Archive for March, 2016

In October 1839, the Duxbury-Massachusetts-based brig Douglas was on its route from Havana, Cuba, towards what reports called “the port of the river Bras” on the coast of Africa, when it was stopped and boarded by some of the crew of the slaver patrol brigantine-cruiser HMS Termagant*. The crew inspected the ship’s papers and the passengers’ passports, insisted the hatches be broken open, ordered the American flag taken down, and seized the ship on suspicion of being a slaver.

This caused a furor, months of sporadic newspaper coverage, and a diplomatic incident.

The problem?

The United States hadn’t signed the international treaty allowing the patrols hunting for slavers to search ships for evidence that the ship was involved in the slave trade. Slaver patrol crews could not legally so much as board the deck of American vessels if they were not granted permission.

The Douglas purportedly became less sea-worthy, and three of its crew died on the return trip, which was from coastal Africa to Curaçao and then back to Havana. The United States blamed the Termagant‘s interference for these events.

The British government apologized multiple times, but the United States government was underwhelmed and sent a formal letter of protest. The British government proceeded to agree to provide compensation for the incident, and their staff upped their diplomatic-speak; to quote one of the letters published in a volume of Correspondence with the British Commissioners (following is my transcription of part of a published letter):

Her Majesty’s Government cannot be insensible of the strong desire which the Government of the United States, and the nation at large, feel in the complete annihilation of the African Slave Trade.

The course pursued for the last 30 years is best calculated to mark the feelings and opinions of the Government and people of the United States, in relation to a traffic, now properly regarded by most civilized nations as alike repugnant to justice and humanity, and which, in relation to the United States, is not the less so to all the dictates of a sound policy.

It is true that the American Government have declined to become a party in treaties with other nations for the suppression of the Slave Trade. Although repeatedly urged by Her Majesty’s Government to do so, the United States have been forced to decline all conventional arrangements, by which the officers of ships-of-war of either country should have the right to board, search, or capture, or carry into foreign ports for adjudication, the vessels of each other engaged in the Slave Trade. Indeed, it may be well doubted, apart from other considerations, whether the constitutional powers of the American Government would be competent to carry into effect those portions of the existing system, so indispensably necessary to give it the character of just reciprocity.

These objections on the part of the United States have been repeatedly and frankly made known to Her Majesty’s Government, and are doubtless well understood by the British Cabinet . . .

They cannot, however, consent that the provisions of the Treaties in force between Great Britain and other Powers for its abolition, and to which they are not a party, should be made to operate upon the commerce and citizens of the United States. It cannot but be apparent to Her Majesty’s Government that these Treaties are of a nature which cannot, and ought not, to be applied to the United States . . .

A. Stevenson, on November 13, 1840

Interestingly, part of the argument was that the United States did not have colonies like European powers did.

Some American newspapers picked up A. Stevenson’s letter and published it in full.

The British public, however, was more skeptical. The United States continued to refuse to sign the treaty, and by 1857 it was widely reported that most to all of the slavers still operating were flying the American flag, spurring the London Times to publish this on 25 May 1857, a piece also picked up by a number of American newspapers, and excerpted here (again, my transcription):

Cuba is now almost the only country which regularly imports large numbers of negroes, and to supply the plantations of this island most of the slavers which now pursue their odius trade are fitted out. As the Americans refuse to admit the right of search, the Slave-Trade, it is said, is now almost wholly carried on under their flag. Nay, unless statements publcily and repeatedly made be false, the greater part of the slave-carrying crafts are owned by American citizens, and fitted out at American ports; so, indeed, it is declared in a resolution adopted by a meeting held at Kingston, Jamaica, in February last. The feelings of the inhabitants were, no doubt, much moved by the conditions of the blacks liberated from the slaver which had been captured by the British vessel Arab; and this meeting, which passed strong resolutions on the subject of Slavery and the Slave-Trade, was the natural result.

We have no desire to echo any Protectionist opinions of the Jamaican politicians, yet, as we ought to give the slave-owners, both Anglo-American and Spanish, their due, it may be said that in the minds of great numbers of them this country, by its dependence on tropical productions, and consequently on slave-labor, has its share in whatever sin there may be in Slavery. If Manchester buys more than half the cotton of the United States, and we receive the sugar of Cuba and the coffee of Brazil, the fact is not without its effect on those who are on the look-out for arguments against us, and are willing enough to turn the discussion from their own inhumanity to our inconsistency in denouncing it.

The editorial brought to my mind American Senator Charles Sumner’s succinct phrasing “the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom,” tying Southern cotton produced by enslaved people to the Northern textile mills that processed and exported said cotton. Never doubt that there were Northerners who had a vested interest in slavery continuing in Cuba and elsewhere, including the Douglas‘s owner(s) in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and people in Providence and Boston, the cities from which two of the crew who died on the Douglas‘s return voyage hailed.


*The now-archaic meaning of Termagant is “an imaginary character of violent and turbulent character.”


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