“The Brazen is still cruizing to leeward in the Bight of Benin, waiting the arrival of messengers from the interior. During her stay there she has succeeded in detaining, after a chase of 46 hours, the Spanish schooner Iberia with 423 slaves, and also the English palm-oil ship, for a slaving transaction, the master having, by depositions from his crew, disposed of four female negroes . . . to the master of a Spanish vessel lying in the river. . . .”
Commodore Bullen to the Admiralty, London, January 28, 1826
THE SYSTEM OF INTERNATIONAL LAW which Britain sought to inspire, and with which some other nations collaborated without enthusiasm, in the hope of bringing the slave trade to an end, was an unusual affair. There were, by 1830, four mixed courts of arbitration in Sierra Leone, Havana, Paramaribo, and Rio. At the first of these places, a British judge sat beside Spanish, Brazilian, and Dutch colleagues; in each of the other ports, there was a British judge and one from the appropriate nation. In the case of a difference between the judges, the court would turn to two commissioners of arbitration, again one British and one from the country concerned. These would draw lots to decide as to which of the two the matter should be referred for final decision.
Since France and the United States did not recognize any English court, cases which the French wished to bring were taken to a court at Gorée, while all cases affecting United States citizens were heard in the port of the United States from which the offending ship had come.
Finally, the very few Englishmen accused of trading slaves were usually tried not by a mixed commission but a Court of Vice-Admiralty, which was also held at Sierra Leone. But the only instance of a trial of an established merchant, Pedro de Zulueta, was in London.
Ships seized by the British or indeed any other navy under the laws condemning the trade in slaves were looked on as prizes, to be sold to the highest bidder. Half the profit of the sale of the ship went to the government under whose flag she had been sailing; and half, after expenses were paid, went to the prize’s captors, the admiral of the fleet concerned receiving one-sixteenth, the captain an eighth of the remaining five-sixteenths, the rest being divided.I
Such was the bureaucratic and legalistic structure of the immense system of international philanthropy now so remarkably mounted.
Given the size of the vast territories which the British West Africa Squadron were supposed to cover, and the unwillingness of other powers to make more than a token contribution to the crusade (or, as was the case with France, a refusal to do other than act against suspected French slavers), the British West Africa Squadron was increased: Sir Francis Collier, an officer who had been with Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, had by 1823 under his command the Tartar (thirty-six guns), the Pheasant (twenty-two), theMorgiana (eighteen), the Myrmidon (twenty), the Snapper (twelve), and the Thistle (twelve). This force had many functions: it was supposed to be ready for combat at sea, to blockade ports anywhere between Cape Verde and Benguela, to seize foreign slavers, and also to protect legitimate traders.
The British were weakened by the fact that, even with Collier’s reinforcement, this West Africa Squadron was still composed of old ships, with tall, easily detected masts, all left over from the Napoleonic Wars. Lord Palmerston, in 1862, would complain that “no First Lord and no Board of Admiralty have ever felt any interest in the suppression of the slave trade,” and added: “If there was a particularly old, slow-going tub in the navy, she was sure to be sent to the coast of Africa to try and catch the fast-sailing American clippers.”1 Though Palmerston exaggerated, the truth was that the vessels of the world’s most powerful navy were, as a rule, easily outdistanced by the slavers’ “small, fast-sailing pilotboat schooners.”
The British began to introduce steamers into the navy as early as 1822, but they were slow to be adapted to West Africa, for there were only three possible coaling stations: Sierra Leone, Fernando Po, and Luanda. If the navy’s first paddle steamer on the station, the Pluto, was faster than most, she was an exception. In the 1820s and 1830s, Captain Denman recalled, “dull-sailing ten-gun brigs” were all that were available—“the model of which might have been taken from a haystack.”2
The contrast with the slavers was indeed laughable. George Coggeshall, a United States traveler, described slavers on the Danish island of Saint Thomas as being usually “armed with great guns.” The only British naval ships which were effective in the 1830s were in fact captured exslavers, the Black Joke and the Fair Rosamond. The quality of these ships alone might have shown to the governments of the United States and France that the British maritime activities off the coast of Africa were scarcely a grand design for world domination.
The only parts of the West African coast which were in practice regularly patrolled were the Bights of Benin and Biafra. Even there, British frigates mostly cruised forty miles offshore between well-known slave ports and, because of the shortage of ships and of money, were constrained to neglect other harbors. Thousands of miles were open to the slave traders. An indication of the inadequacy of the patrol was given by the captain of a slaver captured in the river Gallinas, in 1833. He told the mixed court in Sierra Leone that he had previously made thirteen voyages without difficulty. Captain Vidal, on the river Bonny, in 1826, wrote home that “there were [often] twelve sail of slavers even there, and twelve British merchant ships, at the same time taking on palm oil.” From 1827 to 1834, the great entrepreneur Macgregor Laird thought that the famous old slave mart of the delta was, at “the lowest calculation,” exporting over 28,000 slaves a year.3
What could realistically be done? In 1827, Captain William Owen, of the West Africa Squadron, his eyes on both Brazilian and Cuban slave traders, argued that the only hope of bringing the trade to an end would be to establish a base on Fernando Po, in order to control the delta coastline. That island belonged to Spain, but had not been much used by her. Owen suggested that two British naval steamers should be stationed there, and a settlement founded. Acting quite illegally, Owen detained two Portuguese slavers south of the equator, and used the slaves on board to begin to build an antislave fortress—on the questionable ground that to send them to Sierra Leone would risk their lives.
Owen’s successor, Colonel Edward Nicolls (as “Fighting Nicolls,” he had fought in over a hundred naval battles during the late war), thought a better approach was to make treaties between Britain and the African slaving monarchs. He often acquired property for the Crown without permission, and obtained a voluntary cession of the stretch of land from Bimboa Island to the Río del Rey, in the Cameroons, from King William of Bimbia: “The three little islands in the bay of Ambosey,” Nicholls reported, “may be made little Gibraltars with little expense.” He thought that Duke Ephraim, the leading chief at Old Calabar, would soon abolish the slave trade in his territory if he were asked to do so formally and paid a subsidy. But the British government had at that time no imperial ambitions on the West African mainland.4
The fate of the slaves liberated (35,000 of them in the 1830s) by the British was also unfortunate, since most were sent to work as laborers near Freetown, while a few agreed to go to the British West Indies as free apprentices. Even there, the slave trade was continuing: indeed, opposite the new city of Freetown, on the right bank of the river Sierra Leone, a chief was always instructing his assistants to dart “across the river in canoes and make captures of one or other of the theoretically free blacks there.” The continual influx of “raw liberated Africans,” mostly males, also made for much instability in the colony which was to be the new “cradle of African civilisation.”
