The Slaving Brig Henriqueta and Her Evil Sisters: A Case Study in the 19th-Century Illegal Slave Trade to Brazil

Article excerpt

The Middle Passage, the forced migration of millions of African captives across the Atlantic Ocean to enslavement in the Western Hemisphere, is arguably the most defining factor of the modern world. Yet, for all of its magnitude and its indisputably profound importance in altering human history, the tangible realities of the Middle Passage, particularly the experiences and perspectives of those most directly affected--the African captives, their communities, and their descendants--remain relatively unknown and unrecognized in academic and popular discourse. Most of what is available from historical records comes from non-African sources: ship captains, government officials, occasionally abolitionists, but all outside observers. The two notable exceptions were the "slave narratives" written by Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, which have stirred some controversy in their own right as to their "authenticity." (1)

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Given these circumstances, clearly one valuable source of better understanding of the realities of the Middle Passage and its repercussions, particularly from the perspective of those silent and nameless souls whose lives were most affected and altered, is the surviving evidence and data pertaining to individual ships and voyages, and what might be reasonably extrapolated from them. These data, which often include the names of actual persons, places, and events, also have the advantage of reducing a story of such vast and abstract proportions to a more intelligible human scale.

Such is the case with one of the most significant vessels during the illegal slave trade era, the Henriqueta, a 19th -century Baltimore-built two-masted brig from Bahia, Brazil. (2) The history of the Henriqueta offers numerous detailed insights into the illicit traffic to that country, its impact on the Africans, the wealth it built, and the attempts by Great Britain to suppress its activities. Gathering the data for such a study of the illegal era, however, poses additional challenges since so many records of ships and voyages are non-existent, inaccurate, or deliberately falsified. Yet, paradoxically, as will be shown, the ruses and subterfuges to which ship owners and slaving captains resorted in order to circumvent the law often followed such predictable patterns as to become more revealing of the very facts that they were designed to camouflage.

Reconstructing the story of a single ship in this circumstance might aptly be compared to the archaeological task of recovering and reassembling the scattered remaining fragments of an ancient vase, whose pictorial decorations once had an important story to tell. But because each such vase was not only unique, but also typical of its time and culture, these fragments prove to be valuable for a more general understanding, in this case, not only of the illegal "trade" to Brazil, but also of the overall history of the Middle Passage. The fragmented story of the Henriqueta and her "evil sisters"--other slaving vessels linked to her in any number of ways--depends in large part upon primary archival sources in Brazil, as well as secondary sources such as historical accounts, and most notably, the comprehensive work of Pierre Verger and Howard I. Chapelle, the eminent historian and former maritime curator of the Smithsonian Institution. The history of this single slaving vessel of the 1820s might be viewed as a main stem with many roots and branches, each leading potentially to other case studies. (3)

FROM LEGAL TO ILLEGAL SLAVE TRADING

On 25 March 1807, the British Parliament, after more than a decade of debate, finally enacted legislation for the abolition of the "slave trade" (but not slavery itself) throughout its dominions and outlawed any further involvement in it by British citizens. (4) This prohibition was rooted in a growing sense of moral outrage vis-a-vis the ignominious centuries-old commerce in human lives, in which Britain was the largest participant. …