“Cuba . . . the forward sentinel of our interests in the New World.”
Captain-General Dulce, 1859
THE PLANTERS OF CUBA were conscious in 1860 that they served a major international enterprise, for the island was by then producing over a quarter of the world’s sugar. The Spanish Antilles supplied a fifth of the British market, and three-quarters of that of the United States. It is, therefore, comprehensible that Spanish governments should still not wish to act in a way which might lose the revenue which this saccharine eminence brought, or drive the planters of sugar to rebellion.
But others were unprepared to accept that serene indifference to the cruelty which reliance on slavery entailed. Thus, in 1860, the persistent English liberal Lord John Russell (now foreign secretary again, in a government headed by Palmerston) proposed a conference of the main powers (Spain, Britain, France, the United States, Portugal, and Brazil) to put an end to “an increasing traffic [in slaves] and finally to assure its complete abolition.” Eighty-five ships, Russell understood, presumably from his secret agent’s reports, had been fitted out in the previous eighteen months, and a mere twenty-six of these had landed from twelve to fifteen thousand slaves in Cuba.1
Russell was probably influenced by the evidence of growing support in the British West Indies for the idea of the annexation of Cuba to the United States. Planters there were disillusioned by Britain’s apparent double-headed attitude to slavery, buying Cuban-grown sugar with one hand and seeking to end the slave trade with the other. Robert Baird, writing in 1849, had even said he thought that “Cuba would be a much better customer of England in the hands of our enterprising brethren of the New World than she is at present in the hands of Spain.” Others said the same in Jamaica.
Secretary of State Lewis Cass discussed Russell’s idea of a conference with Tassara, the Spanish minister in Washington. Conferences did not then have the automatic charm for diplomats that they have in the twentieth century. Cass was certain that, at such an occasion, the British would assert their claim to inspect foreign ships. Neither he nor Tassara accepted that the trade was on the increase: “In this policy of the English,” he agreed, “there is something of fanatic self-interest.”2 Spain, too, rejected the proposal of Russell, arguing, with tacit support from the United States, that other powers should not discuss purely Anglo-Spanish matters.
Cass knew that the efforts to prevent the slave trade adopted after the Webster-Ashburton Treaty had failed. But he considered that American captains destroyed their papers only because of the wanton threats of British captains. He sought every argument to defend the United States and, even in September 1860, was ready to announce that his country had reached “the happy condition of having no objects of concern to engage the philanthropic care and sympathies of the government and people, so that their benevolent energies, having no employment in their own country, must necessarily seek it in other countries less blessed. . . .”3
Cuba was on everyone’s mind in the United States during those last months before the Civil War. In 1860, for example, Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey, insisting that his department was active in the pursuit of slavers (a boast which, in the late 1850s, was beginning to have a basis of truth), added, in his report to Congress, that “Cuba is the only [legal] mart in the world open to this [international] trade. . . . If Cuba were to pass under the constitution of the United States by annexation, the trade would then be effectively suppressed.”4 That was true, though, if Cuba had become a state of the Union, it would presumably have ceased to be illegal to sell there slaves born in the United States; and the Cubans could have sold their slaves to the Southern Confederacy.
Meantime, the slave trade was still being undertaken illegally in New York, though it is improbable that any slaves followed those on the Wanderer into the Union: all had Cuba as their destination. In 1856, the New York deputy marshal declared that the business of fitting out slavers “has never been prosecuted with greater energy than at present. The occasional interposition of the legal authorities exercises no apparent influence for its suppression. It is seldom that one or more vessels cannot be designated at the wharves, respecting which there is evidence that she is either in or has been concerned in the traffic [to Cuba].”5 The British Consul in New York reported that, out of 170 slave-trading expeditions, presumably to Cuba, fitted out in the three years preceding 1862, 74 were known or believed to have sailed from New York. For example, in the summer of 1859, the bark Emily set off from New York with all the equipment necessary for a slaver: 15,000 feet of lumber, 103 casks of fresh water, 100 barrels of rice, 25 barrels of codfish, 20 barrels of pork, 50 barrels of bread, 150 boxes of herring, two boilers, 10 dozen pails, and two cases of medicines. Commander John Calhoun on the U.S.S. Portsmouth sent her home under guard. But the case was dismissed. Then there was the case of the Orion, under Captain John E. Hanna, 450 tons, owned by Harrison S. Vining, a merchant who seems to have only dabbled in the slave trade. H.M.S. Pluto caught her, bound for Havana, with 888 captives. She was sent home, under escort, from Africa, and some of the traditional difficulties followed between Britain and the U.S. But on this occasion the ship was condemned by Judge Nathan Hall, an honest if austere magistrate the climax to whose parochial life had been his service as postmaster-general under Millard Fillmore. Then, while Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey urged the rather lazy United States commander of the Africa squadron, Commander Inman, to “renew his exertions,” United States Special Agent Benjamin Slocomb found what he described as evidence of a slave company directed by “Colonel” John Newman of Tuckpaw River, Louisiana, with agencies in Mobile, Nashville, and New Orleans. Its purpose was to dispose of African slaves from a diversity of sources, including some brought by the Wanderer, some bought in Cuba, and some kidnapped in the Bahamas. But Newman turned out to be a liar, and eventually Slocomb would assure Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson that, despite the endless rumors, the only real expedition to Africa from the United States during these years had been that of the Wanderer. Stories continued, however, of slave dealing and there were frequent tales of large secret companies, with headquarters in New York. The case of the Clotilde, under Captain Meagher, alleged to have landed 116 slaves in South Carolina in July 1859, may have been a hoax, despite accusations to the contrary by many historians, including the great Bancroft.6
