Academic journal article Civil War History

Liberia and the Last Slave Ships

Academic journal article Civil War History

Liberia and the Last Slave Ships

Article excerpt

There had never been a day in U.S. history like August 8, 1860, when, within hours, the Africa Squadron of the U.S. Navy seized two slave ships within hours off the coast of Africa with more than 1,500 Africans aboard. On the Erie there were found 897 Africans crammed below deck. Approximately half were children; the youngest, six months of age. Another 130 women, 164 men, and 329 children were packed below in the slave deck of the Storm King. The seizure of the slavers Erie and Storm King constituted the largest number of Africans freed from slavers on a single day by the U.S. Navy. Equally remarkable, most of the U.S. vessels seized with Africans aboard were captured during the year 1860. Between April and October of that year, some 4,500 Africans were discovered aboard eight ships flying the U.S. flag. (1)

In numbers of slave ships captured and Africans freed, the year 1860 is in a category by itself. During the roughly two decades of operation, from 1843 to 1861, the Africa Squadron intercepted thirty-six slavers or suspected slavers. If vessels taken by the U.S. Navy off Brazil and Cuba are added in, the total number of slavers seized during this time increases to fifty-one, or an average of a little fewer than three vessels per year. (2) In 1860, however, the navy seized five times the average, capturing eight slavers off the coast of Africa and another seven in Cuban waters. (3) Much of this part of the story has been known. What has escaped greater attention, however, is the fate of the Africans seized, the involvement of the American Colonization Society (ACS), and the impact of their forced adoption on their new home, Liberia.

Surprisingly little attention has been written on the plight of the over six thousand Africans discovered aboard U.S. slave ships between 1842 and 1861 and how the U.S. government attempted to deal with them. (4) The few historians who have studied America's involvement in the illegal slave trade have scrutinized the slave-trade laws and its prosecution. Scholars have analyzed the politics of the slave trade, the economic pull of the slave trade, the actions of the navy and the Africa Squadron, and shipboard insurrections. There are books devoted to the story of slave ships that arrived in the United States after the legal end of the slave trade. There is a book devoted to Nathaniel Gordon, the only man executed for the crime of slave trading. On the topic of the recaptured Africans, however, scholarship is nearly silent. (5)

In one sense it is not surprising that historians have slighted the subject. The plight of the African was not a popular topic among many Americans at the time. Certainly, the disappointing record of the Africa Squadron helped keep the issue quiet. Before 1858, the U.S. Navy had rescued fewer than a thousand Africans aboard U.S. vessels, and nearly all of these individuals were discovered aboard one slave ship, the Pons, of Philadelphia, in 1845. In many ways, the African slave trade seemed a remote, if repulsive, criminal enterprise that could not compare to the ulcerating crisis of domestic slavery.

More than this, however, most people believed at the time there was nothing to talk about. For more than forty years the U.S. policy had been to send the few Africans discovered aboard U.S. vessels to Liberia, and there seemed little reason to question it. This does not mean individuals and groups were silent on the illegal slave trade, especially with the emergence of the pro-slave-trade crusade in the late 1850s. By this time, many Americans had registered their outrage over the illegal slave trade. The pro-slave-traders could muster only minority support even in areas where it was strongest. Efforts in southern state legislatures to repeal American suppression legislation were universally unsuccessful. The U.S. House of Representatives voted nearly unanimously on a resolution offered by Democrat James L. Orr of South Carolina that declared the repeal of the slave-trade laws would be "inexpedient, unwise, and contrary to the settled policy of the United States. …

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