Sunday, February 2, 2014

111. The Slave Trade: How they got away with it, and how it was stopped.

     In a previous post we saw how the illegal slave trade, furnishing African slaves to the Spanish colony of Cuba, was flourishing right up to the outbreak of the Civil War, with New York at the very center of it.  The U.S. and Britain had both declared the trade illegal in 1807, and the U.S. had made it a capital offense by including it in the piracy law of 1820, though as of 1860 no slave trader had ever been executed.  Now we shall see how the traders got away with it, and how that trade was finally stopped.

How they got away with it

     The slave traders devised any number of practices and stratagems to avoid detection.  As for instance:

·      The ship owner chartered his vessel to someone else, who might even charter it to a third party.  If the ship was caught carrying slaves, the real owner and the first charterer could plead ignorance: they had no idea the ship was being used for so nefarious a purpose.

·      A ship might be a slaver one year, and engaged in legitimate trade the next, thus confusing the authorities.  Or take a legal cargo to Havana, change its name and flag there, be refitted as a slaver under a Spanish skipper, and later on the way back, having delivered the slaves to Cuba, resume its legal status and name, change skippers again, and take on a cargo for New York.

·      In New York the judges, customs officials, and U.S. marshals, being notoriously amenable to bribes, could be induced to look the other way, while a ship was preparing for a slave voyage.

·      A ship would carry two sets of papers: one for the port authorities and any U.S. or British warship challenging it, presenting it as engaged in legitimate trade; and another for their confederates in Africa and Cuba.  And lots of flags to fly, depending on what vessel they encountered.

·      Nearing the African coast, the slaver would land an agent at the trading post and then stand out to sea, returning only when the slaves were assembled and an agreed-upon signal said it was safe to approach.  Thus the loading of slaves could begin immediately and proceed quickly, and the ship could then weigh anchor and make for the safety of the open sea.

·      Swift schooners and brigs were preferred for the trade, because they could usually outrun a patrolling warship, if they spotted the warship in time.  If necessary, fleeing slavers would litter the sea with jettisoned casks, spars, hatches, whatever.  The schooner Wanderer, built in 1857 by a wealthy New Yorker as a yacht for racing, had a long, sharp bow and a cutaway stern that let it do 20 knots and win cups in races.  Sold to a Southerner, it then had a second career as a slaver and as such did very well, since warships could do only 8½.

·      Often as not, the New York courts could be “fixed.”  Even if caught and tried, a slave captain was rarely convicted, and if he was, the conviction might be overturned on technical grounds.  Or he might be allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and serve a short sentence, and even hope for a pardon from on high.

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The fast schooner Wanderer, which had three careers: a racing yacht, a slave ship, and finally,
with the outbreak of the Civil War and its confiscation by federal authorities, a U.S. naval
vessel participating in the blockade of Southern ports.

     Everything, then, seemed to favor the trade, and yet it did finally come to an end.  In fact, it was stopped.  What happened?

How it was finally stopped

     In the November 1860 elections the Republicans triumphed and Abraham Lincoln became President.  In New York this meant the end of Democratic control over federal appointments, and a new emphasis on stamping out the slave trade.  Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith summoned all the U.S. marshals in states along the eastern seaboard to a meeting in New York on August 15, 1861, where measures were agreed upon to suppress the trade, following which the marshals visited captured slave brigs and schooners at the Atlantic Dock in Brooklyn.  That hostilities with the South had broken out by then only heightened the resolve to end the trade.
Nathaniel Gordon

   Attention soon focused on the case of Nathaniel Gordon, a young skipper out of Portland, Maine, who in the summer of 1860 had taken his ship Erie to Havana, where it completed preparations for a slave voyage, not Gordon’s first but his fourth.  Proceeding to Africa, it sailed up the Congo River to deliver a cargo of liquor, then returned to the river’s mouth and on August 7 took on a load of 897 slaves, stowed them on deck and below, and set sail for Havana.  The following morning Gordon’s luck gave out; he was spotted by the U.S. sloop of war Mohican, which captured his vessel, landed the freed slaves in Liberia, and brought Gordon and the Erie to New York.  The Erie was promptly condemned and sold, and Gordon was indicted under the 1820 piracy law.  That he should be tried in New York, the very center of the Atlantic slave trade, no doubt seemed fitting.

The capture of the Erie, as reported in the
New York Herald.
     Gordon was lodged in the Eldridge Street Jail, notorious for its lax conditions and the carousing of prisoners.  He roamed freely there, received friends and family, wined and dined in comfort.  For a $50 “fee” paid to the jailor, he was even allowed to go into town “on parole,” as long as he returned the next morning.  If he seemed to harbor little fear for the outcome of his trial, there was ample precedent.  Captain James Smith of the brig Julia Moulton had been tied for slavery in 1854.  He was convicted, but the conviction was overturned on a technicality, and he was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge, got a short sentence and a fine, and was later pardoned by President Buchanan.  This, then, seemed the very worst that Gordon could expect.  And sure enough, when he was tried in June 1861 the jury could not agree.

     But the Lincoln administration was now in charge, and Edward Delafield Smith, the new district attorney, was determined to get a conviction.  Gordon was put on trial again in the circuit court of New York on November 6, 1861, with two attorneys experienced in such cases defending him.  The naval lieutenant who boarded the Erie and took command of it told how crowded the slaves were on deck,   how fearful was the stench from the hold, and how offensive the filth and dirt on the slaves.  In addition, several of the crew testified that Gordon was indeed in charge of the vessel.  There was no denying that the defendant had been apprehended with a full load of slaves, but the defense argued that he was not in charge, having turned the command over to a foreigner.  The case went to the jury on the afternoon of November 8, and they returned twenty minutes later with their verdict: guilty.  Gordon heard it without showing emotion.