All the same, Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic leader, said he thought that 15,000 slaves had been landed that year in the United States by North Americans. He himself claimed to have seen 300 in a pen at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and also some in Memphis, Tennessee. It seems possible that, in 1859, eighty-five slavers, capable together of carrying between thirty and sixty thousand slaves, were fitted out in New York alone, intending to serve the markets of Cuba. However many were carried, they sold at high prices, well over $1,000 a head (a few extra qualifications, such as some agricultural training or fluency in Spanish, raised further the price). The profit was such that the captain of the New York ship Sultana thought it economical to destroy his ship after landing nearly a thousand Africans in northern Cuba rather than risk capture; the crew could claim that they were castaways. The difficulties seemed merely to stimulate the slave traders to efforts every day more international. By 1857, the British had concluded no fewer than forty-five treaties against slaving on the west coast of Africa, yet the trade continued. In the late 1850s, yet one more new company was founded in Cuba, whose agents were to be found in Mozambique as well as in New York. The crews included mixed Spanish and Portuguese, and the ships included steamboats made in Hartlepool in England.
The Continental Monthly reported, imaginatively: “The number of persons engaged in the slave trade and the amount of capital embarked in it exceed our powers of calculation. The city of New York has been, until of late, the principal port in the world for this infamous commerce; although the cities of Boston and Portland [Maine] are only second to her. . . . Slave dealers . . . contributed largely to the wealth of our commercial metropolis; they contributed liberally to the treasuries of political organization, and their bank accounts were largely depleted to carry elections in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.”7 But after several seizures, the center of the traffic moved elsewhere; some ships in these years even set off, it was said, from Liverpool, England, and Wilmington, Delaware (where the Cuban John A. Machado’s Mary Francis was certainly fitted out)—as well as, of course, from Havana. (The accusation against Liverpool derived from the appearance of the brig Lily, which sailed from that city in 1852 with a cargo of rum and gunpowder. Some ships from Cardiff were said to jettison their coal as soon as they were out of sight of Wales, and head south for the profitable harbors of tropical Africa.)
• • •
Late in 1859, President James Buchanan (well disposed to England, having had a happy time leading in the United States legation in London during the Crimean War) took two decisive steps in the United States campaign against the slave traffic. First, he allowed four private steamships (which had been brought together by the U.S. Navy for an ultimately unnecessary naval action against Paraguay) to be added to the Africa squadron. That squadron itself was also at last moved from its twenty-year headquarters in the remote Cape Verde Islands to the center of the slave trade in Angola. Second, four American steamers were stationed for the first time off Cuba. The significance of the latter departure was shown by the fact that, in July 1860, Lieutenant Stanley, on theWyandotte, off Havana, reported that three separate individuals had offered him $25,000 not to cruise off certain places of Cuba at certain times.
These assignments of ships were important. Between 1841 and 1859, only two ships laden with slaves had been detained by the U.S. Navy, though many suspicious vessels had been boarded. But in 1860 alone, the United States naval squadron captured eight slave ships, carrying over 4,000 slaves. Off Angola, the naval vessel San Jacinto captured the Storm King of New York, bound for Cuba with 619 slaves, and also the New York slaver Bonito, with 750 slaves, with the same destination. (The captain of the Storm King outmaneuvered the U.S. marshal’s officers, and later the deputy marshal of New York, Thomas Rynders, who admitted accepting a bribe of $1,500 for allowing the ship to leave.) Off Cuba, the steamer Mohawk, under Lieutenant T. A. Craven, arrested theWildfire. Craven also detained the bark Mary J. Kimball and the brig Toccoa, the latter owned by Anthony Horta, but leased to Galdis and Nenniger of Havana, both bound for Africa. Craven took these vessels to Key West, where Judge William Marvin declared the Toccoa indeed to be a slaver, on circumstantial evidence. He challenged Horta to prove that she was not so. Horta secured the liberty of his boat; she immediately sailed across the Atlantic, to be captured by the Spanish naval ship Neptuno, with 627 slaves on board. The future Confederate raider Lieutenant John Maffitt, on the Crusader, seized the Bogotá, in the old Bahama channel, with 400 Africans on board. (Maffitt always recalled how the slaves broke their hatches with a shout and much singing.) Later, Maffitt seized the brig Joven Antonio, on which he found everything ready for slaves. He took the ship into Key West, where José Colón of Cárdenas claimed it. Finally, Commodore Inman, the commander of the United States squadron, on theConstellation, captured theCora two days out of Sagna la Grande, with 705 slaves.
