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"The Slave Trade"

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It is safe to say that two or three slavers per month have fitted out and sailed from New York for at least the last ten years!1

Amid the Anglo-Saxon Protestant Christianity—so-called—of the city of New York, the African slave trade now finds its most congenial and convenient emporium; the only other port of much account in this line being old Puritan Salem, in Massachusetts! Here, the adventurers arrange their infamous plots, charter, outfit, man, and dispatch their vessels, pocket their blood-money, perjure themselves straight through the courts, and laugh at God, justice, and civilization.

This hellish traffic has been carried on from this port at least for twenty years, probably from a period long before. Until the official term of the present faithful and energetic United States District Attorney, Hon. John McKeon,2 there seems to have been hardly any attempt to interfere with it; and even his honest and untiring efforts, and the hearty aid of his assistants, Deputy Marshals De Angelis, Nevins, and Helms,3 have scarcely as yet availed to impede the damnable business. Within a few days last past, two more slavers have succeeded in leaving New York for Africa; and all along they have been slipping off at the rate of a dozen or twenty for every one caught.


For the credit of our country we rejoice that the parties in this city concerned in the trade are almost, without exception, Portuguese; all, we believe, except the well-known —— ———, —said to be worth a million of dollars—carried on this slave trade, and the firm of ——— & ———. The other firms engaged in it are ——, ——— & Co., —— ———, —— ———, and —— —. ———.

Upon consideration, we substitute dashes for the names, which were originally inserted in full. We however have them, and they are at the service of any one​ interested.

These men are usually wholesale importers or ship-chandlers. They may or may not be engaged on their own account. There seems reason for supposing that in many cases, however, they act vicariously for Spanish or Portuguese parties, who come hither as to a commodious depôt, with cash ready for the investment


José Antonio De Costa,4 for instance, makes his appearance in New York, with money in his purse. Through his friends, the firm in the city, he finds some vessel for sale. He buys her, paying cash down and taking the papers. There is no need of a vessel to outlast one voyage, as will shortly appear; and he gets his schooner, we will suppose, for five thousand dollars. A crew is engaged nominally for some West India or South American port—as far as possible with foreign hands and only American officers—the captain, or he and the officers, being alone aware of the actual voyage intended. One of the principals goes as supercargo, unless the captain be a principal. Then the usual custom has been quietly to ship the water-casks, rice, etc., slave-deck materials, and other necessaries, often to steal the water for the voyage from some hydrant along the upper and more unfrequented docks, and slip down the harbor in tow of a tug by night, so as to be outside the Narrows5 under canvas next morning by daylight. The little formalities of clearing were often dispensed with; for the parties could easily get up a good enough set of papers to show in the voyage, without expense for fees; and they neither intended to call at any civilized port, nor to bring their vessel back to this.

The vigilance of the officials having a little interfered with this plan, it has now become a frequent procedure to ship within the port of New York only such stores as are absolutely unexceptionable; and then to send the vessel perhaps out to the lonely waters of Gardiner's Bay, at the east end of Long Island, or to some other obscure spot.6 There it is so arranged that a tender meets her, laden with the requisite additional stores, brought from some less guarded seaport; to Gardiner's Bay, for instance, such a sloop came across from New London.7 Thence the slaver forthwith proceeds on her main errand. If successful, having landed her cargo somewhere on the coast of Cuba, she is usually burned or sunk, and captain and crew, with their heavy pay in their pockets, go about their business. Sometimes one vessel will make two or three voyages, refitting at some obscure Southern harbor.


The returns from this trade are so enormous as fully to account for the perseverance of those engaged in it. The items are substantially the following:

Receipts for one ship-load landed.................. $300,000
Usual bribe to Spanish officials.............. 150,000
Prime cost of vessel......................... 7,000
Wages, prime cost of cargo.................. 8,000
Total....................................... 165,000
—— ——
Net profits on adventure................... 135,000

It is not strange that where net returns in six months or less are nine hundred per cent.—nine times the whole investment—and chances of success are at least ten to one of failure—it is not strange that while scoundrels live, and such profits are so sure, the slave trade continues.

The market for slaves is in Cuba, upon the sugar plantations. Upon these death mills, as they might well be called, it is coolly computed that an able-bodied slave will last five years, just about the average life of a Broadway stage horse. And, upon further ciphering, it is discovered to be cheaper to buy full-grown Africans, and work them right through, replacing the force of the plantation once in five years, than it would be to breed them, as our wasteful Virginians do, with the costly drawbacks of wife, family, and youthful uselessness.


