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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
It sounds gratifyingly drastic. But even in the unusual cases when slave ships were seized and condemned in federal courts, front-men acting for their former owners often bought them back again. The whole shore phase of the enforcement of antislaving laws was a joke. For all the law’s big talk about piracy and the gallows, slaver captains saw the insides of jails only long enough for bail to be raised. The bail was not high, and it was promptly forfeited. Furthermore, United States consuls and customs officials were often strangely unwilling to ask searching questions about the actual ownership and missions of ships known as slavers all over the water front.
At sea, however, the picture was brighter. British and American naval officers respected one another professionally and got on well when their paths crossed off West Africa. Their common distaste for the abuse of American colors sometimes led them to combine operations—as when, in 1840, the commander of U.S.S. Grampus arranged to take over from British men-ofwar at Sierra Leone any American-flag slavers that they came across; the British would leave the actual search to the American captain, in order not to stir up protest. He in turn would hand over to the British suspected slavers flying any other flag. Presently officers experienced in the West African squadron were asking the Navy Department to sanction “joint-cruising”—H.M.S. Towser and U.S.S. Jonathan to hunt together, the latter pouncing on anything which hoisted American colors, the former taking care of everything else. But Washington frowned on all such arrangements, adhering instead to the clumsy, ineffectual eighty-gun agreement.
Sometimes an impatient U.S. Navy commander managed to dabble in co-operation with the British without incurring rebuke from his superiors. In 1845 U.S.S. Truxtun , Commander Bruce, sent two cutters and twenty-seven men to help H.M.S. Ardent , Commander Russell, to raid the slaving depots up the River Pongo. While the two ships lay waiting, the Truxtun offered no objection when the Ardent fired at an American brigantine to bring her to for inspection; in fact, the two commanders checked her over arm in arm. In due course out of the river came the American slaver Spitfire , prize to the Truxtun ’s cutters, and some while later the Spanish slaver Dos Hermanos , prize to the Ardent ’s boats. Both had been caught red-handed, or perhaps “black-handed” would be more accurate. The Ardent , a steamer, then towed both prizes and the Truxtun to Sierra Leone, whence a prize crew took the Spitfire to the States. The technique was as efficient as it was friendly—a tantalizing example of how much fear of God could have been put into slavers if only Uncle Sam had seen fit to let the two navies handle matters their own way.
American recalcitrance about right-of-search was especially graceless because while British men-of-war had to be so careful about boarding American-flag vessels, U.S. Navy ships were boarding British-flag vessels in both West Indian and West African waters. When British diplomats mentioned these practices, all that their American opposite numbers could do was change the subject.
To judge by their logs U.S. Navy ships even used British colors in approaching suspicious vessels. Explanation is hardly necessary: If British colors on U.S.S. Jonathan moved a slaver to hoist American colors as safeguard, the Jonathan had her dead to rights and there would be one less slave smuggler on the high seas —for a while anyway. The record fails to mention it, but it would seem that this ruse accounted for the extreme but well-deserved hard luck of Captain Nathaniel Gordon of Portland, Maine.
In 1860 his ship, leaving the West African coast, found herself pursued by a man-of-war, a steamer. Whatever his reason for assuming she was British- perhaps he caught a glimpse of a white ensign—Captain Gordon had good reason to prefer not to be boarded. Up went the Stars and Stripes. The stranger was actually U.S.S. Mohican , so this only made her pour on coal. Soon a boat’s crew of Captain Gordon’s countrymen were calling on him. “Found her to be the ship Erie of New York,” says the firmly indited entry in the Mohican ’s log, “without papers or any person claiming to be captain, and with 893 slaves on board, having a mixed crew of Spaniards, Americans and Frenchmen.”
Gordon had obviously followed an old slaver’s dodge: He had thrown the ship’s papers overboard at the last minute to confuse the issue of jurisdiction. At his trial he denied that he had been in command. His mates swore that a certain Manuel had been in charge. But several seamen testified that it had been Gordon who had given the orders when the Erie put to sea after loading the slaves. Worst of all, Gordon’s timing was unfortunate. At home the Battle of Bull Run had already been fought, and the atmosphere had so changed that the United States was moving toward a reciprocal search treaty with Britain. Within a few months the treaty was signed, and within two years slaving in Rebecca -type operations would be finished.