The British navy, of course, had some triumphs: a signal one was the seizure of the Cuban slaver Veloz Pasajera, a big ship with 555 slaves on board, apparently owned by the major slave merchant Joaquín Gómez, by H.M.S. Primrose (Captain Boughton), after a challenge and naval action in which nearly fifty Spanish sailors and three British were killed. But such encounters were sporadic; nor did they always go well. In September 1831, for example, Captain Ramsay, in the Bight of Benin, on H.M.S. Black Joke, sent two tenders in chase of two suspected Spanish slavers, the Rápido and the Régulo, which he observed as they were emerging from the Bonny River. Both “put back, made all sail up the river and ran on shore. During the chase, they were seen to throw their slaves overboard, by twos, shackled together by the ankles, and left in this manner to sink or swim. . . . Men, women and children were seen in great numbers, struggling in the water, by everyone on board the tenders; . . . One hundred and fifty of these wretched creatures perished in this way.” Ramsay said that he and his men also saw sharks making for, and tearing apart, many of the struggling Africans. The Régulo was overhauled, with 204 slaves still on board, but the Rápido had none left, and only two slaves were saved from the river.5
The treaties also seemed to be still inadequate. British captains could arrest vessels which carried slaves, but they could do nothing to a ship which merely planned to do so. Captain Joseph Denman recalled later: “We had no power over the [intercepted] ship, till the slaves were on board. The consequence was that, if a man-of-war lay in a port full of slavers, as I have seen in Whydah, with ten or a dozen . . . at one time, as long as the man-of-war was in port, they would not ship their slaves; directly the man-of-war was out of sight, they shipped their slaves, and every vessel in the harbour would weigh their anchor and set sail. The cruiser would probably chase the wrong ship and, after 100 miles, would be laughed at by the master of that vessel, who would say that he had only put on sail for a pasatiempo.”6 Nor had the British yet secured the right to search and capture Portuguese vessels south of the equator (though, in 1833, H.M.S. Snake stopped the Maria da Gloria outside the harbor of Rio and found her carrying over four hundred slaves from Luanda, mostly children under twelve). Then, once a ship was detained, the procedure was complicated and sometimes destructive, resulting, through delays, in the death of many slaves in theory freed.
The eventual consequence was a new treaty with Spain which enabled the navies of the two powers to seize ships flying the flag of either of those countries if slave equipment were found on board—in effect, a license for the British navy to act more effectively against Spanish slavers. The “equipment” was carefully defined. The treaty also stated firmly, if extremely optimistically, that the Spanish slave trade was “totally and finally abolished throughout the world.”7, II
The treaty had occupied British diplomats a long time: in 1835, it was nine years since Canning had first mooted the matter and defined the word “equipment.” Yet the remarkable further delay in promulgating the law—even in Spain, much less in Cuba—encouraged the slave traders and planters of the latter island to think that it would never be put into effect.8 Spain was then being torn apart by the First Carlist War; it was inconceivable that any government in Madrid should act in such a way as to distress their Cuban taxpayers and merchants. Slave merchants in Havana, learning from the practice of North Americans, or encouraged by Portuguese officials, carried Portuguese or United States flags for use at their convenience, or even assumed another nationality; and the British consul in Havana, Charles David Tolmé (the first such official), reported that the slave traders intended to establish more and larger factories on the African coast, to be sure that there was always a good supply of slaves ready for purchase and that ships with the right “equipment” was there to carry them across the Atlantic.
The British navy was more effective after the treaty of 1835. From 1830 to 1835, the British West Africa Squadron captured ten slavers a year; from 1835 to 1839, the total was thirty-five, mostly bound for Cuba.
The Anglo-Spanish Treaty of 1835 also provided that the unfortunate emancipados should henceforth be assigned to the government by whose cruiser they had been freed. The British wanted to use this clause to permit the transfer to Trinidad or Jamaica of all these freed Africans. In Cuba, a protector of these liberated slaves was named, to ensure this. The first to hold this post was Dr. Richard Madden, an Irish journalist, doctor, and traveler, who had lived in Jamaica administering the changes necessary to ensure the effectiveness of the abolition of slavery. (He had denounced this as a farce in his A Twelvemonth’s Residence in the West Indies During the Transition from Slavery to Apprenticeship.) Madden spent most of his first years in Cuba seeking to recover theemancipadosreleased before this new treaty of 1835 came into effect. Those whom he saved were thereafter in theory to be sent to British colonies. But Captain-General Tacón henceforth refused to allow newly emancipated slaves to land in Havana. So the British naval frigateRomney, launched in 1815, was sent to Havana from Jamaica in 1837. Its position in the harbor—“a bulwark of abolitionism in the heart of slavism,” in the phrase of Fernando Ortiz but also, so it seemed, an insult to Spanish national pride—was in addition a humiliating reminder to the British that their policies had failed. Tacón also forbade the largely black crew to land in Cuba; and the prosperous merchants of Havana would see the isolated ship every evening, when they walked, with their families, along the Alameda de Paula.
The same year that Spain concluded her treaty with Britain, Portugal at last formally abolished the slave trade, a bill being introduced to that effect by the Marquês Sá de Bandeira, whose opposition to the commerce is to be explained by his wish to create for Portugal a new “Brazil in Africa.” The bill prohibited any Portuguese from importing or exporting slaves for profit.III In fact, though, this bill constituted just one more dead letter: the Portuguese flag would still be used to cover numerous illegal imports into Brazil and many slaves into Cuba.
Three years later, in December 1838, Lord Palmerston, the intemperate and passionate British foreign secretary, infuriated by his failure to break the Brazilian slave trade, decided to “cut the knot” (as he put it) with respect to naval patrols, and determined to permit the British navy to seize all ships flying a Portuguese flag, wherever they were, if they were found carrying either slaves or even just the equipment for the trade.
Contradictory, calculating, and often vulgarly nationalistic, bullying (above all of the weak), Palmerston was now the dominant influence over British foreign policy. He saw himself as the spiritual heir of Canning; and his support for the abolition of the slave trade was certainly dedicated (though he was equivocal on the subject of slavery itself). At the University of Edinburgh, he had listened to Adam Smith’s views on free trade, through the teaching of one of Smith’s followers, Dugald Stewart. He had traveled in Europe when a child and had even seen something of the French Revolution; but he never visited Spain and Portugal, the two countries of Europe whose politics he sought to influence (though he had apparently read Don Quixote in Spanish when still at school).
