The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America Part 22

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This convention was laid before the Senate April 30, 1824, but was not acted upon until May 21, when it was so amended as to make it terminable at six months’ notice. The same day, President Monroe, “apprehending, from the delay in the decision, that some difficulty exists,” sent a special message to the Senate, giving at length the reasons for signing the treaty, and saying that “should this Convention be adopted, there is every reason to believe, that it will be the commencement of a system destined to accomplish the entire Abolition of the Slave Trade.” It was, however, a time of great political pot-boiling, and consequently an unfortunate occasion to ask senators to settle any great question. A systematic attack, led by Johnson of Louisiana, was made on all the vital provisions of the treaty: the waters of America were excepted from its application, and those of the West Indies barely escaped exception; the provision which, perhaps, aimed the deadliest blow at American slave-trade interests was likewise struck out; namely, the application of the Right of Search to citizens chartering the vessels of a third nation.[38]

The convention thus mutilated was not signed by England, who demanded as the least concession the application of the Right of Search to American waters. Meantime the United States had invited nearly all nations to denounce the trade as piracy; and the President, the Secretary of the Navy, and a House committee had urgently favored the granting of the Right of Search. The bad faith of Congress, however, in the matter of the Colombian treaty broke off for a time further negotiations with England.[39]

71. ~The Att.i.tude of the United States and the State of the Slave-Trade.~ In 1824 the Right of Search was established between England and Sweden, and in 1826 Brazil promised to abolish the trade in three years.[40] In 1831 the cause was greatly advanced by the signing of a treaty between Great Britain and France, granting mutually a geographically limited Right of Search.[41] This led, in the next few years, to similar treaties with Denmark, Sardinia,[42] the Hanse towns,[43] and Naples.[44] Such measures put the trade more and more in the hands of Americans, and it began greatly to increase. Mercer sought repeatedly in the House to have negotiations reopened with England, but without success.[45] Indeed, the chances of success were now for many years imperilled by the recurrence of deliberate search of American vessels by the British.[46] In the majority of cases the vessels proved to be slavers, and some of them fraudulently flew the American flag; nevertheless, their molestation by British cruisers created much feeling, and hindered all steps toward an understanding: the United States was loath to have her criminal negligence in enforcing her own laws thus exposed by foreigners. Other international questions connected with the trade also strained the relations of the two countries: three different vessels engaged in the domestic slave-trade, driven by stress of weather, or, in the “Creole” case, captured by Negroes on board, landed slaves in British possessions; England freed them, and refused to pay for such as were landed after emanc.i.p.ation had been proclaimed in the West Indies.[47] The case of the slaver “L’Amistad” also raised difficulties with Spain. This Spanish vessel, after the Negroes on board had mutinied and killed their owners, was seized by a United States vessel and brought into port for adjudication. The court, however, freed the Negroes, on the ground that under Spanish law they were not legally slaves; and although the Senate repeatedly tried to indemnify the owners, the project did not succeed.[48]

Such proceedings well ill.u.s.trate the new tendency of the pro-slavery party to neglect the enforcement of the slave-trade laws, in a frantic defence of the remotest ramparts of slave property. Consequently, when, after the treaty of 1831, France and England joined in urging the accession of the United States to it, the British minister was at last compelled to inform Palmerston, December, 1833, that “the Executive at Washington appears to shrink from bringing forward, in any shape, a question, upon which depends the completion of their former object–the utter and universal Abolition of the Slave Trade–from an apprehension of alarming the Southern States.”[49] Great Britain now offered to sign the proposed treaty of 1824 as amended; but even this Forsyth refused, and stated that the United States had determined not to become “a party of any Convention on the subject of the Slave Trade.”[50]

Estimates as to the extent of the slave-trade agree that the traffic to North and South America in 1820 was considerable, certainly not much less than 40,000 slaves annually. From that time to about 1825 it declined somewhat, but afterward increased enormously, so that by 1837 the American importation was estimated as high as 200,000 Negroes annually. The total abolition of the African trade by American countries then brought the traffic down to perhaps 30,000 in 1842. A large and rapid increase of illicit traffic followed; so that by 1847 the importation amounted to nearly 100,000 annually. One province of Brazil is said to have received 173,000 in the years 1846-1849. In the decade 1850-1860 this activity in slave-trading continued, and reached very large proportions.

The traffic thus carried on floated under the flags of France, Spain, and Portugal, until about 1830; from 1830 to 1840 it began gradually to a.s.sume the United States flag; by 1845, a large part of the trade was under the stars and stripes; by 1850 fully one-half the trade, and in the decade, 1850-1860 nearly all the traffic, found this flag its best protection.[51]

72. ~The Quintuple Treaty, 1839-1842.~ In 1839 Pope Gregory XVI.

