AS RACE WEEK CAME TO Charleston in February 1854, so did young Governor John Manning, who had said such positive things about Britain to the state legislature in November, apparently to little avail. The atmosphere was festive and friendly, not as wild as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but neither as reserved as every other week of the year in Charleston. The artist Charles Fraser, who was there, remembered that schools were dismissed, judges adjourned the courts (which had been deserted by the lawyers and witnesses, anyway), clergymen took time off from the pulpit to go watch a favorite horse in a race, and if one couldn’t find a doctor anywhere else, one could find him at the track. “The whole week was devoted to the pleasure and the interchange of conviviality,” Fraser recalled. “Nor were the ladies unnoticed, for the Race Ball, given by the Jockey Club, was always the most splendid of the season.”
Robert Bunch took full advantage of the moment to get to know the new governor. Where George Mathew had fought with the previous occupant of the executive mansion, Bunch flattered and fraternized with Manning. “We have met frequently, both in public and in private,” the consul told Lord Clarendon, “and I had the honor last week of entertaining him at dinner. Mr. Manning is a very young man, only 38 years of age; possessing a considerable fortune, and belonging to one of the ‘old families’ of this State.” Amid all the revelry, Manning had suggested to Bunch that he was “much annoyed, and not a little piqued” at the way the legislature had ignored his advice: “Do they think I am going to study the condition of the State for twelve months and urge a certain line of action just so they can disregard my recommendations?” There amid the festive crowds of Race Week, Governor Manning told Bunch that, ten months hence, better changes to the Negro Seamen law could be obtained from the new legislative session than had been hoped for in the last.
“Time alone can show whether he reckons correctly upon the public sentiment,” Bunch cautioned in his dispatch to Lord Clarendon. But Bunch felt that Manning was “sincere in his desire to see the law repealed.” Still, the year 1854 would be a long one. Charleston was a small town, but the world was becoming a smaller and smaller place, and a conflict in the Middle East began to complicate Robert Bunch’s life in ways he never could have predicted. The problem had started over the question of who should hold the keys to some of the major shrines in Jerusalem. The Russians backed their monks, and the French backed theirs; Moscow’s demands on the Ottoman sultan, who oversaw the holy city, grew ever more extreme, and fighting had begun along the Ottoman-Russian frontier. Lord Clarendon worried that the Russians might win the conflict and, with that, control of the Bosporus, threatening the Mediterranean sea-and-land route to India. Home Secretary Palmerston, although technically no longer in control of foreign policy, was invited by Clarendon to join the inner cabinet shaping the Crown’s response. Soon enough Britain entered the war alongside the French and the Turks. London and Paris often had tense, even hostile, relations, but suddenly those were to be papered over, and Bunch received a circular message from the Foreign Office telling him to work “in perfect harmony” with his French counterpart in Charleston.
It didn’t take much prodding from London, in fact, to make Robert Bunch cultivate Count Xavier de Choiseul. The French nobleman, a cousin of King Louis-Philippe, had represented the interests of Paris in Charleston and Savannah for more than two decades. He was very much at home in the Carolinas and, famously, built himself a chateau he called Chanteloup in the mountains south of Asheville, where many Low Country aristocrats escaped the summer heat. De Choiseul was vital to the broad network of contacts Bunch was building to gather intelligence and exert discreet influence. Bunch told Clarendon that he and de Choiseul already had established relations of “the most friendly character,” and the two of them were ready to cooperate “for the advantage of French interests, or annoyance of our common enemy,” the Russians.
The United States had declared itself neutral in the Crimean War, but London suspected that the Russians were buying warships or having them built in the major ports of New York and Baltimore and possibly cutting deals in Charleston to acquire them elsewhere. The Foreign Office tasked Bunch to find out more. He confirmed that Russian officers had, indeed, been visiting the other ports and reported that an informant told him that a letter addressed to one of the Russians was waiting at the Charleston post office. He arranged to be tipped off if the Russian showed up, “and I shall not fail to watch his movements should he visit Charleston,” he said. But no sinister Muscovite surfaced.