The only means at present available to catch these villains is to watch the port, and apprehend any vessel supposed a slaver. But as great cunning is used to mask the affair, by means of cash bargains, secrecy in agreements, forged papers, promptness, and distant confederates (for taking on sea-stores), the undertaking is hazardous. The vessel can not​ be condemned except upon the testimony of parties concerned, which of course is not easily had, or upon evident proof arising from her contents. Moreover, the officers must time these seizures within the short space between the completion of preparations here and getting to sea, and must make them upon their individual risk of being held for damages in case of the acquittal of the vessel; so that, however firm their own conviction may be, they are obliged to see slaver after slaver leave the port, simply because they have been unable to procure a certain kind of proof. The slave merchants are prepared to fight, if it will help them; on being boarded, they ballast and sink all papers supposed dangerous; and if any documents are taken, they are cunningly worded, so as to be made applicable to merchandise. A slave is a "bulto de effectos"—a "bale of goods;" and as such the human merchandise is branded with a merchant's marks, forwarded, and trucked away for account of whom it may concern, like a bag or a box.

Having escaped out upon the high seas, their enterprise there is easy. The European war8 has called off the British cruisers; the American fleet on that coast is inefficient; the path is clear for loading and leaving. On the Cuban or Brazilian coast they find eager help from planters and officers, the first greedy for cheap slaves, the last for ready money. Their "bales" sold, cash in hand, vessel burned, and crew dispersed, they are ready for another profitable crime.

If apprehended in New York, perjury is to be had to any extent for money; besides that, as courts and lawyers well know, parties in a prosecution will swear in the most terrific manner in their own behalf. One case, at least, is within our knowledge, where an acquitted defendant coolly informed a gentleman in court that he had been fully aware that the vessel, on a charge of fitting out which he had been prosecuted, was, in fact, a slaver!

And, moreover, our United States Court in its wisdom so interprets the law that only one special kind of aiding and abetting in the enterprise shall be a crime, in direct contradiction to the act of Congress, which inflicts penalties not only upon persons actually employing vessels in the slave trade, but upon all "who shall IN ANY WISE be aiding or abetting therein."9

Indeed, it is hardly too much to say that whatever the fate of the vessel, actually it seems as if some little pains needed to be taken by the slave-dealer, if he should want to get convicted! At least, he must be a wretched manager if he can not​ evade laws which, between perjured witnesses, avaricious cunning, and crotchety judges, an elephant might lumber through without touching!


Probably no remedy is possible until a more effective course of action by the United States courts is adopted. In the case of so hideous a crime, there would seem much reason for intrusting a large discretion to competent and faithful officers. It is a well-known legal principle, that for an unintentional error in the discharge of official duty, the servants of the law shall be held excused. The present limits to the discretion of the intelligent and active deputy marshals should be enlarged; reasonable suspicion should hold them safe from all suits for damages or other harm to arise upon their action in detaining supposed slavers. If this were the case, and if the court would act in the spirit—and letter—of statute, not as at present requiring that the defendant should be proven to have authority to "control the adventure," but permitting a verdict against him on proof solely of his knowledge of the purpose of the adventure two efficient steps would be taken.


We had the curiosity to examine the Braman,10 the last slaver apprehended. Receiving at the marshal's office a precept to the ship-keeper on board, to "permit the bearer to view the brig Braman," we trot over to the ferry, and thence along the odoriferous streets of Crotonless, undrained Brooklyn,11 to the Navy Yard. Entering through the gate in the glaring dirty-yellow brick wall, we courageously pass the stiff sentry who pegs up and down in front of a sort of porter's lodge, and whose heavy blue woolen uniform and cross-belts look uncomfortable enough in the still hot sunshine; pass long rows of thirty-two pounders, and pyramids of balls; a great ship-house; sundry bluff-bowed vessels at the wharf; the long, dull blue canvas-colored hull of George Steers'12 new government screw war-steamer, the Niagara.13 An enormous boom-derrick, consisting of a strong frame, a hundred feet high, with two long arms, and horse-machinery to lift heavy articles by a rope leading to pulleys, hanging from the arms' ends, is slowly heaving up an enormous lower mast for the man-of-war; a "made mast," as it is called, of separate pieces of timber, banded about with iron. Round and round goes the patient old horse; the vast mass of timber, eighty feet long, and larger round than a fat ox, creeps up, about five inches a minute. Close by lies a yard, a hundred feet long by pacing measure. Just beyond, at the entrance to the great granite dry dock, in which a rotten old war-steamer is being rejuvenated, lies the slaver. The keeper is absent; we jump aboard, and, after one peep into the little dark forecastle, and another into the cabin at the other end, we crawl into the hold. This is the place where the slaves are stowed. It is a hot, confined space, with about as much room in it as two little parlors, each twelve feet square, but thrown together, but longer and lower. Of this narrow little den, more than half would have been filled with stores; over them the slave-deck would be laid, and in the remaining space—a space about three and a half feet high—would the black wretches have been stowed, laid together "spoon-fashion​ , half lying, half sideways, and close in on another's laps, in ranges across the deck—to smother, groan, and perhaps to perish, in the hot, pestilential atmosphere, during the passage across the Atlantic

