The American Slave Trade (Spears)/Chapter 20

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3516047The American Slave Trade (Spears) — Chapter 201907John Randolph Spears



Buchanan's Administration and the Slave-trade — When the Sham Efforts to Suppress Came to an End — Story of Captain Gordon of the Erie, the First Slaver Pirate to be Executed in the United States.

As hitherto noted, the slave-trade differed from all other kinds of traffic known to the history of the world. In every other traffic there was (and there is) a steady amelioration of the condition of all persons engaged in it. The African slave-trade to the Americas began with the work of a good bishop who saw that it was more humane to enslave the hardy African than the effeminate red aborigines. From that the trade descended to a level where it was, for that day, an ordinary commercial enterprise, and then, because it was profitable and was becoming steadily more profitable, it reached out to overwhelm with its suffering, as well as its shame, not only everyone connected with it, whether directly or indirectly, but it drenched with its sorrows uncounted thousands who had never had any part in it, and still other thousands who had opposed it.

But even while Buchanan was striving to buy Cuba on the pretence that thus the slave-trade would be suppressed, the end of America's shame was at hand. It was not in the blood of the race to perpetuate hypocrisy and injustice forever.

Those of us who are old enough recall with strange feelings the tumultuous controversies of the days of the Buchanan Administration. The pelting of words was incessant, but back of all that and growing steadily more ominous, was the tornado roar of one mighty question, Shall the Right prevail in the United States of America?

Granville Sharp, as the friend of one oppressed negro, had asked that question, standing alone, in other years. Now tens of thousands of the mightiest, most heroic souls of the earth were standing up to answer it, not by words alone but by freely giving their life blood.

Yet let no injustice be done now in recalling that controversy. As long as a people "holds its life in its hand, ready to give it for its honor (though a foolish honor); for its love (though a foolish love); for its business (though a foolish business), there is hope for it." The slave-owners, too, held their lives in their hands. No higher proof of their sincerity is known to man. Nathan Hale, whose statue stands in the City Hall Park of New York, reached out both hands (albeit with sorrow) when he welcomed to the further shore the spirits of those Americans who cheerfully went to their death in the David torpedo-boat, of Charleston harbor. We were to determine not only whether the right should prevail, but to see what was right, and our pool of Siloam was full to the brim of blood.

But when that is said — when the entire sincerity of the masses of those who sought to perpetuate slavery is proclaimed — the fact remains (and we can all see it now) that our Declaration of Independence had been for three-quarters of a century a grinning mask. It could not remain so longer. The spirit that had inspired the men who made that Declaration, not fully knowing what they did, was ready at last to turn the mask into the flushed face of the goddess of America. A time had come when a President who could understand the immortal words was to be elected, and he was elected. The laws against the slave-trade were now to be executed. The spirit of the Declaration of Independence was now not only to be enacted in statutes, but, within limits, to become the faith of the people.

Under Buchanan it was possible for the slave-bark Cora to be captured on the coast of Africa on the 18th day of May, carried to New York, let go after a form of condemnation, and then captured once more on the slave-coast, on December 10 of the same year.

With the advent of Abraham Lincoln the sham passed away. Here was a man who had the first characteristics of all heroes — sincerity and strength. He would, with charity for all and with malice toward none, and with such obstacles in his way as no American had ever faced before, and no American will ever face again — he would do his duty. Of all books that have been written here and may now be had for a price, there is none so well worth the study of an American reader, if he will but seek the heart of it, as a Life of Abraham Lincoln. But the American Carlyle has yet to come to place the heart of it plainly before us.

In a letter regarding the slave-trade written by Mr. Seward to Lord Lyons, on March 22, 1862, it is said that the last slave-smuggler was the Wanderer, already described. Possibly — in fact, very likely — small parties were brought over from Cuba after she landed her cargo, but she was the last regular slaveship to come to our coasts.