     Up until this point the public, being preoccupied with fighting a war, had shown little interest in the case, but when the verdict was reported in the press, the public suddenly realized the full implications of the case.  On November 30, when motions for a new trial had been denied, and the prisoner was instructed to rise and hear the sentence, the courtroom was packed.  The presiding judge stressed the enormity of his crime, the agony and terror of his fellow beings confined below deck, and sentenced him to death by hanging on February 7, 1862: the first such sentence ever  in the U.S. for the crime of trading slaves.

     Gordon’s wife and little son had come from Portland to give him support, and their presence aroused much sympathy in the city, whose merchants had always been more concerned about retaining their trade with the South than with ending slavery.  Petitions for clemency containing thousands of names were sent to Lincoln in the White House, condemning the crime but begging him to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.  Claiming to be loyal supporters of the government, the petitioners expressed indignation at the death penalty imposed for an act involving Africa and Cuba, when it was lawful to take a Negro child born in Virginia to Louisiana and sell it there into perpetual slavery.  Prison doors had been opened to convicted pirates and acknowledged traitors, while a gallows was being erected for Gordon.  In addition, Gordon’s leading defense attorney and the prosecutor both went to Washington to plead in person with the President, who already had a reputation as a "softie" when it came to pardons, and Gordon’s wife obtained an interview with the First Lady.

     Under pressure from all sides, Lincoln, who abhorred slavery and was determined to end it once and for all, only granted a two-week stay of execution, setting a new date of February 21, so Gordon could prepare himself.  Realizing at last the certainty of his doom, Gordon, who had always protested his innocence, on the night before his execution attempted suicide by strychnine poison.  Alarmed at the prisoner’s convulsions, the keepers called the prison physician, and Gordon was resuscitated by means of a stomach pump and brandy.  How he had obtained the poison was unclear; presumably, it was in the cigars he had smoked the night before.  Summoning a U.S. marshal, Gordon requested him to give a lock of his hair and a ring to his wife.

     On the morning of the execution Gordon was given a heavy dose of whisky to overcome the effects of poison, his arms were tied behind him, and he was carried from his cell to a chair in the corridor, where the marshal read the death warrant to him.  Upheld by the marshals present, at noon he walked across the courtyard of the Tombs, where eighty Marines were on hand, bayonets fixed, to quell a rumored attempt by a mob to interfere.  Also present was a throng of invited spectators admitted by ticket – reporters, politicians, and officials – as well as uninvited witnesses watching from every window, balcony, and rooftop affording a view of the scene.   Mounting the scaffold, Gordon announced, “Well, a man can die but once; I’m not afraid.”  A black cap was then put over his head, the noose was put round his neck, an ax stroke severed a rope suspending a system of weights, and his body was hoisted into the air, where it swayed for a few moments and was still.  For the first time ever, a slave trader had been executed in the United States.

     In a letter addressed “To all my friends,” written on the eve of his execution, Nathaniel Gordon declared, “I have no trouble of conscience.  I have never harmed a human being in my life.”  He called the district attorney a murderer and insisted, “I meet a death that is undeserved.”  Unrepentant to the end, he simply could not conceive of his African victims as humans deserving of compassion and respect.

     Gordon’s young wife, who on the eve of his execution, sobbing, had fainted in his cell, returned to Portland, where he was buried.  It is quite possible that his infant son never knew the fate of his father.

     It is sometimes said that Gordon’s execution, taking place not in some distant federal facility but in a city prison in the heart of the city before a host of witnesses, ended U.S. participation in the slave trade, but this is not quite the case.  After his death those involved in the trade left New York City for New London, New Bedford, and Portland, and for a short while, even in wartime, persisted in the trade.  Perhaps they thought that the federal government, being embroiled in a war it showed no sign of winning, could not further enforce its laws against the trade; certainly its navy had more pressing tasks to perform.  But Her Britannic Majesty was not so distracted; between March and October 1862 the British African Squadron captured no less than sixteen American slavers.  A U.S. naval officer who then visited the Congo River – the very site of Gordon’s last trade – found the trading centers depressed and slave prices greatly reduced.  The slave dealers on the west coast of Africa were soon in despair at the lack of vessels looking for slaves.  The Cuba trade declined in 1863 and was eliminated by 1864.  So ended a trade that had flourished for centuries and in its last years brought wealth to many a brownstone in New York City.

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Doing what he loved best.
Dan Tappan
     A note on Pete Seeger:  Pete Seeger, folk singer and activist, died on January 27 in a hospital in Manhattan, at age 94.  He was an inspiration to all who knew him or heard him sing.  A champion of civil rights, labor unions, and the environment, he reached multitudes with his music and campaigned for what he thought right to the very end, marching with two canes in an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in 2011.   His songs include "Good Night, Irene," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "We Shall Overcome," and countless others.  I shan't begin to celebrate him here, for I hope to include him and his campaign to clean up the Hudson in a future post on the sacredness of water.  The Times gave him two full pages -- almost unheard of, but fitting.  I can be stingy with my praise of public figures, but for Pete Seeger, both the singer and the activist, I pull out all the stops.

     Coming soon:  New York and the Vision Thing.  Can a city as secular and materialistic as New York experience vision, and if so, what kind of vision?  And can a materialistic vision have a spiritual component?  In the works: The Sacredness of Water.  Can it -- should it -- be privatized and sold as a commodity?  Primal peoples the world over see it as a sacred; why don't we?

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting essay—thank you.

    "Good Night Irene" was written by Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and turned into a hit by Pete Seeger and The Weavers. "We Shall Overcome," was originally titled "I'll Overcome Someday" and written by Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, a Philadelphia pastor who performed the marriage ritual that in 1923 brought together Bessie Smith and Jack Gee. Not a happy marriage.