We look about, and imagine that we hear the barbarous gibberish of the miserable chattels, lamenting their savage homes, and wondering to each other whither their white conquerors are carrying them. Perhaps in desperation they attempt to rise upon the crew. They are quieted either by promiscuous musket volleys fired down the hatchway, or by a few pounds of tacks plentifully dispersed among them, so that the motion of a limb in the dense crowd inflicts smarting, punctured wounds. We gladly drive away the horrid vision, glance once more about the empty hold, the few spars, the watery-looking weeds, sprouting in the dirt, close to the keelson, about the narrow, littered deck, and leave the crime-stained craft.


1. A "slaver" is a slave trader. [back]

2. John McKeon (1808–1883) was in the New York State Assembly from 1832 to 1834 before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1835 and serving until 1837 when he failed to win reelection. He was elected to the House again in 1841 and served until 1843 when he again failed an attempted reelection. He was then district attorney for New York County from 1846 to 1850. At the time this article was written, McKeon was appointed an United States district attorney for the southern district of New York by President Franklin Pierce and served from 1854 to 1858. He later served once again as district attorney for New York County from 1881 until his death in 1883. One of his more famous cases involved Madame Restell, a practicing abortionist, whom he convicted and who committed suicide years later after again undergoing trial for performing abortions. See "McKeon, John, (1808-1853)," Biographical Directory of the United States Congress,, and "John M'Keon's Work Done," New York Times, November 23, 1883. As Whitman states, McKeon was known for his adamant efforts against the slave trade. [back]

3. Lorenzo DeAngelis, George Nevins, and John Helms were Deputy US Marshals, Southern District of New York. [back]

4. Whitman appears to create a hypothetical Portuguese or Spanish person to explain his point. [back]

5. The Narrows is a strait of water that separates Staten Island and Brooklyn. [back]

6. The validity of this account of the illegal slave trade is strengthened by first-hand accounts such as that of Captain Abraham Delano, Jr., of the brig Braman, who described almost verbatim the process that Whitman here describes and confirmed the status of Gardiner's Bay as a safe haven for ships provisioning for the voyage to Africa. Captain Delano stated in the "Maryland Colonization Journal" that he "was to take these things to Gardiner's Bay, because we should be there out of the way of cutters, and not liable to be seized...." As this account was published in the 1856 edition of the journal of the Maryland Colonization Society, it is not altogether impossible that Whitman would have been familiar with it. See The Maryland Colonization Journal (Baltimore: Maryland State Colonization Society, 1856), 229. See also the note below regarding the Braman. [back]

7. New London is a seaport city in Connecticut. [back]

8. Whitman refers to the Crimean War (1853–1856), in which Russia was defeated by the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain, France, and Sardinia. [back]

9. Whitman quotes from a congressional act of 1818 that stipulated punishment for citizens engaged in the international slave trade. [back]

10. On June 7, 1856, the Braman was captured by deputy marshals and sailors aboard the steamboat Only Son. Three men were tried in court for fitting out the slaver: Joseph Pedro da Cunha, Placido de Castro, and Henrico de Costa. The first two men were convicted, but de Costa escaped from a hotel on the way to the jail under the excuse of "changing clothes." He was discovered in 1860 under the name Garcia on board another slaver, the Kate, and was identified and imprisoned. See Emory Holloway and Ralph Adimari, New York Dissected (New York: R.R. Wilson, 1936), 219; "The Captured Slaver," New York Times, June 26, 1856; and "The Slave-trade; Rearrest of an Escaped Prisoner," New York Times, July 7, 1860. [back]

11. The Croton Aqueduct had opened to great fanfare in Manhattan in 1842, bringing a modern water distribution system to New York City and leaving Brooklyn without such a system until an aqueduct finally opened in 1859. [back]

12. George Steers (1815–1856) was a famous American naval architect who designed the racing yacht the America, with which the United States won its first international sailing cup in 1851. He was killed in 1856 when he was thrown from a horse carriage very soon after he had signed a contract to design boats for the Russian Czar, Alexander II. See "George Steers–His Early Shipbuilding," New York Times, October 7, 1856, and "The America's Designer," New York Times, March 29, 1896. [back]

13. The Niagara was a steam frigate designed by George Steers. It was built in 1855 and commissioned in 1867. The ship was a vital player in successfully laying the transatlantic cable, which made it possible for the continents of Europe and North America to communicate through the telegraph. The frigate also served through the Civil War before it was decommissioned in 1865 and sold and destroyed in 1885. [back]

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