stigmatized the slave-trade “as utterly unworthy of the Christian name;”

and at the same time, although proscribed by the laws of every civilized State, the trade was flourishing with pristine vigor. Great advantage was given the traffic by the fact that the United States, for two decades after the abortive attempt of 1824, refused to co-operate with the rest of the civilized world, and allowed her flag to shelter and protect the slave-trade. If a fully equipped slaver sailed from New York, Havana, Rio Janeiro, or Liverpool, she had only to hoist the stars and stripes in order to proceed unmolested on her piratical voyage; for there was seldom a United States cruiser to be met with, and there were, on the other hand, diplomats at Washington so jealous of the honor of the flag that they would prost.i.tute it to crime rather than allow an English or a French cruiser in any way to interfere. Without doubt, the contention of the United States as to England’s pretensions to a Right of Visit was technically correct. Nevertheless, it was clear that if the slave-trade was to be suppressed, each nation must either zealously keep her flag from fraudulent use, or, as a labor-saving device, depute to others this duty for limited places and under special circ.u.mstances. A failure of any one nation to do one of these two things meant that the efforts of all other nations were to be fruitless. The United States had invited the world to join her in denouncing the slave-trade as piracy; yet, when such a pirate was waylaid by an English vessel, the United States complained or demanded reparation. The only answer which this country for years returned to the long-continued exposures of American slave-traders and of the fraudulent use of the American flag, was a recital of cases where Great Britain had gone beyond her legal powers in her attempt to suppress the slave-trade.[52] In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Secretary of State Forsyth declared, in 1840, that the duty of the United States in the matter of the slave-trade “has been faithfully performed, and if the traffic still exists as a disgrace to humanity, it is to be imputed to nations with whom Her Majesty’s Government has formed and maintained the most intimate connexions, and to whose Governments Great Britain has paid for the right of active intervention in order to its complete extirpation.”[53] So zealous was Stevenson, our minister to England, in denying the Right of Search, that he boldly informed Palmerston, in 1841, “that there is no shadow of pretence for excusing, much less justifying, the exercise of any such right. That it is wholly immaterial, whether the vessels be equipped for, or actually engaged in slave traffic or not, and consequently the right to search or detain even slave vessels, must be confined to the ships or vessels of those nations with whom it may have treaties on the subject.”[54] Palmerston courteously replied that he could not think that the United States seriously intended to make its flag a refuge for slave-traders;[55] and Aberdeen pertinently declared: “Now, it can scarcely be maintained by Mr. Stevenson that Great Britain should be bound to permit her own subjects, with British vessels and British capital, to carry on, before the eyes of British officers, this detestable traffic in human beings, which the law has declared to be piracy, merely because they had the audacity to commit an additional offence by fraudulently usurping the American flag.”[56] Thus the dispute, even after the advent of Webster, went on for a time, involving itself in metaphysical subtleties, and apparently leading no nearer to an understanding.[57]

In 1838 a fourth conference of the powers for the consideration of the slave-trade took place at London. It was attended by representatives of England, France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. England laid the _projet_ of a treaty before them, to which all but France a.s.sented. This so-called Quintuple Treaty, signed December 20, 1841, denounced the slave-trade as piracy, and declared that “the High Contracting Parties agree by common consent, that those of their ships of war which shall be provided with special warrants and orders … may search every merchant-vessel belonging to any one of the High Contracting Parties which shall, on reasonable grounds, be suspected of being engaged in the traffic in slaves.” All captured slavers were to be sent to their own countries for trial.[58]

While the ratification of this treaty was pending, the United States minister to France, Lewis Ca.s.s, addressed an official note to Guizot at the French foreign office, protesting against the inst.i.tution of an international Right of Search, and rather grandiloquently warning the powers against the use of force to accomplish their ends.[59] This extraordinary epistle, issued on the minister’s own responsibility, brought a reply denying that the creation of any “new principle of international law, whereby the vessels even of those powers which have not partic.i.p.ated in the arrangement should be subjected to the right of search,” was ever intended, and affirming that no such extraordinary interpretation could be deduced from the Convention. Moreover, M. Guizot hoped that the United States, by agreeing to this treaty, would “aid, by its most sincere endeavors, in the definitive abolition of the trade.”[60] Ca.s.s’s theatrical protest was, consciously or unconsciously, the manifesto of that growing cla.s.s in the United States who wanted no further measures taken for the suppression of the slave-trade; toward that, as toward the inst.i.tution of slavery, this party favored a policy of strict _laissez-faire_.

73. ~Final Concerted Measures, 1842-1862.~ The Treaty of Washington, in 1842, made the first effective compromise in the matter and broke the unpleasant dead-lock, by subst.i.tuting joint cruising by English and American squadrons for the proposed grant of a Right of Search. In submitting this treaty, Tyler said: “The treaty which I now submit to you proposes no alteration, mitigation, or modification of the rules of the law of nations. It provides simply that each of the two Governments shall maintain on the coast of Africa a sufficient squadron to enforce separately and respectively the laws, rights, and obligations of the two countries for the suppression of the slave trade.”[61] This provision was a part of the treaty to settle the boundary disputes with England.

