“The négrier [slaver] is more criminal than the assassin because, slavery being only an agony cruelly prolonged, death is preferable to the loss of liberty.”
L’Abbé Grégoire, Des peines infamantes à infliger aux négriers (1822)
BRITISH MERCHANTS, we know, had been the greatest of slave traders in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth, their government embarked upon a crusade to destroy that very commerce. Appropriately, the prime minister of England under whom this campaign began was Lord Liverpool, whose father—being then merely Lord Hawkesbury—had been presented with the freedom of the great slaving city of Liverpool in June 1788 to thank him for his parliamentary support of the slave trade. In May 1796, when Hawkesbury had been created earl of Liverpool, the corporation invited him to quarter the arms of the city with his own. As a young man, the second earl of Liverpool had had most of the attitudes of his father, voting constantly against abolition, as George Canning had as constantly complained. But as prime minister, Liverpool abandoned his past prejudices and, remarkably, his administration, after the peace of 1815, embarked on one of the most moral foreign policies in British history, precisely intended to bring the slave trade to an end on a global scale.
Liverpool’s first foreign secretary was Lord Castlereagh. Like his prime minister, he had been less than enthusiastic about abolition in the years leading up to 1807. Grenville, the final architect of abolition, would remark to Samuel Rogers, the poet, “What a frightful mistake . . . to send such a person as Lord Castlereagh to the Congress of Vienna! a man so ignorant that he does not know the map of Europe; and who can be won over to make any concessions by only being asked to breakfast by the Emperor.”1 Yet, in the end, Castlereagh’s conduct of Britain’s diplomacy in these years was a triumph of aggressive liberalism. Though a Tory, he thought that it was desirable to try and formulate general principles. His circular dispatch of January 1, 1816, for example, was a sketch for a European “confederacy” of great powers to preserve the peace of the world on which many later, less well-written, documents, such as the Covenant of the League of Nations and the Charter of the United Nations, have been based. Lampooned by radicals for his conduct in Ireland—who does not recall Shelley’s lines “I met murder in the way/ He had a mask like Castlereagh”?—this statesman did much for the cause of black slaves. Public opinion in England had, of course, been awoken by the devoted leaders of the abolitionist movement, and those men, such as Wilberforce and James Stephen, were in personal touch with the foreign secretary. Castlereagh, on the other hand, had to deal with four nations—France and the United States, Spain and Portugal—whose statesmen resented Britain’s intervention in their affairs, and saw Castlereagh’s well-meaning declarations as a “grab for world power.” The leaders of those countries did not understand the quasi-religious enthusiasm which possessed Britain with respect to abolition, nor how Castlereagh himself had become “something of an enthusiast for the cause in which he had to fight.” John Quincy Adams, who became minister to London after the Treaty of Ghent, recorded the passionate language with which Castlereagh spoke: “He passed immediately to . . . the slave trade which, he said, was now carrying on to a very great extent, and in a shocking manner; that a great number of vessels for it had been fitted out in our southern states; and that the barbarities of the trade were even more atrocious than they had been before the abolition of it had been attempted.”2
Castlereagh used the declaration secured at Vienna to institute a permanent conference of the European powers in London. This was to be a center of information, as well as of action, about trading slaves. The first meeting of this body was held on August 28, 1816. Fourteen meetings were held before a new full conference of foreign ministers at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, two more in 1819. Alas, the conference did little more than collect information, in which most powers seemed uninterested. They complained too that it did nothing for the cause of Europeans kidnapped by Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean which interested them more. Castlereagh therefore turned his attention to private negotiations with each of the countries concerned.
In September 1816, he wrote to the remarkable Greek who was secretary of state in Saint Petersburg, Count Capo d’Istria, that he had been hoping that the tsar would support “with force” the additional, second article of the Treaty of Paris on the slave trade. “In laying down the maxims of Christianity as to the rule of conduct between state and state,” Castlereagh said, “it would have been unworthy to have assumed a less benevolent principle towards Africa.” He added, with curious firmness, “As the preamble stands, we may defy moral criticism, if our execution shall correspond to the principles we profess.” His intention was to secure the support of Spain and Portugal for an alliance whose purpose would be the final suppression of the slave trade. But he soon convinced himself that the governments of both countries were “well matched in dishonesty and shabbiness”; for Castlereagh never appreciated the difficulties under which these two nations labored, the need to face revolutionary movements of independence in South America being an all-consuming matter; while both governments knew that too many concessions to Britain on the slave trade would jeopardize the loyalty even of Cuba, and certainly of Brazil.3
Having been informed by the Africa Institution of London, in December 1816, that 60,000 slaves were still being carried across the Atlantic every year—15,000 they said, in North American ships flying Spanish flags—Castlereagh, at the conference of five nations at Aix- la-Chapelle in 1818, remarkably proposed that the international right of search of slave ships—a sine qua non, in Britain’s eyes, for effective control—should be complemented by “the vigilant superintendence of an armed and international police on the coast of Africa. . . . To render such a police either legal or effective in its object, it must be established under the sanction, and by the authority, of all civilised states.”4 This right of search had its origin as long ago as the fourteenth century; the novelty was to propose that it be introduced in time of peace.
The conference at Aix was also the first to be held of the great powers of Europe when they were not at war to try and resolve their difficulties: an innovation which has been persistently followed in later days. But there were few supporters among other foreign ministers for the scheme which Castlereagh proposed, which still appeared as a way whereby “Perfide Albion” could morally justify her mastery of the seas, if not of the world—though Tsar Alexander had already thought of establishing a “neutral institution,” with a court, international fleet, and headquarters all of its own, in Africa. He had even suggested that the main nations might concede to this body “the right of visit” of suspected slave ships without arousing national jealousies. But nothing came of this, the tsar lost interest, and the Tuscan diplomat was right who wrote home to Florence from this conference: “I see clearly that we have not yet begun the golden age.”5
For the moment, the only international police consisted of the British navy acting alone, often in dubious legal circumstances. The third commander of the British West Africa Squadron, Captain Sir James Yeo, an experienced if unlucky commander in both the American and the Napoleonic wars, reported that many North American merchants were obviously continuing to trade after 1815, carrying slaves to both Brazil and Cuba, some of them using those fast ships with twenty or more guns, which had been built as privateers in the Anglo-American War of 1812. Their technique was to make a nominal sale of their ship in Tenerife, or in Havana, to a Spanish merchant, who would provide a captain of his own nationality, with the real master continuing as passenger.
An expanded British naval squadron seemed necessary and so, in 1818, Sir George Collier went to West Africa with one frigate, three sloops, and two gun-brigs. His instructions from the Admiralty stated ambitiously, “You are diligently to look into the several bays and creeks . . . between Cape Verde and Benguela.”6 That was an impossible task. Leaving aside that there were several hundred such bays, and several thousand such creeks, between those points, most of the territory was in the zone of tropical calm, where sailing breezes were rare, and where the prevailing wind, if such existed, was westerly or southwesterly—that is, blowing onto the shore. The current was from west to east. All these factors made it much easier to sail down the coast than to sail back, as everyone had known from the earliest days of European exploration. The steamy heat, the dazzle of the decks, the cramped conditions, and the simple diet made this work of patrol exhausting in the extreme.
In addition, there could be no real patrolling if the navy were to keep to the open sea. Ships had to sail close inshore to know what was happening and, often after dark, send boats upriver. These vessels would be met by mosquitoes at every turn—mosquitoes which, of course, sometimes brought malaria. Naval captains were also frequently obstructed by sandbars at the mouths of rivers.
There were other difficulties. For example, Collier wrote to the Admiralty that “It is only by great cunning (or great accident) that they [the slavers] can be surprised with slaves on board. In some instances, while the boats [of the naval ship] have been rowing to the slave vessel, the re-landing of the slaves has been effected, and then [they have been] paraded on the beach, compelled to dance and make every sign of contempt for the boats’ crews. . . .”7 On one occasion, Collier himself was fined £1,500 for wrongly detaining a ship, the Gaviao, which, in his judgment, had slaves on board and was found north of the equator. In the summer of 1822, H.M.S. Myrmidon stopped sixteen slavers, of which only one was acting illegally according to the treaties.
Sir Robert Mends, another experienced officer (he had lost an arm in a battle of the American Revolution, while still only thirteen years of age) who succeeded Sir George Collier as commander, wrote from his flagship, the Owen Glendower, on which he would die in 1823, off Cape Coast: “The traffic in slaves has not decreased. Nor do I see how it can whilst it is supported by European protection in the most open and avowed manner. . . .”8
Disillusion was thus never far away from serving officers, as well as sailors, in the West Africa Squadron. The failures of the squadron to bring back a swift and overwhelming victory, as the navy had been used to expect during the Napoleonic Wars, led, too, to a fall in the size of rewards available. In 1824, rates were cut to £10 a head for a slave liberated. To compensate for this, the Crown gave the navy half the proceeds of any sale of a confiscated slave ship.
British consuls also reported all manner of ships actively slaving in harbors north of the equator: for example, the Brazilian Volcano do Sud, whose crew, when captured by an English cruiser, H.M.S. Pheasant, in 1819, murdered the boarding party and delivered their cargo of 270 slaves at Bahia as if nothing had happened. Further, the legal Portuguese ban on trading slaves from north of the equator was a stimulus to trading to the south of it, and that included commerce from East Africa and Mozambique. In 1824, fifteen slavers, with 500 slaves on board each of them, were reported to be leaving East African ports for Brazil, where their cargoes were sold for $200 each. Inland merchants in Mozambique had bought them for no more than a few beads each, if they were not kidnapped, and then sold to the Portuguese traders for, say, $20. The excuses used by Portuguese captains to justify slaving were also without end: thus, in 1822, H.M.S. Morgania, Captain Knight, captured a Portuguese ship, the Emilia, just north of the equator, with 396 slaves on board. The captain of that Emilia declared that he had loaded his vessel at Cabinda, well south of that line. But the slaves themselves said that they had only been on board the ship a short time, the water casks seemed much fuller than would have been the case if the Emilia had come from Cabinda, and the slaves had clearly been branded only a short time previously.
In the circumstances, therefore, it became obvious that abolition could only be achieved if naval force was supported by diplomacy; and what seemed to be several achievements of this kind were soon registered. For example, in 1817, Radama, king of eastern Madagascar, made a treaty by which, in return for his agreement to end the slave traffic, Britain paid him $10,000 a year for three years. Castlereagh made similar treaties with the imam of Muscat and, in 1822, with the sultan of Zanzibar. These were modest arrangements which would, however, be followed by many other, more far-reaching, undertakings in Africa.