Bunch also found himself drawn to his consular counterpart from Spain, Vincent Antonio de Larrañaga, although the concerns they shared were of a different kind and more closely related to Britain’s slavery worries. Both men had followed closely for many years the activities of the freebooting “revolutionaries” from the United States, the so-called filibusteros who were bent on conquering (or, as they put it, liberating) Cuba.
When Bunch was vice consul in New York City, a would-be savior of the Cuban people, Narciso López, had organized an ill-fated invasion of the island. He and his men landed on Cuban soil in 1850, only to find that the oppressed Cuban people did not rise up to support them. In fact, the invaders had to flee for their lives. A year later, López and his band of yanquis tried once again. This time the Spanish governor-general had López garroted in front of the Morro Castle in Havana. The governor also had forty Americans and a handful of other fighters summarily shot. Anti-Cuban riots broke out in New Orleans, and the whole of America seemed to see López and his men as martyrs. But, of course, the British didn’t feel that way at all. When Bunch heard the news, he sent a particularly cynical note to Crampton. “Is not the execution of those fifty-two pirates too delicious?”
In Charleston, at the direction of his government, Larrañaga had followed the López affair when it looked as if the filibusteros might try to base their operations out of South Carolina. And now he and Bunch watched as, once again, the issue of Cuba began to loom large in the American and especially in the Southern mind.
IN APRIL 1854 it was Charleston’s turn to host the annual Southern Commercial Convention, an economic and political meeting of delegations from thirteen slaveholding states. Amid the dinners, the ball, the regatta, the fireworks displays, and what Bunch considered “puerile pronunciamentos,” there were only a few points on which all delegates agreed: they needed to build more railroads. (Bunch told Clarendon he doubted that would happen: “I have no confidence in the energy of the Southern people.”); there should be a committee of American notables appointed to mediate the Crimean conflict (to this gross implausibility Bunch merely added an exclamation point); and, “the acquisition of the Island of Cuba is an object sincerely to be desired by the Southern States.”
By June the Cuban issue loomed as a very real problem for both London and Madrid. Many in the United States, and not only the South, were convinced that the British government had put so much pressure on Spain about its Cuban colony and the slave trade that soon the island would not only emancipate its vast numbers of blacks, but also begin to arm them. This “Africanization of Cuba” scare was used to whip up anger at Britain and fear of Cuba and to argue that if the Americans didn’t move first to acquire the island, they’d have a renegade black regime on their doorstep inspiring rebellions all over the South.
Bunch had official confirmation from the legation in Washington denying that Britain had the slightest intention of “Africanizing” Cuba. But he convinced almost no one, because, in fact, the British had put enormous pressure on Spain and Cuba to move toward emancipation, hoping that such measures would end the slave trade. And, in a wonderfully cynical move, London let Madrid know that if the Spaniards and Cubans did not cooperate, then they could hardly depend on British support if some crazy Americans annexed their island.
Now there was a new governor-general in Havana, the abolitionist soldier and author Juan de la Pezuela, and in Madrid for a few months Federico de Roncali, whose wife Bunch had once escorted through the streets of New York City, served as prime minister of Spain. Change was in the wind.
In May 1854 all Cuban slaveholders were ordered to appear before local authorities to register their property. Since many if not most of the slaves were straight from Africa, their importation had been in point of fact illegal for thirty years, and now the captain general was saying that all those without proper papers would be freed. The effect would be de facto emancipation on a massive scale. But de la Pezuela went one step further: free mulattoes and blacks were to be armed to help protect Cuba from invasion.