Yet despite these minor triumphs of the United States Navy, the Cuban slave trade still prospered. In 1859, more slave-trading expeditions set out from Cuba or the United States for Africa than at any time since 1820. Perhaps as many as 170 slave voyages for the benefit of Cuba were arranged in New York in 1859-61; and the consul of the United States in Havana, Robert Shufeldt, a veteran of the African and Brazilian naval squadrons and a man of gigantic frame and great diplomatic skills, would report in 1863, that “However humiliating may be the confession . . . nine tenths of the vessels engaged in the slave trade are American.”8 The British thought that, in 1859-61, nearly 80,000 slaves were imported. These cost $1,000 each, so only the rich could buy them, but there were an increasingly large number of rich men in the island. There seemed no reason to suppose that the state of affairs would change. The size of Julian Zulueta’s new steam-powered ships grew and grew: one such brought in 1,500 slaves in 1860. Thomas Wilson, a British merchant in Havana, thought that “the only remedy is to back the Americans to acquire the island.”9 Joseph Crawford, in his twentieth year as British consul-general in Havana, wrote in February 1861 to Palmerston that there was still no will on the part of the Spanish government, or its officers, to carry out any of the provisions of the treaty banning the slave trade. He thought, therefore, that, “we have to abandon our efforts of persuasion with Spain to put an end to the traffic . . . and proceed to the immediate adoption of the most energetic measures to compel its observance.”10 Palmerston, in a fine speech in the House of Commons that same month, said that, over the slave trade, “the conduct of Spain might have given us just cause for war if we had thought proper to avail ourselves of it.” (The origin of this debate was a motion by Stephen Cave, whose interest in the subject may derive from his Bristol origins, to the effect that the means chosen by the government for suppressing the slave trade had failed. Cave made one of the strongest anti-Spanish speeches that the House of Commons had heard: Spain, he said, “enjoyed a pre-eminence for barbarity in the dark annals of the New World. . . .”)11
The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society seemed willing, at a conference in Lord Brougham’s house in London in June 1861, to abandon its long-held pacifism in support of Palmerston’s position. But surely war could not be the answer.
• • •
Part of the solution lay in securing effective legal action in North America; and now, for the first time, that seemed to be forthcoming. In August 1860, Commander Sylvester Gordon of the United States Navy, on the San Jacinto, detained the slave ship Erie, captained by his namesake Nathaniel Gordon, to the west of Cabinda, with 900 slaves on board. Nathaniel Gordon, who was said to have carried out at least three slave journeys before (when the Erie had been called the Juliet), had fitted out his ship in Havana and sailed forty-five miles up the Congo to fetch this consignment of Africans. He was already at sea, preparing to sail back to Cuba, when he was detained. His slaves were taken to Liberia, and he was himself sent to New York. The ship was sold, and Gordon was tried with his mates, William Warren and David Hale, before Judge William Shipman, who was hearing his first slavery case.
Gordon’s defense was that he had sold the Erie to a Spaniard before the slaves were loaded, and that he was just a passenger at the time of arrest. But several seamen testified that they had been offered a dollar a head by Gordon for every slave landed peacefully in Cuba. After one mistrial, Gordon was, to the general surprise, condemned to be hanged. Judge Shipman said: “Do not imagine that because others shared in the guilt of this enterprise, yours is thereby diminished. But remember the awful admonition of your Bible: ‘Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished.’ ”
This sentence must have astonished Gordon. Many slave captains had been captured, but none had been severely punished, much less hanged, even though the offense of slave trading had been a capital one since 1820. Between 1837 and 1860 seventy-four cases had been brought in the United States on charges related to slaving, but few captains had been convicted, and those had received trifling sentences, which they had usually been able to avoid.
Gordon took strychnine, but the prison doctor saved him for the gallows. He was hanged in public on February 21, 1862: the first, and only, North American to be executed for slave trading.12
This was a landmark in the history of the slave trade, though it was not quite a turning point, for old ways survived, even in the North of the United States. In 1861, for example, Commander John Taylor, on the sloop-of-war Saratoga, arrested theNightingale(Captain Francis Bowen), off Cabinda, just after loading 961 slaves, bound for Cuba. But all concerned were treated lenienly, including Samuel Haynes, the first mate, who suffered two retrials. On October 30, 1862, Erastus Booth, captain of theBuckeye, was also tried—before Judge Shipman, indeed—for trading slaves. After he was released on bail, the evidence was dismissed, and Booth acquitted. In the same month, Albert Horn, owner of the slaver the City of Norfolk, was convicted at New York City but was, inexplicably, pardoned by President Lincoln on grounds of ill-health. In the spring of 1863, Appleton Oaksmith, owner of the supposed whaler Margaret Scott, was convicted in Boston of slaving, but he escaped from jail while awaiting sentence, with the connivance of a guard. In 1862, the Dutch instigated their first case against a slave trader when an English naval captain reported that the mate of the slaver Jane had lived in Rotterdam. But this man claimed that he had not realized that the ship on which he was serving was a slaver, and the case was dismissed.
