Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade

Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade

Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade

Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade

Synopsis

In the years just before the Civil War, during the most intensive phase of American slave-trade suppression, the U.S. Navy seized roughly 2,000 enslaved Africans from illegal slave ships and brought them into temporary camps at Key West and Charleston. In this study, Sharla Fett reconstructs the social world of these "recaptives" and recounts the relationships they built to survive the holds of slave ships, American detention camps, and, ultimately, a second transatlantic voyage to Liberia. Fett also demonstrates how the presence of slave-trade refugees in southern ports accelerated heated arguments between divergent antebellum political movements--from abolitionist human rights campaigns to slave-trade revivalism--that used recaptives to support their claims about slavery, slave trading, and race.



By focusing on shipmate relations rather than naval exploits or legal trials, and by analyzing the experiences of both children and adults of varying African origins, Fett provides the first history of U.S. slave-trade suppression centered on recaptive Africans themselves. In so doing, she examines the state of "recaptivity" as a distinctive variant of slave-trade captivity and situates the recaptives' story within the broader diaspora of "Liberated Africans" throughout the Atlantic world.

Excerpt

Speaking in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 2 August 1858, for the anniversary of British West Indian emancipation, Frederick Douglass condemned the hypocrisy of an American “slaveholding and slave-trading nation” that failed to consistently enforce slave trade abolition. At issue were both the expansion of U.S. domestic slavery and the continuation of an illegal transatlantic slave trade that forcibly carried off almost 1.3 million Africans even after every major slaving nation in Europe and the Americas had criminalized the traffic. Douglass charged that despite the U.S. transatlantic slave trade ban signed into law in 1807, the federal government showed its true colors by refusing to allow Britain to board and inspect suspicious ships flying the American flag. Justifications for this refusal based on principles of national sovereignty could only be understood as a “refuge of lies,” he insisted, when the true cause of American inconsistency resided in a fundamental contradiction between U.S. domestic and foreign policy. As Douglass eloquently put it, “A slaveholding Government cannot consistently oppose the Slave-trade; it is the logical and legitimate deduction of Slavery—and the one is as hateful as the other. They are twin monsters, both hatched in the same polluted nest.” The United States could not effectively prosecute slavers at sea, Douglass warned, while reinforcing the rights of slaveholders at home. Nor could the United States claim to enforce abolition in international waters while defending a domestic commerce in human beings.

For almost two-thirds of the nineteenth century, Douglass’s description of the U.S. government remained apt: a slaveholding republic that criminalized international slavers while sanctioning the daily business of U.S. slave markets and overlooking American complicity in the contraband transatlantic trade. That apparent contradiction also created the conditions under which “recaptured Africans” temporarily sojourned in the United States. In the fol-

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