The American Slave Trade (Spears)/Chapter 14

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3515963The American Slave Trade (Spears) — Chapter 141907John Randolph Spears



How the Laws were Interpreted — Slavers that would Make a Fierce Fight — Famous American Privateers that Became Slavers — Whole Cargoes of Slaves Thrown to the Sharks to Avoid the Confiscation of Vessels — Tales of the Rapido, the Regulo, and Hemans's Brillante — A Cargo of Slaves Bound to Anchor and Chain and Thrown Overboard — A Slaver Who Coolly Murdered His Sweetheart and Child — A Trade that was Lucrative in Proportion to Its Heinousness.

The trade being now outlawed, the tender solicitude of legislators for what were called lawful traders, that is, traders who exchanged rum and cast-iron muskets for ivory and palm-oil, was so great that the law regarding slavers was restricted in ridiculous fashion. Nor was it ridiculous alone from the point of view of one who sees that to trade rotten muskets for good palm-oil and ivory was degrading to the trader. The lawful traders, so called, on the coast of Africa were almost invariably panders to the slavetraders. Says Drake, in his ‘‘ Revelations of a SlaveSmuggler" (p. 66), regarding the goods he exchanged for slaves: "Our spirits, cotton, powder, and guns are bought from English trading stations on the Congo. We buy on the coast, and pay higher for these goods, rather than that the old factories should break up; they being very convenient sometimes as temporary slave depots."

To protect these panders it was provided in the conventions between England and various continental governments for the suppression of the trade that "no visit or detention can take place, except by a commissioned officer having express instructions and authority for the same; nor can he detain or carry into port any vessel so visited, except on the single and simple fact of slaves found on board."

In like fashion it was held for a time in our courts that the presence of slaves on a ship was necessary to secure her conviction as a slaver. Eventually the presence of slave-goods was sufficient to convict, and in English courts the slave-goods were also considered good evidence as to an English slaver, but it appears that when a slaver under any other flag was to be tried there it was always necessary to show that the slaves were on board lest some harm be done to the "lawful trader."

As to the effect of the laws on the slavers — the men in the trade — there is one feature of this effect that seems to have been overlooked by the writers who have considered the subject. It is a most interesting fact that from the moment it was outlawed the slave-trade became more attractive to certain adventurous spirits of the age. For it need not be doubted that men lived in those days whose souls as eagerly sought the thrill of a fight for life — whose souls more eagerly sought for the smell of burned gunpowder and the sight of blood-splashed decks than for the gold doubloons that rewarded the successful voyage. Thesea was alive with men who had served in the privateers during the long-continued wars, and real black-flag pirates abounded. To declare by legislative enactment that the slave-trade was illegitimate was for these men but to increase its attractiveness.

Still all slavers were greedy, more or less, and an immediate effect of the laws was to reduce the price of the slaves on the coast of Africa. Slavers, when the trade was lawful, had often paid as high as $100 for a good negro in Africa. The price now went down to $15 and $20. On the other hand, the market in the West was at least made firm, Prices were not raised in Cuba or Brazil, perhaps, but there was never any trouble in disposing of the cargo even when the slaves were reduced so much that they had to be carried ashore in arms, like babes, from the landing barges. The price in the United States would have been increased by the laws, only for the fact that Virginia had become an exporter of slaves; but, as it was, the price was already high enough to yield a profit that now seems well-nigh incredible. The slave that cost $20 in Africa would, if landed in fairly good order in Georgia bring no less than $500 net, even after allowing for dividing with underground agents there. In short, outlawing the trade enhanced its attractiveness in every way to the wilder spirits.

So it came to pass that a naval cruiser's success in capturing a slaver sometimes depended on the relative size, speed, and armament of the two ships. In the House Reports No. 348, 21st Congress, first session, is a list of eighteen slavers that resisted the cruisers by force of arms. Of these, five were former well-known American privateers. They were the Commodore Perry, the Commodore McDonough, the Argus, the Criterion, and the Saucey Jack. Built for speed, and manned by men who had seen service in voyages for legal plunder, these privateers were the ideal slavers. They went down the slave-coast flying any flag that pleased the fancy. If they fell in with a slaver of less force than their own they transferred her cargo to their own decks. If they met a small cruiser they cleared for action, and it is a matter of record that they made such a good fight, in many cases, that they beat off armed agents of the law. Of the five, four were captured, but, each of the brief reports says, "after a severe action." The Saucy Jack seems to have justified her name, for she not only escaped capture but "convoyed several vessels to and from the coast."

The Paz was a noted Yankee slaver. "Under the American flag" she "beat off the Princess Charlotte and killed several of her men." The Camperdown, an English slaver brig, of sixteen guns, "destroyed the sloops Rambler and Trial, of Sierra Leone, and carried off their black crews as slaves," and "made slaves of all the people going off in canoes."

And then there was the slaver Velos Passagero. She carried twenty guns and a crew of one hundred and fifty men. Having five hundred and fifty-five slaves on board, she fell in with the British sloop-of-war Primrose, but not until forty-six of her crew had been killed and twenty wounded by the war-ship's close-range fire, would she yield. The sloop lost three killed and twelve wounded.