The administration of President Lincoln desired to end the slave trade, but it required its ships for war duties, and called home both the Africa and the new Cuba squadrons. This action appeared likely to stimulate the slave trade again. The hanging of Captain Nathaniel Gordon of the Erie did not seem to be a determining deterrence. Diplomacy was still necessary.
So Charles Francis Adams—United States minister in London, and son of John Quincy Adams—was asked by Secretary of State Seward (Cass’s benign successor) to request Lord John Russell to send a force into Cuban waters to intercept slavers. An amazed Russell replied that sending cruisers was pointless unless British warships were allowed to search and, if necessary, seize United States ships. Lincoln and Seward “capitulated,” as Howard, of the British legation in Washington, put it—partly because the administration hoped to gain British support for the federal side. On October 5, 1861, the Admiralty in London received an astonishing memorandum from the Foreign Office: “The American Secretary of State, in speaking of the jealousy of the United States respecting the Right of Search, has expressed to Lord Lyons [the tactful British minister in Washington] the willingness of the Washington cabinet that British cruisers should overhaul any vessels which gave reasonable grounds of suspicion. . . . Mr Adams, the United States Minister . . . has apprised Lord John Russell that the fitting out of vessels designed for the Slave Trade will no longer be permitted at New York.”13 Lord Lyons, who had as a boy served as a midshipman on his father’s H.M.S. Blonde in the Mediterranean in the 1820s, drafted a ten-year treaty to allow such inspection. By then, the federal navy had blockaded the Confederate coastline and put paid to any chance of a revival of the slave trade to the North American mainland.
The subsequent treaty allowed warships of both nations the right to search each other’s merchant vessels in the Atlantic. A later protocol also permitted search off the East African coast. If any slaving equipment, or any slaves, were found, the ships could be taken to a mixed court at New York, Cape Town, or Sierra Leone. Decisions in those cities had to be made by both a British and an American judge and, if they could not agree, a U.S. or a British arbitrator would be called in. There would be no damage for false arrest: a great relief to United States naval officers.
Thus, in a single document, Lincoln abandoned the principles of United States foreign policy which John Quincy Adams had enunciated, and which every United States president and secretary of state, not to speak of every minister to London, had referred to as if they had been Holy Writ. The establishment of a mixed court was also a great concession, since it had always been maintained that no foreign judge could ever play any part in deciding United States law. Secretary of State Seward remarkably wrote to his protégé, Charles Francis Adams, in London: “Had such a treaty been made in 1808, there would have been no sedition here.”14
The Senate considered, and approved, this extraordinary treaty behind closed doors, in executive session, and there was no report in the newspapers.
The treaty with the United States should have been a great satisfaction to the aging Lord Palmerston who, for all his intolerable pride, bombast, and condescension towards those peoples whom he considered inferior, had done almost as much as Wilberforce and Clarkson to secure the end of the international slave trade. But his own and his Cabinet’s attitude to Lincoln and the North in the Civil War had been lukewarm (if not actually hostile) until this moment and he and Russell had already recognized the Confederates in the United States as belligerents. Palmerston believed for a time that the North was planning to invade Canada, and his hostility to slavery as such, as opposed to the trade, had never been strong. He was also exercised by the thought of the slaves of the cotton-producing and aristocratic South being freed by democratic generals from the North. Adams, whose work in London was made much easier by the fact that he had gone to school in England, reached the conclusion that, though the matter of slavery had previously been the main question dividing the United States and Britain, “the sentiment of anti-slavery had disappeared.”15
The detention of the two Southern envoys in the British ship Trent, en route from Havana to England, by Admiral Charles Wilkes (a greatnephew of John Wilkes) returning from his time on the United States antislave naval patrol on the coast of Africa, on that same U.S.S. San Jacinto which had captured Nathaniel Gordon, brought Britain and the federalists near to conflict. (Had the Atlantic cable been in operation in December 1861, wrote Charles Francis Adams’s son, Henry, “the two countries would certainly have gone to war.”)
Lincoln’s government, meantime, after its well-known hesitation on the matter, in the interest of maintaining the integrity of the Union, introduced the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and so abolished slavery in the United States. The death of Charles Lamar, the protagonist of the affair of the Wanderer, acting as an aide to General Howell Cobb (Buchanan’s secretary of the Treasury, who had married a Lamar) in the Battle of Columbus, Georgia, in April 1865, marked the end of an era.
Two other developments, a hardening of the British position and internal changes in Cuba, need to be taken into account. As to the first, Captain Wilmot of the Africa squadron had suggested, at the end of July 1861, a two-pronged attack on the chief African sellers: first, a special visit to the king of Dahomey to persuade him to abandon trading slaves, and, second, a close naval blockade of about 300 miles of the African coast to prevent the shipment of slaves. Palmerston, however, agreed with Charles Buxton (Fowell Buxton’s son) who, in the House of Commons, had suggested an attack on Whydah (“he could not see why they should not use violent means”), and thought that, with the United States preoccupied by the civil war, “we ought to . . . begin by taking possession of Whydah and either tell him [the king of Dahomey] why, or wait until he asks us why. . . . It is only the strong arm which can prevail with these barbarians.” But the Admiralty opposed this and, in the end, Palmerston merely sent Wilmot, and subsequently the explorer Richard Burton (at that time Her Majesty’s consul in Fernando Po), on a peaceful mission to the king. Wilmot, explained to King Gelele: “England has been doing her utmost to stop the slave trade in this country. Much money has been spent, and many lives sacrificed to obtain this desirable end, but hitherto without success. I have come to ask you to put an end to this traffic and to enter into some treaty with me.”