It was on the basis of information collected by a new “Slave Trade department” in the Foreign Office from consuls, naval officers, and travelers that, in September 1822, at the last regular meeting of European powers following the Congress of Vienna, at the lovely city of Verona, the duke of Wellington, the British representative, was able to insist that thirty-five European vessels had entered African waters north of the equator in order to slave in the first seven months of 1821, and 21,000 slaves had been bought. Should not the slave trade be treated as piracy? But at this meeting the idea of joint international naval action about the slave trade was blocked by Chateaubriand, speaking for France. It was not, that great writer now foreign minister insisted, that France needed slaves for her own colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe; nor even that the illegal slaving lobby in Nantes and Bordeaux was overpowering, though it was powerful (Ducudray-Bourgault, president of the Tribunal of Commerce in that city was a négrier). Nor was Chateaubriand speaking thus because of his father’s role as a slave trader; those were matters on which the brilliant statesman chose to dwell neither in his speeches nor in his memoranda. He was simply expressing the traditional French hostility to allowing Britain a free hand on the ocean. He was bored with the question raised so ardently by the English: “It’s very singular,” he wrote, “this perseverance of the Cabinet of Saint James in introducing to a discussion about more important and more pressing matters, this remote . . . question of the abolition of the slave trade.”9
George Canning, veteran abolitionist since his first days in Parliament in the 1790s, succeeded Castlereagh in 1822 as foreign minister in London, when the latter tragically killed himself, when out of his mind. Witty and arrogant, impudent and cultivated, this determined opponent of slaving had been for years member of Parliament for Liverpool: a fact which showed how life had changed in that commercial city. Canning entered office believing innocently that “two or three years might suffice to sweep the African and American seas of the atrocious commerce with which they are now infested.” He proposed that the powers should boycott the produce of countries still engaged in the slave trade.10
Canning’s foreign colleagues refused to take him seriously. His “proposed refusal to admit Brazilian sugar . . . was met (as might be expected) with a smile; which indicated on the part of continental statesmen a suspicion that there might be something of self-interest in our [that is, British] suggestion. . . .” Canning pointed out to the duke of Wellington that the slave trade had become even more inhumane since formal abolition, because of the methods used to conceal the cargoes, “which it hardly ever seems to occur to its remorseless owners . . . consists of sentient beings.” Wellington was to press this “scandal of the civilised world” on all the attendants at the congress. Canning then suggested prohibitions on the use of Portuguese and Brazilian flags by foreigners, an international declaration that the slave trade constituted piracy, and a boycott of all Brazilian products.
But setbacks caused the new foreign secretary to fall back, for the next seven years, on Castlereagh’s own policy of last resort, namely, direct negotiation with individual countries. He thus embarked on a large number of dispatches, numbering over a thousand, on the subject of the slave trade. It was Canning who, in relation to the slave trade to Cuba, defined in what circumstances a naval captain might reasonably suppose that a merchant ship was a slaver, even though no slaves were on board: ships anchored, or “hovering,” off the coast of Africa which contained greater supplies of food and drinking water than could be consumed by the crew, say, of thirty; spare planks in the hold which could easily be used to make a slave deck; and, more obviously, supplies of shackles and handcuffs, as well as hatches fitted with open gratings instead of closed tops.
There remained, meantime, some inconsistencies in the British position, which were seized upon by their enemies as indication of hypocrisy, if not of perfidy. Thus, when the new republic of Central America formally abolished slavery in 1825, numerous black slaves fled there from next-door British Honduras (Belize) whence, after a difficult debate in the Congress, they were handed back on the insistence of the British governor. It became more and more obvious that to attack the slave trade so vehemently, but at the same time to maintain the institution of slavery, was illogical. Then, any celebration that there might have been in abolitionist circles that, at last, in 1820, slave-grown sugar had been overtaken as the main import into Britain, was effectively dampened by the knowledge that the crop’s successor as the prime import was cotton—above all, from the United States—another slave-made product.
As was the case with sugar, Britain imported far more cotton than she needed to clothe herself. It was the export of cotton goods made in Lancashire to the continent of Europe which made that county great in the nineteenth century; and Lancashire’s demand for cotton not only assisted, but helped to cause, the settlement of the American Southwest with slave plantations. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, until 1860 and the Civil War, Britain took half or more of the total United States cotton crop: in 1800, the United States sent Britain about 30 percent of her cotton imports; in 1860, 88 percent. British credits to, and investment in, the business underpinned the rule of “King Cotton.” Not surprisingly, therefore, Britain’s continental enemies, such as the slave traders of Nantes, mocked their island neighbor by saying that she was “as chivalrous as a ball of cotton.”
In March 1824, Britain passed a bill declaring that any British subject found guilty of trading slaves should be deemed guilty of “felony, piracy and robbery, and should suffer death without benefit of clergy and loss of lands, goods and chattels as pirates, felons and robbers upon the seas ought to suffer.” Strong language, it might be said, for a commerce which until eighteen years before had been carried on by the best men in British commercial life and which, for over two hundred years, had been practiced by royal dukes, peers, and lord mayors. No prosecution, however, was brought against a British subject under this head, though there continued to be a few English-born slave merchants and seamen in the trade to Cuba, Brazil, or Suriname in the mid-nineteenth century (for example, Captain John Discombe, captain of the Eliza, probably an English ship, declared a prize at Freetown in 1819; William Woodside, captain of the De Beym, captured at Gallinas in 1825; Jacob Walters, captain of the Hoop, an English ship, also seized at Gallinas, in 1826; Neil Williams—or was he Guillaume Neil?—found at Old Calabar in 1829, on board La Jeune Eugénie, with fifty slaves on board and all his ship’s documents in English). English traders also procured slave ships for Pedro Blanco, the Spanish chief trader of the river Gallinas, about 1830, and a certain Jennings, who was known to supply cauldrons, shackles, etc., for Pedro Martínez, also of Spain. But, for all such hypocrisy, and philistinism, the British in the nineteenth century remained generally law-abiding. The modification of the Navigation Laws in 1825 to permit free trading anywhere in the world by the British West Indies was an earnest of this proposition.
Such curious facts of economic life rendered unimportant the various, often grudgingly slow or meaningless declarations of emancipation by new Latin American sovereign states, whose slave populations were tiny. Venezuela abolished slavery in 1821.IColombia and Chile also abolished slavery after their independence the same year; while Mexico outlawed slavery in 1829. All these countries, as well as Argentina, pledged the assistance of their navies to help Britain, but though the symbolism was useful, in practice those forces counted for nothing. It may be a satisfaction, though, to friends of Latin culture to recall that the institution of slavery formally vanished in what had once been the Continental Spanish Empire long before it did in the United States.
• • •
Britain’s efforts to bring an end to the slave trade also included conventional diplomacy with the main powers involved. Each of these countries responded after her own fashion to the British pressure. Each shared the common view, expressed most forcefully by France, that British abolitionism was hypocritical. That this interpretation was shared by many high-minded men, who were not English, is indicated by a comment by Goethe, whose compatriots were not engaged in the slave trade, who had no personal interest in the matter but who, in a conversation with Eckermann, would remark: “While the Germans are tormenting themselves with philosophical problems, the English, with their great practical understanding, laugh at us and win the world. Everybody knows their declamations against the slave trade; and, while they have palmed off on us all sorts of humane maxims as the foundation of their proceedings, it is at last discovered that their true motive is a practical object, which the English always notoriously require in order to act, and which should have been known before. In their extensive domains on the west coast of Africa, they themselves use the blacks, and it is against their interest for blacks to be carried off . . . so they preach with a practical view against the slave trade. Even at the Congress of Vienna, the English envoy denounced it with great zeal; but the Portuguese envoy had the good sense to reply quietly that he did not know that they had come together to sit in judgement on the world or to decide upon principles of morality. He well knew the object of England; and he had also his own which he knew how to plead for and to obtain.”11
If the great Goethe had this interpretation of English motives, it is unsurprising that the same idea was held by those actually concerned with slaving in Havana, Nantes, Rio de Janeiro, and Charleston, many of whom were additionally convinced that the English were determined to prevent the sugar and coffee production of their neighbors from flourishing by any means that they could.
In 1818, a new British-Spanish treaty dealt with the slave trade. This agreement was made on the basis of another recommendation by the Council of the Indies, in the teeth of the opposition of the Cuban interests, on behalf of whom Arango, with his colleague Rucavado, acted in Madrid. The British at this time purported to think that, since the Spanish decree of 1804 permitted the trading of slaves for only a further twelve years (by foreigners for six), the commerce was actually illegal in Spain. But the government in Madrid disagreed.
In some ways complementing the Portuguese-British treaty of 1815, but in other respects going further, the new Anglo-Spanish Treaty provided that all Spanish subjects would be prohibited from engaging in the slave trade after May 30, 1820. Captains and masters captured with slaves would be imprisoned for ten years in the Philippines, and their cargoes declared free. Naval vessels of both nations undertook to report any merchant ship of either nation suspected of carrying a slave cargo; and, if one were found, the ship would be taken before a mixed tribunal at Sierra Leone (that is, not an exclusively British court) or, if in American waters, at Havana (the arrangements were similar to those provided for British-Portuguese collaboration). The “right of search” was, of course, in Castlereagh’s mind “indispensable. It is the basis of the whole,” he thought. But the need to establish that slaves were on board before that right was exercised would be a hindrance to the patrol, as time would show.
Another clause of the treaty provided that, when a tribunal declared a ship a prize, that vessel would be sold, and the two governments would share the profits; the slaves found aboard would receive a certificate of freedom. These emancipados, as they were known, were then to be delivered to the governments at the city where the tribunal had made its decision. Finally, in a provision which caused much criticism in London, the British agreed to pay £400,000 as compensation for the losses suffered hitherto by the Spaniards. The sum was questioned by the House of Commons, even if Brougham said that the agreement was cheaply bought.
Many Spanish slave ships had been seized in the eight years 1810-1817, and some Spanish lives had been lost in resisting capture. The Cuban planters’ man in London, W. H. G. Page, persuaded Dr. Joseph Phillimore, member of Parliament for Saint Mawes (and also Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford) to raise the question of compensation for those ships illegally confiscated. But the Foreign Office thought that all such claims should be referred to the Spanish government. Britain implied to the Spanish ambassador, still the count of Fernán Núñez, that they were reluctant to make any concessions to Spain, even over obvious wrongdoing by British naval officers, until the slave trade had been fully abolished in Madrid. Admittedly, the ships intercepted by the British navy constituted only a tiny percentage of the boats which set out: in the eighteen months from January 1816 to September 1817 alone about 150 vessels set off for Africa from Havana, nine from Trinidad, thirty from Santiago de Cuba, and sixteen from Matanzas.
The king of Spain did not, however, pass on his £400,000 to the negreros of Cuba. He bought five frigates and three ships of the line from the tsar of Russia in which to send out more soldiers to recapture his dominions in South America. The chance of making this desirable purchase (a “negocio escandaloso” for some) was one of the reasons why the treaty was signed in the first place.
The British had been active in Madrid before this treaty was signed. Charles Vaughan, the British minister, talked to every member of the Council of State. He also distributed copies of a pamphlet, Bosquejo del comercio en esclavos, by the liberal writer Blanco White. But he had to pass on to London the news that the planters of Havana had offered $2 million to the Spanish government to be allowed to maintain the trade legally, and another $500,000 every year afterwards while the private permission remained. In the event, it was the influential General Castaños—the captain-general of Catalonia, who at Bailén in 1808 had inflicted on Napoleon his first defeat—who persuaded the king to concede over the issue in the interest of maintaining good relations with Britain. Spain, he said, needed British help against the United States’ threats both to New Spain and to Florida.
Wilberforce praised God for the agreement; and if, in the debate on the matter in the House of Commons, Sir Oswald Mosley, the Whig member for Midhurst, declared that “it was not for us to teach Spain humanity,” the enlightened Sir James Mackintosh commented that “the Right of Search was practical abolition.” But it soon became clear that the treaty in practice would mean less than it seemed at first sight.12
Before signing this document, José García de León y Pizarro, Spain’s new foreign minister, wrote to the authorities in Puerto Rico and Cuba (now provinces, instead of colonies, of Spain), urging that they seek to arrange that slave ships in the next three years should carry women as at least one-third of their cargo, so that, “by propagating the species, the abolition of the slave trade may be less noticeable in the future.” The tone of Pizarro’s letter suggests that he at least hoped to cajole what remained of the empire into a genuine acceptance of abolition. But his “Virginian solution” was rejected by a Cuba determined to develop her sugar industry in the same style as that of her neighbors in Jamaica, Brazil, and Saint-Domingue. For the other surviving parts of the empire, such as Mexico, Madrid’s concession was of no great importance.