First elected to Parliament as long ago as 1807, a few months after the passage of the bill abolishing the slave trade, Palmerston worked immensely hard and made his clerks and ambassadors do the same. A recent biographer insists that he was never concerned to lead a crusade about the slave trade, and that the naval patrol concerned to stamp it out was not the cover for a grand design of universal empire. Palmerston had, as it happens, a contemptuous view of both Africans and Portuguese. He believed that African kings were “half naked and uncivilised,” and could not be asked to keep to slave or any other treaties; and he thought that “the plain truth is that the Portuguese are of European nations the lowest in the moral scale.” Talleyrand, French ambassador in London in the 1830s, thought Palmerston’s defect was that he “feels passionately about public affairs . . . to the point of sacrificing the most important interests to his resentments”: a bad case of trop de zèle. Palmerston considered that “the Anglo-Saxon race will in process of time become masters of the whole American continent . . . by reason of their superior qualities, as compared with the degenerate Spanish and Portuguese Americans”; but he maintained that Britain ought to do all she could to prevent United States’ aggrandizement.
The shortcoming of Palmerston’s policy with respect to the abolition of the slave trade was that he never realized that the governments with whom he was dealing—in Spain, Portugal, and Brazil—were weak and sometimes had to spend all such energy as they had staving off a civil war; or, indeed, winning one. In those conflicts the British, like the French, were sometimes engaged. That did not inspire Lord Palmerston to any tolerance of the countries’ difficulties. Nor did he ever see that, with every confession of weakness at home, the Spanish government became more and more dependent on the revenues of the “ever-faithful” isle of Cuba. Spain needed the investments at home of men such as Joan Guëll, who brought back his Cuban fortune to invest in Catalan industry. Santander became rich on the strength of supplying flour to Cuba. The queen regent, María Cristina, always had investments in Cuban sugar.
Palmerston’s contemptuous ideas about other peoples were widely held by British officials: William Ouseley, British chargé d’affaires in Brazil between 1838 and 1844, believed the Brazilians were a “vain, mediocre and ostentatious people.” His successor, James Hudson (“Hurry Hudson,” as he was known from a phrase of Disraeli), spoke similarly of the Africans: “a little barbarian, speaking a monkey dialect,” could not be expected to send to Africa for proof that he had not been born a slave. He also assured Palmerston that Brazilian governments were all “equally vicious, corrupt and abominable.”
Palmerston’s determination to promote his new, aggressive policy in 1838 was itself partly inspired by the arguments of a new school of Quaker abolitionists, who thought that the West Africa Squadron should be withdrawn as a failure. These Quakers, among whom was the dedicated Joseph Sturge, alderman of Birmingham and a man who had to good effect traveled in the West Indies and the United States, had in 1839 founded the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, intended to be a new and efficient organization to follow the emancipation of British slaves by the global abolition of slavery. The new body opposed the idea of force, thinking that “The extinction of the slave trade will be obtained most effectually by the employment of those means which are of a moral, religious and pacific character.”
At much the same time, a new Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade was founded in London by Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton. Buxton—the pertinacious son of a Quaker, married to a Gurney of Norfolk, a brewer as well as a member of Parliament—thought that, since the naval patrols had been shown to be ineffective, they should be maintained only to guarantee legitimate trade. Buxton was not opposed to the use of force—he was only half a Quaker—but was primarily concerned to secure the regeneration of Africa through agricultural development. He thought that Britain should set up a series of trading posts on and near the Niger as an alternative to slaving. His influential The African Slave Trade and Its Remedy of 1838 was read by the British Cabinet. Like Macgregor Laird, he sought positive ideas for the moral recovery of Africa as part of the campaign against the slave trade: ideas which would eventually lead, through occupation, to a notion of empire far removed from the intentions of the first abolitionists.
Both the prime minister, the relaxed Lord Melbourne, and the flamboyant foreign secretary, Palmerston, were irritated by Buxton, as they now often were by embittered men such as Lord Brougham, who brought his vast if mercurial powers to mock his old friends in the government: “We pause, we falter, and blanch and quail,” jeered Brougham, on one occasion, “before the ancient and consecrated monarchy of Brazil, the awful might of Portugal, the compact, consolidated, overwhelming power of Spain.”9 All the same, the Government accepted that Buxton’s scheme should be explored, and Palmerston offered Spain £50,000 for the island of Fernando Po as a start. The government also sent a flotilla of three steamers up the Niger in 1841 under a naval officer to stimulate the idea of legitimate trade, carrying over six million cowries with them as currency. Malaria and yellow fever, however, made the voyage a failure.IV
Palmerston, arguing that the independence of Brazil rendered illegal any Atlantic slaving trade by Portugal, now put forward a high-handed bill in Parliament which would give the British navy the right to stop all Portuguese vessels, as well as those without a flag (vessels “not justly entitled to claim the protection of any state”), if they were found carrying “equipment” useful for slaving.
The new bill was attacked but it did pass the House of Commons. The viscount of Torre de Moncorvo, the clever Portuguese minister (one of the few European diplomats in the nineteenth century to know anything of the life of ports, since he had been superintendant of customs and tobacco in northern Portugal before going to London), protested. Palmerston told him arrogantly that his government could declare war if it liked. Thanks to the opposition of the duke of Wellington (who had been approached by Torre de Moncorvo), the bill was defeated in the House of Lords. Wellington’s view was that the proposed legislation was an affront to an ancient ally, as well as a violation of international law.
But the bill was then reintroduced, only slightly amended, in the next session of Parliament, and passed in August 1839, despite further opposition from Wellington (the duke now thought it better to declare war against Portugal than to proceed with a general right of visit; he said that that gave the bill “a criminal character”).10 The duke was correct in his legal appraisal, but he neglected to take into account that, as Commander Riley of the British navy would tell a House of Commons select committee in 1849, “anyone who has been on the coast for two months will know a slaver from her manouevres; a legal vessel will heave to for you”11; and a businessman, Francis Swanzy, told another such committee that even “an amateur could form an opinion [about what was and what was not a slave ship] by the raking of the mast, the colour of the sails, the squareness of the yards, her tautness and low hull.”12
The final form of the new law enabled British captains off Africa to send captured Portuguese ships (both those with slaves and those only with equipment) as well as those without nationality, whether north or south of the equator, in rivers as on high seas, to the nearest British viceadmiralty court; to land any liberated slaves at the nearest British settlement; and to hand over the masters and the crews of the ships concerned to be judged in Portugal. “Equipment” was defined in the same way that the previous act, covering Spain, had done so.V
The government in Lisbon offered to sign a treaty along these lines, but only if Britain were to cease pressing for payment of her debts. Palmerston rejected that idea out of hand. He wrote to the British minister in Lisbon that he should “impress . . . that the conclusion of a slave trade treaty is a matter which now concerns Portugal only. . . .” So, he argued, Portugal was offering nothing.13 He arrogantly sent instructions to the navy to treat similarly, and capture, all Brazilian slave ships, and send them to the Anglo-Brazilian mixed court. He planned to increase again the West Africa Squadron: there would be thirteen ships in 1841. These included one fast, new ship, H.M.S. Waterwitch.