A former governor of Mississippi, John A. Quitman, who had backed the López expedition, was pulling together a new force, and the powerful senior senator for Louisiana, John Slidell, was fighting to get the neutrality laws of the United States repealed so that the Federal government would quit interfering with America’s freelance conquerors. Senator Russell Mallory of Florida introduced a resolution warning there was “a settled design to throw Cuba ultimately into the hands of its Negro population.” A young freshman senator from Louisiana, Judah P. Benjamin, introduced similar resolutions.
Bunch wrote to Clarendon with undisguised frustration. News of these developments put him in an impossible position. “I have exhausted my arguments and nearly my patience in the endeavors to persuade those who have spoken to me on the subject that Great Britain is not engrossed in plotting the destruction of the American Union [and] the abolition of slavery within its limits,” he wrote. “But I believe that words are thrown away; for every paper teems with repeated accusations; and I can see from the manner of my friends that they doubt, if not my sincerity, at any rate the correctness of my information.”
The consul warned that the British game with Cuba might provoke exactly the kind of American adventurism it meant to deter. “The citizens of North and South Carolina have taken no active part in the buccaneering movement,” he wrote, but the registration of slaves and the plan to raise black regiments had created “huge excitement” and “induced some of the quietest people to declare that, if it be true, the Southern States will be forced to invade Cuba,” not so much to punish Spain but “as a measure of self-preservation.”
“This cry, I may be permitted to remark, is always on the lips of a Carolinian when he is about to justify an outrage connected with Slavery.”
President Franklin Pierce had issued a proclamation that reiterated the U.S. government’s opposition to the kind of unauthorized expeditions that had already been mounted against Cuba and Mexico. The U.S. Neutrality Act of 1818 had made it a felony to recruit Americans on U.S. territory to fight in foreign wars. But Bunch had seen enough to advise London that Pierce was not able, even if he was willing, to keep these people on a leash.
“It is the precarious chance of success,” he wrote, “and not the President’s proclamation, which keeps down, for the present, the lawless marauders who swarm in the cities of this Union, and in the semi-civilized regions of the West; particularly on the banks of the Mississippi.
“There exist whole bands, or regiments, of would-be buccaneers,” said Bunch, “thoroughly armed and equipped; deadly marksmen; under perfect control; having pass-words and signs of recognition, who are willing to pour down, at a moment’s notice, upon the Island of Cuba, whenever they may deem themselves sufficiently powerful.” That moment hadn’t come yet, but “they are acquiring strength every day; and, when ready, they will not be stopped by Proclamations, nor by the efforts, even if honestly exerted, of the civil and military officers of the United States. They will have with them, that which, in this country, is more powerful than treaties or than law, and often sets both at defiance; I mean, Public Opinion.”
But Bunch’s biggest immediate concern was rejection of the proposed amendment to the damned Negro Seamen law: “A Member of the Senate stated a few days ago to me that if it were proved that Great Britain had anything to do with the measures of the Governor of Cuba, it would be useless even to introduce a proposal for change.” A few days later Bunch told Crampton that his fears were being realized, and the revisions to the Negro Seamen law were in deep trouble.
In June, Clarendon sent Bunch a dispatch telling the consul he had “the full authority to state that Her Majesty’s Government are totally ignorant of any plan for the ‘Africanization of Cuba,’ ” and that the sole objective of Britain’s“remonstrances and interventions” with the Spanish government was “to prevent the importation of Negroes from Africa.”
This was the message Bunch had conveyed in every way he could imagine. Now he had the explicit backing of the Foreign Office, giving him a clear diplomatic assignment. But it was not this declaration that finally eased the tensions in the South; it was a change in Havana. Governor-General de la Pezuela was replaced by one of his hard-bitten predecessors, José Gutiérrez de la Concha, and the old policies returned, allowing the great landowners to pay lip service to the law banning the importation of Africans with no risk that they’d actually have to comply.
AS THE STIFLING summer heat settled onto the Carolinas, most of those who could leave for cooler climes were doing so. In late June of that first year of Robert Bunch’s posting in South Carolina, he and Emma took off to join their in-laws, the Van Cortlandts, on their large estate in Yonkers, New York.* Bunch liked it there, surrounded by familiar wealth, and the Bunches stayed as long as they could. In New York and Philadelphia they could visit with their old friends and also meet with some of their new acquaintances from South Carolina. Bunch was continuing his careful diplomacy to get the Negro Seamen law repealed and lobbying with those who might have some influence, including Governor John Manning’s brother-in-law, John S. Preston. (The two men were both married to daughters of Wade Hampton, the richest planter in South Carolina.)
It wasn’t until October that Bunch headed back to South Carolina. By then Emma was quite visibly pregnant. For better or worse, the Bunches would begin their family in Charleston.
WHEN GOVERNOR MANNING opened the new session of the legislature in late November, he suggested in his speech, as he had promised he would, that the time had come for the Negro Seamen law to be amended. He didn’t say how, and Bunch, in his report to Clarendon, made excuses for his valuable friend. It had been, said Bunch, a difficult year and a disastrous summer for South Carolina as storms and floods devastated the coast, destroying the rice and Sea Island cotton plantations, while a widespread epidemic of “a very malignant fever during many weeks put a stop to labor and paralyzed trade.” The state was facing an economic depression. So, as Bunch explained, Manning did have a lot on his mind. Bunch said he’d been assured by “persons of great weight” that the seamen law would be amended, but strong currents opposed change. “One step too much will lose all that we have endeavored to gain.”
In the end, the bill was passed in the state senate by a substantial majority and sailed through the House Committee on Colored Populations, thanks to its chairman, John Harleston Read (the brother-in-law of Charleston postmaster Alfred Huger), whom Bunch had cultivated successfully, it seemed. But then the bill stalled on the House floor. The legislative session closed for the year. The bill died. And Bunch wondered whether all his efforts to court the South Carolina grandees had been for naught. “It is impossible for conciliation or generosity to be carried further,” he told Lord Clarendon. Britain’s position had been reasonable and right, but “that is of little assistance in an encounter with a bigotry and a fanaticism unparalleled, I hope, in any other section of the civilized world.”
Even John Harleston Read surprised Bunch as the legislature closed up shop for the year. His committee reported that it had examined a proposal for the revival of the slave trade with Africa. The ceaseless pro-slavery shouting of Leonidas Spratt and his handful of fellow radicals was having an effect.
The committee report noted that since 1807 the trade with Africa had been declared illegal and since 1819 was declared piracy, punishable by death. For a whole host of reasons, Southerners had supported those measures. But times had changed, and the committee members were “decidedly of the opinion that the re-establishment of the trade under the sanction of law and commercial regulation would confer a blessing on the African Race.”
Of course, there would be major advantages for the white race, as well: in the committee’s view imported Africans would help develop “new and extensive slave territories” and bring “wealth and political strength to the slaveholding States.” But there would also be drawbacks: the price of slaves in the United States would plummet, and “this reduction would reduce the profits to be found in rearing slaves.” If that happened, then Virginia and Maryland and other border states where slaves were bred might lose interest in the institution, “and thus bring the cordon of free states closer and closer ’round us,” as if emancipation were a noose threatening the South. So, the committee took no action, but the members made their sentiments clear.
Bunch sent a clipping about the report to the Slave Trade Department at the Foreign Office and to Clarendon, drawing ironic attention to the committee’s opinion that the trade in slaves “would confer a blessing on the African Race.”
“This enlightened proposal,” Bunch told Clarendon, “may serve as an additional proof of the popular feeling in this State on the subject of Slavery in general.” In a separate, private note to John Crampton, Bunch wrote that there was no chance that this “absurd proposition” would lead to any practical result.
Fifteen months later Bunch would feel very different.
*The Van Cortlandt manor house still stands in the middle of a public park in Yonkers, where a man in Colonial garb guides schoolchildren through rooms filled with period antiques.