Gelele refused: if white men came to buy, why should he not sell? Wilmot asked how much money he needed. “No money will not induce me . . . I am not like the kings of Lagos and Benin. There are only two kings in Africa, Ashanti and Dahomey: I am the King of all the Blacks. Nothing will compensate me for the [loss of the] slave trade.” Gelele also told Burton, “If I cannot sell my captives taken in war, I must kill them, and surely the English would not like that?”16
It was an argument for which abolitionists were unprepared. The slavers were not; and many new ships were fitted out, for the Cuban trade, in the early 1860s: some in France (Fécamp, Marseilles), and Spain (Cádiz).
The only way in which the British really intervened in Africa at this time was, with some reluctance, to accede to a suggestion of Consul Beechcroft in Lagos and agree to the occupation of that city in order to complete the abolition of the slave trade in the Bight of Benin. That at least was the explanation offered by Lord John Russell, then foreign secretary, in June 1861: the government “are convinced that the permanent occupation of this important point in the Bight of Benin is indispensable to the complete suppression of the slave trade in the Bight.” King Docemo was dismissed by Acting Consul William McCoskry, a legitimate trader of long experience on the coast, and subsequently allowed an annual income of one thousand pounds, to be paid in cowries.17
The British had scarcely patrolled the coasts of Cuba between 1858 and 1861. The risk of a serious naval clash with Spain seemed too great. But with the new situation in the United States, they changed their policies. Russell, still foreign secretary, sought, like the United States before 1860, to organize a blockade by four steam cruisers in Cuban waters. Spain refused to allow those ships to anchor off any Cuban port. The idea seemed a renunciation of their sovereignty. All the same, in 1863, the British navy did have six ships cruising off Cuba. Despite the Civil War, the United States also maintained a sporadic patrol, and Admiral Charles Wilkes, the controversial officer who had captured the Trent, seized the Noc Daqui, one of Julián Zulueta’s large steamers, in 1863.
In these critical moments, Cuba had the benefit at last of a succession of genuinely liberal captains-general. Thus, in 1859, in the face of accusations that the international trade in slaves was doing better than ever—perhaps 23,000 were carried into Cuba that year—and with the British continuing to send to Madrid all the evidence they had gained from their consul in Havana,I Captain-General de la Concha proposed to exile from Cuba anyone even suspected of being involved in a slave expedition. The Spanish government thought that idea far too arbitrary. Concha, to begin with suspected of being too tolerant to the planters, then resigned, apparently in disgust at the planters’ disloyalty.
The eclipse of Concha was providential, for the next captain-general was the enlightened General Francisco Serrano, a competent and tolerant ex-minister of war and ex-lover of Queen Isabella, the “handsome general” whom the queen had desired always to retain at the palace. He, like his predecessor, had a solution to the problems of Cuba: an organic law, in which numerous political freedoms would be granted. Slavery would be preserved, he told the British Consul Joseph Crawford but, on the other hand, the slave trade would be declared piracy, and any offenders would be punished by martial law.
It is true that the government in Madrid dismissed the plan as being against “the principles of morality and justice.” But by now, there was a real abolitionist group in Spain, not just a few isolated writers such as the botanist Ramón de la Sagra. A radical group in the new Cortes of 1855 (including Emilio Castelar and Laurent Figuerola) talked of the matter. These were still minority voices, but they were eloquent: the first-named was among the finest orators in Europe, the second an intelligent economist who would one day introduce Spain’s first free-trade budget. General Serrano, in June 1862, suggested that the Civil War in North America should cause Spain to talk genuinely of abolition—before events precipitated the matter. He thought that, unless the slave trade were abolished, slavery itself would be destroyed. Serrano had already tried to infuse the Spanish navy with a serious capacity for preventing the slave traffic, by using a few shallow-draft steamers. But though the government agreed with him in principle, in practice they were resolved to be ineffective.