The Waterwitch was responsible for capturing forty slavers: a record. The British navy were also now regularly assisted by a system of spies all along the African coast, “servants of the kings or the chiefs of the place who secretly . . . gave any information we wanted”—for payment, of course. Intelligent British naval officers, such as Captain Denman, thought that the slave trade “has diminished to one-half of what it was before,” he told a committee of inquiry in 1842.
Brazilian or Cuban ships now had to use a United States flag if they wished to avoid the British navy. That recourse, admittedly, was easily available to them. President Martin Van Buren, “the little magician of Kinderhook,” who had briefly been minister to London in 1831, when he had met Palmerston, complained of this practice to Congress in 1839. He demanded a tightening of the law in order to prevent the state of affairs whereby twenty-three ships (belonging to Manzanedo, Zulueta and Gómez) left Havana that year flying United States flags. But Congress was reluctant to take any such step. The House of Representatives at that time was full of slaveholders, and they did not wish to talk about the issue of slavery at all. A financial panic in 1837 also precluded initiatives in almost every field. The lengthy debate as to whether the slave trade should be permitted in the District of Columbia had made it plain that, for the Southern members, anyone who talked of an end of slavery, such as John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, or William Slade of Vermont, was “a fanatic”—even when those men complained that, on their way to the Capitol, they had been “compelled to turn aside from their path, to permit a coffle of slaves, chained to each other by their necks, to pass on their way to the national slave market.” There were now nearly two and a half million slaves in the United States, seen by James Henry Hammond, of South Carolina, as “the greatest of all the great blessings which a kind Providence has bestowed upon our glorious region” his colleague, “Waddy” Thomson, also of South Carolina, went so far as to insist that slavery was “essential to the maintenance of human liberty”; while William Cost Johnson, from Maryland, believed that it was a blessing for Africans to keep them in slavery. Abolitionists, even in the North of the country, were still a minority; in proper Boston, a leading enemy of slavery William Lloyd Garrison had recently been paraded bound through the streets in mockery of his ideals.14
In 1840 or so, distrust of the British was also even more profound in the United States than it had been in 1824. Was not British abolitionism active in Texas? The emancipation of the British slaves in 1833 caused alarm. The planters in the South believed that they needed their slaves more than ever, while the British, even if consumers of cotton, were seen as a threat to that form of labor. Painstakingly, Palmerston would explain to the United States minister to London, or the British minister in Washington would explain to the secretary of state, exactly how the slave trade was now working, how the bogus flag was assumed, how the fraudulent captain conducted himself, and how essential it was that all American ships fitted out as slavers should be condemned. But the United States would always refuse to concede any right of search.
The United States’ failure to act with respect to the slave trade was highlighted by the curious affair of Lieutenant Charles Fitzgerald’s prizes. This officer in the British navy on the brig Buzzard sailed into New York in the summer of 1839 with two United States ships as captures, the brig Eagle and the schooner Clara, both with slaves on board. Both ships were owned by merchants of Havana; the crews were Spanish, or Portuguese, except for the two captains, who admitted that they “had merely been hired for the purpose of protecting the vessels from capture or detention by British cruisers.” Two weeks later, another British naval vessel, H.M.S. Harlequin, sailed in, with another United States slaver, the Wyoming, in tow. Some months later still, H.M. brig Dolphincame in with two more slaving schooners, the Baltimore-built Butterfly and the Catharine. All but the last named had slaves on board at the time of the capture and, even on the Catharine, the presence of 600 wooden spoons, and 350 pairs of handcuffs, as well as planks cut ready to install a slave deck, vividly suggested the purpose of the voyage; in addition, the United States captain on that ship had on his person instructions from the owners telling him how to convince a boarding party that the Spaniards and Portuguese on board were passengers.
Despite support in New York and Baltimore in favor of the slavers, President Van Buren ordered District Attorney Benjamin F. Butler to prosecute if he could. Butler decided that the captains of the first two vessels could not be tried, because the ships were then owned by Spaniards. Captain Fitzgerald set off with those two, with their cargoes, first to Bermuda, where the Court of Admiralty refused to act, and then, back across the Atlantic, to Sierra Leone. Though Fitzgerald had by then lost the Eagle, the court there did condemn, and seize, the Clara.
Back in New York, the district attorney denounced the Catharine, the Butterfly, and the Wyoming. The merchants of Baltimore who owned the ships were then arrested and tried (Robert W. Allen, John Henderson, John F. Strohm, and Francis T. Montell). A case was brought against Captain Isaac Morris, of the Butterfly, and Captain Frederick Pearson, of the Catharine. Judge Betts confiscated the Butterfly and released the Catharine, declaring that the presence of a suspect cargo could not lead to a conviction for slave dealing. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Brooke Taney, then took a major decision: though a Southern aristocrat by upbringing, an owner of slaves like his predecessor at the Supreme Court, John Marshall, a supporter of the institution of slavery, and a man who had long practiced law in Baltimore, he deplored the practices which, as he stated, had brought disgrace on the flag of the United States as it did on Baltimore. The subsequent condemnation and confiscation of the ships led to a change in practice and, for a time, no slavers seem to have been sold in that prosperous city.
In the last months of 1839, because of the scandal of the frequent use of United States flags by slavers, Van Buren sent cruisers to mount another patrol on the African coast for the first time since the 1820s. This force admittedly had two functions: first, as “a measure of precaution to protect American vessels from improper molestation”—by whom, it is easy to guess: and, secondarily only (so it would seem), “to detect those foreigners who may be found carrying, without proper authority, the flag of the United States.”
Two officers set out: Captain John S. Paine, on the Grampus, and Commander Henry Bell, on the Dolphin.VI Both stopped several slavers with double papers. Paine sensibly agreed, in March 1840 at Sierra Leone, with Commander William Tucker, on H.M.S.Wolverene, of the British squadron that, whenever he fell in with a vessel which was manifestly a slaver, showing any flag other than that of the United States, he would detain her until a British cruiser could make a search. Commander Tucker, on the other hand, would hold every suspect cruiser showing a United States flag till Paine could do the same. When Paine reported this intelligent plan to Washington, he was told that it was “contrary to the well-known principles” of the government: so Paine had to deal with the three thousand miles of African coast alone. Serious Anglo-American cooperation was delayed.
British naval officers in those days frequently did search ships flying the flag of the United States: justifiably in their view; illegally, and arrogantly, in the view of the United States. Take the case of the Mary which, owned by Joaquin Gómez, with a Spanish crew, and with papers which showed that she was a Spanish slaver, was flying a United States flag when she was apprehended by Captain Bond of the Royal Navy. Andrew Stevenson, the Virginia-born United States minister to London, told Palmerston that Captain Bond’s action “would seem to want nothing to give it the character of a most flagrant and daring outrage and very little to sink it into an act of open and direct piracy.”
Palmerston replied that, though, of course, he well knew that “British ships of war are not authorised to visit and search American vessels on the high seas, yet if a vessel which there is good reason to suppose is in reality Spanish property, is captured and brought into a port in which a mixed British and Spanish court is sitting, the Commissioners . . . may condemn her, notwithstanding that she was sailing under the American flag.”15 There had, in fact, been a great many such cases, such as the Douglass, the lago, and theHero. There was the Tigris, the Seamew, and William and Frances. There was the Jones. Each had its little drama, its minor international scandal.
So Andrew Stevenson replied: “It becomes my duty, therefore, again distinctly to express to your lordship the fixed determination of my government that their flag is to be the safeguard and protection of all its citizens. . . . The violation of the law of the United States is a matter exclusively for its own authorities. . . .” On another occasion, Stevenson insisted that “there is no shadow of pretence for excusing, much less justifying, the exercise of any such right [of search]. . . . It is wholly immaterial whether the vessels be equipped for, or actually engaged in, slave traffic or no, and consequently the right to search or detain even slave vessels must be confined to the ships . . . of those nations with whom it may have treaties.” Palmerston said he could not think that the United States seriously intended to make its flag a refuge for slavers. He suggested that a distinction might be drawn between right of search and right of visit: “Unless some measures could be adopted for the ascertaining whether the vessels and flags were American, the laws and treaties for the suppression of the slave trade could not be enforced.” He proposed that “the right existed of ascertaining in some way or another the character of the vessel and that by her papers, and not by the colours on the flag which might be displayed.”
“I at once assured him,” said Stevenson, “that, under no circumstances, could the government of the United States consent to the right on the part of any foreign nation to interrupt, board or search their vessels on the high seas.” Palmerston thought it absurd that a merchantman could exempt herself from search by “hoisting a piece of bunting with the United States’ emblems and colours upon it. . . . Her Majesty’s Government would fain hope that the day is not distant when the Government of the United States will cease to confound two things which are in their nature entirely different, will look to things, not words and, perceiving the wide and entire distinction between the right of search, which has, heretofore, been the subject of discussion between the two countries, and the right of . . . visit which almost all other Christian nations have mutually given each other for the suppression of the slave trade, will join the Christian league; and will no longer permit the ships and subjects of the Union to be engaged in undertakings which the law of the Union punishes as piracy.”16
Relations were for a time so bad between Britain and the United States in 1841 that Andrew Stevenson reported home that in London there was a “general impression that war is inevitable.” At the same time, General Cass, the Anglophobe United States minister in Paris, did what he could to prevent France from agreeing with Britain on any subject; in particular, he applauded when, in 1841, France refused to ratify the so-called Quintuple Treaty which had been signed in London (Britain, France, Russia, Austria, Prussia), which declared the slave trade to be piracy and which authorized whatever ships of war might be available to search every merchant vessel belonging to one of the signatory powers “which shall, on reasonable grounds, be suspected of being engaged in the traffic in slaves.” The French refusal to ratify prevented the right of search from becoming a common maritime policy in EuropeVII Cass had sent Guizot, the French foreign minister, on his own initiative, a note warning the Europeans against using force to accomplish their ends.17
An effort was also made by Palmerston to extend the area of the cooperation between the British and the French to cover the whole Atlantic. This idea was thwarted (probably by the influence of General Cass). The issue was inflamed by the rough British handling of the crew of the Nantes merchant ship Marabout—she was not a slaver—in December 1841. A wave of anti-British feeling swept through French public opinion, excited by a nationalist press. Thus even such journals as Le Constitutionnel which, for so long, had been a defender of everything British, insisted, on January 6, 1842, that “philanthropy is only a pretext for Britain’s action”; other journals mocked British “holy philanthropy.” The incident had the most adverse consequences in France for the cause of abolition, which was still commonly represented by the defenders of slavery (and the slave trade) as an English conspiracy.
As in the case of Britain’s relation to the United States, there were more serious problems at issue between Britain and France than the slave trade. The question of policy towards Egypt, for example, had nearly caused war between the neighbors in 1840. Between the United States and Britain, the matters at issue included the questions of the Maine boundary, the Oregon Territory, and the affair of the burning of the U.S. ship Caroline at Niagara in 1837. All these disputes interacted, and the inevitable bad feelings were made infinitely worse by the disputes over the slave trade.
Britain had her difficulties with Brazil, too. Though new Liberal governments in Rio did give some difficulties to the practitioners of the slave trade, they were soon overthrown—not without numerous little incidents between the British and the Brazilians, as when Lieutenant Cox, of H.M.S. Clio, landed in the Piumas Islands, half a mile offshore from Campos, about 150 miles north of Rio, and captured a slave ship with 300 slaves. The next week, when taking water in Campos, Cox and his men were attacked by men working for the slave traders, four sailors were wounded, and the rest were imprisoned. The British chargé d’affaires protested, and the sailors were released, but the Brazilian foreign minister, Aureliano, said, with some spirit, “I would prefer that Brazil should be erased from the list of nations rather than she should subject herself to the disgraceful tutelage of another which should arrogate to herself the right of interfering imperiously in the internal administration of my country.”18
The continuance of the slave trade in Brazil became every day more linked in the Brazilian mind with the question of national sovereignty, as well as economic survival. Even ministers who were anxious to diminish, if not to abolish the slave trade, or who were friendly to Britain, naturally had to avoid the appearance of bowing to that power.
The slave trade to Cuba still seemed to be increasing. For example, in 1837, an English abolitionist, David Turnbull, who had traveled in the West Indies, including Cuba, thought that, out of 71 slave ships operating on the coasts of Cuba, 40 were Portuguese (if probably owned by Cubans), 19 Spanish, 11 United States, and one Swedish. A few ships were even built in Liverpool. He added: “Two extensive depots for the reception and sale of newly imported Africans have lately been erected . . . under the windows of His Excellency’s [the captain-general’s] residence, one capable of containing 1,000, the other 1,500, slaves. . . . These were constantly full.”19 The British commander off the coast, Captain Tucker, about this time reported that the Spanish captain-general now received $16 for each slave landed, the commander of naval force $4, the collector of customs $7, and lesser officials lesser amounts. Slaves at this time cost over $300.
Britain was still determined to maintain pressure on Spain. She demanded in late 1840 a census in Cuba of all slaves: if slaves introduced since 1820 were found, they would be confiscated. This idea caused renewed outrage. The Spanish Council of State in Madrid rejected the scheme as something which would be “the renunciation of authority by the government of a free and independent nation and a public confession of its impotence.” They then went on the intellectual offensive: Had not all the white nations in their time introduced slaves? And, the first official use of an argument which was often to be repeated, had not “the situation in Spanish colonies [with respect to the treatment of slaves] always been better than in other ones?” The increase in slaves in Cuba, the Council added, untruthfully, had nothing to do with the slave trade, but “derived from the marriage and raising of slaves,” as it did in the United States.20
The municipality of Havana added, for good measure, that, if a census such as Britain proposed were to be established, there would be a rebellion of criollos. Mariano Torrente, an economist and littérateur, argued that Spanish slaves had a standard of living “much more favorable than that of the peasants of Europe. . . . What right has Britain, having paid so little recompense to Spain, to demand the destruction of the huge investment of blood and money in the Antilles? Having destroyed her own prosperity in Jamaica, she now plainly wanted to do the same in Cuba.”21 Many other such statements were made which were no doubt approved by the new captains-general, first General Joaquín de Ezpeleta and then General Pedro Telléz Girón, prince of Anglona, who together ruled only three years, between 1838 and 1841. It is obvious that, as in 1817, the Spanish government told their representatives in Cuba to avoid carrying out the terms of the treaty. Captain-General Tacón, in another section of that extraordinary letter of 1844, previously noticed, said as much: the government, said Tacón, “did not allow any doubts that its will was to resist, so far as it was possible, the demand of Her Britannic Majesty to prevent whoever was continuing to infringe the first treaty.” Thus it is not surprising that Cuban officialdom remained obdurately hostile in the face of aggressive British philanthropy.22
During Captain-General Ezpeleta’s time in Cuba, Pope Gregory XVI entered the controversy on the question of slavery when, on December 3, 1838, he issued a bull which, in language which followed a pure abolitionist line, prohibited Christians from carrying out the slave trade. The bull complained that the slave merchants treated slaves “as if they were true and impure animals,” and accused them of fomenting wars so that there would be slaves to sell. Those who carried on trading slaves would be excommunicated. The bull eventually appeared in the Gaceta de Madrid in 1840; and the British consul, Tolmé, asked to have it published in Cuba. The captain-general, the prince of Anglona, refused to do so: as remarkable an action for a consul of England as for the representative of the Catholic king.
The next captain-general, General Jerónimo Valdés, seemed at first inclined to wish to fulfill the spirit of the bull of Pope Gregory. An Asturian, he was a friend of the new liberal dictator of Spain, General Espartero, whom he had supported in his coup of 1840; he had gained his captaincy-general in consequence. As a law student, he had taken part in the rising against the French at Oviedo in 1808; later he had been chief of staff to the last viceroy fighting against the independence of Peru; after years of combat in the harsh valleys and harsher mountain roads of that “chamber of horrors” (Bolivar’s expression), he had commanded half the royalist army at the terrible Spanish defeat of Ayacucho in 1824. Now aged fifty-seven, he arrived in Cuba in 1841 and immediately told the slave traders that, after six months, he would seize any slave ships which arrived in any Cuban port. This public declaration, the first such made by a Spanish official of his rank in Cuba, turned Valdés, for a few months, into the darling of the British in Havana. But they soon changed their minds when, in October 1841, they heard the captain-general had taken refuge, as his predecessors had done, behind the lame defense that he could act only at sea against slave dealers, and not on land. But then Valdés did seize some illegally imported slaves, to whom he sent copies of his own instructions ordering compliance with the law: an unheard-of action by an official in Cuba. A Spanish naval vessel even brought a captured slaver into the harbor of Havana in March 1842 and, in June of that year, the captain-general declared it to be illegal to buy ships from abroad and register them as Spanish: a serious blow to those who had been lately in the habit of buying excellent, fast ships in Baltimore. But Valdés was a tactician and a Spanish patriot, not an idealist. He was acting out of what he perceived as a necessity, to try and seem to meet at least some British demands, rather than court defeat by that nation’s destructive abolitionism (as it appeared), and so risk losing Cuba for Spain altogether.
All the same, the idea of ending the slave trade was bound to cause difficulties for a conscientious captain-general. Valdés wrestled with such questions as whether planters should surrender newly purchased slaves if they were found; whether plantations could be officially searched for imported Africans; whether he should seize ships denounced as slavers by the British; and whether all concerned in a slaving voyage should be arrested, or whether it should be just the captain and the ship’s owner. The captain-general sent a memorandum putting these and some similar questions to Madrid in March 1843. But he never received an answer.
General Valdés had by then become the target for attacks by the slave merchants. In him for the first time they encountered a governor who was unhappy to collaborate with them and receive their bribes. A ferocious campaign was in consequence mounted against him in Madrid. In 1842, just to select one of the innumerable documents which supported the slave merchants, the provincial deputation of Santander, on the north coast of Spain, announced that, “when from all sides of the kingdom a deeply felt clamor is raised against the demands of the English government which, under the pretext of humanity, seeks the ruin of the Spanish Antilles, the provincial diputacion of Santander cannot do less than unite its voice to the many who feel the blood of Castile run in their veins. . . .” The fact was, as Aston, the British minister in Madrid, wrote to Palmerston in February 1841, the Spanish government still depended “entirely upon the revenues of that island [Cuba] for the means of meeting the pressing exigencies of the state.” It was also supposed that behind Britain’s advocacy of abolition lay a real intention to capture the island: Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros, an enlightened planter, wrote to his friend, the writer Domingo del Monte, that Britain had the force, the knowledge, and the will to ensure the end of the slave trade: if they did not act, it meant that there “are sinister designs which will be realized by sinister means.”23
Meanwhile the abolitionist David Turnbull had become British consul in Havana: an astonishing appointment. Turnbull had been a journalist for The Times in Madrid, where his interest in the slave trade had been awoken by the clever British minister, George Villiers, who had negotiated, with great patience, the treaty of 1835. His real character is difficult to gauge. His United States colleague, Campbell, described him as “just a Glasgow bankrupt, with some talent, more pretension, a great fanatic and regardless of the truth.” To the Spaniards, he was an archfiend. Valdés hated him but, then, he had accused Valdés of being as anxious to profit personally from the slave trade as his predecessors had been. In the view of the British apostle of free trade, Richard Cobden, Turnbull interfered in Cuban affairs so as to “embitter the feelings of Cuba and Spain more than anything else.” Yet to abolitionists he was a hero and even a martyr.24
These were, of course, nervous times in Cuba. There was restlessness among the slaves and several revolts on plantations. Partly because of Brazilian competition,VIII the slave trade declined in the early 1840s. Consul Turnbull was accused by the Spaniards, as Dr. Richard Madden had been, of exaggerating the facts in his reports, of trying to provoke a slave revolt, of encouraging the emancipados to present their claims through the British consulate, even of inciting his criollo friends to declare an abolitionist republic under British protection. Some of these charges were true. He probably did secure the release of two thousand emancipados while in Cuba.
Palmerston replied by insisting that, instead of Spain’s having the right to demand Turnbull’s dismissal, Britain wanted the power to dismiss all Cuban officials, from the captain-general downwards. Turnbull’s opinions, Palmerston declared, were, after all, those of the whole British nation. This high-handed approach astonished the Spaniards. Yet, despite being seen everywhere as a man bent on fomenting a slave revolt, Turnbull stayed a year or so more.IX Meanwhile, Valdés had antagonized the planters by merely asking what they thought of Turnbull’s plan. The overwhelming answer had been to oppose any further concessions. Who wanted some “fanatical Methodist” in Havana who would be, at the same time, the “judge, the accuser, and the instigator of revolts by slaves”?
Before he left Havana, Turnbull, by then a refugee on the British hulk, Romney, in Havana Bay, declared that the degrading spectacle of slavery in the Antilles and Brazil would soon be swept away by public indignation. Captain-General Valdés calmly suggested that such a humanitarian spirit might turn his attention first to Ireland and India before he concerned himself with foreign countries. Valdés thought that to accept Turnbull’s plan would be equivalent to abandoning the island; and he, for one, a veteran of fighting against Peruvian independence, would resign rather than have anything to do with such a surrender.
In fact, as the captain-general knew, there were, at that time, a few stirrings within Cuba in criticism of the slave trade. The director of the Economic Society, for example, a popular philosopher, José de la Luz y Caballero, had become an opponent; far away in Paris, the exiled historian José Antonio Saco maintained a constant stream of publications on the same theme. Then Domingo del Monte, a Venezuelan by birth, a friend of both Dr. Richard Madden and of Consul Turnbull, argued that Spain was only permitting the continued import of slaves from Africa in order to prevent a rebellion of criollos. He saw the slave trade, therefore, as an instrument of Spanish oppression.
There was also the beginning of a new mood in Madrid. Two members of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society called on the economist Ramón de la Sagra. They convinced him of their arguments against the slave trade, and la Sagra wrote a letter published in El Corresponsal in December 1840, which demanded the suppression of the commerce as a step towards the abolition of slavery itself. The Cubans, he said, echoing Adam Smith, were making a great mistake to suppose that the labor of slaves was superior to that of freemen.
In 1842, Turnbull, who had left Havana only to go to the Bahamas, and who was now the British government-appointed “superintendent of liberated Africans,” returned in a sloop to Cuba with some free British blacks, intending to try and liberate some Bahamians who he thought had been kidnapped as slaves. He landed near Gibara, on the north coast of the island, but was this time explicitly accused of seeking to organize rebellion, imprisoned, deported, and warned never to return. He was perhaps fortunate not to be executed, as many Spaniards demanded. Lord AberdeenX abolished his office (though appointing him for seven years to be a judge of the Anglo-Portuguese mixed court in Jamaica).
Following what seemed to the world to be a modest victory over British pressure, Spain tried to soothe her critics by introducing yet one more slave code (in 1842). On the one hand, it was stricter than previous arrangements: slaves on one plantation now could not visit neighboring ones without permission, and working days were defined as being of ten hours except during harvest, when they would be sixteen. But, at the same time, there were tolerant concessions: slaves who reported a conspiracy would be declared free; and slaves of advanced age without means of support would have to be maintained by the masters for whom they had once worked. In an effort to force household slaves onto plantations, the government imposed a tax of one peso per domestic slave.
In the face of continued Brazilian and Spanish or Cuban obstructionism, and the complex attitudes of France and the United States, the British government had now altered their approach to the problem of the slave trade in Africa itself. They had earlier signed treaties with three potentates in East Africa: the king of Eastern Madagascar, the sultan of Zanzibar, and the imam of Muscat. These each included provisions against the slave trade. Why not, thought John Backhouse of the Foreign Office, extend this scheme to West Africa? So naval officers were instructed to begin that process there.
The first opportunity for applying the new policies occurred in surprising circumstances on the river Gallinas. There, in 1840, Captain Joseph Denman, the determined officer who was son of the then lord chief justice in London, at the request of the governor of Sierra Leone landed sailors from three warships, the sixteen-gun brigs Wanderer, Rolla, and Saracen, at the Spanish slave station on the Gallinas estuary, browbeat the local king into accepting his intervention, destroyed the most important nearby slave barracoons (at Dumbocorro, Kamasura, Chicore, and Etaro), and freed 841 slaves waiting to be shipped. Palmerston was delighted: “Taking a wasp’s nest . . . is more effective than catching the wasps one by one,” he triumphantly proclaimed. While Denman burned the barracoons, local Africans helped themselves to the stores (including those belonging to the notorious Mrs. Lightburne:XI cottons and woolens, of course, but also gunpowder, spirits, and other goods). The Spanish merchants escaped upriver. The intervention led to the signature by the son of the king of the region of the first of the new treaties.
This sensational action caused a shock all along the African coast—particularly when other British naval officers followed, with other attacks: Captain Blount landed higher up the river Gallinas; Captain Nurse did so on a slave factory on the river Pongas, to the north of Sierra Leone; Captain Hill landed at “Mr. François’s barracoon” at Sherbro; Commander Tucker did the same at the island of Corisco, off Gabon (he seized much merchandise, as well as a Spanish factor, Miguel Pons); and, Captain Matson destroyed eight barracoons, owned by Brazilian and Spanish merchants, at Ambriz and Cabinda in Loango-Angola. (Asked later by a House of Commons committee how he knew that one merchant concerned was engaged in the slave trade, Captain Matson tartly answered: “The only proof was finding slaves chained in the factories.”)25 When Matson was charged in London for trespass by one of the slaveowners, Juan Tomás Burón, he explained that the slaves numbered 4,000, worth £100,000.
Under Denman’s influence, various treaties were afterwards secured with several other kings on the coast to achieve the abolition of the traffic in slaves, in return for a modest payment. The treaties with native kings would be balanced by a “vigilant and unremitting blockade,” followed up by destruction of the barracoons. Captain Matson later recalled that he received orders that, “wherever we found slave barracoons erected, we should endeavour to obtain the sanction of the native chiefs to destroy them; failing to obtain that consent, we were in certain cases to do it without. However, it was never difficult to obtain that consent, for it was really obtained for a trifling subsidy, and [so] most of the barracoons on the coast were destroyed.”26
These actions caused another shock in Havana. The dealers in slaves there seemed to the new British consul “to be paralysed for a time. . . . [They] came to me expressing great regret and remorse that they ever engaged in such an enterprise; and [hoped] that by following legal modes of traffic, great good might be done.”
