- 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
United States registry, combined with a set of bogus Spanish or Portuguese papers easily obtainable by briber), was the basic dodge. If the ship were challenged by a U.S. Navy cruiser, she hoisted Spanish colors, say, and the Spanish “passenger,” temporarily turned captain, showed the Spanish papers to the boarding party, while the American captain stayed out of sight. Such subterfuges were so rile in the i8|o’s that a U.S. commodore reported that the American flag had completely disappeared from West African slaving—though the whole seagoing world knew that the waters off West Africa were swarming with slavers that freely hoisted the Stars and Stripes whenever it suited their needs and a U.S. Xavy vessel was not around. For if the cruiser were British, the slaver hoisted American colors, and could usually count oil being left unmolested. In the absence of a scarch-andseizure treaty British Navy commanders had been ordered not to meddle with American ships unless they were quite confident they could be proved to be slavers—when, for instance, the cruiser had picked up the festering stench that usually betrayed the presence ot a closely-packed human cargo.
To reduce the advantage that American muhshness thus gave to slavers, the British inserted the so-called equipment clause in their antislaving treaties. Originally a slaver could be apprehended only when slaves were actually found on board. But by the mid-1930’s Hritain was sei/ing ships which, even though they were carrying no slaves, had on board most of the equipment slaving required: extra-wide hatchways fitted with gratings (for ventilation of slave quarters); more rice or casks of fresh water than the ship’s crew could conceivably need; unduly ample cooking facilities. Even American courts, usually lackadaisical or worse about slaving cases, came to condemn solely on such circumstantial evidence if it were strong enough.
The slavers responded with even more involved jugglings of Hags and papers to forestall search, sometimes using as many as four “captains” of different nationalities, each of whom had papers to match. The gi im nature of their commerce makes it good to know that every now and then they overplayed their shabby hand or guessed wrong and came to grief. In 18^), for instance, the Haltimore-built slaver Catherine , owned by Havana interests, was nearing West Africa when she fell in with and was chased by H.M.S. Dolphin . Unable to outdistance her pursuer alter two hours, she played the usual card and hoisted American colors. But the British commander, lor some reason very sure of her character, took a chance and opened fire. Hove to and searched, the Catherine proved to have on board cooking arrangements lor goo people; planks marked and numbered lor speedy building of a half-deck lor slaves; 570 wooden spoons and about 350 pairs ol handculls. On the American captain’s person were found written instructions advising him how to persuade boarding officers that his Spanish and Portuguese shipmates were passengers and that his handful of American seamen constituted the entire crew. He was even keeping one log in Knglish, another in Spanish. It was ingenious but futile. A Hritish prize crew took the ship to New York, where she was duly condemned.
One of the most elaborate ruses of all was tindertaken by Captain Cyrus Libby of Maine, master of the American-built brig Porpoise . The Porpoise had made several slaving voyages under the ownership of certain Brazilians btit was prepared whenever necessary to show American colors, papers, captain, and crew. On her last voyage, however, she merely acted as tender for the American-built Kentucky , which actually loaded the Negroes. The Porpoise ’s job was to transport to the slaving point a Brazilian captain-super-cargo with a spare Brazilian crew and the trade goods to swap for slaves. At the rendezvous the goods went ashore and the Brazilians were exchanged for the largely American crew that had sailed the Kentucky out. The two ships then went home in company, the Kentucky carrying the slaves and wearing an all-Brazilian character. This gave her no immunity to British search—or American either, under some circumstances. But now she had the Porpoise to act as decoy, sizing up any man-of-war that appeared, hoisting a provocative flag and ostentatiously trying to run for it, drawing the cruiser away from the actual slave carrier. If searched herself, the Porpoise had no evidence aboard that would lead to condemnation under the equipment clause. It was prettily worked out. But the Porpoise was notorious in the slave trade, and while indulging in such antics in 1855, she was seized by U.S.S. Raritan . An American judge condemned her just as if she had been laden to the gunwales with every kind of slaving equipment known to man.