Posts Tagged ‘slave trade’

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.

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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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On Monday (August 25th), I attended a talk on the Middle Passage given by a National Park Service Boston African-American National Historic Site Ranger in the Great Hall at Faneuil Hall. In this historic location so tied to the American Revolution and which many presidents and other significant historical figures have visited, she discussed the Middle Passage from Africa to the Colonies of the Western Hemisphere as well as slavery in the Colonies in general and in New England and Boston in particular.

In 1637, the Desire was the first ship to leave the Northern Colonies with slaves (she said it was “somewhat unique” in that it carried slaves both directions). It carried Pequot prisoners of war to be sold in the Caribbean and picked up slaves for New England, returning to Boston in 1638 to sell them. The Desire‘s most likely landing spot was Boston’s town dock, which no longer exists. Long Wharf, completed by 1715, subsequently became the most common place to sell slaves. The handout included a number of quotes, one of which was an ad that ran in Boston newspapers in 1751 saying that parties interested in their cargo of “Five strong hearty stout negro Men, most of them Tradesmen…” could inspect it on the ship docked at Long Wharf in advance of the sale. The public sale was being held at the Bunch of Grapes, a tavern on King Street, and she emphasized that this showed how integrated slavery was in Massachusetts culture.

Another quoted newspaper ad (Boston Gazette, 10 June 1728) lists cargo being sold at Henry Caswall’s warehouse on Long Wharf, including “…Sooseys, Persians, Taffities, Ginghams, Long Cloths, Irish Linens of all sorts, Men & Women’s Worsted and Silk Hose, Powder, Cordage, Duck, Nails, Sweeds and Spanish Iron, with sundry other European and East India Goods, lately Imported, also Negro Boys & Girls, and Barbados Rum.” The rum, like the slaves, was an integral part of the Slave Trade Triangle that existed between the North American Colonies, Africa, and the sprawling sugar plantations of the Caribbean and South America. All told, she said there were about 1,000 ads regarding enslaved people in Boston in the 18th century.

The speaker stressed that statistics she was giving from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database were only slaves being sent directly from Africa, and that a good number were shipped from the Caribbean to North American Colonies, including New England. Overall, by far the highest number were sent to Brazil, with many more also going to the Caribbean and northern South America than to North America. However, the death rate was so much higher in the Caribbean and Brazilian plantations that many more slaves that were sent here survived, and slaves that were later shipped from the Caribbean to North America were often glad that at least this increased their chances of survival (she read some excerpts from slave narratives expressing these sentiments).

While there are classically thought of slave trade vessels, many types of ships were involved in the slave trade, from those ships built expressly for it to small schooners transporting small numbers of slaves. Her handout included a well-known diagram of a 1790-91 ship, also available several places online, such as at Wikimedia Commons. While the importation of slaves directly from Africa to the United States was outlawed in 1808, she stressed that there were workarounds, from importing slaves from the Caribbean (which she said was legal) to making illegal slave trade runs directly from Africa, as well as trading slaves born in the U. S. I did not realize that illegal runs were still being made from Africa until I started researching in 1800’s American newspapers, wherein I found incensed Northern newspaper reports of captured slave trade ships that had been trying to make it from Africa directly into Southern ports as close to the outbreak of the Civil War as the 1850’s, and I would imagine there were likely other slave trade ships that made it through undetected.

She said that in the 18th century, it is estimated that between 1 in 10 and 1 in 4 households in New England had one or more slaves. Most were clustered in/near coastal areas. (I want to note, in case you don’t already know, that a large percentage of the white colonists were also clustered in/near coastal areas, like the Native American tribes before them, so it would make sense that the slaves were too.) She said that it is also estimated that during the first half of the 18th century, the slave population of Massachusetts went from 1,000 to 13,000. In Boston the slave population was concentrated in the Copps Hill area, and “oppressive laws” included: a 9pm curfew; a law against carrying anything that could be mistaken for a weapon, including canes and sticks; a requirement for slaves to perform public works without pay.

She also discussed Cotton Mather and the smallpox inoculation method he learned from his former slave (I’m sorry, I didn’t write down his name and am not finding it in several minutes of searching, though I do note that many sites say the person was still Mather’s slave, which is not what the speaker said) and introduced to Boston in 1721. She did not note that it caused much controversy at the time (I’ve done a fair amount of my own reading on this subject). The speaker said that at that point smallpox was estimated to have a 15% fatality rate in Boston, while the inoculation method had a 3% fatality rate. There are a lot of places, online and offline, to read more about this subject. One starting point is Harvard University’s Contagion page on the 1721 epidemic.

She discussed Prince Hall and the African Lodge of the Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons of Boston, which he founded and which sent a lot of petitions to the legislature, and David Walker, an abolitionist born in North Carolina who moved to Boston and wrote the famous pamphlet Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America, which a brief survey on my part suggests a lot of webpages term “incendiary.” She noted that in the pamphlet he frequently used the terms “colored citizens” and “American citizens,” the latter meaning “white citizens,” illustrating how disenfranchised he felt from society. After he died in 1830, his friend Maria Stewart “took up his mantle,” and the speaker read quotes from one of Maria’s speeches to the African Masonic Hall in Boston.

She also discussed Paul Cuffe, an African-American whaling captain who was in favor of the colonization movement, where free African-Americans would return to Africa. A few Boston families went with him and stayed in Africa on one of his trips there. Coincidentally, two days before the talk I had seen the Magna Carta exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the only African-American I saw highlighted there was Paul Cuffe; a portrait of him on loan from the New England Historic Genealogical Society hung in the room with the 1215 document, and the label discussed Cuffe’s own petitioning efforts (amongst other things). Many whites who supported colonization did so for implicitly or often explicitly racist reasons, and many African-Americans were against it. One of them was Frederick Douglass, who had given an anti-colonization speech at Faneuil Hall in 1833 and whose bust was now above us in the Great Hall watching over the proceedings.

She also discussed a number of things on which I did not take any notes and do not remember in detail to be able to recount properly here. I do not believe she mentioned that Faneuil Hall was partially financed with money from the slave trade, as its builder Peter Faneuil was a slave trader as part of his merchant business. There is a blog post about it here and the same site has a more general post on Massachusetts slavery here that covers some of the same things that were discussed in the talk as well as some different things. Slavery in the North has a Massachusetts slavery page here and a Massachusetts emancipation page here.

I thought her talk was very well-done and it was pretty well attended for a talk held during the daytime on a weekday without much publicity surrounding it. It included the largest percentage of African-Americans I believe I’ve ever seen at any of the many talks/events/conferences I’ve attended on history, genealogy, and related subjects, and every question and comment after the talk was from an African-American audience member. I think this shows that the local audience is there if you present a subject that is of interest to African-Americans and let them know about it. (I’ll continue to hold out hope that local genealogical event organizers will do this someday…)

The talk was the first event in what the NPS and the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project [note: at time of posting, their site seems to be down] hope to be a year of area events leading up to the unveiling of a Middle Passage Marker in Boston next August 23rd, UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition; Boston will be the 11th American port to get a marker. (August 23rd is the annual International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition because it was the start of the Haitian Revolution; see here for more info.) They also plan to eventually erect a permanent monument to the Middle Passage and the area’s slaves near the original beginning of (now much shorter) Long Wharf.  Many locals and most tourists do not realize that slavery used to exist here and that the slave trade used to happen here, and in addition to honoring the enslaved people who went on the Middle Passage, the NPS and the Project hope to help raise awareness of this. The Middle Passage Project aims to eventually have a marker at every port that was a part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If you are interested in helping them with a project already underway or starting one in your port, please contact them. They hold ceremonies of remembrance in locations involved in the slave trade as well as adding markers at ports.

I blogged earlier this year about Roco and Sue, two slaves that bought their freedom from my ancestor’s brother, John Pynchon, in inland Massachusetts. I find that it is common for genealogical researchers of colonial New England to either not realize there were slaves here or to assume that only the wealthiest families had slaves. I think that the estimate mentioned earlier in this post that 1 in 10 to 1 in 4 families – 10% to 25% – are thought to have owned a slave in 18th century Massachusetts shows that this is not necessarily accurate. While most people did not own several slaves like John Pynchon did, many families owned one or two slaves. If you are researching a free family/individual and not accounting for this possibility in your research, you may be missing the opportunity to learn more about your ancestors’/relatives’ lives and to help document a slave’s life for posterity and for that slave’s possible living descendants.

An excerpt from the 1700 Plymouth County, Massachusetts, will of Susanna Byram of Bridgewater

An excerpt from the Plymouth County, Massachusetts, will of my ancestor Susanna Byram of East Bridgewater (proved in 1700), wherein she grants freedom to her two slaves in between discussions of legacies for her granddaughters: “I give To miriam Negro maid hir freedom at my decease & on[e] homemade hood I give To Tom negro man Ten Shillings mony & his freedom At my Decease if hee be Thirty Years of age & if not hee Shall Secure[?] with my Son Nicolas biram Till he is Thirty yeares of age & then be free” (Plymouth County probate case file #3511; image courtesy of FamilySearch.)



There is a project underway through Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies that is indexing, transcribing, and digitizing slavery-related petitions to the Massachusetts colonial/state legislature. See the 2013 article about it in the Harvard Gazette, “Digitizing a movement: Harvard project covers thousands of 18th- and 19th-century anti-slavery petitions.”

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