to book.

Neither the Rebecca nor the Mary Ann sighted an American man-of-war; even when she tried hard, the Mary Ann hadn’t been able to find one. The reasons were that, at the time, the U.S. African squadron had only five ships and that nobody in Washington really wanted them to prove much anyway.

The Navy’s poor showing was more the fault of politicians than of commodores, in i8j2, six years before the Mary Ann affair, the United States had formally agreed with Britain that each should maintain olf the West African coast an antislaving squadron mounting a total of at least eighty guns. Regularly spurred by zealous antislavcry cabinet ministers, the British Navy, except during the short naval emergency of the Crimean War, always assigned ships far in excess of this requirement. The American squadron, on the other hand, was seldom much above quota and often fell well below it. Number of ships, not of guns, was the crucial thing, anyway. Relying mostly on speed and guile, slavers seldom tried to shoot it out. When overhauled they would knuckle under to an S-gun schooner as readily as to a j-l-gun frigate, and ten small vessels could patrol five times as much coast as could the two frigates that would answer the gun requirement. The British Xavy, which meant business, used such small men-of-war on this duty, their squadron averaging eighteen vessels in the period 1842-57. The squadron of the U.S. Navy averaged four.

The treaty would have been more effective, too, had it stipulated the number of ships actually on patrol. The British got much time-on-the-job out of theirs by basing them at Sierra Leone, next door to the Gallinas, or on the island of Fernando Po, just off the concentrated slaving nests of the African coast. The U.S. squadron was based in the (Jape Verde Islands, z,ooo-odd miles from the Congo, 800 from the Gallinas. More than half the time, the American ships were refitting in port or voyaging between base arid station, in the mid-18.40’s the United States brig Truxtun , tor instance, though she sailed under an unusually brisk commander, spent only 181 days cruising on station out of a total West African hitch of 468 days.

The most illustrious ships of the old Navy— Constitution, Constellation, United States, Macedonian —and a good number of famous Navy officers served in the African squadron. Names on the old dispatches from West Africa include Matthew Calbraith Perry, who opened up Japan, and enjoyed neither ol his two West African commands; Josiah I atnall, who told the British commodore that “Blood is thicker than water”; Andrew II. Foote, whose gunboats on the western waters were to do so much to destroy the Confederacy. It was Foote, in a book written in the early i85o’s, who protested vigorously against the unnecessary restrictions imposed on commanders on the African station, and he spoke for many of his fellow officers.

The basic cause of their frustration was the South’s growing reluctance to see any aspect of slavery damaged, at home or abroad. Southern Congressmen encouraged the Navy Department to drag its feet. Orders made it clear that the African squadron’s first concern was not hunting slavers but protecting the Americansponsored colony of Liberia for free Negroes and the growing American-West African trade. Ships were olten ordered home long before their replacements, sailing tardily from Brooklyn or Boston, could possibly arrive. Almost as soon as steam took to sea the British were sending to West Africa steam-propelled men-of-war which, while they might fall behind the slaver’s clippers in a brisk and steady wind, could overhaul even the fastest fugitive in calm or uncertain air. Not until shortly before the Civil War did U.S. Xavy steamers appear off West Africa, although American officers repeatedly asked for them. One conscientious commodore reported in 1860 that “the African squadron, under my command, has done its whole duty”; but he went on bitterly: ”… this has been done in the face of positive discouragement from the Department.” In the mid-1840’s West African service under a less active American commodore had moved a young lieutenant to call the whole operation “sending a squadron of gallant ships to chase shadows in a deadly climate.”

His complaint about the climate was only partly justified. Yellow fever, malaria, and odd enteric diseases made the West African shore deadly enough to whites, and small British ships blockading slaving nests close inshore or sending boats’ crews up the rivers often lost many men. But U.S. Navy ships usually patrolled well out at sea, far enough to minimize the risk from disease-carrying mosquitoes. The shadowchasing charge, however, was valid: it was a disgusted tribute to the skill with which slavers exploited Uncle Sam’s wrongheaded refusal either to fish or to cut bait.

Britain had tried hard to quicken the U.S. government’s lagging steps. After 1808 she had used diplomacy, cash payments, and force to persuade each maritime nation that had outlawed the slave trade to sign with her a treaty of “reciprocal search and sei/ure” to help enforce the antislaving declarations. Under these treaties the British Navy acquired the right to board Nation A’s ships at sea and, if evidence of slaving were found, to seize them and send them into port for legal penalties. Nation A’s navy had the same right with regard to British ships. But after Trafalgar the British Navy became and remained so much larger than any other and Britain’s successive governments were so severe toward the slave trade that in effect this system of treaties pretty well turned over to England the job of suppressing the slave trade on the high seas.