The news of the treaty reached Havana in February, and a longer letter from the foreign minister arrived in March (since the treaty had been signed in September, and Havana was then only four weeks away by fast ship, it would seem that the ministers in Madrid took an inordinately long time wondering how to express themselves). The governor, General José Cienfuegos, nephew of the enlightened statesman of the previous century, Jovellanos, summoned a meeting of the Real Consulado. Representatives of the old families of Cuba were all there: Ignacio Pedroso; the Marquis Cárdenas de Montehermoso; Manuel de Ibarra; and Ciriaco de Arango, a cousin of the economist. Also present was a member of the new generation of dealers in slaves, mostly peninsula-born but now a major economic power in Havana, Santiago de la Cuesta y Manzanal, the well-known merchant of giant physique, who appeared “so large that he looks as if he kept all his money within himself for safety.”13
The minutes of the meeting show several expressions of loyalty, as befitted citizens of that “ever-faithful” (siempre fiel) island, which designation the captain-general had recently secured formally for the colony. But the gathering unanimously requested the governor to refrain from publishing the Anglo-Spanish Treaty as it was and suggested a committee to reflect on the matter. The committee would include Santiago de la Cuesta, who would know what was happening in the field.14
The committee duly reported. It requested the government to provide time in which the planters could seek the slaves whom “in so many ways we need for the reproduction of the black species,”II basing this ideal on the rules of “convenience, humanity, and philanthropy . . . mentioned in the treaty.” The law was, meantime, published in the official gazette of Havana, the Diario del gobierno de la Habana, on March 17.
The slave merchants, planters, and officials of Cuba now reached agreement that the formal abolition of the slave trade by Spain would not be allowed to interfere in practice in the traffic. The French, after all, had shown the way.III There had been a number of discussions about the future of the trade the previous year. Now both the governor and the treasurer, Alejandro Ramírez, apparently assured Santiago de la Cuesta (who in turn informed his colleagues in the commerce) that, whatever the government in Madrid might do to please the English, matters would be different in the Caribbean. After all, most Spanish planters had been smuggling slaves—from the English in Jamaica above all—so as to evade taxation: what more easy than to continue the practice, in order to avoid the new treaty with the English, who had so curiously changed their mind on the matter of slaves? Perhaps, too, that Anglo-Saxon change of mind was just temporary; the merchants of Havana knew enough of England to realize that, whatever the government in London desired, there were investors and merchants in that city only too willing still to help Cuba in its efforts to achieve an adequate labor force. It seems also that the Spanish government secretly decided to permit their subordinates in Cuba to break the law on slave trading: a later captain-general of Cuba, General Tacón, wrote in 1844 to the then ministers of foreign affairs and the navy that, in 1818, the king sent a confidential order to his predecessor in Cuba and to the same official in Puerto Rico, instructing them to overlook the illegal importation of slaves since, without slaves, he accepted, the agriculture of the islands could not make progress.15
The Spanish Crown, through its Cuban representatives, was also doing what it could to increase foreign investment in, and foreign immigration to, Cuba, by concessions on taxes. Many North Americans had been long established on the island, and now more came. Some entered the slave trade; others, such as the ex-king of the Rhode Island traffic, James de Wolf, were content, for the time being, to maintain their sugar plantations—Mariana, Mount Hope, and San Juan—near Matanzas, where they employed slaves whom they had earlier imported or whom they obtained through George de Wolf, who was still active in the commerce in slaves, and whose sugar plantation, the Arca de Nöe, Noah’s Ark, lay to the southwest of Havana, near Batabanó.16
In those days, hostility towards “la perfidia inglesa” was shared by almost everyone in Cuba, including the captains-general, such as Cienfuegos and his short-serving successor, Juan Manuel Cagigal (both of them had had their first experience of dealing with England during the siege of Gibraltar in 1783). The treasurer, the able Alejandro Ramírez, the real master of the island for many years, was in matters of foreign policy a traditionalist who always looked on England as the eternal enemy, this hostility being exacerbated rather than soothed by England’s help in the Napoleonic Wars.
The Spanish colonial officials had other things, too, with which to concern themselves: the fear of revolution, either in the style of the Haitians or in that of the rest of Latin America. The loyalty to Spain of the Cuban planter class could be secured only if they were assured of slaves.IV
Whatever the secret expectations of the planters, the signature of the treaty with Britain, as might have been expected, was a stimulus to importing slaves before the legal deadline: in three years, 70,000 Africans entered Cuba through Havana alone, over 100,000 in the whole island. The ships which brought these slaves mostly flew a Spanish flag, but one also came in flying a Dutch flag, several purported to be Portuguese, one was United States, and one was French. Many of the ships with Spanish flags were, however, United States slavers, including several from George de Wolf’s fleet from Bristol, Rhode Island. Barnabas Bates, at that time postmaster in Bristol, wrote in 1818 that the system was that “cargoes suited to the African market are procured here in Bristol, and taken aboard vessels suited to the purpose, and then cleared for the Havanna by the Collector [that is, Charles Collins]. The master there effects a nominal sale of the vessel and cargo to a Spaniard, takes on board a nominal master and proceeds to Africa. . . . When the vessel has made one voyage, she can proceed on another without returning to the United States. A new cargo is then sent out to her in the Havanna. . . . There is one [ship] lying here ready for sea called the General Peace, lately owned by Thomas Saunders, of Providence. . . . The crew talk familiarly of their destination, and one man against whom I had a claim boldly told me that I must wait ‘till he could go and catch some blackbirds.’ ”17, V
The legal Spanish trade did not end without one remarkable occurrence: the entry into action in 1819 of a corvette of the Haitian navy, the aptly named Wilberforce, which seized the Spanish slave ship Yuyu (otherwise known as the Dos Unidos) coming from Africa with a cargo of slaves. On March 26, 1820, the captain-general of Cuba demanded of the mulâtre President Jean-Pierre Boyer of that island (he had temporarily reunited Santo Domingo, with the ex-Saint-Domingue) that he give up the slaves which he had liberated. There was no reply. A further request from Cuba also went unanswered. Only in January 1821 did Boyer reply, in a conciliatory fashion, but he refused to give up the slaves. By that time, the slave trade to Cuba was formally illegal, the number of slaves actually in Cuba probably approaching 200,000.
Spain, secretly satisfied to find that the Cuban planters seemed to prefer riches and dependence to independence with no defense, tried to encourage, for the first time, European immigration into Cuba, including non-Spanish immigration. A tax of six pesos was also imposed on each male slave imported in these last years of the legal trade, and the revenue was to be used for bringing free white labor. Female slaves were exempted from the tax, to encourage imports of them.
Another faithful Spanish colony, Puerto Rico, always poorer, remained with a strong white (80,000) or free black or mulatto (85,000) population, against a limited number of slaves (17,500), in a population of over 180,000.
In 1820, the Spanish government, as everyone had anticipated would happen, made numerous demands of the English to delay the enactment of their antislaving treaty. Ships already at sea should surely be allowed to deliver their cargoes. Did not a ship setting out for Africa for slaves for Cuba have to count on a journey of ten months?
The Cubans—planters, merchants, officials—were assisted in these moves by the tacit support of the king; by the dismissal of that minister, Pizarro, who had been so (unwisely) proud of having introduced an end to the slave trade; and by his replacement by the marquis of Casa Irujo, a firm friend of the slave dealers. The Cubans’ agent in Madrid, General de Zayas, seems to have done his job well.
On May 20, 1820, when the slave trade to Cuba was formally supposed to end, a new deadline was agreed delaying the measure till October 31, but the Cubans, through their friends in Madrid, again argued that five months was too short a time. Only on December 10 were the newly appointed British commissioners in Havana told by the captain-general of the island that orders had been received to carry out the treaty. That was a direct consequence of a liberal revolution in Madrid, and indeed it is hard to believe that it would have occurred had it not been for that upheaval.
So tribunals were established at Sierra Leone and at Havana: at the last named, the Spanish judges were to be, however, Alejandro Ramírez and Francisco de Arango—the first the treasurer who had laid careful plans with the slave traders for the evasion of the treaty; the second, the theoretician of the slave trade in Cuba.
The Spanish navy would send only two ships or so as their contribution to the naval patrol, and neither they nor the few English ships in the region could do much, even if they had wished to, in Havana. It was impossible to distinguish at sight slave ships from the others leaving Cuba, and it was impossible to have to check each suspicious one.
A typical incident occurred in March 1821, only a few months after the treaty had come into force. The British Commodore Collier intercepted the Cuban-based schooner Ana María, in the Bight of Benin. She turned out to be carrying 500 slaves. Collier’s boat crew boarded this vessel, whose captain insisted that he was a North American. Papers proclaimed him to be a Spaniard, Mateo Sánchez. This individual locked himself into his cabin and a fight ensued, during the course of which fifty female slaves jumped overboard, to be eaten by sharks. Collier was still able eventually to liberate the other 450 slaves in Sierra Leone.
A new liberal Cortes in Madrid, after the Revolution of 1820, had, meantime, appointed a commission to propose measures to stop all violations of the treaty of 1817, and to decree that that document should be included in the new criminal code. But this new Cortes naturally included members from the colonies, including three from Cuba, who had instructions to point out that a further delay of at least six years was necessary for any effective prohibition on the trade. It was desirable to stock up the haciendas with slaves, and to provide “African women for the conservation of the species and the plantations. . . . Of all the provinces of the Spanish empire,” the document went on, “the most concerned . . . in this business is the island of Cuba. No other one has undertaken the African slave trade directly with its own ships and capital. Therefore, the damages caused by the sudden cessation . . . would be incalculable.”18
The Cuban deputies at the Cortes, however, included Fray Félix Varela, professor of philosophy, a real liberal who had passed his childhood in Florida. He ignored his instructions from Havana: the first Cuban to say anything publicly against the slave trade, he boldly stated that, until slavery was abolished, the Antilles would always be in danger of slave revolts, for the Haitian and continental revolutionaries had many plans for the liberation of his island. How could one expect the slaves to be tranquil while thecriollosand others rejoiced in their new freedom under the constitution of 1820? “The barbarian is the best soldier when he finds someone to lead him. Santo Domingo showed that there would be no lack of leaders [in Cuba]. The general wish of the people of Cuba is that there should be no slaves. They only want to find some other way to supply their necessities.” Varela proposed the liberty of slaves who had served fifteen years with the same master, and the liberty for all born after the publication of the decree. He also wanted the establishment of a lottery whose winner would be allowed to buy his freedom, and the foundation of philanthropic committees charged with directing abolition and protecting slaves.19
This speech received no attention in Spain, but much publicity in Cuba. The historian José Antonio Saco, a pupil of Varela’s, himself soon to be a deputy from Cuba, recalled that he heard someone in the Cortes say, “Any deputy from Cuba who asks for the abolition of slavery ought to have his tongue torn out. . . .” Another priest-deputy to the Cortes from Cuba, a canon of the cathedral, Fray Juan Bernardo O’Gabán, was persuaded to write a pamphlet against Várela (Observaciones sobre la condición de esclavos africanos) in which he insisted that the slave trade was a means whereby the Africans could be rendered civilized. So, if humanitarianism were truly understood, “wise legislators would compel the Africans to work, and protect, not oppose, their transition to America.”20
The question was left unresolved until, in April 1823, the French army of “100,000 sons of Saint Louis,” inspired by Chateaubriand, destroyed the revolutionary government in Spain. Liberals in Madrid were swept away, exiled, and even executed; and Varela and those who thought like him emigrated, as so many enlightened Cubans have had to do since, to the United States. With that counterrevolution, any chance of a swift end to Cuban slavery ended.
