Unspoken in the materials I quoted in my post on American slaver vessels last month was the inference that perhaps some of the slavers involved in the slave trade after the international treaty theoretically prohibited it were falsely flying American flags because of the United States’ lack of signing the treaty allowing slaver patrol crews to board American vessels looking for signs of the vessel being a slaver. While not explicitly stated in those materials, it was a very real concern of the slaver patrols.
To wit (my transcription of a printed letter):
Cyclops, off Ambuz, April 17, 1850.
Sir: I consider it my duty to bring under your notice a conversation that I had the honor of holding with Commander Levin M. Powell, commanding the United States ship-of-war “John Adams,” relative to the recent captures which have been made by some of the cruisers under your orders on the southwest coast of Africa of Brazilian vessels, which have attempted to evade search by presenting false American papers and hoisting American colors on meeting a British cruiser.
Commander Powell began by stating to me that he was not desirous, in this conversation, of referring to past captures, but that now an American vessel-of-war was stationed on the southwest coast of Africa, he desired to make some arrangement or have some agreement between the respective cruisers on all further occasions of our meeting vessels bearing the emblem of our respective countries, but producing, in the individual boarding captain’s opinion, no just right to wear it, and he would suggest that for the future, should a vessel be boarded by any of our cruisers presenting, in our opinions, false American colors, and that on our doubting the nationality of the vessel, and informing the master that our duty was, doubting his nationality, to send him to an American officer for further scrutiny, that should the said master, (should the vessel be an illegal trader, and employed in the slave trade, or fitted to be so employed,) for fear of the consequences, (the law of the United States inflicting death of any of its subjects convicted of being engaged in the slave trade,) destroy the fraudulent American papers, and immediately present Brazilian ones, and direct a Brazilian ensign to be hoisted, that we, the British officers, should not seize such vessel as a Brazilian slaver, although we see she is fully equipped for the slave trade, and is delivered over to us as Brazilian, but that we ought to detain such vessel, on the grounds that false papers were first presented to us to evade search, and either give such vessel up to the American cruiser, if present on the coast, if not, to be sent to an American port for adjudication. …
From Serial Set Vol. No. 859, H. Exec. Doc. 105 (Monday, May 19, 1856, quoting a letter from April 17, 1850), pp. 5-6
This excerpt was followed by the British author asking the government for advice, including a hypothetical situation wherein American and British slaver patrol cruisers together encountered “a strange vessel.” The first part of the letter particularly struck me because it suggested that the American Commander Powell assumed: 1) that American law was so strong and so well enforced on this subject that anyone confronted with the possibility of being subject to it would immediately simply give up any charade; 2) that the person, upon giving up, should not be subject to the law which had terrified them into confessing.
Accompanying this printed letter was another British letter on the subject (again, my transcription of a printed document):
… in order to maintain cordial and friendly co-operation between the officers of the British and United States navies respectively engaged in the suppression of the slave trade; and I stated that her Majesty’s government derived the sincerest gratification from the proofs … of the efficiency of the steps taken by the United States government to prevent the abuse of the United States flag, for purposes of slave trade …
… her Majesty’s government consider it a general and acknowledged principle of international law, that the nationality of a vessel must be determined, not by the flag which may be hoisted from time to time at her masthead, but by the papers which prove her ownership; and upon this, issued those instructions to which Commander Fanshawe refers, for the guidance of her Majesty’s naval officers engaged in the suppression of the slave trade, ordering such officers to board any suspected vessel and to require the production of her papers, whence arise the questions mooted by the commander of the United States cruizer “John Adams.”
It appears to her Majesty’s government that the proper course to be pursued would be that, if a vessel so boarded should produce American papers, and the master should persist in asserting her American character, and if, nevertheless, there should be grounds either for suspecting her to be engaged in slave trade, or for supposing her papers to be false, the vessel should be delivered over to the nearest United States naval officers. But, if the master should disclaim American nationality, or if the United States officer should, on examining the papers, find them to be false, then, and in either of those cases, the vessel should remain in, or be given back to the charge of the British officer, to be dealt with by British courts according to the real character of the vessel.
This proposed arrangement is founded on the presumption that the courts of the United States could not deal with a vessel detained for slave trade unless she was United States property. And that if a slaver were to be sent for trial to the United States, and it should appear on trial that she was not an United States vessel, the court would acquit her for want of competence in the case.
From Serial Set Vol. No. 859, H. Exec. Doc. 105 (Monday, May 19, 1856, quoting a letter from December 31, 1850), pp. 3-4
What a different window into history this offers, including the suggestion that Americans should not be given the responsibility for dealing with international slaver vessels because American courts could not handle such cases, and that British slaver patrols should only hand a vessel over to the Americans if the crew continued to insist that they were indeed Americans despite the claim seeming dubious. Having researched and blogged about the international incident involving the Douglas out of Duxbury in 1839, I imagined upon reading this that the reason the British even went that far in their suggestion was because of prior incidents like the Douglas being detained – better to err on the side of caution than to cause another international incident. But when I read further letters, I discovered that it wasn’t just past incidents but very recent complaints by the masters of American vessels – or as the published letters put it, “legal traders” – whose participation in international trade, possibly including the slave trade, was disrupted by patrols.
Weaving throughout these letters is the fact that slaver vessels of other nationalities were hoisting American flags and carrying false American papers because the American government had refused to sign the international treaty allowing patrol crews to board and search American vessels and continued to defend its citizens rights to legally participate in the slave trade as long as they were selling people to countries where it was legal to do so. The American government could have made all of this moot at any time by signing the treaty. But it did not.