The Law as Lawbreaker: The Promotion and Encouragement of the Atlantic Slave Trade by the New York Judiciary System, 1857-1862

By Vinson, Robert Trent | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Law as Lawbreaker: The Promotion and Encouragement of the Atlantic Slave Trade by the New York Judiciary System, 1857-1862


Vinson, Robert Trent, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


The Law As Lawbreaker: The Promotion and Encouragement of the Atlantic Slave Trade by the New York Judiciary System, 1857-1862

The Atlantic Slave Trade and its attendant institution of slavery remain a historical cancer in the American creed of liberty, justice, and freedom. Slavery's historical significance is such that its implications still reverberate in present day America. In the minds of most Americans, the region of the United States that carries the brunt of this past misdeed are the legal slaving states of the American South. This region's role in slavery, of course, is quite obvious and has rightly received the majority of the subject's scholarly attention.

However, it is this paper's intention to focus on New York City, whose role in the Atlantic Slave Trade receives comparatively scant notice. This article will examine the permissive judicial enforcement of federal anti-slaving laws that allowed, encouraged, and perpetuated the continued importation of Africans to the Americas. The representative example of these judicial misdeeds is the United States Circuit Court serving the New York southern district. These courts, hereafter referred to as the New York Southern District courts, deserve attention for two distinct reasons: (1) These courts served New York City, the busiest judicial district in the country; and (2) Between 1857 and 1862, New York City enjoyed the dubious distinction of being one of the world's leading slaving ports. Thus, this work will primarily focus on the years 1857 to 1862, a period that witnessed a remarkable resurgence of American involvement in slave trading and will illustrate the role of the New York judiciary in increased American slaving activity.

It is difficult to estimate the number of slaves brought to the United States between 1857 and 1862, though the country had become the principal base of the Atlantic Slave Trade.(2) Within the United States, New York City had the dubious distinction of attracting more slave traders than any other American city, with the periodic exception of New Orleans. The city's pre-eminence among slavers began in 1852, when a slave trading firm, dubbed the `Portuguese Company,' established itself in lower MAnhattan.(3) The Portuguese Company specialized in transporting enslaved Africans from the Congo River region, in present day Angola, to Cuba, a popular destination with the decline of the Brazilian slave trade.(4) The Portuguese Company chose New York as its base because the city's bustling commercial networks included a large legitimate trade with Africa that could mask illicit slaving activity. Indeed, the slavers attempted to camouflage their illegality by maintaining a simultaneous trade in legal commercial merchandise but these attempts at subterfuge did not always succeed. The names of Portuguese Company officials, such as John Albert Machado and Jose Lima Viana, continually re-emerge in slave-trading prosecution cases.(5) Machado, for instance, appears several times in slavetrading cases as either a bondsman or defendant.(6)

In spite of occasional apprehensions by American law enforcement officials, the Portuguese Company contributed to New York's rapidly increasing slave trading presence. In 1857, Machado, Viana and several others apparently reconstituted their firm into a new entity, the "Spanish Company." There was also an "American Company," led by C.A.L. Lamar of Savannah, Georgia, that specialized in shipping enslaved Africans to the United States. Though these slaving companies operated from many European, American and Caribbean posts, New York City became their primary port of operation.(7) Contemporary sources also indicate that a large number of slaving vessels originated from New York's harbor. In 1857, the New York Journal of Commerce reported that:

Few of our readers are aware of the extent to which this internal traffic is carried on, by vessels clearing from New York, and in close alliance with our legitimate trade; and that downtown merchants of wealth and respectability are extensively engaged in buying and selling African Negroes, and have been, with comparatively little interruption, for an indefinite number of years. …

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