In an effort to maintain her own policy, the British navy extended her network of patrol ships to the coasts of Cuba and Brazil. Yet many slavers entered the ports of Cuba (twenty-six at least in 1820 and 1821, perhaps ten, four, and seven respectively in 1822, 1823, and 1824), and it was not till the last of these years that the British captured a slave cargo off the island and the slaves, the so-called emancipados, were freed.
After the capture of this first vessel, a new controversy broke out. The commander-in-chief in Spain, General Francisco Tomás Morales (he had commanded the last Spanish army in Venezuela, which he had withdrawn to Cuba), was found to be a major shareholder in the condemned ship: a fact which, as the British Judge Kilbee pointed out, in one of his many reports to London, “speaks volumes as to the state of the slave trade.” Kilbee had already convinced himself that, “with very few exceptions, all the employees under the government [in Havana] are directly or indirectly engaged in the traffic.”
Then arose the difficult question of the emancipados: these ex-slaves, beneficiaries of English philanthropy, were supposed to be handed over to members of the clergy, to widows, or to other benign proprietors who promised to look after them. But after a few consignments, the disposal of such unwilling emigrants from Africa became yet one more business. The captain-general was unenthusiastic about releasing a large number of free blacks into Cuba, and handed over their distribution to Joaquín Gómez, originally of Cádiz, one of the prominent slave dealers of the island. In this way, the planters naturally came to control the emancipados exactly as if they had been slaves.
New laws, it is true, provided that these Africans were to be instructed in the Christian religion, taught a craft and so made capable of sustaining themselves and, after four years, made free. But in practice the masters had no incentive not to overwork them. In addition, they were customarily re-employed by those who had had their services at the beginning.
The seizure, by H.M.S. Lion, of a second Cuban slave ship, El Relámpago, in late 1824, was the beginning of an argument between the British and the Spaniards, which lasted half a century. One hundred fifty bozal slaves—that is, slaves from Africa—were on board, all entitled to certificates as emancipados. Judge Kilbee wrote out some provisions which would have given each freed man, or woman, a trade. But an astute new Spanish judge on the mixed court, Claudio Martínez de Pinillos, who had succeeded Ramírez, talked of the political dangers of releasing the emancipados. If these Africans (filled with English ideas of freedom) were placed at liberty, they would constitute a dangerous example to others on the island. The Cuban authorities explained additionally that they could not return the emancipados to Africa, because of the cost, the difficulty of finding ships, the folly of returning such souls to “the darkness of paganism,” and the certainty of exposing the persons concerned to resale into slavery. Martínez de Pinillos, an able economist who was now treasurer of Havana as well as a judge, had helped, when still in Spain, to draft the decree on free trade in the Americas which, had it been issued only a few years earlier, might have saved the Spanish empire from dissolution. In Cuba, he devised a way to raise the annual income of the colony from two million pesos to thirty-seven million in a space of only twelve years. That was why he was taken so seriously.VI
The Council of the Indies in Madrid, however, refused Martínez de Pinillos’s ideas on the treatment of emancipados. One of the members, Manuel Guazo, suggested that the Africans should be brought to Spain and asked to build roads. But the archbishop of Toledo was hostile to the idea. Others suggested they should be dispatched to the Balearic Islands or the Mosquito Coast in Central America to work under the guidance of priests. The Havana City Council argued that the captured slave ships and theiremancipadosshould be carried back by the British to Sierra Leone. But the Spanish foreign minister in the end decided that the Africans should be taken to be employed as domestic servants in Spain. The journey would be paid for by the sale of the captured slave ships concerned and, if necessary, more money would be raised by a tax in Cuba.
This decision was issued as a royal decree in 1828. But the Cuban planters still thought that the scheme would cost too much. Joaquín Gómez, the slave dealer who had become subprior of the Consulado of Havana, thought that twenty pesos a head was the minimum cost of taking the emancipados back to Spain. Martínez de Pinillos then suggested that these “free men” should merely be distributed as theretofore among institutions or individuals of the island, “to be employed, either as servants or as free laborers.” There was no indication as to how these Africans were to be distinguished from slaves if they were asked, as many were, to work on a sugar or coffee plantation, and the evidence is that they were not so distinguished. But for a few years this was the interim solution preferred.
The Spanish navy, of course, was supposed to be fulfilling the same task as was the British but, between 1820 and 1842, their vessels stopped precisely two ships, both Portuguese and, therefore, the slaves within them were not subject to the jurisdiction of Judge Kilbee and his court. Yet, though the British tally of ships seized was far higher, it made little impact on the number of slavers arriving: at least thirty-seven in 1825, perhaps bringing over 11,000 slaves, and some fourteen in 1826, bringing over 3,700. Kilbee reported to Canning in 1825, “It is not from being in possession of better sources of information than formerly that I am enabled to state the number of slaves landed . . . but merely [because] transactions of this nature are now public and notorious, no mystery being found necessary.”21
The British government, for all their investment in intelligence, seem never to have realized the true picture of the Spanish scheme of things, and persisted in their efforts to seek formal agreements which they supposed would be honorably maintained by the other party. This was a policy which Castlereagh as foreign secretary in London pursued also with Portugal, with whom he arranged a new treaty, in July 1817. That constituted a modest extension of the undertakings previously concluded between the two countries. The navies of both countries were now to be able to board merchant ships suspected of illegal trading; and that meant, above all, the British navy, for the Portuguese had no stomach for such work. Still, ships found to have slaves on board illegally were to be detained, and their captains sent for trial, either in Sierra Leone or in Rio, by the usual creation of a mixed court, British and Portuguese judges being present in both places. The ships would be sold. Slaves found aboard would be freed as emancipadosand employed as servants or free laborers to private persons of “known integrity” or in public works. Two months after the treaty, the government of Portugal promulgated a domestic law which announced punishments but only for illegal traders and captains: confiscation of the ship, heavy fines, and exile to Mozambique. South of the equator, slaving was still to be legal, for another five years. The law of 1813 had specified that surgeons were to be carried on every slave ship; but now amateurs, “negro bleeders,” were to be enough. The law of 1813 had limited slaves to five for each two tons of displacement up to 201 tons, and only one slave for each additional ton. But after 1818, five slaves would be carried per two tons regardless.
Further, as in Cuba, the law relating to emancipados proved impossible to apply, and most of the Africans concerned were treated as if they were still slaves: while the sentence of “exile to Mozambique” merely enabled the criminal to share in the continuing use of that territory as a slaving colony.
The treaty, though, caused fury in Brazil. The planters and merchants there, in circumstances wholly different from those in Cuba, began, for the first time, to contemplate independence. There seems never to have been any secret assurance from Lisbon to Rio that the trade in slaves would go on, as there had been in the case of Spain and Cuba; whatever the intentions of Portugal, the merchants of Brazil were determined to go on trading in slaves in their old harbors. Most of them took the British official opposition to the traffic lightly: Were not Brazilian planters still being afforded credit by British banks to buy slaves? Were not British goods extensively used in stocking up ships which left Rio or Bahia for African shores? Just after the signature of the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1817, the import of slaves increased “beyond all former example,” as the British minister, Henry Chamberlain, put it in May 1818, adding that twenty-five ships had “arrived here since the beginning of the year, none of them bringing less, and many more, than 400. . . .” Comparable figures were repeated annually.22
It would be a mistake to suppose that Brazilian independence was inspired only by anger over the slave trade. All the same, when, in 1823, Dom Pedro, the regent, so dramatically proclaimed the independence of the country, and his own place as first emperor, he was sustained by a public opinion whose resentment of the government in Lisbon had been enhanced by its acceptance of English pressure on the subject of the slave trade.
Thereafter, Britain had to deal not so much with Portugal but with the new empire of the south. The first move was made by a Brazilian. In November 1822, Canning was approached in London by an unofficial Brazilian representative of Dom Pedro, General Filisberto Caldeira Brant (the future marquis of Barbacena), about the possibility of diplomatic recognition. Canning explained that Brazil’s involvement in the slave trade would have first to be considered. These remarks fell on unexpectedly favorable ears for Brant, like his master Dom Pedro, personally opposed the slave trade, and even talked of the desirability of the abolition of slavery altogether: they were interested in the replacement of slaves by European labor partly out of philanthropy but also because they feared what a black majority might do. In a later discussion, Canning implied that, if Brazil were to offer abolition of the traffic, he could promise that Britain would recognize Brazil. Brant, for his part, said that he was prepared to wager, but not to promise that, if there were to be recognition and, if Britain were to agree to admit Brazilian sugar, the traffic would be abolished within four years. Canning then asked for the backing of his own Cabinet for an arrangement along these lines, arguing that “the great mart of the legal slave trade is Brazil.”23 But Brant never obtained authority from his government. Dom Pedro’s chief minister, Bonifacio de Andrada e Silva, was probably more hostile to slavery than anyone in the country, but he feared the social consequence of immediate abolition.VIISoon Dom Bonifacio was forced from office, partly because of his critical views on slavery. Still, the Brazilian Assembly debated the matter openly and remarkably concluded by only asking for a minimum of four years before the abolition of the trade. A treaty along those lines was ratified in 1826. The agreement was similar to that made with Spain, with respect to Cuba; it provided for the end of the slave trade in three years. After 1830, therefore, trafficking in slaves would be considered piracy by the new Brazilian government. A commercial treaty was also signed, which gave Britain a privileged position in Brazil and, of course, Britain recognized the new country.