Next as captain-general was General Domingo Dulce. He had first come to the public notice when he defended Queen Isabella and her sister against an insurrection faction of officers, on the staircase of the royal palace in Madrid in 1841. He sought to govern with generosity but strength, although he had no sympathy for Africans.II When he took office in Havana in December 1862, he announced that he had been sent to fulfill the treaties which the queen had made with other countries for the suppression of the trade in slaves. He said that he possessed the names of those concerned in such activities and he would not hesitate to use his powers to destroy them. For the first time, a British judge of the Mixed Court (Robert Bunch) reported favorably of a captain-general: “It is impossible that anyone should express himself more strongly against this infamous traffic than general Dulce did.” Bunch said he believed that he was often deceived by false reports. Dulce admitted that was often the case, and said: “Send in all the information you can get, be it true or false, and we will do our best to sift it.” He began by sending home two minor slave traders, Antonio Tuero and Francisco Duraboña, and followed that by sending home eight more important Portuguese ones in the spring of 1863. He also suspended the governor of Havana, Pedro Navascues, for complicity in a slaving expedition. By this time, the British consul-general had begun to trust Dulce and even to collaborate, as he had suggested. In 1864, José Agustín Argüelles, governor of Colón in Central Cuba, despite his famous name in antislaving circles, fled to the United States when accused of selling 141 slaves whom he had freed after intercepting a ship of Zulueta’s (the two were probably in collaboration). He was sent back to Cuba, to be tried and sentenced to life in the galleys (which sentence, admittedly, he did not serve).18
Though, as captain-general, Dulce continued to enjoy emergency powers, as all his predecessors had done since 1825, he allowed the Cubans to publish newspapers; and one of these, El Siglo, became the center of liberal Cuban opinion which, led by the progressive agronomist the count of Pozos Dulces (Francisco Frías y Jacott) and José Morales Lemus (both of whom had been in favor of Cuba’s annexation to the United States in the 1840sIII), was prepared to argue in favor of an immediate abolition of the slave trade, including an end to the brutal Yucatec and Chinese immigration. El Siglo also suggested trying again to find incentives to attract white colonists. Though hoping to maintain slavery, at least for the time being, these enlightened planters feared a Southern victory in the North American Civil War, for they believed that a triumphant Confederacy would be sure to impose high tariffs on Cuba in order to protect their own increasingly important sugar in Louisiana.
The reasons for these changes in mood were various: first, there was the continuing high cost of slaves which the merchants thought that they could obtain (in 1864, prices of slaves in Havana reached $1,250-$1,500); second, manumission had depleted the slave labor available; thirdly, despite the relative political failure of most of the new independent Latin American states, there was an increasing sense of national destiny among Cubans; and, finally, the Civil War in North America stimulated abolitionist sentiment on the island.
All the same, 1863, the second year of that conflict, saw the entry into Cuba of nearly 25,000 slaves, according to Spanish archives. A leading merchant of Havana summed things up as they still seemed to him: “For many reasons Spain would gain with the abolition of the slave trade . . . but the government recognizes, as does everyone here, that the economic problem is connected with the existence of slavery, since the island’s wealth depends on slave labor. Hence the benign tolerance and leniency that is employed in dealing with such an infamous trade.”19 Slavery itself still seemed to be firmly established: there were over 350,000 slaves on the island, of whom two-thirds were male; almost half lived on sugar mills, about 25,000 on coffee plantations, and under 18,000 on tobacco farms.
All the same, the trade in slaves in Cuba seemed at last to be in decline. The captain-general insisted, indeed, that no slaves landed in 1865, and the Foreign Office admitted that Consul Joseph Crawford had exaggerated the figures for 1859. As for Africa, the British Commodore A. P. E. Williams found the fifteen old factories at Punta da Lehna, on the Congo, on the point of collapse, though the traders themselves were still living well.
Francisco Martí y Torres, once a friend of Tacón, with two José Ricardo O’Farrills, uncle and nephew, descendants of the South Sea factor of 1713, sought ways round the obstinately philanthropic approach of Dulce, and planned an expedition to bring slaves from Africa to the plantations which Martí owned in Malas Aguas and Pan de Azúcar. The expedition was betrayed, and the captain-general ordered the commander of the navy to pursue their ships. Several other incidents (the seizure of slaves on board the schooner Matilde; and the discovery of 278 slaves who had been disembarked from a brigantine which had been burned after delivery of the cargo) caused Dulce to begin legal proceedings against Martí, which would have been a cause célèbre had the by then aged slaver not died, in his own house in Havana, in the spring of 1866.
Even Julián Zulueta was soon thwarted. He had bought a fast steamer in Liverpool, named it the Cicerón, and in it carried over 1,100 slaves from Dahomey to Panama. On the latter beach, Zulueta in person marched the slaves along the Central American coast to a point where he planned to transport them to Cuba. But the local governor betrayed him and the slaves were lost. When the Cicerón returned to Africa for another cargo, she was prevented from trading by a cordon of boats which the British had flung round her destination. Several other slavers were similarly apprehended. But some stories often had less satisfactory endings. For example, in 1864, H.M.S. Dart seized what was assumed to be a United States slaving brig, but the crew destroyed the papers and the vessel was let go.
