- Historic Sites
Patrolling The Middle Passage
Congress agreed to join Britain in suppressing the brutal and cunning slave trade, but Southern influence hamstrung the Navy when it came to enforcing the law
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
The American merchantman Mary Ann was primly named, but she had a scandalous history. In i8j8 she cleared lor West Alrica, ostensibly on a trading voyage lor such products as palm oil, which the new American railroads and factories used as a lubricant. He mates and crew seemed to have signed on unaware that any other scheme was in the wind. Eut the course her captain set took her not to the mouths of the Niger, locus of the palm oil trade, but to the Gallinas River area, notorious for its bootleg slave markets.
Forty years beTore, Great Britain and the United States had outlawed the slave trade, and eventually the whole western world followed suit. Subsequently the United States had declared slave trading to be piracy, subject to capital punishment. Dut booms in sugar and colTee kept Cuba and Brazil hungry lor slave labor, and immense profits from slave smuggling brought unscrupulous seamen and shipowners—“the matured villainy of the world,” a U.S. Navy commander called them—Hocking like buzzards into a rich racket.
The captain of the Mary Ann was one of these. Hut his crewmen were not, and at the sight of the dismal Gallinas shore they decided they wanted no part whatever in the skipper’s plans. So, taking things into their own hands, they put him ashore and sailed olf down the coast looking for a U.S. Navy vessel to which they could surrender. Finding none, they took the Mary Ann back to New York, turned her over to the federal authorities—and promptly found themselves in serious trouble. From one point of view they had most commcndably refused to become accessories to the foulest of seagoing crimes. Hut from another, they had committed mutiny, perhaps barratry, and a few other odd maritime sins. The court held that there had been “probable cause” for the arrest of the Mary Ann as a slaver, but it was lenient with the members of the crew, and let them off with no heavier penalty than forfeiture of their wages for botli outward and homeward voyages. Considering the innocence of their motives, the penalty seems heavy enough.
Now contrast this with the history of another American ship, the Rebecca, also primly named, also West Africa-bound on an ostensibly legitimate voyage in 1859. She was a Baltimore-built clipper of a design renowned for speed, and she was transporting fortyodd freed Negroes from New Orleans to settle in Liberia; from there she was to continue to the Congo River with two Spanish traders and their stocks of goods. Ncaring Liberia she was overhauled by the steamer H.M.S. Viper , a small British man-of-war on antislaving duty. The Viper ’s commander, apparently well aware that the Rebecca enjoyed a dubious reputation, was much annoyed to find her on so innocent a mission, but he allowed her to proceed. She duly landed the emigrants and their belongings and then, once at sea again, she assumed her true character- that of a slaver procuring Negroes for the great, quasi-official slave market in Cuba.
Her real owners were not the New Orleans fhm that had registered her as American, but the two Spanish “passengers.” They had sought this Libcrian errand as a way to secure unimpeachable clearance papers, and they now took over as captain and supercargo. They mustered the crew and signed the ship’s company to new articles at wages eloquent of how well slave bootlegging paid: captain and mate were to receive 55,000 each for the voyage; second mate, Sg.^oo; carpenter, $3,000; seamen, .S 1,500 each—this at a time when a dollar bought six or seven times what it does now.
After some mischances and delays, the Rebecca entered the Congo to size up the situation and, if possible, to get “slaved.” Just at that most inopportune moment, H.M.S. Tigris , another British patrol ship, apparently also well alerted, came prowling along and set an armed boat’s crew to keep round-the-clock watch on the Rebecca . Then appeared a Portuguese cruiser—even less welcome because, whereas the British usually turned slaver crews loose alter confiscating the ships, the Portuguese had lately developed a nasty habit of sending slavers to their rugged penal colonies. H.M.S. Vixen (a third Britisher) and the last-sailing U.S.S. Vincennes were also rumored to be in the vicinity. There were altogether too many men-ol-war thereabouts, and sulkily the Rebecca dropped down the river still un-“slaved,” let the hovering Tigris know that trade had been poor and that she was returning stateside disconsolate—and ostentatiously put to sea on a northwesterly course.