But a long debate in the Brazilian Assembly followed over whether to ratify these documents. The Brazilian minister for foreign affairs, the marquis of Queluz, a Portuguese-born aristocrat who had, in 1821, published a criticism of the slave trade, explained, in a remarkably frank letter to the Chamber of Deputies, that, in accepting the British demands, the government was “acting for the good of the nation in conceding willingly what would have been taken from it by force.” Most speakers in the debate, whatever the merits of the matter, complained that Brazilians had been constrained to accept abolition by Britain: it was not the Chamber of Deputies which was making the law, but the “English who dictated it, the English who are imposing it on us, and the English who are to execute it against the unfortunate Brazilians.” Thus Raimundo da Cunha Matos, who had spent many years in Africa, and who believed that “the moment had not come for Brazil to abandon the importation of slaves.” Few Brazilians believed in Britain’s humanitarian motives. Most thought that she must want to ruin Brazilian agriculture in order to benefit the British West Indies. Britain, they even thought, desired to break Brazil’s links with Angola in order to help London to “become lords of Africa.” As for the working conditions of slaves, Brazilian deputies pointed to the thirty-five saints’ days, as well as Sundays, when the slaves of their country could dance and sing, and contrasted that with the hard life which, they believed, obtained in slave communities in British colonies in the Caribbean. In the event, however, the treaty was ratified, and the new country braced itself for abolition in 1830. In Luanda, merchants wondered how they would in future pay for the goods to which they had become used. What legal trade could there seriously be? Beeswax? Ivory?24
Meantime, the slave trade to Brazil, threatened with a speedy conclusion, rose to new heights, just as it had done in Cuba in similar circumstances: slaves imported into Rio totaled over 30,000 annually in 1826, 1827, and 1828, and reached 45,000 and nearly 60,000 in 1829 and 1830. In Brazil, capital was “everywhere embarked in the purchase of Negroes,” a British observer remarked; and another traveler, the Reverend Robert Walsh, journeying from Rio to Minas Gerais in 1828, recalled meeting every day caravans of slaves “such as Mungo Park described in Africa, winding through the woods, the slave merchant, distinguished by his large felt hat and poncho, bringing up the rear on a mule, with a long lash in the hand. It was another subject of pity to see groups of these poor creatures cowering together at night in the open ranches drenched with cold rain, in a climate so much more frigid than their own.” There was, he thought, “such a glut of human flesh in the markets of Rio that it has become an unprofitable drug.”25
Paradoxically, the defenders of the trade began to insist that Africans were needed in order to civilize Brazil: “Africa civilizes Brazil” declared Bernardo Pereira de Vasconcelos. At the same time, “heaping barrels of gunpowder into the Brazilian mine” was a frequent metaphor of the abolitionists, who began to exhibit, by implication, something like racial prejudice when they insisted that it was necessary for Brazil to end the slave trade in order to ensure the survival of a white population.
In May 1830, Dom Pedro, in his annual speech from the throne, confirmed that the Brazilian slave trade would soon be declared illegal. But a year later, convinced of his own unpopularity, he abdicated in favor of his six-year-old son; and though one reason for his bad reputation was his continuing link with the now hated Portuguese, another was his treaty on abolition with Britain. Yet this resignation did not prevent a new Brazilian government, in November 1831, from passing legislation which would make the import of slaves illegal. Canning’s onetime interlocutor, General Brant introduced the bill into the Senate. Article 1 stated that all slaves entering Brazil would automatically be free. The police were given powers to examine ships which they suspected of bringing in captives. Fines, imprisonment, rewards, bounties were all prescribed. Various regulations followed, including one which enabled Africans who thought that their import had been illegal to present themselves to judges.26
This radical measure was not passed primarily for philanthropic reasons. It was partly done “to show the English,” as the phrase was: to indicate good intentions but not necessarily to promise good actions. Most rational Brazilians thought that the commercial benefits of being on good terms with Britain overshadowed everything. Others were frightened by recent slave revolts in the province of Bahia. It had seemed for a moment as if African religious wars might repeat themselves in Brazil. Recent revolts had been directed by intelligent men able to read and write Arabic. In the slave quarters of Bahia at this time, there sometimes seemed more literate people than there were in the “Great Houses.” “It was not uncultivated blacks who arrived here [in those days],” wrote the historian Nina Rodrigues, “but highly civilized members of warrior peoples, who knew how to read and write in Arab script, and who sometimes had entered into the service of masters less refined than themselves. In addition, they had the religious spirit of Islam. . . . They were difficult to turn into docile machines for cultivating the land. . . .”27 There had been a Hausa rising in Brazil in 1807, a more general Islamic one in 1809, and less easily identifiable rebellions in 1814, 1816, 1822, and 1826; thereafter an upheaval almost every year. Many whites were killed before the rebellions were at last crushed.
• • •
The Netherlands signed a treaty with Britain similar to that which the latter had arranged with Spain and Portugal, and also in 1818. It provided for abolition to be guaranteed by a British naval right of visit and search. There would be a court in Surinam (as well as in Sierra Leone) to balance those in Havana and Rio. It was agreed that a Dutch naval squadron should be established to the same purpose. This arrangement was achieved without much trouble by the British minister at the Hague, Richard de la Poer Trench, Lord Clancarty, who persuaded Castlereagh to permit him to give presents to those who helped; in the end, though, and despite Holland’s virtual abandonment of the commerce in slaves, it was only the intervention of the new anglophile King Willem of the Netherlands which led his Cabinet to act as the British desired.VIII Though no slavers had set out from the Netherlands for Africa after 1808, some Dutch merchants did continue to participate in the illegal trade to Surinam, as suggested by Heine, in his poem “Das Sklavenschiff” (as did some French ships, such as La Legère of 1823, whose Captain Dubois escaped prosecution on the curious, if romantic, ground that his father had been murdered in the Vendée). Meantime, the Dutch were busy on the Gold Coast in pursuit of “legitimate commerce,” and a fine proconsul, Governor Daendels, busied himself with widening the main road from Elmina to Kumasi.28
But even the Anglo-Dutch Treaty was evaded. For example, the Dutch judge at Sierra Leone, Van Sirtema, intervened on the side of the slavers. This was shown when, in 1819, H.M.S. Thistle, captained by Lieutenant Hagan, arrested the Dutch ship Eliza off the so-called Grain Coast. She had certainly been carrying slaves, but they had all been unloaded save for one, who provided the overt reason for Lieutenant Hagan’s action. Van Sirtema ruled Hagan out of court on the legalistic ground that the treaty spoke of “slaves,” not “a slave.”29, IX
The Dutch agreed in 1823 that a vessel could be condemned if she was obviously equipped for slaving, even if she had not yet purchased a slave. This “equipment” was as Canning had defined it.X Several Dutch ships were condemned under these clauses in 1825-26. For some Dutch slaving continued. The sugar planters of Surinam needed slaves after the Napoleonic Wars, or thought that they did. Their production of sugar was modest in comparison with that of Cuba and Brazil, but they were deeply involved in the crop. Often Dutch ships concealed themselves under French flags. Crews on such ships were often, indeed usually, not Dutch. Then there were some incidents such as that of La Fortunée, which, in 1827, was seized by a British naval vessel and taken to the Anglo-Dutch court in Sierra Leone, since the ship’s papers had been thrown overboard and the crew had been ordered to learn some strange Christian names which could be taken for Dutch. All together, twenty-three ships were charged before the Anglo-Dutch courts, all but one at Freetown, the remaining one in Paramaribo. The latter, La Nueve von Snauw, was in 1823 declared a legal prize, the 54 slaves on board were freed, and the one English member of the crew was tried in Barbados.
Dutch planters seem not to have been able to afford slave prices after 1830. All the same, the interfering activities of the British judges in Paramaribo continued to incense the local planters, and the last British judge there, Edward Schenley, left fearing for his life, after having denounced some slaveowners for cruelty. In absentia, after his return to England, he was found guilty of the slander for reporting ill of planters, in reports published in England.
• • •
British abolitionists, who to the outside world now seemed to include ministers as well as polemicists, had also to deal, in relation to the slave trade, with the complex position of the United States. Britain wanted to influence policy in Washington but found it difficult to do so. The United States had not been represented at the conferences organized by Castlereagh after the Napoleonic Wars, for the traditional reason that the country was determined to avoid “entangling alliances” and was not concerned to look for “monsters” to destroy. For example, when approached on the question of the slave trade in 1818 by Castlereagh, Richard Rush, the cultivated Pennsylvanian (son of the abolitionist Dr. Benjamin Rush), who had previously been secretary of state and was then minister in London, insisted, on the instructions of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, that “nothing but the actual finding of slaves on board was ever to authorise a seizure or a detention” by a British naval ship. The “peculiar situation and institutions of the United States” prevented the kind of agreement which Britain desired. The “admission of a right in officers of foreign ships of war to enter and search the ships of the United States in time of peace, under any circumstances whatever, would meet with universal repugnance in the public opinion of this country.”30 Had the British been able to realize the feelings which the United States still had about Britain’s continuing claim in time of war to be able to impress into their navy sailors on board seized merchant ships, North American statesmen might have been more willing to accept the British position on the right of search. For, after all, Britain was proposing a mutual right; and the scheme was to be limited to a specific coast and to specific ships.
Actually, Britain’s request did not seem unreasonable to everyone in the United States. In 1817, for example, a committee of the House of Representatives urged the opening of negotiations leading to a grant of the right of search and, in 1819, a great lawyer, then young, Judge Story, denounced the clandestine continuation of the slave trade before a grand jury in Boston. He recalled the passage in the Declaration of Independence where all men were declared free and equal, with inalienable rights. How could it be that slaves were excluded from that clause? He bravely concluded, with regard to the slave trade: “If we tolerate this traffic, our charity is but a name, and our religion is no more than a faint and elusive shadow.”31
The territories where the trade was tolerated in that time were still Louisiana and East Florida. Slaves were concentrated at Galveston in Texas (still part of Mexico), and then bought by enterprising merchants in New Orleans. Many of these captives were procured, in the first instance, by pirates who, using armed vessels, would capture bona-fide Spanish slavers on the high seas. In March 1818, the Collector of Customs of Brunswick, Georgia (McIntosh), told the Secretary of the Treasury that “African and West Indian negroes are almost daily illicitly introduced into Georgia.” Collector Chew of New Orleans assured the government that “to put a stop to that traffic a naval force suitable to these waters is indispensable,” for, otherwise, “vast numbers of slaves will be introduced to an alarming extent. . . .”32
Florida was still Spanish.XI Many settlements there had become bases for trading slaves to North America, especially Amelia Island, just off the coast at Jacksonville, a kind of Curaçao of the nineteenth century. So great was the trade there that “three hundred sail of square rigged vessels were seen at one time in the Spanish waters waiting for cargoes.” Another center was Barataria Bay, south of New Orleans, a site well known for many kinds of contraband goods in the years leading up to 1820, by law a part of the United States but a private, if illegal, fief of Jean and Pierre Lafitte, two Bayonne-born adventurers. Their technique was to send pirates out to capture Spanish slavers and bring their cargoes, via the bayous, the lakes and creeks to the west of the Mississippi, to the mainland. Jean Lafitte, first established in a blacksmithery in New Orleans about 1810, is a familiar figure in the history of the slave trade, a criminal with good manners, as much noted for his lavish hospitality as for his ruthlessness. Lafitte owed much of his success to his skillful manipulation of a British offer of pardon for past offenses in return for help against the United States in the siege of New Orleans in 1814.
The government sent Commodore Daniel T. Patterson and Colonel George T. Ross to destroy the settlement of Barataria Bay. But there were always new opportunities. For example, Commodore Louis Aury, another pirate, established himself first at Galveston Island, off what is now Houston, then at Matagorda, also in Texas but farther to the southwest, and finally also at Amelia Island, in order to smuggle slaves (he was legally an officer in the navy of New Granada, though law was not a matter to which he gave a high priority). In 1817, Governor David Mitchell of Georgia (a Scot, having been born in Muthill, Perthshire) resigned his charge in order to become United States agent for the Creek Indians and so, apparently, share in the smuggling traffic between Georgia and Louisiana, where he received slaves. (He was detected and charged in 1821, but acquitted.)
The technique here, it became clear—in the words of Richard Drake, who participated—was for “the kaffle [sic; that is, koffle], under the charge of negro drivers . . . to strike up the Escambria river and thence across the [unmarked] border [of Florida] into Georgia, where some of our wild Africans were mixed up with various squads of native blacks and driven inland until sold off, singly or in couples on the road. . . . The Spanish possessions were thriving on this inland exchange of negroes. . . . Florida was a sort of nursery for slavebreeders and many American citizens grew rich by trafficking in Guinea negroes and smuggling them continually, in small parties, through the southern United States. . . . The business was a lively one.”33
The Lafittes, meantime, established themselves at a settlement on Galveston Island which they named Campeche, where they carried on their profitable activities for several prosperous years: sometimes capturing slave ships themselves, sometimes trading with pirates, such as René Béluche or Georges Champlin, who had seized ships on the high seas. Some of the pirate slaves were sold in the United States, the rest in Cuba.