That same year, the Spanish abolitionist movement acquired a new leader: the Puerto Rican planter Julio Vizcarrando. He held the first meeting of the Sociedad Abolicionista Española in Madrid in that year, with two other Puertoriqueños (José Acosta, Joaquín Sanromá). But he had the support of liberal Spanish politicians such as Emilio Castelar, Juan Valera (a fine novelist), Segismundo Moret (grandson of an English general and an Anglophile), Manuel Becerra (later a reforming colonial minister), and Nicolás Salmerón (a philosopher and federalist). Vizcarrando was the outstanding guide whom the Spanish abolitionists needed, and he had the advantage not only of knowing the United States well, but of being married to a formidable agitator, Harriet Brewster of Philadelphia. He had liberated his own slaves in Puerto Rico, publicly denounced the injustices practiced on them and others, and founded a house of charity for the poor of San Juan; in Madrid, he used the same emblem for his movement as that which had been employed in Britain: a chained Negro on bended knee. He soon established branches of his movement in Seville, León, Barcelona, and Saragossa. He inspired a journal, the Revista Hispano-Americano, whose first editorial demanded an end to the Cuban slave trade as a precursor of other colonial reforms. Many committees in Spain asked many old questions (“What are the means for promoting matrimony among slaves?”), which lost none of their urgency for having been put by others a hundred years before.
There were defenders of slavery in Spain, as there had been in England, France, and the United States: for example, the popular journalist José Ferrer de Couto, in his Los negros en sus diversos estados y condiciones argued that “the so-called slave trade is . . . the redemption of slaves and prisoners,” who, he thought, were far better off under Spain than they were in vile Africa. But Vizcarrando had a decisive effect.
It was in consequence of Vizcarrando’s activity that, on May 6, 1865, Antonio María Fabié, a sevillano, could rise in the Cortes to second a motion on abolition: “The war in the United States is finished,” he declaimed, “and, it being finished, slavery on the whole American continent can be taken as finished. Is it possible to keep . . . this institution in the dominions [of Spain]? I don’t think so. . . . The Government must comply with its great obligations. . . .” Fabié admittedly had preceded this with the by then customary, even obligatory, eulogy of Spanish slavery in comparison with that of the Anglo-Saxons: “In all the history of slavery,” he said, “no country has known how to organize it as Spain has, no country has made the situation of the Negro race more elevated, more tolerable or, at times, more sweet. . . . This explains why we have preserved the institution longer than in other countries.”20
A few days later, the liberal Cuban planters associated with the newspaper El Siglo sent a memorandum to the still influential Captain-General Serrano in Madrid (12,000 Cuban criollos signed), requesting his support for Cuban representation in the Cortes, a reform of tariffs to allow the import of flour from the U.S. and, astonishingly, an end to the traffic in slaves, which they spoke of as “a repugnant and dangerous cancer of immorality. . . . Private interests have shown themselves more powerful than the honor and conscience of the nation.” Here was a remarkable transformation!21
It is true that a pro-Spanish party (headed by Julián Zulueta) made their own protest in reply, in a letter to the queen: whose signatories were, they said, not against changes in tariffs, but they were against political reform, including any idea of representation of Cubans in the Cortes in Madrid. But reformers were now dominant in Spain; and, in August 1865, Dulce was permitted to exile all persons “who had repeatedly endangered the peace of the island,” and to include slave merchants in this category. Those exiled to Spain included the astonished multimillionaire Zulueta: a brave and unforeseeable act.
The following February, the conservative Antonio de Cánovas, then minister for the colonies, finally introduced into the Cortes in Madrid a bill for the suppression and punishment of the slave trade. Cánovas would become the great Spanish statesman of the later part of the nineteenth century but, if he had not been that, he would have been recognized as a historian. He was a statesman in the mold of Edmund Burke, but a Burke who exercised power. The preamble of his bill included the remarkable reminder that the ancient laws of Castile “punished the stealing of freemen by death” and also accepted that Africans were freemen.
The bill was debated over several weeks, Generals Gutiérrez de la Concha, Pezuela, and O’Donnell, all sometime captains-general in Cuba, being among those to speak. A commission set up by Cánovas described the traffic as “infamous and inexplicable in the eyes of Christian civilization.” But slave interests continued to be well represented in Madrid—for example, by José Luis Riquelme, who had property and slaves in Cuba. He deplored the idea in the proposed new law that officials could enter plantations looking for newly imported slaves. That would revive all the troubles of 1854. “On my own plantation,” said Riquelme, “I have given liberty to those slaves who asked for it, and they have remained to work on the plantation. That is the way.”
Cánovas replied that the belief that the prosperity of the island demanded the slave trade was out of date. The government would accept slavery for the time being “as it now exists.” But “I am obliged to suppress the slave trade . . . and I will stop at nothing in order to achieve this result.” His bill passed the Senate in April 1866 but, because of further procedural complexities associated with the fall of the Spanish government, it did not become law till May 1867, and was only promulgated in Cuba in September 1867. Its article 38 provided at last for the registration of all slaves. Black men and women not included in the registration would be deemed free. Anyone connected with the trade in slaves was to be liable to heavy punishments. As had by then occurred in most other European countries, any slave who reached Spain was also to be declared automatically free.22
Spanish abolitionists complained that the law was less rigorous than laws in other countries, for it did not denounce slave traders as pirates. Colonial officials still found it very difficult to carry out inspections within plantations; and many believed that, “while slavery exists, all efforts to suppress the traffic will prove futile.” Even General Dulce thought the law inadequate: he favored the arbitrary exiling of all slave merchants, men who “are very well known in the island, those who prepare slave ships; [for] in the secretariat of the civil government, information can be found concerning the most prominent people engaged in this odious speculation.”23
By that time, the institution of slavery itself seemed to be endangered. On April 3, 1866, The New York Times published an extraordinary report: “The negroes of the haciendas of Zulueta, Aldama and the other big owners of slaves, in the jurisdiction of Matanzas, have declared themselves on strike in the last days, demanding that they be paid for their work. . . . Some troops have been sent to the haciendas to oblige them to start working again. If the mania of not wanting to work without payment extends to otherhaciendas, it would be difficult for their proprietors to accustom themselves to such a revolutionary state of affairs.”24
There were few slave landings in the late 1860s. In 1867, Captain-General Joaquín del Manzano talked of just such an event, and the Admiralty in Britain confirmed the tale. About the same time, the British consul-general reported that he had seen 275 Africans brought into Havana by a Spanish naval ship, the Neptuno. Some newspapers recorded what they claimed to be other landings. L’Opinion nationale reported in Paris, in August 1866, that the slave traffic had reached even greater proportions, and declared that one dealer had paid $50,000 as a bribe to introduce 700 Africans. The New York Herald also claimed that a thousand Africans were landed near Jaruco that summer. Three hundred were said to have been taken by schooner to Marianao, a residence “where the [new] Captain General is living [probably Francisco Lersundi, not Manzano] . . . [and] afterwards, to the farm of a wealthy Spaniard. They were duly provided with the necessary passes. . . .” The abolitionist lawyer in Madrid Rafael Labra said that a Havana paper had advertised blacks from Africa for sale (though without specifying the paper). In December 1867, the captain of the British cruiser Speedwell discovered ninety-six Africans on board a slave ship off Africa, and reported that he had been told of another seven hundred being maintained in a barracoon nearby; and Cuba was of course their destination. A German traveler observed a slave ship leaving the Loango coast in 1868, but there is no evidence of when and where it arrived. The last verified landing of slaves in Cuba appears to have been in January 1870, when nine hundred captives seem to have been disembarked near Jibacoa in the province of Havana. The Cuban historian José Luciano Franco remembered meeting in Havana in 1907 an African known as María la Conguita who said that she had been carried as a slave with others to Cuba as late as 1878. But she may have had a poor memory for dates.25
There is really no evidence for any landing of slaves in Cuba after 1870. In 1871, the head of the Slavery Department of the Foreign Office in London told a select committee of the House of Commons that he had heard stories that some slaves had found their way from Zanzibar to Cuba but, he commented, “I do not think there is any foundation for such a statement.” Even the always skeptical British consul thought that no landings of slaves were made between 1865 and 1872.
Meanwhile, the cause of the emancipados was also resolved. In September 1869, the captaincy-general in Havana began the task of distributing certificates of liberty to all who had survived the years of ignominy, brutality, and indifference. But most of them remained to all intents and purposes slaves till their dying days. Twenty-six thousand emancipados had been liberated in Cuba since 1825: the number of really free men could not have been more than a few thousand.
So now at last the British and other nations’ West Africa and South America squadrons, not to speak of their North America stations, could be brought to an end; about 200,000 slaves had been freed from slave ships in consequences of their efforts, even if not far short of two million had been carried. The British West Africa Squadron, which had done so much for the cause of abolition, was merged with the Cape Squadron in 1870. Its captains had over sixty years freed about 160,000 slaves, probably about 8 percent of the slaves shipped from Africa, mostly (85 percent) off Africa. They or their French, North American, Portuguese, and Spanish colleagues captured about 1,635 ships altogether: about a fifth of the 7,750 or so ships which set off for the trade in that time.IVPerhaps another 800,000 additional slaves would have been shipped if there had been no Africa squadron. Many British seamen died (1,338 in all, between 1825 and 1845) as a result of skirmishes at sea or, even worse, yellow fever and malaria contracted on land or in the rivers of the slave coast still in an age of ignorance of the causes of those diseases.26
The Mixed Court at Sierra Leone was closed in 1871, but, though it was never used again, its sister judiciary court in Havana survived till 1892. The judges appointed under the United States-British treaty of 1861 never had to hear a case.
So it was that the 350 years of the slave trade from Africa to Cuba came to an end without special celebration, without fanfare, and without a victory procession. But it was a triumph, all the same, for reason and humanity.
I The British First Lord of the Admiralty, then the duke of Somerset, circulated a paper to his Cabinet in January 1860: “The slave trade,” he wrote, “is rapidly increasing, and . . . in the present year it has grown more extensively and more successfully than for many years past. . . . There is now no effective check on the slave trade and but little risk of capture to those who conduct it”
II He said, for instance, “By his very nature the African is indolent and lazy and to give him liberty, something which he has not known even in his own country, will make him into a vagabond.”
III Pozos Dulces was a brother-in-law of the nationalist Narciso López.
IV Of the vessels stopped, 1,500 were taken by British ships, 65 condemnations were French, 58 by the United States, 35 by the Portuguese, 28 by the Spaniards, and even 26 by Brazilians.