By i8.]o she had signed up all the major maritime powers—except the United States. We held out because we were still smarting from the British Navy’s highhanded visit-aiid-search procedures timing die Napoleonic Wars; indeed, these had constituted one of the most inflammatory causes of the miserable little War ol 181 a. The United .States always fell back on the contention that each nation should skin its own skunks, that ships on lawful errands flying the American flag as a token ol American registry should be examined only by U.S. Xavy vessels, that we could take care of our own slavers and prevent abuse ol our own flag—let other nations do the same with theirs. Vet it was obvious that the U.S. Navy, much smaller than Britain’s, probably lacked the resources, and that the federal government certainly lacked the real desire, to do anything ol the sort.

The case of the Rebecca illustrates how the consequent racket worked: By the late 1840’s, the typical slaver was a big, last, stateside-built ship with a few Yankees among a mixed crew of foreign skimmings (the Rebecca had Turks, Scots, Greeks, Danes, Italians, and Spaniards). The slaver indulged in games of tag with antislaving patrol ships, usually British, using her United States registry as a mask for actual Latin-American ownership represented by men who were nominally “passengers,” and having Cuba as destination and market. It was not quite typical of her period, however, that the Rebecca hailed from New Orleans. Slavers occasionally did come from there or from Boston, Salem, Portland, or Philadelphia. But more and more New York came to dominate this crass industry, furnishing the ships, the men to navigate them, the goods to swap tor slaves—and, as time passed, New York interests put up ever larger amounts of minority capital, well hidden under layers of subterfuge. In the twenty months ending August, 1860, a good hundred slavers were known to have fitted out in and sailed from New York Harbor.

United States registry, combined with a set of bogus Spanish or Portuguese papers easily obtainable by briber), was the basic dodge. If the ship were challenged by a U.S. Navy cruiser, she hoisted Spanish colors, say, and the Spanish “passenger,” temporarily turned captain, showed the Spanish papers to the boarding party, while the American captain stayed out of sight. Such subterfuges were so rile in the i8|o’s that a U.S. commodore reported that the American flag had completely disappeared from West African slaving—though the whole seagoing world knew that the waters off West Africa were swarming with slavers that freely hoisted the Stars and Stripes whenever it suited their needs and a U.S. Xavy vessel was not around. For if the cruiser were British, the slaver hoisted American colors, and could usually count oil being left unmolested. In the absence of a scarch-andseizure treaty British Navy commanders had been ordered not to meddle with American ships unless they were quite confident they could be proved to be slavers—when, for instance, the cruiser had picked up the festering stench that usually betrayed the presence ot a closely-packed human cargo.

To reduce the advantage that American muhshness thus gave to slavers, the British inserted the so-called equipment clause in their antislaving treaties. Originally a slaver could be apprehended only when slaves were actually found on board. But by the mid-1930’s Hritain was sei/ing ships which, even though they were carrying no slaves, had on board most of the equipment slaving required: extra-wide hatchways fitted with gratings (for ventilation of slave quarters); more rice or casks of fresh water than the ship’s crew could conceivably need; unduly ample cooking facilities. Even American courts, usually lackadaisical or worse about slaving cases, came to condemn solely on such circumstantial evidence if it were strong enough.

The slavers responded with even more involved jugglings of Hags and papers to forestall search, sometimes using as many as four “captains” of different nationalities, each of whom had papers to match. The gi im nature of their commerce makes it good to know that every now and then they overplayed their shabby hand or guessed wrong and came to grief. In 18^), for instance, the Haltimore-built slaver Catherine , owned by Havana interests, was nearing West Africa when she fell in with and was chased by H.M.S. Dolphin . Unable to outdistance her pursuer alter two hours, she played the usual card and hoisted American colors. But the British commander, lor some reason very sure of her character, took a chance and opened fire. Hove to and searched, the Catherine proved to have on board cooking arrangements lor goo people; planks marked and numbered lor speedy building of a half-deck lor slaves; 570 wooden spoons and about 350 pairs ol handculls. On the American captain’s person were found written instructions advising him how to persuade boarding officers that his Spanish and Portuguese shipmates were passengers and that his handful of American seamen constituted the entire crew. He was even keeping one log in Knglish, another in Spanish. It was ingenious but futile. A Hritish prize crew took the ship to New York, where she was duly condemned.

One of the most elaborate ruses of all was tindertaken by Captain Cyrus Libby of Maine, master of the American-built brig Porpoise . The Porpoise had made several slaving voyages under the ownership of certain Brazilians btit was prepared whenever necessary to show American colors, papers, captain, and crew. On her last voyage, however, she merely acted as tender for the American-built Kentucky , which actually loaded the Negroes. The Porpoise ’s job was to transport to the slaving point a Brazilian captain-super-cargo with a spare Brazilian crew and the trade goods to swap for slaves. At the rendezvous the goods went ashore and the Brazilians were exchanged for the largely American crew that had sailed the Kentucky out. The two ships then went home in company, the Kentucky carrying the slaves and wearing an all-Brazilian character. This gave her no immunity to British search—or American either, under some circumstances. But now she had the Porpoise to act as decoy, sizing up any man-of-war that appeared, hoisting a provocative flag and ostentatiously trying to run for it, drawing the cruiser away from the actual slave carrier. If searched herself, the Porpoise had no evidence aboard that would lead to condemnation under the equipment clause. It was prettily worked out. But the Porpoise was notorious in the slave trade, and while indulging in such antics in 1855, she was seized by U.S.S. Raritan . An American judge condemned her just as if she had been laden to the gunwales with every kind of slaving equipment known to man.