When General Andrew Jackson seized Pensacola in Florida in 1818, one of his officers, Captain Brooke, captured in the harbor the slaver Constitution, with eighty-four Africans on board, bound for a United States harbor; and Lieutenant McKeever also captured the Louisa and the Marino, with only twenty-three slaves between them. All were plainly destined for the United States market.
There was one other source of slaves: Richard Drake claimed in 1860 (in a work which owed much to the author’s desire to be sensational, but has some merits all the same) that, seven years before, he had set himself up on one of the Bay Islands off Honduras, where he regularly kept 1,600 slaves ready for sale to dealers who came from Havana as well as New York, New Orleans, Florida, and Boston. Some of these slaves, he claimed, “were taken into the great American swamps, and there kept until wanted for the market. Hundreds were sold as ‘captured runaways’ from the Florida wilderness. We had agents in every slave state [of the United States], and our coasters were built in Maine and came out with lumber. . . . If you should hang all the Yankee merchants engaged in [the trade], hundreds would fill their places,” he added comfortingly.
Estimates of the numbers of slaves imported in these years to the United States vary considerably. General James Tallmadge, a congressman from New York and subsequent president of New York University, told the House of Representatives in 1819 that it was a “well-known fact that about 14,000 slaves have been brought to our country this past year,” and Representatives Henry Middleton and Wright, from South Carolina and Virginia respectively, both of them owning substantial plantations using slaves, suggested figures the same. These estimates are probably exaggerations. The subject of this illegal slave trade has, remarkably, been avoided by historians of North America. Still, the most serious student of statistics of the trade suggests that about 50,000 slaves were introduced into the United States between 1807 and 1860; if so, the vast majority of them must have arrived in the ways suggested, and during the years 1807 to 1830.34
Largely as a result of the scandal of Amelia Island, the administration of President James Monroe in 1818 introduced a new Antislaving Act, offering a reward to smugglers of slaves who informed on their associates. Ships would also be forfeit, one-half of the proceeds of the sale going to the Government of the United States, one-half to the informers. Those accused had to prove that the slaves whom they had with them had not been brought in illegally. This bill did not excite much attention, even during its passage through Congress, though it was alleged in the debate that James Bowie of New Orleans (he of the sheath knife) made $65,000 in two years as a result, by first smuggling slaves sold to him by Jean Lafitte, and then informing on him, and so gaining the reward.
In 1819, Representative Hugh Nelson of Virginia, son of the revolutionary governor of that state, and owner of a fine estate at Belvoir in Albemarle County, with slaves, insisted on writing a death penalty into the Antislavery Act. This was cut out by the Senate. But in May 1820, a new bill was introduced which did prescribe that punishment. By the same document, the president was empowered “to cause any of the armed vessels of the United States to be employed to cruise on any of the coasts of the United States or territories thereof, or of the coasts of Africa or elsewhere,” to seize American slavers. He was also allocated $100,000 to enforce the act.
President Monroe sent a small flotilla of naval ships to the African coast. Thus Captain Edward Trenchard, with the Cyane, set off in January 1820; Captain George C. Reed followed, with the corvette Hornet, in June 1820; Captain Robert Field Stockton (son of “Richard the Duke,” senator for New Jersey), with the schooner Alligator, left in April 1821; Captain H. S. Wadsworth, with twenty-four guns, left with the corvette John Adams, in July 1821; and Captain Matthew Perry, on the schooner Shark, left in August 1821. This was the first occasion when the new United States had taken any action as far from home as West Africa. The experience afforded an interesting lesson, but otherwise it was scarcely an effective change. Yet this was the first action of the United States as an international power in the matter of the slave trade.
Of these captains, Captain Perry (brother of the hero of Lake Erie, and future instigator of trade with Japan) would report, “I could not even hear of an American slaving vessel.”35 He was, however, a man from Newport, where his statue now stands in a prominent public place, and his brother had married James de Wolf’s daughter, so perhaps any surprise at his remarkable statement should be muted. Perry did, however, halt and search a French schooner, L’Y, Captain Guillaume Segond, owned by the governor of Guadeloupe, which he was sure, from her cargo (1,000 gallons of rum, 7,000 pounds of tobacco, and a trunkful of umbrellas) was a slaver. But he could not prove it. (He was right: Segond later picked up 400 slaves and delivered them safe and sound in Guadeloupe.) He also found an unquestionable slaver of the same provenance with 133 captives on board from the river Gallinas, south of the Sénégal, the Caroline. France was not then a party to any treaty to suppress the trade, and Perry had to let her go. His officers, however, shocked by the emaciated condition of the captives, offered jointly to reimburse Perry for any loss which he might incur for illegal capture. Perry declined but elicited from the slave captain, Victor Ruinet, a paper pledging himself never to trade slaves again; but, in a year or two, that master was to be found in command again, on La Jeune Caroline and Le Prince de Orange.
On the Cyane, Captain Trenchard, who had Quaker forebears, was more successful: he captured five North American slavers; Captain Reed, on the Hornet, one; and Stockton, on the Alligator, four. (Stockton also fought two duels, one with a British officer, and later became a senator, like his father.) All the ships had been bound for Havana, and were condemned, but the masters and crews were released.
All together, between May 1818 and November 1821, 573 Africans were captured by United States naval captains, from eleven ships. Sir George Collier, still commander of the equivalent British squadron, reported with unusual warmth that his North American counterparts “have, on all occasions, acted with the greatest zeal . . . and it is extremely gratifying to me to observe that the most perfect unanimity prevailed between the officers of His Majesty’s squadron and those of American vessels of war engaged in the same view. . . .”36
That statement had substance in 1821. But there was little subsequent action by the United States until after 1839 and even then, as will be seen, little further collaboration between the two English-speaking powers. Another North American captain, more observant or more honest than Perry, reporting that he had made ten captures, said, “Although they are evidently owned by Americans, they are so completely covered by Spanish papers that it is impossible to condemn them. . . . The slave trade,” he added, “is carried out, to a very great extent. There are probably no less than 300 vessels [of different nations] engaged in the traffic, each having two or three sets of papers.” Secretary of State Adams agreed that the United States ships might collaborate off Africa with British naval ships; but the practical consequences of that concession were modest.
The United States did, however, create her own Sierra Leone. Following the formation in 1816 of a “colonization society” under the auspices of Henry Clay, then speaker of the House of Representatives, eighty-six black ex-slaves on the brig Elizabeth set off in February 1820, escorted by the United States naval corvette Cyane, under Captain Trenchard, to land at Sherbro Island, where, sixty miles south of Sierra Leone, Kizel, a black from New Bedford, had established a colony of eight families at his own expense. But twenty-five of the new immigrants died of fever, as did the government agent, the Reverend Samuel Bacon. The rest went on to Sierra Leone. They were later taken to Cape Mesurado, which settlement was the basis of Monrovia (named after President James Monroe). After some fighting between these survivors and slave traders who were busy embarking slaves onto ships at Tradetown, some miles away, a settlement was established as “Liberia.” Other little colonies were also founded. All these places, like Sierra Leone, were, however, on too small a scale to make much of a contribution to the problems of slavery in the New World.
In 1820 and 1821, another committee of the House of Representatives actually recommended granting the right of search to Britain. But the secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, was still hostile to the idea. He told Stratford Canning, the British minister in Washington (the self-assertive cousin of George Canning): “A compact giving the power to the naval authorities of one nation to search the merchant vessels of another for offenders and offences against the laws of another . . . backed by a further power to seize and carry into another port, and there subject to decision of a tribunal composed of at least one half foreigners, irresponsible to the supreme corrective tribunal of this nation . . . was an investment of power . . . so adverse to the elementary principles and indispensable securities of individual rights that . . . not even the most unqualified approbation of the ends . . . could justify the transgression.”37
True, in early 1823, Britain and the United States together agreed to regard the slave trade as piracy. For a few months, Congress seemed to be contemplating a real agreement with Britain. On February 28, 1823, the House of Representatives requested the president to embark on negotiations with “the European maritime powers” in order to denounce the slave trade as piracy, and asked him, too, to concede a limited right of search: a qualification which was, however, lost in the Senate. (The lead among those senators who opposed this was taken by the ex-prince of North American slavers, James de Wolf of Rhode Island.) Still, Secretary of State Adams thought that a denunciation of the slave trade under the law of nations was politically possible, and sent to London a draft treaty to that effect, allowing suspect ships to be seized by the navy of any country, but always to be tried under the laws of the country of the trading vessel. Here seemed a real opportunity.
Canning, the foreign secretary, agreed to the scheme, though both he and his cousin in Washington believed that it would be much better to offer a general right of search. He added to Adams’s document a sentence to the effect that citizens of any country captured under the flag of a third power should be sent to their own countries for trial, and that citizens of that third country should be similarly treated. President Monroe laid the amended draft before the Senate on April 30, 1824. A vigorous attack was then launched on it. Senator Henry Johnson of Louisiana, in particular, proposed numerous destructive amendments—for example, one excluding the territorial waters of the United States from the treaty, as well as all mention of the application of the right of search to citizens hiring a ship of a third nation. Such exclusions were unacceptable to Britain. Stratford Canning reported to his cousin that he believed that he was “engaged in a hopeless task” in trying to secure that general right of search which alone, he maintained, could result in a swift end to the slave traffic. The consequences of these discussions—between men who were among the ablest ever to hold the portfolios of foreign affairs in both Britain and the United States—were ineffective; and so Britain was obliged to act alone for the next fifteen and more years. A determined North American congressman, Charles Fenton Mercer, representative for Virginia, tried often, in the next few months, to persuade his government to reopen discussions with Britain. He failed; it was one of the reasons why, at the age of sixty, he resigned from Congress to become a bank cashier in Tallahassee, Florida.
The reasons for Mercer’s failure were twofold. First, the constant interference by British cruisers with United States ships caused rancor (even if they were slavers) since, as John Quincy Adams had warned, United States legislators could not contemplate approving foreigners’ exposure of their country’s negligence in enforcing its own laws. The second reason was that, despite the relatively small number of its imports of slaves in the nineteenth century, slavery seemed in the United States an institution “more deeply entrenched,” at least in the South, than ever. In those years, the South was prospering, and wealth was growing faster than in the North. Cotton planters were certain that slavery was efficient as a system of labor. They thus became busy in the active protection of the prized institution: in eleven states, for example, the death penalty was now introduced for slaves who took part in insurrections, and in thirteen it became a capital crime to incite slaves to rebellion. New barriers to manumission were also devised.
As a last offer, President Monroe requested all governments in Europe to negotiate with him in order to achieve an end to the slave trade. But that well-intentioned move led nowhere. European governments distrusted conferences, and certainly did not like the idea of one presided over by the United States.