The blockade of the Confederate ports by the Federal ships, however, in 1861 ended all slave-smuggling here. Nevertheless the smuggling of slaves into the Spanish colonies in America was carried on for a long time after our civil war ended. The trade is called smuggling because during all the weary years after 1820 — the weary years during which so many negroes were thrown overboard that every wave of the sea in the Middle Passage became a mound over a body that had been tortured to death — during all those years the laws of Spain prohibited the traffic. Mr. Seward, in view of the fact "that this infamous traffic has been carried on by persons resident in other countries, including the United States," was prepared to open negotiations for a convention with Her Majesty's Government that should be worthy of the civilizations of the age. The shams of previous administrations, and the clap-trap about the right of search and the sacredness of our flag, were to come to an end, and they did end in a treaty that was concluded at Washington on April 7, 1862. To give it effect, Congress made two appropriations of $900,000 each. The days when an American cruiser, out of fifteen months' service in the African squadron, would spend no more than fifteen days on the slave-coast, as really happened under the sham, were now at an end. The days when American naval officers were to go

the human cargo was under the charge of the old rice-field negroes.
See page 202.
through the forms of executing the laws, while hampered by the Department, were alsoat an end. There were, indeed, slavers afloat thereafter. While the market existed, and such enormous profits were to be made, even the severest measures could, perhaps, but repress. By a treaty made with Great Britain on February 17, 1863, the limits of the territory wherein the mutual right of search existed were greatly extended. Even as late as 1870, Great Britain and the United States had to strengthen still further their agreement for the suppression of the trade, because a few slavers were yet on the high seas. It was not until about 1886 that the Spaniards (and some American citizens) ceased to own slaves in Cuba, but the slave-trade began its death throes — it for the first time felt a real strangling pressure on its throat — when this treaty was made.

Detailed stories of some of the slavers owned in New York but trading to Cuba are to be had by the student in sufficient number. For instance, George Howe, M.D., told the story of his experience in "The Last Slave-Ship," in Scribner's Magazine for July, 1890. The story of how Appleton Oaksmith, written also Oaks Smith), the son of an honored poetess, disgraced his name by trying to get away for a slaver voyage in the whaler bark Augusta is told in Government documents. This is a particularly interesting story from the fact that Oaksmith was prosecuted by Mr. Stewart L. Woodford, late United States Minister to Spain, then just beginning his public career by serving as an assistant to the United States District Attorney in New York City. It brings the slave-trade close down to the present day, so to speak, when we member that the well-known diplomat of 1898 began his public career by prosecuting a slaver. But all of these stories must be omitted in order to emphasize that of a slaver whose fate marked the end of the heinious traffic.

In the sammer of 1860, Captain Nathaniel Gordon, of the ship Erie, took his vessel to Havana and therecompleted an outfit for the slave-trade that he had begun buying in New York. Gordon was a citizen of Portland, Me., and had made already, it was said, three slave voyages. On leaving Havana he went directly to the Congo River, and sailed forty-five miles up into the interior. There he discharged a cargo of liquor, and having prepared his ship for her return cargo of slaves he came down near the mouth of the stream, where on the afternoon of August 7, 1860, he brought on board the slaves, and "thrust them, densely crowded, between the decks, and immediately set sail for Cuba." The slaves numbered eight hundred and ninety, of whom but one hundred and seventy-two were men, The women numbered one hundred and six, and the remainder were boys and girls. Gordon was one of those slavers who carried children because it was safer to carry them. They would but flinch and scream when he tortured them; they would never strike back.

As it happened the United States warship Mohican was fifty miles off shore next morning, and the Erie, while crowding sail for Havana, was seen and captured. The negroes were taken to Liberia and landed, while the Erie and Gordon were sent to New York for trial. The ship was soon disposed of. She had been taken with the slaves on board, and even in 1860 she was sure to be condemned, because the condemnation would bring considerable sums of money to all concerned in her capture and condemnation. She was sold, on October 4th of the same year, at auction, for $7,823.25, showing she was a right good ship, for she measured but five hundred tons.

To punish Gordon as a pirate under the law of 1820 was another matter, and when he was first brought to face the charge there was a mistrial. But in the meantime a new administration had come in, and a District Attorney, E. Delatield Smith, who respected his oath of office, had been appointed.

Gordon was once more put on trial on November 6, 1861. He was defended by ex-Judge Dean and P. J. Joachimson, who were experienced in such cases. Judge Nelson presided. In two hours a jury was obtained.

