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Captain William Buck spelled Latin desperately, but his primitive paintings are a cheerful record of one of the most cheerless assignments in naval history: catching slave ships off the African coast
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
“Here we are in the most miserable station in the world, attempting the impossible—the suppression of the slave trade. We look upon the aflair as complete humbug.… So long as a slave worth a few dollars here fetches £80£–100 in America, men and means will be found to evade even the strictest blockade.” So wrote an officer serving with the British antislavcry patrol along the coast of West Africa in the mid-nineteenth century. And a humbug, very largely, it was; just as seventy years later the American attempt to suppress rumrunners was a humbug as long as people kept buying and drinking. The slave markets in Bra/il, Cuba, and the American South still nourished, and the more difficult it was to get a cargo of slaves to market, the more lucrative the venture became.
Great Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807; the United States followed suit the next year. The great difference was that the British government vigorously tried to implement the law, sending a large and wellequipped squadron to patrol the West African coast and blockade the ports from which slaves were most frequently sent out, while the American slave-trade patrol never consisted of more than four or five vessels at a time. It was not only the influence of the slaveholding states that enfeebled the U.S. Navy’s efforts: many of the slave-runners were built and fitted out in the North, and some were owned by northerners. As late as 1859–60, at least a hundred American-built slave ships sailed from New York Harbor on their nefarious missions.
But even without American foot-dragging and duplicity, the task confronting the antislavery patrol was almost impossible. The coast they were supposed to blockade was 2,000 miles long; the subterfuges practiced by greedy slave traders were manifold and ingenious, including false ship’s papers (often American, since the United States did not permit ships of her registry to be searched by foreigners) and hidden decks where slaves were packed in literally like sardines.
When a slave cargo was apprehended, the disposition of the “prize” was no simple matter. The slaves were usually consigned to an uncertain fate in the ports of Sierra Leone or Liberia, where presumably they would thenceforth be free. For a time, ships were sent back to their country of origin and sold at auction, often falling again into the hands of the original owners. Eventually the British solved this problem by burning slavers after they had been officially condemned. As for the crews, they were technically liable to trial and severe punishment, but for practical reasons they were more often put ashore at the nearest mainland point and left to fend for themselves. The American authorities were reputedly more severe, yet statistics show that in the period 1837–62, when the death penalty was the ultimate punishment for slavers, the federal government imprisoned only two dozen men caught in slaving operations, and executed only one man. (For this and other details of the nineteenthcentury slave trade, sec “Patrolling the Middle Passage,” in the October, 1958, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .)
One thing conspicuously scarce in historical records of the slave trade is illustrative material; the camera was hardly available while the traffic lasted, and few men involved in the business had any aesthetic sensibilities. A rare exception has recently come to light in the curious personage of Captain William Buck of the Royal Navy, who spent seven years on the antislavery patrol. Born in 1826 in Holkam, in the county of Norfolk, Buck went to sea while in his early teens and without having gathered much education from his schooltcachcr parents. But he had an untutored talent for drawing and painting, plenty of enthusiasm, and a good deal of self-respect—all of which show in his self-portrait (opposite), done at the end of his naval career with appropriate symbols thereof and the brave if badly misspelled Latin motto: “Despair of nothing.”
Buck’s primitive paintings of scenes from his two tours of slave-patrol duty, together with his carefully rendered sea charts, deck plans of slavers, and so forth, make up a pictorial commentary that is both valuable and attractive. Alert to the scenic and dramatic aspects of chasing slave traders along the West African coast, Buck resisted the temptation to romanticize: we can believe what we sec. It is perhaps regrettable that his skill did not permit him to depict a close view of some of the miserable human beings who were the cargo of the slave ships. At the same time it must be admitted that nothing in his notebooks suggests any profound empathy with the lot of the African sold into slavery. His attitude seems to have been like that of ninny officers assigned to the patrol: it was not pleasant duty. I)Ut they had to do their job as cheerfully as they could. Toward the slave-ship captains they felt contempt; toward the African native chiefs, who were also conimercially involved in the business of selling people, they seem to have been rather more tolerant. “An African chief,” one of Ruck’s colleagues wrote, ”… is generally speaking a humane, shrewd and intelligent man. … I lived for a week in the house of King KeIl in the Cameroons and saw nothing that would shock the most fastidious taslc; except perhaps the first day when soup was served in an utensil, the proper use of which His Majesty did not know, hut which was by far the most splendid thing of its kind I ever saw.”