- Historic Sites
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
The two patrol ships that Muck served on were moderately successful in their missions. The Grappler , on which he was master’s assistant from 1846 to 1849, captured fifteen slavers, mainly Mraxilians with wildly inappropriate names like Felicidade and Esperança ; but only four of them actually had slaves aboard. The rest were “manifestly equipped” for the trade—that is, they had a slave deck stocked with the necessary provisions such as extra stipplies of water, sacks of rice and farina, cooking vessels, and floor space for several hundred human beings when fitted in according to the ellicient standard plan: lying horixontally, back to belly, with room to turn over if they all turned at once. It was upon discovery of such arrangements, even though not in use al the moment, that the majority of slavers were detained after 1839, when the law was changed to incorporate the so-called “equipment clause.” Before that, the British patrol could hold a slaver only if she was actually carrying slaves—a rule that led on a ntimber of occasions to mass drownings of blacks thrown overboard during a chase.
By the time Buck came out for his second stint with the West African squadron on H.M.S. Medusa , in 1856, the slave trade was beginning to die out—partly, of course, because slaves already in America were a sell-expanding commodity, increasing according to the laws of biology and geometric progression. (“A child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop ol the l)est laboring man.” wrote Thomas Jefferson, who deplored slavery on principle but understood the plantation value of what he (ailed “a breeding woman.”)
The Medusa was larger and faster than the Grappler , but she took very few prizes in the three years she remained on patrol. One slaver she did encounter was the American schooner Wanderer , but this episode added no luster to the Medusa ’s record. The Wanderer was a very fast vessel built in 1857 for a member of the New York Yacht Club. In 1858 she was sold to a Captain W. C. Corrie, who as it turned otit was acting secretly on behalf of a slaving syndicate headed by the flamboyant Charles A. L. Laniar of Ccorgia. Conic took thé beautiful Wanderer to Charleston, South Carolina, and had her fitted out to transport 750 slaves—yet to outward view she was still a pleasure ship, complete with the pennant of the yacht dub. Meeting up with the Medusa at the mouth of the Congo River, Captain Corrie coolly invited the British officers aboard for a fancy dinner. Over the wine, according to an account given later by the ship’s supercargo, Corrie jokingly suggested an inspection of the Wanderer to see if she wasn’t a slaver in disguise. This produced a good laugh. Later the Medusa sailed olf along the coast, while the Wanderer went up the river to Ponta Lena, packed in 750 teen-age Negroes, and then headed for sea. The Medusa was still in the vicinity, and her log (kept by William Buck, who was her sailing master) indicates that the Wanderer was again briefly visited by the British officers. There is no hint that any of them suspected the presence of 750 sweltering pieces of human contraband below decks, although it must be remembered that they were not authorized to search American vessels anyway.
The Wanderer returned safely to America and smuggled her cargo. less those who had died en route, successfully ashore. The story got out, however, and the yacht was confiscated by the government and put up lor auction—whereupon Laniar had the gall to attend and buy lier bark lor a relatively .small sum. The only person who appears to have been penalized in this whole bizarre episode was Captain Corrie: he was expelled from the New York Yacht Club. Laniar, his spirit of free enterprise undaunted, soon sent the sent the Wandered back to the Congo for another load.
For ten years after his African tours, Ruck commanded a coast guard station at Winchelsea, Sussex, and then retired from the service in 1870. A few years later lie was working at the emigration office in Liverpool; from there on his life subsided into a quiet round of Hritish middle-class retirement. After his wife died, in 1910, he lived with lus daughter and spent his time reading and walking his dog. Every evening a large brown jug was sent down to the local pub for a pint or two of beer. He was on the whole even-tempered, aroused only by the mention of Gladstone or Lloyd George. Whenever the national anthem was played on the Viclrola in the parlor he hauled himself out of his chair and stood to attention. He died during World War I, at the age of ninety-one, his memories of the slave-ship patrol long since dim but his pictorial record of it still bright.