The papers of that day say that but few spectators were in court during the trial. The public showed very little interest in the case, The Civil War was in progress, and how could anyone stop to consider the trial of a ship captain who had been on trial once before, had secured a disagreement of the jury, and, if precedent counted for anything, was likely to go free in the end? Even the most sensational papers of the day gave the trial but scanty space. So, with never a thought that they were making important history, the Judge and the lawyers and the jury worked away. The plea, as was usual in such cases, was that Gordon was a passenger, having turned the command over to a foreigner carried along for the purpose. On the afternoon of Friday, November 8, the attorneys ended their part of the trial, Judge Nelson delivered his charge, and at 7 o'clock in the evening the jury retired. Twenty minutes later they came back with the verdict.


"Gordon heard the verdict without emotion," so the reporters described the scene, and they were about the only spectators outside of those directly interested in the case.

But when that verdict had appeared in print, next day, the people of New York woke up to the importance of what had occurred. On Saturday, November 30, when motions for a new trial had been denied, and Gordon was commanded to stand up and hear his doom, he arose to his feet in a court-room "densely packed" with people who had come to hear the sentence of the first American slaver convicted as a pirate.

As Gordon heard the command to stand up his face changed color rapidly, but once on his feet he recovered his composure, and in reply to the usual question said, with a forced smile,

"I have nothing to say whatever."

At that Judge Nelson began to speak. He recited the facts in the case, warned the prisoner that as he had shown no mercy to the unfortunate he could expect none now from the Court, and ended by ordering that the slaver be, on February 7, 1862, between the hours of noon and three in the afternoon, hanged by the neck until he was dead.

When February 7 came Gordon had been respited for two weeks by the President. "It was currently reported that the President had commuted the sentence." said one paper, but Marshal Murray knew better, and when Gordon looked in his face, on receiving the respite, he saw his fate.

"Mr. Marshal, then there is no hope?" he asked.

"Not the slightest," replied Murray.

There was no lack of effort, however, to save the pirate. Even on the last day of his life, one of his attorneys telegraphed that the Governor of the State had appealed to the President, and asked for a delay for a reply, but Murray explained that an arrangement had been concluded with the President by which no telegram from any source whatever should interfere.

Nor was that all that was done to save him. Threats were made that a rescuing mob to storm the jail would be raised — threats that were really ominous, for that was a day when innocent negroes were hanged to lamp-posts by a'New York mob.

But a guard of eighty marines from the navy-yard filed into the yard of the city prison on the morning of February 21, 1862, and there loaded their muskets with ball cartridges, and fixed their bayonets. And that ended the possibility of mob attacks.

Meantime Gordon had passed the early part of the night in writing letters. At one o'clock in the morning he went to sleep and slept for two hours. On waking he managed to swallow a dose of strychnine he had obtained for the occasion. As it began to work he gnashed his teeth at the guards and shouted,

"I've cheated you! I've cheated you!"

But he was mistaken, for physicians saved him alive and conscious for the gallows. Two or three notes were written by him after his recovery from the poison, and then, just before the noon hour, the Marshal came to the cell and in the usual course read the death warrant and asked Gordon if he had anything to say.

For a moment the prisoner was silent, and then in a firm voice he replied:

"My conscience is clear. I have no fault to find with the treatment I have received from the Marshal and his Deputy, Mr. Thompson; but any public man who will get up in open court and say to the jury, 'If you convict this prisoner, I will be the first man to sign a petition for his pardon.' and will then go to the Executive to prevent his commuting the sentence, is a man who will do anything to promote his own ends, I do not care what people may say.'

It was a remarkable speech to make in the shadow of the gallows, for the charge it contained against District Attorney Smith was untrue. The reporters hunted up the stenographic report of the speech to the jury and found no such words in it.

At noon, on February 21, 1862, Nathaniel Gordon, with a slanderous lie on his lips, started for the gallows. "He was deathly pale with terror [says the New York Tribune of February 22, 1862], his head hung over his shoulder, and his limbs almost refused their office. He tottered as he stood beneath the fatal beam, [so that] he had to be supported. At a given signal the cord was snapped asunder by the executioner's axe and Nathaniel Gordon was hoisted aloft into mid-air. A few convulsive twitches of the body followed. The veins of his neck and hands swelled and stood out hard; then the limbs lost their rigidity, the flesh assumed a livid hue, and the slave-trader, now a lump of dishonored clay, swung slowly to and fro in the frosty air." For more than three hundred years the oppressed had been crying from the foul hold of the slaver, “How long, O Lord, how long?" But when the axe fell, and the rope creaked to the weight of that dishonored clay, the sweet angel of Mercy was at last able to reply: