Modern history


Can We Resist the Torrent? I Think Not

The Brazilian Foreign Minister Soares de Souza proposing the end of the slave trade in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, 1850

THE 1840S SAW THE RETURN of the United States as an international combatant against the slave trade. For President Van Buren’s decision to revive the United States naval patrol led to the reappearance of Matthew Perry on the African coast (where he had been in the 1820s), with the sloop-of-war Saratoga and four other vessels. Perry was a bad choice as commander. He was a native of Rhode Island, connected to the de Wolfs by marriage, and so inclined to be favorable to the commerce in slaves on which his state’s prosperity had been partly built. He had turned a blind eye to the evidence of slave trading on his previous tour of duty in Africa; and he was almost as keen to prevent ships with United States flags from being inspected by the British as he was to abolish the slave trade. Moreover, he established his base in the Cape Verde Islands which, though healthy, and full of men experienced in the slave trade, was far indeed from the then centers of the traffic in the Bight of Benin and the Congo. Occasionally his frigates were even farther away, at Madeira. Perry’s enthusiasm for putting down the slave traffic was modest: he even wrote on September 5, 1843, to the Virginian Secretary of the Navy Abel Parker Upshur (he supported slavery and disliked England): “I cannot hear of any American vessels being engaged in the transportation of slaves; nor do I believe there has been one so engaged for several years.”1 These United States naval vessels were not concerned with any equipment clauses with respect to the slave traffic, and indeed their main task was to protect trade—as was made clear by an order of Secretary of the Navy John Mason to Perry’s successor, Admiral Charles Skinner: “The rights of our citizens engaged in lawful commerce are under the protection of our flag. And it is the chief purpose, as well as the chief duty of our naval power, to see that those rights are not improperly abridged.”2

Still, after a while, slave ships began to be seized by United States naval vessels. One such was the 350-ton bark Pons, with 896 slaves on board which, in 1845, the Yorktown took from Cabinda to Liberia. In 1846, Lieutenant Bisham, on the Boxer, seized the Boston ship Málaga (under Captain Charles Lovett, owned by Josiah Lovett, Elliot Woodbury, and Seward Lee), also in Cabinda Bay, as an auxiliary to the slave trade. The Málaga was sent home to Boston. But the criminal case against it was abandoned, since there was no proof of slaving; indeed, auxiliaries never carried slaves. Bisham also seized the Senator but released her. She went on to take on board 900 slaves, of which 300 died. Bisham was later sued by the owners of the Málaga for false arrest.

The naval officers were upset. What incentive was there for the energetic pursuit of justice if, at the end of a dangerous journey, and a slave trader was finally seized, they were, if the case faltered, to be faced with the possibility of damage for false arrest? That anxiety continued. When, as late as 1860, Lieutenant William Le Roy, on U.S.S. Mystic, seized a suspicious New York brig, he declared as a preliminary that, should his “expectations not be realized, I most earnestly hope the court will find the cause of supposition sufficiently strong to relieve me of all claims of damage etc. . . .”

Despite these impediments, the patrolling continued. Thus, in 1848, Lieutenant O. H. Berryman, on the Onkahye, seized the U.S. whaler Laurens as a slaver, just outside Brazilian waters, on the evidence of her first mate. Lieutenant Commander William W. Hunter, on the U.S. steamer Allegheny, seized the Louisa, of Philadelphia, Captain Joseph Souder, but could not prove that she was a slaver. Then he seized the Juliet, 138 tons, from Portland, Maine, Captain Nathaniel Gordon, son of a respectable seagoing family, but again Hunter could find no “equipment.” But subsequently she sailed across the Atlantic, and there were rumors, almost certainly true in view of the later history of Captain Gordon,I that she carried slaves back, though not to Rio. In all, twenty-eight slave ships were seized by the United States navy between 1844 and 1854.

Perry was succeeded by Admiral Skinner in 1844, and he by Captain Andrew Hull Foote in 1849. As a temperance captain, Foote was responsible for abolishing the liquor ration in the United States Navy, not the slave trade.II He sought good relations with Britain, but the inferior size of his squadron prevented joint cruising, and he no doubt agreed with a subordinate who wrote: “It is the policy of the English ship-masters to represent the Americans as engaged in the slave trade; . . . if, by such accusations, they can induce British or American men of war to detain and examine the fair trader, they thus rid themselves of troublesome rivals.”3

As for British cooperation with France, in 1845 the latter country at last agreed to establish twenty-six cruisers between the Cape Verde Islands and 16° 30’ (approximately the Bay of Dos Tigres, in southern Angola), provided that Britain did the same. British ships were still not permitted to search ships flying the French flag even if their captains’ suspicions about the real identity of a vessel were aroused. The French too would continue to limit themselves, insofar as power of capture was concerned, to ships flying their own flag and ships with no flag, and they would not seek any authority to interfere with Spanish, Portuguese, and Brazilian ships: “The effect of the French squadron,” Palmerston said, “is more to prevent than to capture; they effectively prevent any slave trade under the French flag.”4

Still, it seemed in 1845 that at last an international force against the slave trade was in being. Britain had over thirty ships engaged in the naval patrol, and France had twenty-eight. North American ships numbered three to eight, and even the Portuguese had nine. Neither Brazil nor Spain were making any contribution to naval patrol. But there were in the late 1840s some sixty ships of other nationalities off Africa: a formidable challenge to the traffic in slaves.

Nevertheless, imaginative slave captains continued to make fun of this parade of an international police. One who did so was a United States shipbuilder, Joshua Clapp, from New York, who first came to public notice in 1845, when he was tried in his home city, but acquitted, for taking a ship of his own, the Panther, to buy slaves in Africa. He then removed to Rio, where he bought two fully rigged ships, three barks, three brigs, and two schooners, several of which he had himself built. In reality, these ships belonged to Brazilians, but Clapp was the formal proprietor. About half the vessels bringing slaves to Brazil were, in the 1840s, thus owned by citizens of the United States. George Profitt, United States minister in Rio, reported in 1844 that the trade “is almost entirely carried out under our flag, in American-built vessels.”5 In 1850, Congress demanded a report from the executive about illegal searches; the report, signed by President Fillmore, stated that, of ten United States vessels recently (illegally) inspected by the British, nine were, in fact, slavers.

In 1842, Britain arranged that a new equipment clause was introduced into yet another anti-slave-trade act in respect of Portugal. Echoing the earlier convention made between Britain and Spain on the same subject, it permitted search on the high seas, “provided it was carried out in the mildest manner.” The Brazilian Parliament debated the matter. That chamber was against all recent British antislave measures. A fine speech was, however, made by Antônio Carlos de Andrada, a younger brother of that José Bonifácio who, as prime minister, had opposed the slave trade in the 1820s: “I am an enemy of the traffic in slaves. I see in this commerce all possible evils, an attack on Christianity, on humanity, and on the true interests of Brazil. . . . This commerce is carried on for the benefit of one race, is anti-Christian, and I do not believe that man was born for slavery. I believe that the blacks, the mulattoes, the greens, if there are any, are quite as good as we are.”6 But even Andrada disliked the high-handed way in which Britain had imposed her laws on Brazil, and abhorred the idea of British action off the coast.

Aberdeen’s new “Brazil (Slave Trade) Bill” only received the royal assent in England after long debates in Parliament. It seemed necessary to the Government, since the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1817 abolishing the trade in 1831 fell into desuetude in 1845: unless something were done, Britain would have no legal basis on which to arrest any Brazilian ships. But Brazil would not allow a new treaty. So Aberdeen’s bill declared unilaterally that the British navy now had the right to seize pirates, on the ground that Brazil herself had once accepted that the trade constituted piracy. Any vessel which was apprehended would be tried by British Admiralty courts, not the Mixed Commissions set up under the treaty of 1826. It was a harsher document than any which Britain had passed, or would pass, in relation to Spain, even if it had more respect for the façade of legality than Palmerston’s act had had. Even Joaquim Nabuco, the statesman who was becoming leader of the Brazilian antislavery movement, described Aberdeen’s new bill as “an insult to our dignity as an independent people.”

Aberdeen received an official protest ten pages long from his counterpart, Limpo de Abreu: Was it not a principle of international law that ships of one state could not in peacetime search the ships of another? Unless, of course, the right were specifically conceded by both sides. The treaty of 1817 might have given Britain such a right, but that convention had by then expired. The treaty of 1826 obliged Brazil, but only Brazil, to treat her slave traders as pirates. Britain had nothing to do with the matter. That treaty had anyway lapsed, and no one in Brazil would make any effort to renew it. The court at Rio was also wound up in 1845. It seemed, therefore, in the middle of the 1840s, that all Britain’s efforts were being made to seem pointless.7

Abreu soon fell, but his successor, Cavalcanti, an aristocrat from one of Brazil’s oldest families, told the British chargé: “You cannot expect us to assist England or consent to stop the trade while you are seizing Brazilian vessels, insulting our flag, and illegally condemning them.” So Brazil refused to negotiate while Aberdeen’s act remained law and rejected British terms for a new treaty.

In the meantime, the trade in these years to Brazil exceeded previous records, most of the slaves being disposed of to the coffee and sugar plantations now stretching along the two hundred miles south of Rio. “All the appliances of this trade were brought to a peak of perfection which is astonishing and which nothing but the immense profit can explain,” Lord Howden, the British minister in Rio, wrote in the late 1840s. The slave merchants now made careful studies of maneuvers of the British fleet in Africa, they devised decoys, and they brought fast new steamers into use (including, apparently, some of “the best that England could manufacture,” as “Hurry” Hudson observed when he was British minister in Rio). The British government’s records suggested that there were over 3,000 slave voyages to Brazil between 1821 and 1843.8 A British merchant living in Brazil reflected, in 1846, that Brazil was comparable to the British West Indies a generation before: “Scarcely an individual exists,” he wrote, “who either directly or indirectly is not personally interested in the support of the slave system, and who would not look with the utmost distrust upon any change. . . .”9

There was some United States Navy activity off Brazil. A small force had been stationed there to deal with the matter of slaving under the United States flag. But it was inadequate. The cruisers were too large to surprise Brazilians landing slaves in small ships. The volatile United States minister, the Virginian Henry Wise, discovered a United States vessel, the Porpoise, in the harbor of Rio. A man “far gone in chivalry,” Wise had been a defender of slavery when a member of the House of Representatives; and he would, in 1859, as the governor of his state, both praise and hang John Brown, after the attack on Harpers Ferry. Now, despising Brazilians more than he hated abolitionists, he was an improbable but effective ally of the British in the campaign against the trade in slaves. The Porpoise had not actually been a slaver but had been an auxiliary to the trade, carrying to Africa cargoes needed for the purchase of slaves but not bringing back captives herself. Wise asked the Brazilian authorities to arrest four United States citizens on the ship so that they could be sent to North America for trial. While waiting for a reply, he went on board himself and instituted a United States guard at the gangway. No one could land, not even Brazilians. There was outrage in the city, the Brazilian naval authorities threatened to seize the Porpoise, and Wise abandoned the prize. He sent home a dispatch: “I beseech—I implore the President . . . to take a decided stand on this subject. You have no idea of the effrontery and the flagrant outrages of the African slave trade and of the shameless manner in which its worst crimes are licensed here. . . . Every patriot . . . would blush for our country did he know and see how our citizens sail and sell our flag to the uses and abuses of that accursed traffic. . . . We are a byword among nations . . . the only people who can fetch and carry . . . everything for the slave trade.” But all he received was a reprimand for exceeding his instructions.10

The fact was, as the minister in Rio told Palmerston (foreign secretary in London again, after the fall of the Tory government in June 1846): “Brazil [still] lives upon slave labour. The government is carried on by the daily receipts of the Customs Houses. Foreign trade depends upon exports, and they cannot be obtained at present, unless by that most expensive of all systems of production, the labour of the slave.”11 The United States consul in Rio, for his part, wrote in 1847: “The slave power in this country is extremely great, and a consul doing his duty needs to be kindly and effectually supported at home. In the case of the Fame, where the vessel was diverted from the business intended by her owners, and employed in the slave trade . . . I sent home two mates . . . for trial, the first mate to Norfolk [Virginia], the second mate to Philadelphia. What was done with the first mate I know not. In the case of the man sent to Philadelphia, Mr Commissioner Kane states that a clear prima facie case is made out, and then holds him in bail in the sum of $1,000 which would be paid by any slave trader in Rio . . . !”12

Most Brazilians, their ancestors having used African slaves for three hundred years, still thought of slavery as part of the natural order of things. In this, they were in agreement with the slaveowners of the South of the United States. Brazilian entrepreneurs also believed that people of Portuguese stock were the European colonizers who had “best succeeded in fraternising with the so-called inferior races,” through manumission and sexual liberty. “Slothful but filled to overflowing with sexual concerns,” the greatest of Brazilian historians, Gilberto Freyre, wrote, “the life of the sugar-planter tended to become a life which was lived in a hammock: a stationary hammock, with the master taking his ease, sleeping, dozing. Or a hammock on the move with the master on a journey . . . or, a squeaking hammock, with the master copulating in it. The master did not have to leave his hammock to give orders to his negroes.”13

Slave traders continued to seem the “nabobs of the Brazils. . . . They form the dazzling class of the parvenus millionaires,” declared a British naval surgeon. In 1846, Henry Wise wrote to James Buchanan, then secretary of state, a “northern man with southern principles”: “There are only three ways of making a fortune in Brazil, either by the slave trade, or by planting, or by a coffee commission house. . . . The slave traders then are either the men in power, or those who lend to the men in power and so hold them by the purse strings. Thus the government is itself in fact a slave trading government, against its own laws. . . .”14 Immensely rich merchants, such as Manuel Pinto da Fonseca or José Bernardino da Sá, whose main concerns were slaving, dominated Brazilian society. They were the chief capitalists of the country as well as the chief providers of labor. They alone could easily provide loans and mortgages. The foreign minister, Barão de Cairu, told the British minister, in January 1847, with astonishing frankness, that he could not see how any government of Brazil could enforce the law of 1831 or, indeed, any other such law: “I know of none who could do it or attempt it and, when ninety-nine men in every hundred are engaged in it [the trade in slaves], how is it [abolition] to be done? . . . The vice [of trading slaves] has eaten into the very core of society. Who is so sought after, so feasted in this city as Manuel Pinto [da Fonseca]? You know him to be the great slave trader par excellence of Rio. Yet he and scores of minor slave dealers go to court—sit at the tables of the wealthiest and most respectable citizens—have seats in the Chamber as our representatives, and have a voice even in the Council of State. They are increasing in vigilance, perseverance, audacity. . . . What they touch turns to gold. . . . You know my individual abhorrence of this cursed traffic—but . . . what am I to do? . . . I cannot be the man in Brazil from whom all his countrymen would turn away in contempt and aversion. I will not bell the cat . . .”15

Given that the slave trade to Cuba was no less prosperous as that to Brazil, questions began to be asked again in Britain as to how long Palmerston’s “benevolent crotchet for patrolling the coasts of Africa and Brazil” (John Bright’s expression) was to last. Though the arguments of Joseph Sturge and Thomas Fowell Buxton against naval patrolling had not made much headway, a new, original, more powerful opposition was now taking shape. This was the Free Trade group in Parliament, led by William Hutt, member for Gateshead, supported by Richard Cobden, John Bright, and Gladstone; the first two had close connections with Manchester, the latter had been brought up in Liverpool.III These Free Traders had allies in the Whig Cabinet in the shape of the third Earl Grey, colonial secretary in the late 1840s and a critic of Palmerston.

Hutt and his friends disliked the threat of force implicit in Britain’s antislavery policy. They thought that Palmerston’s menaces to Brazil over the slave trade were ruining Britain’s long-term trading interests: no good cause was worth the trouble if it damaged trade. They also thought the naval patrol too expensive. Hutt called the West Africa Squadron “buccaneers,” and denounced Britain’s “blundering and ignorant humanity.” Not only, he declared, had Britain failed to suppress the slave traffic, but it was growing (180,000 slaves were being exported a year, in his opinion, rather than the Foreign Office’s figure of 36,758: a discrepancy characteristic of such estimates in that era of illegal trade). Nor, he thought, could the country afford the cost of the naval detachment off Africa; that expense was serious, since “England is annually weeded of her best and bravest in order to carry on this idle and mischievous project of stopping the slave trade.” Hutt argued that quarreling with such good commercial partners as France and the United States over the right of search was threatening the peace of the world; and that “our unavailing attempts to suppress the traffic worsened the lot of the slaves by making the misery of the Middle Passage worse than ever.” He also pointed out that, merely during the previous five years, the cost in wages of the naval operations against slavery had totaled £655,000, that of the mixed courts had mounted up to £103,000, while 385 sailors had died on the coast or had been killed in action.16

Cobden, the great Free Trader, who lived in Cottonopolis—Manchester—put the matter even more brutally: what moral right had the English, the largest sellers of textiles to Brazil, made from slave-grown cotton, to refuse to take slave-grown sugar in return? The government, he and his friends thought, were merely advocating “lucrative humanity.” Did not British firms sell three-eighths of the sugar, half the coffee, and as much as five-eighths of the cotton exported from Brazil?17 In 1845, another voice was heard: that of Macaulay, the Whig historian, who had distanced himself from his father Zachary’s concerns, and who believed that his obligations “in respect to negro slavery had ceased when slavery itself ceased in that part of the world for the welfare of which I, as a member of this House, am accountable.” He insisted on the hypocrisy of importing, for refining and re-exporting, Brazilian sugar: “We import the accursed thing; we bond it; we employ our skill and machinery to render it more alluring to the eye and to the palate; we export it to Leghorn and to Hamburg; we send it to all the coffee houses of Italy and Germany; we pocket a profit on all this; and then, we put on a pharisaical air, and thank God that we are not like those sinful Italians and Germans, who have no scruple about swallowing slave-grown sugar. . . .”18

The complexity of these matters was seen in 1846, when the British government followed their repeal of the Corn Laws by a similar revision of the law imposing duties on foreign-grown sugar. This was, of course, an encouragement to the sugar producers of both Brazil and Cuba: Captain Matson, the determined naval officer who had destroyed the barracoons in Cabinda, was by chance in Havana Bay on patrol at that time. He observed sharply how the price of slaves rose in consequence by 15 percent.

Free Trade created difficulties for British abolitionists. The Sugar Duty Act, passed in 1846, seemed to The Anti-Slavery Reporter, the journal of Buxton and Sturge’s British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, to be causing the House of Commons to vote for the entry of the “blood stained sugars of Brazil and Cuba.” Year after year, these idealists, such as Sir Edward Noël Buxton, would introduce motions in Parliament to reinstate the sugar duties at least against Brazil and Cuba. Year after year, they would be defeated; and the cause evaporated. The affair was the occasion for eloquence, if not action.IV Disraeli’s hero in the debates against the Corn Laws in 1846, Lord George Bentinck, thought that it would cost far less to seize Cuba than to maintain the naval squadron “paying ourselves thereby . . . a just debt.”19 (This speech may have had an influence on the United States Secretary of State Buchanan when, a little later, he made an offer to Spain to buy Cuba.)

The late 1840s were thus a conflicting time: questions were being raised about a major item of British government policy which had been supported by both parties since 1808. Palmerston and the Whigs had always supported abolition. But now, they were helping slave-grown sugar. At the same time, Quakers, who had done so much to inspire the Anti-Slavery society, were, with pacifist arguments, deploring the use of force, such as that used by Captain Denman on the river Gallinas, and Captain Matson in Cabinda. Another difficulty was seen in the divisions of opinion within the British navy: was close blockade or distant cruising more effective?

In March 1845, the first of the apostles of abolition, Clarkson, then aged eighty-five, with the great prize of the international abolition of the slave trade still beyond his grasp, presented Lord Aberdeen with a memorandum arguing that Britain would never have the resources adequate to patrol all the potential areas of slaving. Nor was there hope of negotiating anti-slave-trade treaties with all the powers concerned; were it to be done, some countries would have bad faith, and “the cunning, fraud and audacity of slave dealers,” with their fast ships, would always outmaneuver the navy. So why did not the government turn its attention to slavery itself?20

Aberdeen was unconvinced: he, as well as Peel, Palmerston, and Lord John Russell, foreign secretary and prime minister after 1846, still believed that the trade should be dealt with first. Palmerston, indeed, had always considered that slavery raised an issue of property which was more difficult to resolve than the trade, which he saw as iniquitous.V Russell told the radical Free Traders that Britain “would have no right to further blessings from God” if “this high and holy work,” the naval patrol, were to be abandoned without success. Yet Gladstone, still a conservative, said that “it was not an ordinance of providence that the government of one nation should correct the morals of another and that it was impracticable to try and put down a great branch of commerce.”21 Others pessimistically asked: How could the British navy hope to intercept such fast ships as Dois Amigos, which carried 1,350 slaves to Bahia in 1846, or the Audorinha, a yacht of eighty tons belonging to Joaquim Pereira Marinho, which made a brilliant series of eight voyages between October 1846 and September 1848, bringing nearly 4,000 slaves, and earning £40,000. Was Britain ready to go to war with her oldest ally, Portugal, as well as with her newest protégé, Brazil, over the issue of the slave trade, as it was argued might be necessary by John Hook (commissary judge in Freetown), by James Bandinel of the Foreign Office’s Slavery Department (he talked of “redress by force of arms”), and even by Sir Charles Hotham, the new commander of the West Africa Squadron, who spoke of the existing slave-trade patrols as “perfectly futile”? James Hudson the Minister to Brazil suggested that there should be a general blockade of Rio (“No port in the world is so capable of being blockaded as Rio”). Palmerston and Russell also toyed with blockade. But the British Cabinet were against the heavy deployment of force, even in favor of what Palmerston amiably described as “the common principles of humanity and the fundamental precepts of the Christian religion.” (That statesman had recently told the British consul in Zanzibar to “take every opportunity of impressing on the Arabs that the nations of Europe are destined to put an end to the African slave trade and that Great Britain is the main instrument of Providence for the accomplishment of this purpose.”22)

Palmerston himself was more hostile than ever to the slave trade. When out of office, he had told the House of Commons in 1844, with some hyperbole: “If all the crimes which the human race has committed from the creation down to the present day were added together in one vast aggregate, they would scarcely equal . . . the amount of guilt which has been incurred by mankind in connection with this diabolical slave trade. . . .” One of his biographers looked on this speech as the greatest of his life, though most of the details which he recounted had figured in speeches by Wilberforce and others in the 1790s.23

In 1847, when again foreign secretary, Palmerston returned to his most bellicose stance and told the Admiralty that the commander of the West Africa Squadron, Sir Charles Hotham, “ought to be instructed to compel king Pepple and the chiefs of Bonny by force, if necessary, to respect the lives and property of Her Majesty’s subjects, and that the Commodore will be justified in enforcing the payment of debts due to British subjects.” This was not at first sight a matter of slave-trade politics but, it undoubtedly was under the surface. For Hotham instructed one of his captains, Commander Birch, to overthrow the chief priest, Awanta. Regardless of King Pepple, Birch did as asked, and imprisoned Awanta on a man-of-war. Lord Grey, in the Colonial Office, suggested that the priest should be set onshore as far as possible from Bonny, “leaving him to take his chance.” That Whig policy of extreme laissez-faire was carried out, Awanta was landed alone in a remote part of Angola, and no more was heard of him. Soon after, Birch imposed a new treaty on Pepple, by which that king guaranteed to afford protection to British subjects in Bonny, and to accept a new version of the slave treaty concluded in 1839.24

The foreign secretary was heartened by the long-delayed decision in February 1848 in a trial before the High Court in favor of Captain Denman against the Spanish slave merchant José Antonio Burón, who was convicted of being a criminal by the terms of his own country’s laws. (Burón had been one of those who had lost property, slaves, and trade goods during Denman’s attack on the barracoons on the river Gallinas. He had sued Denman for £180,000. Not without difficulty, Denman arranged to be defended by the government.)

But Palmerston was still under attack from the Free Traders: William Hutt returned in February 1848 to denounce again “our darling and hopeless project” (that is, the naval squadron) by moving in the House of Commons that a new select committee should consider the best means of suppressing the trade. The motion was carried, and Hutt himself was the chairman. Gladstone, the Free Trader Cobden, and Monckton Milnes were members.

Many witnesses were interviewed. Sir Charles Hotham, for instance, admitted that, if the trade were stopped in one place, it would be likely to break out again, like an epidemic, in another. There was also Thomas Tobin, the main Liverpool trader in palm oil, who had happy memories of his old days in the slave trade. The committee listened to an ex-slave merchant, José Cliffe. They heard the dynamic Macgregor Laird insist that the solution for Africa was to arrange voluntary emigration of Africans to the British West Indies, with free return passages available. James Bandinel, by then in retirement but for so long head of the Foreign Office’s Slavery Department, admitted that the naval patrol had in no way diminished the traffic. The committee heard how the naval patrol had, in the opinion of several witnesses, interrupted legitimate trade, by wrongly accusing certain ships of preparing to slave (for example, the brig Guiana, wrongly held in 1840, or the Lady Sale, in 1845). They heard Commander O’Bryen Hoare explain that the consul in Bahia had told him in 1844 on no account to land at that port, since $3,000 had been offered to anyone who would murder him, as a member of the naval patrol; he went on to suggest that, in the interests of the slaves, the slave trade should be legalized to Cuba and to Brazil, and the patrol withdrawn! Above all, they heard reports of naval officers who had spent months on the West African coast, watching for slavers, risking their lives, through ill-health more than enemy action; and they familiarized themselves quickly, as politicians can, with the names of a hundred inlets, sandbars, creeks, and slaving islands. The committee also received a great quantity of papers, of the greatest interest to historians even if they exhausted the members. For example, there was the Foreign Office’s remarkable list of slavers which apparently delivered slaves between 1817 (the abolition of the Spanish slave trade) and 1845: and the Committee even heard the evidence of onetime slaves, such as James Frazer, who brought the reality of enslavement home to the legislators as they sat calmly in the new Palace of Westminster.25

Ultimately, in 1849, the committee produced a negative report: it insisted that the navy had no hope of stopping the trade, that the sufferings of the slaves were indeed increased by the navy’s activities, that the price of slaves was lower than ever in Africa, and that the size of the African slave trade was still determined by the European desire for sugar.

In consequence of this, Hutt urged the House of Commons in March 1850 to demand the withdrawal of the West Africa Squadron. One member, Mr. Baillie, argued that it was hypocritical to claim a moral purpose in British policy. Gladstone thought: “If we really felt it our duty to cut down the slave trade at all costs, we should repeal the Sugar Duties Act, persuade America and France to allow us to search their ships, double the strength of our naval squadron, and be ruthless in using force against Spain and Brazil.”26

This heated debate in the House of Commons would probably have been lost by the supporters of the West Africa Squadron had it not been for the eloquent advocacy of the prime minister, Lord John Russell, who said: “It appears . . . to me . . . that if we give up this high and holy work, and proclaim ourselves to be no longer fitted to lead in the championship against the curse and the crime of slavery, we have no longer a right to expect a continuance of those blessings which, by God’s favour, we have so long enjoyed. I think . . . that the high, the moral and the Christian character of this nation is the main source and secret of its strength.” It was no doubt the right line to take in reply to Gladstone, who had spoken just before. The motion was defeated by 232 to 154.27 Still, an internal report by the Admiralty of later the same year was as pessimistic as the Hutt Committee’s had been, even though the navy had intercepted 625 vessels on suspicion of being engaged in the slave trade between 1840 and 1848: nearly 70 a year on average. Of these, 578 had been condemned, and over 38,000 slaves had been freed.

Sir Charles Hotham had, meantime, returned to the river Gallinas. Once again a British force, this time led by Captain Hugh Dunlop, entered the murderous estuary and established itself on an island there, just as Captain Denman had done ten years before. Hotham was determined to finish with the slave traders of this waterway. He believed that he could do that by ensuring that the Africans supported him more firmly than they had Denman. He would ensure this, or so he persuaded himself, by a mixture of threats and promises of a subsidy. He knew that Palmerston would support him. So a British force destroyed barracoons (including those of a Spaniard, Víctor de Bareda), liberated slaves, and browbeat the local African leaders to admit the error of their ways. Hotham accompanied this by declaring a blockade of the whole stretch of land. He acted, he reported to the Admiralty in London, with the backing of both the United States and French patrol commanders. Neither Hotham nor the navy received instructions to desist. The Spanish or Portuguese-Brazilian merchants were, on the contrary, ordered to leave by the local kings, bowing at last to this indication of British resolve. The merchants concerned were found requesting permission to leave for Brazil. Indeed, they chartered a boat for that purpose and set off for Rio. Captain Dunlop described how he received fifty-five slave merchants and their assistants on his ship—four Spaniards, the rest Portuguese—“in a miserable plight, exhausted from bad living. . . . Many of them came on board with nothing but their shirts. . . .”28

Thus the curious effect of the agitation of Hutt and his friends was to strengthen the naval position. Supported by Palmerston, Hotham had achieved results. Most of the African coast north of the equator was now covered by antislaving treaties, and slavers preferred to beach their ships rather than face a British cruiser. Both legitimate trade (in palm oil, ivory, and gold) and British territorial influence were growing. In 1850, for example, the British bought the Danish castles on the Gold Coast, above all Christiansborg at Accra. In 1851, after interminable negotiations and unsuccessful intrigues, Commodore Bruce, with a small force, attacked and captured Lagos, since its king, Kosoko, refused to sign a treaty obliging him to end the slave trade. A puppet, Akitoye, was put on the throne, and, on New Year’s Day 1852, an antislavery treaty was duly signed. A small number of Portuguese slave traders were expelled in March, though several returned within a year. This was a triumph for “gunboat diplomacy.”

Victory in Africa was followed by another, greater one in Brazil. There, despite the strenuous efforts of the naval patrol, the prospects for abolition did not look promising in the late 1840s. Indeed, the merchants were still bringing in substantial numbers of slaves: nearly 23,000 in 1844, 16,000 in 1845, 50,000 in 1846, and nearly 60,000 in 1847, probably the same in 1848, perhaps 50,000 the following year. British naval reports were full of stories of powerful new steamers, two-to-three-hundred-horsepower strong, such as the Providencia, commanded by a Genoese captain and crewed by Spaniards, which brought 1,400 slaves from Angola. The British consul in Rio sent home a list of suspected slave vessels which landed slaves in 1849. The slave merchants residing at Rio, he added, included two Frenchmen, one Italian, one Spaniard, two Americans, and one “Anglo-Saxon”—a certain Russell. The consul in Bahia concluded a similar report with a comment that the people concerned in the trade in that city included five Brazilians, seventeen Portuguese, three Sardinians, a Belgian, a Frenchman, and one Englishman (Marback). Their ships were of all sorts, ranging from the Antipático, which carried over a thousand slaves, to the Leteo, which carried only 105. It was true that half the slavers sent out from Bahia in 1848 seemed to have been captured. But that scarcely mattered, provided that at least a quarter of the vessels completed their journeys and brought their shining “lumps of coal” into Rio or Bahia to work on the coffee plantations, the splendid old sugar estates, and the rich gold mines of this great “country of the future,” as Brazil then, as ever, seemed. In 1848, a steamship was for the first time used in the Brazilian slave trade: Tomás da Costa Ramos, a one-armed Portuguese (“Maneta”), sent his Teresato Angola and carried back 1,200 slaves in a space intended only for 400.

The attraction of Brazil for investment was so great that a small trade in slaves thence from the United States even began. Hall Pringle, a British stipendiary magistrate, for example, saw the bark Roanoke leaving the Chesapeake Bay in 1849 with “six carriage loads of slaves” bound for Rio. He heard of several other ships with the same purpose. Pringle mentioned these occurrences to the British consul in Baltimore; but “he did not wish to know of them.” Many North Americans also continued in the traffic: between 1840 and 1845, sixty-four ships built in the United States were bought or sold in Rio alone and, in the same time, fifty-six ships left or entered that harbor for or from Africa. Profitt, the United States minister in Rio in 1844, had baldly told the State Department that year that the slave trade could not be carried on to any extent to Brazil “were it not for the use made by our flag and the facilities given by the chartering of American vessels to carry to the coast of Africa the outfit for the trade.”VI Much the same was reported by David Tod, who had succeeded Henry Wise as United States minister. He told his secretary of state in January 1850: “Citizens of the United States are constantly in this capital, whose only occupation is the buying of American vessels with which to supply the slave trade. These men obtain sea-letters which entitle them to continue to use the United States flag and it is this privilege which enables them to sell their ships to slave traders,” who continued to use that emblem “until the Africans are landed on the coast of Brazil.” One example of the international complexity of the traffic was the case of the Agnes, Captain Hiram Gray, a vessel which traded regularly between Rio and Philadelphia. In 1843, the captain rented the ship to the most active slave trader, Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, an arrangement made, incidentally, by Weetman and Nobkirk of London. The Agnes went to Liverpool, bought muskets, bars of iron, and other British “coast goods,” and then set off via Rio for Cabinda (clearing for Montevideo). At Cabinda, Gray sold the vessel to Cunha, Pinto’s representative in that port, and 500 slaves were immediately put on board and taken to Brazil, where they were sold at Cape Frio. (Gray was later tried and acquitted at Baltimore for slave trading.) This was a typical event, as the masters of about sixty United States ships sold in Rio between 1840 and 1845 could have testified.

Yet January 1850 turned out to be the British navy’s best-ever month against the Brazilian slave trade—thanks largely to the activities of an informant, Joaquin Paula Guedes Alcoforado, an ex-slave trader who gave the British details of many journeys. Another British agent was the captain of the port of Rio, Leopoldo da Câmara, who organized the mulatto dockers to give the British information about movements of ships on a regular basis. At least one newspaper, the Correio Mercantil, seems to have been in those days in receipt of a subsidy from the British secret fund, as was the editor of O Brasil, the most important newspaper. The new antislavery societies in Brazil probably also received financial support from their mother country’s oldest ally.29

The explanation for this change seems to be that Palmerston, disturbed by the threat to his policy offered by the debate on the Hutt Committee’s report, determined to use secret funds lavishly to assist a Brazilian surrender.VII Palmerston’s resolve was the greater since he had received, in June 1850, the enthusiastic support of the House of Commons, and the country, after his famous if inappropriate speech in favor of “Don Pacifico”; and he had been given a subscription dinner by 250 members of the Reform Club.

In consequence, also in June 1850, Admiral Barrington Reynolds, an experienced Napoleonic War veteran who was now commander-in-chief of the West Africa Squadron, rightly assuming that he had the support of his government, and able to take any reasonable action without consulting them (the transatlantic telegraph was fortunately still over ten years away), ordered his captains to enter Brazilian ports to “flush out” all ships which they found to be fitted out for the slave trade. They did this first at Macaé, about 150 miles to the north of Rio. H.M.S. Sharpshooter covered the small boats and captured the brig Polka. Then Captain Herbert Schomberg, member of a distinguished naval family of Jewish origin, on H.M.S. Cormorant, captured four slave ships, “very fine vessels of 300 and 350 tons . . . American bottoms,” off Cape Frio and on the Paranaguá River, south of Santos. (One vessel scuttled herself; Schomberg burned two, in sight of the shore, and sent the last to Saint Helena.) There was some fighting, and one British seaman was killed, before Schomberg sailed up to Rio, looking for other slavers in the creeks to the north.

The difference between these actions and what had gone before is that the Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, and the Foreign Office (not always the same thing), openly approved. Palmerston told the Admiralty that his predecessor Aberdeen’s Act of 1846 contained no restrictions on “the limits within which the search, detention and capture of slave traders . . . are to take place . . . in Brazilian waters as well as on the high seas.”30 This was an interpretation which Palmerston decided for himself. No more important statement was made in the history of abolition. In so deciding, Palmerston must have taken into account the large stake that Britain had in the Brazilian economy, in the mines as in the mercantile houses, in insurance and in shipping. He knew that he could take action in Brazil in the interests of philanthropy, because so much of the wealth of the country was owned by British investors. Oddly enough, he was not at that time specially supported by the abolitionists, who were every day more critical of the use of force.

What may have weighed most with Palmerston was the sense that he had had in the debate in the House of Commons in March that parliamentary and popular patience was running out. Despite Gladstone’s opposition, he and Russell had won the debate on that occasion. They might not do so again.

The uproar in Rio was considerable. “A great sensation ensued and it was dangerous for English officers to land,” Captain Schomberg reported. Several newspapers and, in the Chamber, angry deputies demanded war. At that time, there were probably about 80,000 slaves in the city of Rio alone (a little less than 40 percent of the total population), and the place seemed to depend on them absolutely for its survival. Ownership of slaves was still widespread, and craftsmen and even many people accounted poor owned slaves. Some lived from the hiring out of slaves. But in contrast with the slaves of the North American south, the majority of these had been born in Africa, having come in recent ships: 66 percent, according to a census. In these circumstances, the foreign minister, the astute conservative Paulino José Soares de Souza, wisely delayed a decision. The Council of Ministers, with the Emperor Pedro in the chair, privately decided in July that, though threatened by possible insurgency in both Rio Grande do Sul and Pernambuco, given Britain’s commercial eminence, Brazil had no choice but to suppress the illegal slave trade. The influence of Britain in Brazil in those days extended far beyond commercial matters. Dress, taste, houses, language, and food in Rio were all influenced by what was done in London. The emperor had always opposed the slave trade, and his voice counted for much.

Soares de Souza gave an account of the Cabinet’s attitude to the British minister, Hudson, but demanded that, in order to assist Brazilian abolitionists, he and Reynolds first call off the search-and-burn policies. They agreed. Soares de Souza then persuaded the Brazilian Chamber to accept genuine abolition, in a remarkable speech, which admitted the fact of British pressure. He pointed out that all countries except Cuba had abolished the trade: “Can we resist the torrent? I think not.” Brazil could no longer resist “the pressure of the ideas of the age in which we live. . . . And ought we indolently to sleep on and not take steps to find a substitute for African labor?”31 Inaction might lead to war with Britain, an eventuality which would damage Brazil more than the abolition of the trade. The Foreign Minister reminded the deputies that, thanks to the nomination in Paris of the persistent Victor Schoelcher, the most prominent abolitionist in France, to the post of undersecretary of state for the colonies after the Revolution of 1848, even Britain’s hereditary enemy had abolished the institution of slavery.VIII (That was on March 27, 1848: one of the few events of lasting significance of that year.)

The quarrels in the Chamber of Deputies in Rio continued: an ex-minister of the navy, Joaquim Antão, called on the government to “destroy the ladders by which you have risen to power!” “What ladders?” “Can it be that noble ministers did not require the support of friends in the slave traffic in order to come to power?” Soares de Souza later admitted: “During the period when fifty to sixty thousand Africans entered the country annually, when speculation concerning Africa was at its peak, there were many people more or less directly engaged in the trade. Who amongst us did not have relations with someone engaged in the traffic when it was not condemned by public opinion?”32

The resolute Captain Schomberg was in Bahia, where he delayed “five most beautiful ships evidently intended for the trade.” He persuaded the Brazilian government to buy three of these ships for their own navy, while the other two were turned over to legitimate trade. To those seeking to establish the role of Jews in the slave trade, Captain Schomberg should be cited as an important actor in achieving abolition in Brazil.

For a bill abolishing the slave trade was now adopted in the Chamber of Deputies in Rio de Janeiro on July 17, 1850. It was accepted by the Senate, and Dom Pedro, the emperor, signed it. He did so with great satisfaction.IX On September 4, the bill became law. Henceforth, Brazilian slave ships were liable to seizure, the import of slaves into Brazil was declared piracy, all captured vessels were to be sold, and the proceeds were to be divided between captors and informers. For the first time, this legislation led to a real transformation.

Manuel Pinto da Fonseca (who was said by Captain Schomberg to have lost sixty ships as a result of recent British naval action) and his brother Antonio were expelled from the country, along with the trader who was by now probably their chief competitor, the Sardinian Paretti. (He had landed thousands of slaves in Bahia the same year.) The president of the state of São Paulo even brought himself to denounce the insolent foreigners (that is, the Portuguese!) who had provoked the British attacks.

Cynics would argue that the change in mood derived from an outbreak of yellow fever brought from Africa in a slave ship (apparently of French nationality) which swept off 16,000 people and “set a great many people very much against the slave trade; they were frightened out of their wits.” But Palmerston thought that this revolution in attitudes was the result of British naval action: “These half-civilised governments,” he breezily commented, “all require a dressing down every eight or ten years to keep them in order.” He demanded that Hudson and Admiral Reynolds press further. Hudson, busily buying more support among newspapermen and harbormasters, threatened new attacks. Soares de Souza, astonished, pointed out that abolition was an immense task for Brazil: for example, an intelligence service had to be established, and public opinion had to be won round. For the change to be lasting, Brazil had to carry through the work of control herself.

Many other arguments followed. There were some further forceful maritime acts by Britain (including the seizure of a few slave ships on the high seas), as well as new protests by Brazil, and renewed threats of war. But in 1851, only about 3,000 slaves were imported into Brazil. One captain, bringing the Tentativa into the harbor of Rio, found that there were no buyers for his cargo of 400 slaves, even when he dropped the price to $10 a head. The schooner Relampago, built in Baltimore, 295 feet long, twenty-three feet eight inches broad, two masts, 229 English tons, and owned by Marcos Borges Ferras, “Senhor Marcos,” was among the few ships to manage a landing of slaves that year. It had sailed to Bahia from Lagos, where it had been sold to Borges Ferras by an Italian, Jeronimo Carlos Salvi.X Most of those involved in this shipment were captured, some tried, fined, and even imprisoned.

Borges Ferras for a long time denied his real identity, but was eventually tried in 1858 and imprisoned for three years. When he had served his term in Rio, he returned to Whydah, where he lived out the rest of his days. He was not bitter: talking to the Abbé Pierre Bouché, who met him in the late 1860s, he said, “I was admitted to the academy; and I came out with my diploma.”33

In July 1851, Palmerston, with understandable pride, announced in the House of Commons that the Brazilian slave trade had concluded. The next year, Admiral Henderson, who had succeeded Reynolds, reported that the Brazilian trade really did seem at an end. One hundred and forty slave traders were supposed to have left the country hurriedly in these months for Portugal. They brought back to Europe perhaps a hundred million cruzados. In 1856, the British consul in Lisbon even estimated that these ex-slavers from Brazil were the biggest capitalists of the country.

It is true that most Brazilian slaveowners were glutted as a result of the big imports of the late 1840s. Many middle-class Brazilians also came to support Soares de Souza, not because of philanthropy but because they had come to fear “Africanization” and revolt. Others expected an increase in the value of their slaves, as prices rose. (They doubled between 1852 and 1854.) Some landowners may have thought that abolition of the trade was a temporary matter, or that they would get all the slaves which they needed from intra-Brazilian trade. (The early 1850s certainly saw an increase of that commerce in Bahia and the northeast: over 26,000 slaves were imported into Rio City and Province during 1852-59.) Nor did the laws on the trade seem to pose any threat to slavery itself. (A bill in 1850 for the liberation of children born to slave mothers was defeated without discussion.)

Some further slaves did slip in. In December 1852, for example, the North American brig Camargo put into the bay of Ilha Grande a few hours to the west of Rio, carrying five to six hundred Africans from Mozambique. They were disposed of so quickly that, when the chief of police arrived from Rio, he could find nothing. He challenged Joaquim José de Sousa Breves, the landowner who had bought them. In the end, however, only thirty-eight of Camargo’s slaves were recovered. Planters assumed that that might dictate the pattern of the future. But the last attempt to land slaves in Brazil seems to have been in January 1856, when the Mary E. Smith, 122 tons, of New Orleans but sailing from Boston, Massachusetts, was arrested by the Brazilian authorities off São Mateus, halfway between Rio and Bahia, carrying about 400 slaves. She had been sent to Brazil by a party of Brazilian slavers at that time in New York, who were primarily concerned with the Cuban trade. The Mary E. Smith’s captain had difficulty in disposing of his cargo. Water began to give out, the slaves started to die. The principal Brazilian-North American concerned died in prison. Evidence also later reached the British legation in Rio of the arrival of over 200 slaves at Serinhaém, near Recife. Palmerston made his usual threats, but by then the Brazilians had already punished those involved. All the slaves involved were freed.

Abolitionists, of course, claimed a famous victory. All the same, at least 500,000 slaves had been imported into Brazil in the putatively illegal days of 1831-55. There were perhaps twice as many slaves in Brazil in 1851 as there had been in 1800. Slavery was still very well established throughout the economy, mostly in large-scale plantations, above all in farms producing coffee, now responsible for 50 percent of Brazil’s exports. In Rio, half the population were slaves.

In the long term, abolition of the trade stimulated immigration from Europe. Concurrent Brazilian efforts to obtain free African labor were, however, opposed by Britain, whose representatives argued, recalling the fate of the emancipados, that free Africans would be treated much as slaves on arrival. This attitude may perhaps seem hypocritical when it is recalled that, after 1841, many African contract workers had been hired for the British West Indies.XI

In fact, in contrast with what obtained in the United States, abolition of the trade did mark the slow beginning of the end of slavery in Brazil: the institution there, as in the Spanish empire, had always depended on large imports for, as has been often stated, the birthrate of slaves was low, mortality was high, and there was much manumission.

Lord Palmerston in 1864, the year before his death, said that “the achievement which I look back on with the greatest and purest pleasure was forcing the Brazilians to give up their slave trade.”34 He was deceiving himself only a little. Though Brazilian fears and, to give Brazilian statesmen their due, some brave Brazilian speeches played an essential part, the trade in slavery would not have ended when it did had it not been for Britain’s moral crusade. That was one of Britain’s most remarkable achievements, which partly atones for that country’s unquestionable, and largely unquestioning, enthusiasm for the slave trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Domingos Martins, the last of the great slave merchants of Africa and Brazil, died in Lagos the same year as Palmerston made this remark. The Brazilian government, in their new mood of morality, had refused him permission to retire to Bahia. Richard Burton saw Martins in January 1864, a few days before he died, and admired his house, though he could see that the end of the trade in slaves had damaged him. Five of Martins’s daughters, all rich heiresses, nevertheless married well in Brazil, and he left a family in Africa too. His living descendants are the heirs of the Brazilian slave trade, the largest forced emigration in history.35

I See page 773.

II He was known as a rigid disciplinarian and once delivered a sermon in a church in Cairo on the text “Ye believe in God; believe also in me.”

III Gladstone’s father, John Gladstone, had bought sugar estates in the West Indies after 1815, principally in Guiana, but owned also two plantations, Holland and Lacovia, in Jamaica. He had over half his fortune invested in the West Indies in the 1830s and had a thousand slaves at the time of emancipation in 1833.

IV It was after a successful oration on sugar duties, in July 1845, that Peel remarked to the orator: “A wonderful speech, Gladstone.”

V In 1843, it had been, however, forbidden for a British subject to own slaves anywhere in the world.

VI This was made possible by the practice of giving sea letters to vessels sold in foreign ports by one United States citizen to another. The rule was introduced in 1792 to encourage shipbuilding. United States citizens living in Brazil could buy ships from fellow countrymen and then ask the consul for permission to trade on the African coast. The ships would be chartered by Brazilians who would take “passengers” abroad. In Africa the “passengers” would take over the ship.

VII This was a special triumph, since the undersecretary in the Foreign Office who disbursed Secret Service money was Henry Unwin Addington, a reactionary whom Palmerston disliked.

VIII All slaves in French territories were freed. As with Britain, protectorates still accepted slaves.

IX The greatest of Brazilian historians, Gilberto Freyre, described Dom Pedro as “a chaste man and a pure” one, and “the ideal type of husband for a Queen Victoria.” At twenty, dressed in a frock coat and wearing a silk hat, he already seemed a European, and a middle-aged European at that.

X Pursued by the Brazilian naval police, the Relampago disembarked its cargo fast. The slaves were forced to swim to shore; those who did not drown were received by men from the sugar plantation of Hygenio Piris Gomes.

XI Some of these, though, were Krus, real volunteers from the coast of Liberia, and all were in theory free not to go: 10,000 went to Jamaica, 13,970 to British Guiana, 8,390 to Trinidad, 1,540 to Grenada, other, lesser numbers to Saint Vincent, Saint Lucia, and Saint Kitts. In 1852, France adopted a scheme whereby a slave might be bought in Africa, liberated on board the ship, and carried to the Antilles as a worker under contract. Fifteen thousand or so were carried in that way until 1867.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!