It should not be supposed that France and the United States, jointly antagonistic to the British though they were in these years, were also always in understanding with each other. In 1821, for example, relations reached a very low level. That was because Lieutenant Stockton of the United States Navy had seized four vessels off Africa flying a French flag, which he was convinced were slavers from North America. He put United States crews aboard and sent them to Boston. The French government was outraged and, in particular, raised the case of La Jeune Eugénie, which was certainly French, had sailed direct from Guadeloupe to Africa to buy slaves, and had, under the name of La Jeune Catherine, already been apprehended once by the British navy. The French minister, Jean-Baptiste Hyde de Neuville,XII called on Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in fury: “In a loud and peremptory tone, rising from his seat and with vehement gesture [he] said, ‘Well sir, since you think it proper to report to the President what I came here to say to you in confidential conversation with you, I desire you to tell him from me, as my individual opinion that, if satisfaction is not made to France . . . la France doit leur déclarer la guerre.’ ” These last words, Adams reported, “he spoke in a manner nearly frantic, dwelling on the word ‘guerre’ with a long and virulent emphasis and, without waiting for a reply, rushed out of the room, forgetting his overcoat. . . .” (Hyde later became a strong abolitionist, at least in words; in 1823, he castigated the trade in slaves as being “barbarous in a way up till now unknown in the history of barbarity.”)38
The consequences were inglorious. President Monroe assured France that Stockton had made a mistake, and that positive orders had now been given that the naval vessels of the United States were in no circumstances to seize slavers flying any foreign flag. No one seemed to complain. The cause of abolition was quiet so far as the United States was concerned.
• • •
Meantime, France, too, had by then made what seemed to be an adjustment to prevailing international opinion. In 1817, the government of the duke of Richelieu announced firmly that any vessel which tried to take slaves “into any of our colonies,” whether French or foreign, would be confiscated, and the captain forbidden to hold any command in future. On examination, the decree seemed to be directed as much against Britain as against slave traders: it was a statement announcing that France would assume all responsibility for her own trade. The decree also left what happened within France untouched, it did not condemn French captains who took slaves to Cuba or Brazil, and the announced punishment was inadequate. The merchants of Nantes and Bordeaux, not to speak of those of Honfleur and Le Havre, immediately realized the opportunities offered by the new document, and the decree seems, not surprisingly, to have stimulated the trade to Cuba and other third countries: in 1818, there were at least twenty-eight slave journeys, mostly from Nantes.39
Another French measure had similarly little effect. For example, the government allowed slaves to be introduced into the territory of the river Sénégal (which Britain only returned to France with Guyane in 1817), where they were immediately declared free and then placed under an engagement “à temps,” for fourteen years.XIII Some of these men and women subsequently served the French state in Cayenne and Madagascar. Many of them had been African slaves before they worked for the French empire, and their later conditions of employment scarcely differed from slavery. All the same, the concession was considerable in law, as it was in promise.
The slave trade as such was finally declared illegal in France in March 1818. The government was probably influenced by the intelligent Baron Seguier, consul in London, who argued that the way to outmaneuver the British was to reach even further than them in hostility to the traffic. However that may be, the minister of the marine, Count Molé, introduced a short, two-article, law on the matter in the National Assembly with a quotation from Montesquieu (the first time that that creative thinker had been quoted in the French legislature): “Why cannot the Princes of Europe, who make so many pointless treaties, make one in favor of charity and pity?” There was no dissent in the chamber on the matter. Molé wrote to the harbormasters in known slave ports requiring them to carry out the law prohibiting the traffic.
But this change, however well intentioned, converted the previously tolerated commerce into a clandestine one. A new generation of slave traders in the old harbors of France had become accustomed to the business in the three years since 1815, and they had sympathetic friends everywhere in the ministries and in the various port authorities. The trade from Nantes, illegal as it now was, was protected by the general approval of the local commercial and financial community: the Banque de Nantes, for example, and the Société d’Assurance de Nantes were dominated by slave interests. If the number of ships leaving French territory for slaves from Africa had been about thirty in 1818, it was nearly sixty the following year.
Molé, however, also established a French naval patrol to prevent the departure of slave ships from Africa, even if it was some years before it acted effectively. Still four ships (Le Moucheron, L’Iris, L’Ecureuil, and L’Argus) were dispatched, first to Saint-Louis in Sénégal, then to Gorée. They were to “visit” all French ships suspected of being slavers. (Another purpose was undoubtedly to reassert the French presence after the seven years’ occupation of the French colonies in Africa by the English.) But they were not expected to approach ships which had nothing to do with France.
The first “visit” which they carried out was nevertheless that to an English three-masted vessel in the river Gallinas. That did not result in a condemnation. But later they did stop and seize Les Deux Soeurs of Marseilles. In these affairs, only the captain could be charged. Neither the crew nor the owners had anything to fear. Many captains were interrogated but, for many months, none of the cases led to any other than formal denunciations. Further, a substantial number of French vessels were still going west to Cuba, as Pío Baroja recalled, in his admirable novel about Basque sailors, Los Pilotos de Altura. That was not even a crime. In 1821, the commissar-general of the marine in Bordeaux, Auguste de Bergevin, would write a letter to his minister, Baron Portal, that, “not for a year have I had occasion to take any sailor before the courts.” But Le Dauphin, belonging to the shipbuilder Audebert, took 300 slaves to Santiago de Cuba in 1820, and Le Mentor, belonging to the Spanish merchant Sangroniz, probably planned to do the same. Are we to assume that the complaisant attitude of the commissar-general was due to the recent marriage of his daughter with the widower of a Cabarrus? Or was there a tacit understanding between the minister, Baron Portal, himself a bordelais ex-shipbuilder, and an Anglophobe, and Bergevin? Benjamin Constant, then a liberal deputy, thought that the latter was probable. The author of Adolphe was, at that time, the most eloquent, as well as the most determined, enemy of the slave trade in the Chamber of Deputies.
Despite Constant’s speeches, the illicit trade both from and to Martinique and Guadeloupe in particular continued: and in 1820, Sir George Collier, from his cruiser off Africa, reported that, in the first six months of that year, he saw twenty-five or thirty slave ships flying the French flag. The year had begun too with the disagreeable incident of the British cruiser H.M.S. Tartar, which pursued a slaver from Martinique, La Jeune Estelle. The captain of the latter, Olympe Sanguines, who had obtained on the “Pepper Coast” fourteen slaves, was determined to avoid both pursuit and condemnation. He accordingly threw overboard a number of barrels, in each of which two girl slaves, aged about twelve to fourteen, were placed. The affair shocked the British navy, but French opinion blamed “the enemy,” to use the phraseology of the minister of the navy, Baron Portal. When the incident was raised in the National Assembly by Benjamin Constant, he was shouted down by fellow members, who accused him of calumniating the nation. Baron Portal was not, to say the least, an enthusiast for naval patrol, even by France. For example, in 1822 he abandoned a possible action against Captain Pelleport, shipbuilder as well as master of La Caroline of Bayonne, because that officer was the brother of Pierre Pelleport, the commander-in-chief in Spain.40
Still, the cause of antislavery was becoming fashionable in some salons of restoration Paris: the return of Madame de Staël, a fervent admirer of Wilberforce, in 1816 initiated the cult of “le bon nègre,” in intellectual circles.XIV The marquis of La Fayette, sole survivor of the prerevolutionary Société des Amis des Noirs, attacked the slave trade in the House of Peers in 1819. Pamphlets were published which had considerable force, even though most of them were largely based on material obtained from England—even, in the case of the Abbé Giuidicelly’s Observations sur la traite of 1820, from British naval captains’ reports (though the abbé had himself been in Sénégal). Joseph-Elzéar Morenas, a Provençal traveler in Africa (he had been agriculteur-botaniste in Sénégal), in hisPétition contre la traite of 1820, reported that the chief pilot at Saint-Louis had used his position to buy and sell slaves. The Abbé Grégoire, a veteran abolitionist who had signed the death sentence on King Louis XVI, in 1822 published his Des Peines infamantes à infliger aux négriers, in which he launched a famous denunciation: “I call négrier not only the captain of the ship who steals, buys, chains, barrels, and sells slaves . . . but also every individual who, by direct or indirect cooperation, is an accomplice in these crimes.” These idealists allied with a new society, that of “Christian Morals” (Société de la Morale Chrétienne), which set out to have the same broad backing as that which the committee against the slave trade of the 1780s had in England. Beginning as a purely Catholic organization, it gathered the support of many Protestant pastors, as well as politicized professors such as Guizot, businessmen such as Lesseps, and philosophical monarchists such as Maine de Biran. Auguste de Staël was the most active of members, conducting himself as the Thomas Clarkson of France. This body financed thousands of petitions, organized meetings, collected information, and distributed propaganda of every kind.
A major change in France was marked by the coming to power of the duke of Broglie as prime minister. This nobleman owed his fortune to his descent from Antoine Crozat, the monopolist of Louisiana under Louis XIV, but his principles to his wife. As a member of this new Society of Christian Morals, he opened his prime-ministership with a speech in the House of Peers as important in its way as Pitt’s had been in England in 1788. It was the longest oration made till that time in that chamber.41 He wanted to absolve the English of the reputation of a contemptible Machiavellianism of which they had been so often accused. He talked of the scandals of the commerce, above all that of La Jeune Estelle, which seemed a scandal as terrible in French eyes as the Zong had been in English. He talked of the 30-percent profits usually made, much higher than those earned in conventional voyages. He wanted to make any involvement in the trade a crime, and to embark on the Christianization of Africa—an anticipation, no doubt, of France’s civilizing mission in that continent.
The consequences were less considerable than the abolitionists hoped. Broglie thought that the existing laws were adequate—they had only to be fulfilled. It is true that the fleet off Africa did receive orders to act forcefully against French slave traders. But all the same, the conduct of Broglie was only the beginning of a national campaign, not its conclusion; and the French navy covered effectively a mere two hundred miles, between Saint-Louis and Gorée.
The campaign continued. In 1823, the Académie Française declared the Abolition of the Slave Trade the theme of its prize poem, while the number of slave traders was 42 percent less than the previous year. In 1824, Bergevin, who had ceased to be harbormaster of Bordeaux and was now a deputy for Brest, sought imprudently, in a speech, to put the blame for any surviving slave trade in Bordeaux on “Spanish firms settled in France . . . sending Danish or Swedish ships.” The idea was surrealistic, though the mere fact that Bergevin showed himself so defensive suggested that abolitionism was beginning to be effective. The same year, the duchess of Duras, a daughter of a Martiniquaise and granddaughter of a sugar planter (she had herself lived in Martinique, as well as in London during the great days of the slave-trade debates in the 1790s), published her romantic story, Ourika, in which a black slave girl adopted by the mysterious Madame de B——— is the heroine. It met with an extraordinary success: Humboldt, Walter Scott, Talleyrand, and Goethe loved it.42, XV In 1825, Auguste de Staël openly purchased slave equipment, such as chains and manacles, in Nantes (which sent forty-eight slave ships to Africa that year, more than in 1790), and he ensured that attention was paid to these objects when he exhibited them in Paris. A year later, Victor Hugo published his Bug-Jargal, in which he recalled the memories of his grandfather, Jean-François Trébuchet, a captain of Nantes who spent most of his life as a slave captain. Again the central figure is a black, but this time a revolutionary of imagination.43 Morenas’s serious but tedious history of the slave trade appeared in 1828, based on travels in Haiti as well as in the Sénégal. Its impact was lessened by its impolitic dedication to President Boyer of Haiti, head of state of a regime founded on a massacre of French colonists. The best of all these literary works was, however, Mérimée’s brilliant and ironical Tamango, of 1829, about a successful slave revolt in the open sea. The number of French naval cruisers rose to six, and between 1823 and the end of June 1825, these “visited” twenty-five suspected slavers off the Ile de Bourbon in the Indian Ocean as well as the French Antilles and the African coast (now going as far to the south as Old Calabar and Bonny). Of these, eleven were condemned.