It sounds gratifyingly drastic. But even in the unusual cases when slave ships were seized and condemned in federal courts, front-men acting for their former owners often bought them back again. The whole shore phase of the enforcement of antislaving laws was a joke. For all the law’s big talk about piracy and the gallows, slaver captains saw the insides of jails only long enough for bail to be raised. The bail was not high, and it was promptly forfeited. Furthermore, United States consuls and customs officials were often strangely unwilling to ask searching questions about the actual ownership and missions of ships known as slavers all over the water front.

At sea, however, the picture was brighter. British and American naval officers respected one another professionally and got on well when their paths crossed off West Africa. Their common distaste for the abuse of American colors sometimes led them to combine operations—as when, in 1840, the commander of U.S.S. Grampus arranged to take over from British men-ofwar at Sierra Leone any American-flag slavers that they came across; the British would leave the actual search to the American captain, in order not to stir up protest. He in turn would hand over to the British suspected slavers flying any other flag. Presently officers experienced in the West African squadron were asking the Navy Department to sanction “joint-cruising”—H.M.S. Towser and U.S.S. Jonathan to hunt together, the latter pouncing on anything which hoisted American colors, the former taking care of everything else. But Washington frowned on all such arrangements, adhering instead to the clumsy, ineffectual eighty-gun agreement.

Sometimes an impatient U.S. Navy commander managed to dabble in co-operation with the British without incurring rebuke from his superiors. In 1845 U.S.S. Truxtun , Commander Bruce, sent two cutters and twenty-seven men to help H.M.S. Ardent , Commander Russell, to raid the slaving depots up the River Pongo. While the two ships lay waiting, the Truxtun offered no objection when the Ardent fired at an American brigantine to bring her to for inspection; in fact, the two commanders checked her over arm in arm. In due course out of the river came the American slaver Spitfire , prize to the Truxtun ’s cutters, and some while later the Spanish slaver Dos Hermanos , prize to the Ardent ’s boats. Both had been caught red-handed, or perhaps “black-handed” would be more accurate. The Ardent , a steamer, then towed both prizes and the Truxtun to Sierra Leone, whence a prize crew took the Spitfire to the States. The technique was as efficient as it was friendly—a tantalizing example of how much fear of God could have been put into slavers if only Uncle Sam had seen fit to let the two navies handle matters their own way.

American recalcitrance about right-of-search was especially graceless because while British men-of-war had to be so careful about boarding American-flag vessels, U.S. Navy ships were boarding British-flag vessels in both West Indian and West African waters. When British diplomats mentioned these practices, all that their American opposite numbers could do was change the subject.

To judge by their logs U.S. Navy ships even used British colors in approaching suspicious vessels. Explanation is hardly necessary: If British colors on U.S.S. Jonathan moved a slaver to hoist American colors as safeguard, the Jonathan had her dead to rights and there would be one less slave smuggler on the high seas —for a while anyway. The record fails to mention it, but it would seem that this ruse accounted for the extreme but well-deserved hard luck of Captain Nathaniel Gordon of Portland, Maine.

In 1860 his ship, leaving the West African coast, found herself pursued by a man-of-war, a steamer. Whatever his reason for assuming she was British- perhaps he caught a glimpse of a white ensign—Captain Gordon had good reason to prefer not to be boarded. Up went the Stars and Stripes. The stranger was actually U.S.S. Mohican , so this only made her pour on coal. Soon a boat’s crew of Captain Gordon’s countrymen were calling on him. “Found her to be the ship Erie of New York,” says the firmly indited entry in the Mohican ’s log, “without papers or any person claiming to be captain, and with 893 slaves on board, having a mixed crew of Spaniards, Americans and Frenchmen.”

Gordon had obviously followed an old slaver’s dodge: He had thrown the ship’s papers overboard at the last minute to confuse the issue of jurisdiction. At his trial he denied that he had been in command. His mates swore that a certain Manuel had been in charge. But several seamen testified that it had been Gordon who had given the orders when the Erie put to sea after loading the slaves. Worst of all, Gordon’s timing was unfortunate. At home the Battle of Bull Run had already been fought, and the atmosphere had so changed that the United States was moving toward a reciprocal search treaty with Britain. Within a few months the treaty was signed, and within two years slaving in Rebecca -type operations would be finished.

Thus it happened that Nathaniel Gordon became the first Yankee skipper ever hanged for slaving, though the federal statute which equated slavery and piracy had already been in force for 42 years. It was high time.

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