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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 basic cause of their frustration was the South’s growing reluctance to see any aspect of slavery damaged, at home or abroad. Southern Congressmen encouraged the Navy Department to drag its feet. Orders made it clear that the African squadron’s first concern was not hunting slavers but protecting the Americansponsored colony of Liberia for free Negroes and the growing American-West African trade. Ships were olten ordered home long before their replacements, sailing tardily from Brooklyn or Boston, could possibly arrive. Almost as soon as steam took to sea the British were sending to West Africa steam-propelled men-of-war which, while they might fall behind the slaver’s clippers in a brisk and steady wind, could overhaul even the fastest fugitive in calm or uncertain air. Not until shortly before the Civil War did U.S. Xavy steamers appear off West Africa, although American officers repeatedly asked for them. One conscientious commodore reported in 1860 that “the African squadron, under my command, has done its whole duty”; but he went on bitterly: ”… this has been done in the face of positive discouragement from the Department.” In the mid-1840’s West African service under a less active American commodore had moved a young lieutenant to call the whole operation “sending a squadron of gallant ships to chase shadows in a deadly climate.”
His complaint about the climate was only partly justified. Yellow fever, malaria, and odd enteric diseases made the West African shore deadly enough to whites, and small British ships blockading slaving nests close inshore or sending boats’ crews up the rivers often lost many men. But U.S. Navy ships usually patrolled well out at sea, far enough to minimize the risk from disease-carrying mosquitoes. The shadowchasing charge, however, was valid: it was a disgusted tribute to the skill with which slavers exploited Uncle Sam’s wrongheaded refusal either to fish or to cut bait.
Britain had tried hard to quicken the U.S. government’s lagging steps. After 1808 she had used diplomacy, cash payments, and force to persuade each maritime nation that had outlawed the slave trade to sign with her a treaty of “reciprocal search and sei/ure” to help enforce the antislaving declarations. Under these treaties the British Navy acquired the right to board Nation A’s ships at sea and, if evidence of slaving were found, to seize them and send them into port for legal penalties. Nation A’s navy had the same right with regard to British ships. But after Trafalgar the British Navy became and remained so much larger than any other and Britain’s successive governments were so severe toward the slave trade that in effect this system of treaties pretty well turned over to England the job of suppressing the slave trade on the high seas.
By i8.]o she had signed up all the major maritime powers—except the United States. We held out because we were still smarting from the British Navy’s highhanded visit-aiid-search procedures timing die Napoleonic Wars; indeed, these had constituted one of the most inflammatory causes of the miserable little War ol 181 a. The United .States always fell back on the contention that each nation should skin its own skunks, that ships on lawful errands flying the American flag as a token ol American registry should be examined only by U.S. Xavy vessels, that we could take care of our own slavers and prevent abuse ol our own flag—let other nations do the same with theirs. Vet it was obvious that the U.S. Navy, much smaller than Britain’s, probably lacked the resources, and that the federal government certainly lacked the real desire, to do anything ol the sort.
The case of the Rebecca illustrates how the consequent racket worked: By the late 1840’s, the typical slaver was a big, last, stateside-built ship with a few Yankees among a mixed crew of foreign skimmings (the Rebecca had Turks, Scots, Greeks, Danes, Italians, and Spaniards). The slaver indulged in games of tag with antislaving patrol ships, usually British, using her United States registry as a mask for actual Latin-American ownership represented by men who were nominally “passengers,” and having Cuba as destination and market. It was not quite typical of her period, however, that the Rebecca hailed from New Orleans. Slavers occasionally did come from there or from Boston, Salem, Portland, or Philadelphia. But more and more New York came to dominate this crass industry, furnishing the ships, the men to navigate them, the goods to swap tor slaves—and, as time passed, New York interests put up ever larger amounts of minority capital, well hidden under layers of subterfuge. In the twenty months ending August, 1860, a good hundred slavers were known to have fitted out in and sailed from New York Harbor.