- 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
When she was well over the liori/oii her Spanish commander had her hove to, stripped of all identifying marks, and further disguised with a coat of black paint, lie then sailed back, landing well south of the Congo to get “slaved” quickly and away. It was a calculated risk, but it paid off. In a short time the Rebecca had taken aboard almost 1,200 Negroes, mostly men and boys, who woidd letch perhaps .8400,000 at Cuban prices. Just as the last few were coming on board, the Vixen hove in sight. As the Rebecca hastily weighed anchor, the Vixen , finding her warning shots ignored, opened fire in earnest at long range. But her gunnery was not all it might have been. The Rebecca got to sea unscathed anil, thanks to her Baltimore breeding, soon showed her heels to the puffing little teakettle.
The homeward voyage was uneventful. The slaves were landed on a small island oil’ the south coast of Cuba to be shifted a few at a time to mainland plantations. The beautiful clipper was scuttled and burned so as to leave no trace of these doings, and her crew went their separate ways with bulging pockets. Even alter paying them oft and destroying a valuable 550ton ship, the Rebecca ’s owners probably netted $150,000 on the voyage, the equivalent of three-quarters of a million dollars today.
Between them, the caper ol the Rebecca —curried out under the Stars and Stripes—and that ironical miscarriage ol justice in the Mary Ann case point up two curious, interconnected scandals that were at their ripest a hundred years ago: the genius of American shore authorities lor making the antislaving laws look foolish, and the U.S. Navy’s poor record in bringing slave ships to book.
Neither the Rebecca nor the Mary Ann sighted an American man-of-war; even when she tried hard, the Mary Ann hadn’t been able to find one. The reasons were that, at the time, the U.S. African squadron had only five ships and that nobody in Washington really wanted them to prove much anyway.
The Navy’s poor showing was more the fault of politicians than of commodores, in i8j2, six years before the Mary Ann affair, the United States had formally agreed with Britain that each should maintain olf the West African coast an antislaving squadron mounting a total of at least eighty guns. Regularly spurred by zealous antislavcry cabinet ministers, the British Navy, except during the short naval emergency of the Crimean War, always assigned ships far in excess of this requirement. The American squadron, on the other hand, was seldom much above quota and often fell well below it. Number of ships, not of guns, was the crucial thing, anyway. Relying mostly on speed and guile, slavers seldom tried to shoot it out. When overhauled they would knuckle under to an S-gun schooner as readily as to a j-l-gun frigate, and ten small vessels could patrol five times as much coast as could the two frigates that would answer the gun requirement. The British Xavy, which meant business, used such small men-of-war on this duty, their squadron averaging eighteen vessels in the period 1842-57. The squadron of the U.S. Navy averaged four.
The treaty would have been more effective, too, had it stipulated the number of ships actually on patrol. The British got much time-on-the-job out of theirs by basing them at Sierra Leone, next door to the Gallinas, or on the island of Fernando Po, just off the concentrated slaving nests of the African coast. The U.S. squadron was based in the (Jape Verde Islands, z,ooo-odd miles from the Congo, 800 from the Gallinas. More than half the time, the American ships were refitting in port or voyaging between base arid station, in the mid-18.40’s the United States brig Truxtun , tor instance, though she sailed under an unusually brisk commander, spent only 181 days cruising on station out of a total West African hitch of 468 days.
The most illustrious ships of the old Navy— Constitution, Constellation, United States, Macedonian —and a good number of famous Navy officers served in the African squadron. Names on the old dispatches from West Africa include Matthew Calbraith Perry, who opened up Japan, and enjoyed neither ol his two West African commands; Josiah I atnall, who told the British commodore that “Blood is thicker than water”; Andrew II. Foote, whose gunboats on the western waters were to do so much to destroy the Confederacy. It was Foote, in a book written in the early i85o’s, who protested vigorously against the unnecessary restrictions imposed on commanders on the African station, and he spoke for many of his fellow officers.