Still, much would have to happen before the slave trade from France ended, much less before France abolished slavery itself. For twenty years after the publication of Tamango, deputies and journalists in Paris would continue to rail, as did the duke of Saint-James in the House of Peers against the hypocrisy of the English in giving a moral excuse for their desire to rule the world; and a number of French writers, such as the playwright Edouard Mazères and the naturalist Jean-Louis Quatrefages, sustained the opposition to change, with increasingly anti-African diatribes, the mere repetition of which, in the twentieth century, might cause a scandal.
Despite the support of intellectuals, statesmen, and writers in Paris, the business of catching slavers was not popular. The law of 1818 did not specify very severe penalties. Chateaubriand, as foreign minister, explained to the duke of Wellington in 1822 that, if an “appalling sentence” were attached to conviction of this crime, it would be unfulfilled. French captains, demoralized by the purges carried out in their service after Waterloo, were reluctant to carry out what still seemed, despite the speech of Broglie, to be the policies of the English. About thirty French officers expelled from the Napoleonic navy after the Restoration had taken to the slave trade. Some of these sailors of fortune confronted, outmaneuvered, or bribed their old comrades acting inside the Restoration navy. (For example, Captain André-Joseph Anglade was captain of L’Amélie, a French slave ship destined for Santiago de Cuba, seized by Captain Delassale d’Harader, in the naval frigate Sapho. After $600 had passed from one officer to another, Delassale allowed his old comrade to sell his slaves in Puerto Rico.) Monarchist officers did not have their hearts in the pursuit, much less the capture, of such men. In 1830, Nantes still had eighty ships engaged in the slave trade, mostly 130-ton schooners, and the French flag was still often carried by captains from other nations desirous of avoiding the British busybodies. If a British naval vessel were to seize a suspected slaver, the chances would be that a French flag would be found on board, for use in the event of a capture. A sixth of the long-distance shipping in Nantes between 1814 and 1833 was probably engaged in the slave trade, and nearly all the shipowners of that harbor at that time invested at least once in the traffic. Of the shipbuilders, the most important in Nantes were new names—Vallé et fils, Pierre-Thomas Dennis, and Willaume—which sent, in the years 1818 to 1833, respectively thirty, seventeen, and fourteen slaving expeditions. Only the Mosneron-Dupins remained, and they on a small scale, of the shipping families which had been prominent in the trade before 1794.44
A list of slaving expeditions from France after the formal abolition of the trade in 1818 suggests that about 500 expeditions to buy slaves sailed from French ports between then and 1831; six voyages seem to have set out from Bayonne, thirty-nine from Bordeaux, twelve from Honfleur, four from La Rochelle, forty-six from Le Havre, one from Lorient, eighteen from Marseilles, 305 from Nantes, and nine from Saint-Malo. Each voyage from Nantes perhaps made an average profit of 180,000 to 200,000 francs: considerably higher than in the eighteenth century. Expeditions which began in the Antilles included forty-three from Guadeloupe, and even eight from Danish Saint Thomas, though those were still basically French enterprises (for example, Captain André Desbarbès of Bayonne’s La Vénus of 1825). Thirteen expeditions began in one port or another on the Sénégal, and fifty-five from the Ile de Bourbon.45
These journeys were complicated. No captain, no shipowner, and no shipbuilder would now admit that he was shipping slaves. A master would insist, when leaving Nantes or Honfleur, that he was setting off for legitimate trade in Africa, or for somewhere more exotic: Sumatra, for example.XVI At the same time, complicity of officials was frequent, whether because they had money in the business themselves (such as Governor Schmaltz in Sénégal, or the governor of the Ile de Bourbon, General Count Boubet de Lozier) or whether, like so many, they opposed anything which Britain supported, and so could be easily bribed: among them, no doubt, the customs officer at Port Louis in Guadeloupe who, in 1820, lazily observed, at two in the afternoon, the arrival of a ship from Le Havre, the Fox, with 300 Ibo slaves from Bonny. Sometimes the complicity of officials went further than just corruption: some civil servants in Saint-Louis were owners of captiveries.
Many of these vessels made for Cuba (especially after the formal abolition of the slave trade by Spain) or for Brazil, rather than for French colonies. There was also a shift in French interest, so far as Africa was concerned, to the area north of the equator such as Bonny.
The French government was seeking to control these activities without conceding to Britain the right to intervene. Richelieu, Broglie, and Molé had their hearts in the right place, but they were ineffective. Then, in 1822, a new minister of the navy, an ex-cavalryman, the marquis of Clermont-Tonnerre, either on the insistence of his able civil servants or on his own initiative, decided to take the crusade against the slave trade seriously and, given the shortage of naval ships, promised cooperation with England. The Cour de Cassation in 1825 ordered the pursuit of slave traders “in the sacred interest of humanity.” From 1825, crews in the French navy were rewarded with a hundred francs for every slave freed. In 1826, a special commissioner was even sent to Nantes to investigate suspected slave merchants and captains. A further antislave law was passed in 1827, declaring those who practiced this “réellement infame” commerce to be criminals.XVII One French commander of the enlarged West Africa Squadron, Auguste Massieu de Clairval, a Protestant from Normandy, not only ordered his staff to treat freed Africans at Cayenne with compassion, but also told the captains in West Africa to present themselves at Freetown.
The seizures by the French squadron in West Africa became more and more frequent, other ships were held after their return to France, investigations of captains and seamen followed, consuls and other officials were charged to report suspicious events, and even the sceptical English abolitionists came to accept that official France was at last taking the pursuit of French négriers, both ships and men, seriously.
Eventually, after 1830, the bourgeois king, Louis-Philippe, an Anglophile, and himself a member of the Society of Christian Morals, agreed with a recommendation of another enlightened officer, Captain Alexis Vilaret de Joyeuse, to make trading in slaves a crime. A third abolitionist law was then prepared and introduced by a new naval minister, Antoine, Count Argout, an ex-Bonapartist and old friend of the duke of Broglie. He was only minister for four months, but that was enough to conclude what one historian has named “seventeen years of tautology, bad faith, good reasons and countertruths.”46 Henceforth an attempt to carry out the traffic would be as severely punished as the act itself. Slave merchants would be imprisoned for two to five years if their ships were seized in France, for ten to twenty years if they were caught on the high seas, and would receive ten years of hard labor if apprehended after the slaves had been bought. Freed slaves would be given liberty in the American colony for which they had been intended. The bill was carried with only six opponents in the House of Peers, and in the Chamber of Deputies the vote was 190 to 37.
In addition, the French agreed to a treaty whereby the right of search was granted mutually with the British between certain essential latitudes. The two countries also gave each other warrants to inspect each other’s merchant ships if slaving was suspected. There was, admittedly, no equipment clause, as there had been with respect to the Dutch-British arrangements. All the same, this era of collaboration began well, with the French in 1832 receiving fifteen licenses by the British, and giving the English twenty-two such warrants.
Certainly, the ships intercepted by France were to be brought not before mixed tribunals, but national ones. Some kind of French slave trade continued. But it was on a negligible scale. Perhaps twenty ships set off for Africa from the mainland of France between 1832 and 1850. The French navy was always represented as showing “little cruising zeal,” in the words of a British naval surgeon, Peter Leonard. But in fact, between 1832 and 1838, the French fleet “visited” thirty-two foreign ships: five North American, one Brazilian, one Sardinian, four Spanish, ten English, and eleven Portuguese.
The relations between Britain and France continued, however, imperfect. For example, if a British captain were to ask a ship to halt, and a French flag were then hoisted, the British naval vessel could still exercise no slightest control: “At most . . . she may exercise the right to speak with [the French ship], and demand answers to questions addressed to her through a speaking trumpet . . . but without obliging her to alter or impede her course.” The British could check whether the suspect ship had the right to carry the French flag: “A boat might be sent to the suspected vessel, after she had first been hailed to give notice of the intention. The verification shall consist in an examination of the papers establishing the nationality of the vessel. Nothing can be claimed beyond [that]. . . . Any search or inspection whatever is absolutely prohibited.” These arrangements would, of course, give rise to many misunderstandings in the years ahead.47
IIn qualified terms: slave children were to serve their mothers’ owners until they grew up; boards would decide on the freed slaves’ occupations; and, the emancipation of adults depended on the payment of compensation to the owners, such sums being raised from taxes.
II “Los esclavos que por tantos caminos nos hacen falta para la reproducción de la especie negra.”
III See page 587.
IVWhat most angered Ramírez was when United States vessels used the Spanish flag: as, for example, they did in the case of a schooner built in Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1816. That led to a protest to Ramírez of thirty Spanish merchants.
VAt that time, the General Peace had been sold to George de Wolf. His uncle by marriage, Charles Collins, was still collector of the customs in Bristol, and was a frequent visitor at his plantation in Cuba: no doubt to arrange the details of the illegalities, so that the chances of prosecution were modest. All the same, George de Wolf was ruined in 1825, and dragged much of the town of Bristol down with him. He escaped to pass his last years in Cuba.
VIHe was also the pioneer of the first railway in the Spanish world which extended from Havana to Güines, built in 1830 making use of a loan from Alexander Robertson of London, of £450,450.
VIIThis statesman, a scientist and traveler in the mold of Humboldt, had studied under Volta and Lavoisier, had visited France as well as Turkey, and had built canals in Portugal before returning to a political life in Brazil in 1819.
VIIISome, such as the statesman Van der Oudermeulen, had wanted to revive the trade in slaves at that time to Surinam (Oudermeulen was a son of the famous governor of that colony).
IX The case was repeated when the Portuguese judge ruled out of order the action of H.M.S. Myrmidon in arresting a Portuguese vessel, San Salvador, with only one slave on board. On that occasion, the court found that the slave, who was sent back to the mainland when the Myrmidon came in sight, still belonged to the seller, the formidable merchant of Havana, Joaquín Gómez.
X See page 596.
XIThough not West Florida, which had been cavalierly absorbed by the United States in 1803.
XIIThis official, grandson of a James Hyde who had fled Scotland after Culloden, was a strong monarchist and would later become Minister of the Navy.
XIIIOther places returned to France included various other African “comptoirs,” such as Arguin, Gorée, Rufisque, Joal, Portudal, Albreda on the river Gambia, the island of Gambia in the estuary of the Sierra Leone, and one or two trading posts on the islands of Los and Bissagos, as well as some on the river Casamance.
XIVBeginning, admittedly, with her family and friends. Jean-Michel Deveaux has pointed out that the abolitionist movement was headed by Constant, an ex-lover; Auguste de Staël, her son; and the duke of Broglie, a son-in-law.
XV Ourika, a sad story of a love affair of a black girl with a French aristocrat (and is based on truth), is one of three brilliant stories by the duchess about impossible loves: one was Olivier, about a love for an impotent; and Edouard, about one for a person of inferior position.
XVIHowever, there was a modest slave trade in Sumatra, or off it to the west, on the island of Nias, in which some French merchants participated, taking a thousand slaves from there every year to the Ile de Bourbon, as was testified by a Captain Rogers, a commander of a Dutch ship.
XVIIThe law was passed in the chamber, 220 to 64, and friends of the trade made the same kind of speeches which had been made in the House of Commons fifty years before, though many speakers could not refrain from adding that England’s apparent philanthropy was a ruse to ruin France.