Matters, meantime, at last also improved with respect to the relations between the United States and Britain when New Englanders regained control of United States foreign policy. Daniel Webster, a great orator, took office in Washington as secretary of state, and Andrew Stevenson, the Virginian at the London legation, gave way to Edward Everett, of Harvard. It is true that Webster had the bland view that, since slavery was bound to end one day, there was no point in discussing the question. But that did not affect his efficacy as a diplomat.
At the same time, Palmerston was succeeded as foreign secretary by the austere, cultivated, and subtle Lord Aberdeen—Byron’s “travell’d thane, Athenian Aberdeen.” His remarkable features expressed a “charted tranquillity,” in Gladstone’s words, “the absence from his nature of all tendency to suspicion,” which made him in some ways a more effective diplomat on the issue of the slave trade than Palmerston. He sought to understand the Spaniards and Portuguese, whereas Palmerston despised them; he saw the point of view of Brazilians, and never threatened them. Yet he gave up nothing to them. He was the one man whom Gladstone loved. His one published work, An Inquiry into the Principles of Beauty and Grecian Architecture, distinguishes him from all other statesmen of his era.
The new British minister in Washington was the experienced Lord Ashburton. As the enlightened banker, and head of Barings’, we have met before this Alexander Baring, when speaking on the slave trade in the House of Commons as long ago as 1814. He had served in Peel’s administration in 1834, and he had the great benefit of having known the United States in Jefferson’s day. Neither Aberdeen nor Ashburton surrendered Palmerston’s aims, but they altered his language. Thus Aberdeen suggested that British naval officers should renounce the right to visit United States merchant vessels if they merely thought slaves were aboard; and should offer reparation if a trespass were to occur. All the same, he did assert the right to visit such vessels flying the United States flag, not as Americans but as suspected Spaniards. The actual difference was nonexistent, the difference of style considerable.
The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 (primarily concerned with boundary disputes) marked this new mood of reconciliation between Britain and the United States. By it, both countries bound themselves to “maintain in service on the coast of Africa a sufficient and adequate squadron or naval force of vessels, of suitable numbers and description, to carry in all not less than eighty guns, to enforce separately and respectively the laws, rights, and obligations of each of the two countries for the suppression of the slave trade.” The treaty was to remain in being five years, and afterwards till one of the two countries declared that she wished to end it. An early draft of the treaty provided that British and United States ships should, in the spirit of the Sierra Leone agreement between Lieutenant Paine and Commander Tucker, cruise off Africa in couples. But Britain’s unfortunate continuing refusal to abandon the right of impressment of seamen found on neutral ships in time of war ruined the chance of this innovation, and the treaty merely left a pious understanding that cooperation should occur on the spot “should exigencies arise.” Even so, the treaty had its enemies in Washington, such as Senator Thomas Hart Benton (“Old Bullion”). The treaty was also criticized as feeble by Palmerston, in opposition, in the columns of the Morning Chronicle. In a wild speech in the House of Commons, he also deplored Ashburton as “a half Yankee,” a man with American loyalties.
At the same time, Aberdeen was prepared to criticize Palmerston’s behavior towards the United States: “I think the United States had cause to complain,” he rather curiously said. Discussion and argument, however, continued for many years yet, in the privacy of legations and government offices, in Congress and Parliament, as in the press, about the exact nature of the right of visit.27
Finally, Aberdeen’s advocate-general wrote in 1842 an opinion that the activities of Denman and other naval officers in destroying barracoons could not be justified “with perfect legality.”28 Basically, here was a restatement of the judgment of Sir William Scott twenty-five years before. Aberdeen had now to instruct the navy “to abstain from destroying slave factories, and carrying off persons held in slavery.”
The captains were displeased. In the opinion of Captain Matson, the change played into the hands of the slave merchants. It told the Africans, he explained bitterly to a committee of the House of Commons in 1848, that “there had been a revolution in England; that the people had risen and obliged the Queen to turn out Lord Palmerston, because he wished to suppress the slave trade; that there was now a revolution going on in England to oblige the Queen to carry on the slave trade.”29 In Africa itself, some of the treaties which the officers of the navy had laboriously secured in order to abolish the trade were placed in jeopardy.
Slavers, though, both men and ships, were faced, in the beginning of the 1840s, with some further impediments: in addition to the British naval squadron, the French maintained a force in West Africa, which was sometimes as large as the British even if it confined itself to deterrence (between October 1842 and March 1843, three French warships “visited” twenty-five ships, of which twenty-three were English, one Swedish, one from Hamburg). Incidents abounded; the United States had its ships, so did the Spanish and Portuguese, and even the last named sometimes, at least for the show of the thing, felt it necessary to intervene. The same was true of the tiny Brazilian navy.
I After 1828, the Dutch appointed no new judges to the Anglo-Dutch mixed court, and Britain was left to act as she thought best.
II The equipment defined was of ten kinds: (1) hatches with open gratings, not closed hatches; (2) divisions or bulkheads in the hold or on deck in greater number than were necessary for vessels engaged in lawful trade; (3) spare planks fitted for being laid down as a second or slave deck; (4) shackles, boats, handcuffs; (5) a larger quantity of water in casks or in tanks other than was necessary for the crew; (6) an extraordinary number of casks or of other receptacles for holding liquid; (7) a greater number of mess tubs than was required for the crew; (8) a boiler of unusual size; (9) an extraordinary quantity of rice or other articles of food; and (10) a larger quantity of mats than necessary for merchant ships.
III Portuguese subjects would be allowed to take ten slaves from one Portuguese territory to another; and slaves could still be legally imported into Portuguese Africa by land.
IV It offered Charles Dickens a fine opportunity to make fun of the expedition’s surreal negotiation with the oba of Aboh. The voyage also inspired the figure of Mrs. Jellyby, in Bleak House, whose eyes “had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if . . . they could see nothing nearer than Africa.”
V See page 655.
VI Bell, a Southerner by birth, was later chosen by Admiral Farragut during the Civil War to hoist the Union flag over the town hall of New Orleans.
VII The French refusal was partly a matter of pique: a reply by Guizot, the foreign minister, to his colleague Palmerston, who had gone out of his way, in a demagogic electoral speech in the West Country town of Tiverton, to criticize the policy of France in Algeria.
VIII See page 732.
IX Until, in June 1842, he was dismissed by Palmerston’s prudent successor, Lord Aberdeen who told the Spanish minister in London that he would not press the matter of the register of slaves for the time being.
X See page 671.
XI See page 684.