Extended reports of these battles are not now to be found, but the brief statements of losses show how stubbornly the outlaws resisted arrest when they were of a force to give hope of success. On the whole, it is likely that during the earlier years of this century nearly a fourth of all the slavers overhauled by the cruisers made some sort of resistance with arms, and as late as 1845 we have an account of the massacre of the crew of the cruiser Wasp on the African coast. But that one was a sorry victory for the slavers, for it led to the just order to British cruisers to give no quarter to a slaver that resisted, and resistance immediately went out of fashion,

Previous to that massacre, according to Captain Canot, British officers were known, sometimes, to admire a good fighter so much as to let him escape — even to help him escape after capture!

When there was no hope in a fight, the only way to escape condemnation was to get rid of the slaves before the cruiser could get an officer alongside. That legislators should not have foreseen the effect of this law or its interpretation, is no great wonder, But that the rule should have remained in force as it did is a shocking exhibit in the civilization of the day.

The facts as to the workings of this rule appear in the brief stories of scores of captured slavers. There was the case reported by the British cruiser Black Joke, Captain Ramsey, for instance, in the Bight of Benin, in 1831. Captain Ramsey sent two tenders in chase of the Spanish slaver brigs Rapido and Regulo that were seen coming, loaded with slaves, from the Bonny River in September of that year.

"When chased by the tenders both put back, made all sail up the river, and ran on shore. During the chase they were seen from our vessels to throw their slaves overboard, by twos, shackled together by the ankles, and left in this manner to sink or swim as

she walked to the ships side and dropped the body into the sea.
See page 78.
they best could. Men, women, and children were seen in great numbers, struggling in the water, by everyone on board the two tenders; and, dreadful to relate, upward of one hundred and fifty of these wretched creatures perished in this way." So runs Captain Ramsey"s report. Captain Ramsey said afterward that he and his men distinctly saw the sharks tearing the negroes as they struggled in the water.

In order to save the two vessels, that together were not worth $10,000, from condemnation in court, these slaver captains deliberately murdered one hundred and fifty human beings.

The Regulo was overhauled while she had yet two hundred and four on board out of her original cargo of four hundred and fifty. The Rapido had not one left on board when overhauled, but, two of her cargo having been picked up, it was possible to prove that they had been on board of her, and she was made a lawful prize.

One of the most murderous stories of captains who were anxious to get rid of their slaves is told of the slaver Brillante, commanded by an Englishman named Homans, who in ten voyages had landed 5,000 negroes in Cuba. She was brig rigged, carried ten guns, thirty sweeps (big oars), and a crew of sixty men in the forecastle. An English cruiser that attacked her was so badly cut up that her crew had to abandon her. When, on another occasion, the boats from a sloop-of-war attacked the Brillante they were driven off with great slaughter. Finally Homans found himself trapped by fourcruisers that came upon him from all quarters, and there was no escaping them.

However, the wind died away and night came on before the cruisers arrived at their range, and at that Homans set his largest anchor ready for dropping. Then he hauled the chain-cable out through the hawse-pipe and stretched it around the ship outside the rail, by means of slender stops, and to this chain he bound every slave on board — about 600 in number, piling them up at the rail and securing their armshackles to it by strong cords through the chain links. ‘There the slaves remained until the war-ship boats were heard coming near at hand, and then he cast loose the anchor, and down all those slaves were carried into the sea.

Although the crews of the war-ship boats had heard the noise and the outcries when the slaves were sent to the bottom, and the hold of the slaver contained indisputable evidence that the slaves had been there but a few minutes before the boats arrived, they had to let the slaver go free. Indeed, Homans jeered in their faces and defied them as they stood on his deck, but they had no redress.

The British war-ship Medina on boarding a slaver off the Gallinas River found no slaves on board. The officers learned afterward, however, that her captain really had had a mulatto girl in the cabin. He kept her for some time after the cruiser appeared, but seeing that he was to be boarded, and knowing that the presence of one slave was enough to condemn the ship, he tied her to a kedge anchor and dropped her into the sea. And so, as is believed, he drowned his own unborn flesh and blood, as well as the slave girl.

In view of the murders invariably committed on board the slavers, it is not without interest to recall that among those captured in 1828 was one on its way from Africa to Brazil, that was called the Bom [Sic.] Jesus.

One might multiply these stories by going to the slaver cases that reached the United States Supreme Court, but it would only add to the number of facts without increasing knowledge. The student who may wish to pursue the subject will find all the stories he needs in "Wheaton's Reports," vols. 5, 8, 9, 10, and 12; "Cranch's," 2, and 6; "Peters's," 11, 14, and 15; all of which were carefully examined in preparing this work.

As to the extent of the trade previous to the Ashburton treaty, we can find ample confirmation of all the estimates ever made by the abolitionists if we will examine the official reports of consuls and naval officers. Captain Trenchard of the Cyane, for instance, reported three hundred slavers on the coast while he was there. Over two hundred slavers were nominally owned in Havana in 1818. During the year 1828 no less than 46,160 slaves were imported into Rio de Janeiro alone, and the slavers bringing them reported deaths on the way numbering 5,592 (see Niles's Register, January 9, 1830). Cuba and Brazil had become the great landing territories for slaves, for it was an open traffic there in spite of solemn treaties. The trade was indeed "lucrative in proportion to its heinousness"; the traders "to elude the laws" did but 'increase its horrors."