In the Senate, Benton moved to strike out this article; but the attempt was defeated by a vote of 37 to 12, and the treaty was ratified.[62]

This stipulation of the treaty of 1842 was never properly carried out by the United States for any length of time.[63] Consequently the same difficulties as to search and visit by English vessels continued to recur. Cases like the following were frequent. The “Illinois,” of Gloucester, Ma.s.sachusetts, while lying at Whydah, Africa, was boarded by a British officer, but having American papers was unmolested. Three days later she hoisted Spanish colors and sailed away with a cargo of slaves.

Next morning she fell in with another British vessel and hoisted American colors; the British ship had then no right to molest her; but the captain of the slaver feared that she would, and therefore ran his vessel aground, slaves and all. The senior English officer reported that “had Lieutenant c.u.mberland brought to and boarded the ‘Illinois,’

notwithstanding the American colors which she hoisted,… the American master of the ‘Illinois’ … would have complained to his Government of the detention of his vessel.”[64] Again, a vessel which had been boarded by British officers and found with American flag and papers was, a little later, captured under the Spanish flag with four hundred and thirty slaves. She had in the interim complained to the United States government of the boarding.[65]

Meanwhile, England continued to urge the granting of a Right of Search, claiming that the stand of the United States really amounted to the wholesale protection of pirates under her flag.[66] The United States answered by alleging that even the Treaty of 1842 had been misconstrued by England,[67] whereupon there was much warm debate in Congress, and several attempts were made to abrogate the slave-trade article of the treaty.[68] The pro-slavery party had become more and more suspicious of England’s motives, since they had seen her abolition of the slave-trade blossom into abolition of the system itself, and they seized every opportunity to prevent co-operation with her. At the same time, European interest in the question showed some signs of weakening, and no decided action was taken. In 1845 France changed her Right of Search stipulations of 1833 to one for joint cruising,[69] while the Germanic Federation,[70] Portugal,[71] and Chili[72]enounced the trade as piracy.

In 1844 Texas granted the Right of Search to England,[73] and in 1845 Belgium signed the Quintuple Treaty.[74]

Discussion between England and the United States was revived when Ca.s.s held the State portfolio, and, strange to say, the author of “Ca.s.s’s Protest” went farther than any of his predecessors in acknowledging the justice of England’s demands. Said he, in 1859: “If The United States maintained that, by carrying their flag at her masthead, any vessel became thereby ent.i.tled to the immunity which belongs to American vessels, they might well be reproached with a.s.suming a position which would go far towards shielding crimes upon the ocean from punishment; but they advance no such pretension, while they concede that, if in the honest examination of a vessel sailing under American colours, but accompanied by strongly-marked suspicious circ.u.mstances, a mistake is made, and she is found to be ent.i.tled to the flag she bears, but no injury is committed, and the conduct of the boarding party is irreproachable, no Government would be likely to make a case thus exceptional in its character a subject of serious reclamation.”[75]

While admitting this and expressing a desire to co-operate in the suppression of the slave-trade, Ca.s.s nevertheless steadily refused all further overtures toward a mutual Right of Search.

The increase of the slave-traffic was so great in the decade 1850-1860 that Lord John Russell proposed to the governments of the United States, France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, that they instruct their ministers to meet at London in May or June, 1860, to consider measures for the final abolition of the trade. He stated: “It is ascertained, by repeated instances, that the practice is for vessels to sail under the American flag. If the flag is rightly a.s.sumed, and the papers correct, no British cruizer can touch them. If no slaves are on board, even though the equipment, the fittings, the water-casks, and other circ.u.mstances prove that the ship is on a Slave Trade venture, no American cruizer can touch them.”[76] Continued representations of this kind were made to the paralyzed United States government; indeed, the slave-trade of the world seemed now to float securely under her flag.

Nevertheless, Ca.s.s refused even to partic.i.p.ate in the proposed conference, and later refused to accede to a proposal for joint cruising off the coast of Cuba.[77] Great Britain offered to relieve the United States of any embarra.s.sment by receiving all captured Africans into the West Indies; but President Buchanan “could not contemplate any such arrangement,” and obstinately refused to increase the suppressing squadron.[78]

On the outbreak of the Civil War, the Lincoln administration, through Secretary Seward, immediately expressed a willingness to do all in its power to suppress the slave-trade.[79] Accordingly, June 7, 1862, a treaty was signed with Great Britain granting a mutual limited Right of Search, and establishing mixed courts for the trial of offenders at the Cape of Good Hope, Sierra Leone, and New York.[80] The efforts of a half-century of diplomacy were finally crowned; Seward wrote to Adams, “Had such a treaty been made in 1808, there would now have been no sedition here.”[81]


[1] Cf. Augustine Cochin, in Lalor, _Cyclopedia_, III. 723.

[2] By a law of Aug. 11, 1792, the encouragement formerly given to the trade was stopped. Cf. _Choix de rapports, opinions et discours p.r.o.nonces a la tribune nationale depuis 1789_ (Paris, 1821), XIV. 425; quoted in Cochin, _The Results of Emanc.i.p.ation_ (Booth’s translation, 1863), pp. 33, 35-8.

[3] Cochin, _The Results of Emanc.i.p.ation_ (Booth’s translation, 1863), pp. 42-7.

[4] _British and Foreign State Papers_, 1815-6, p. 196.

[5] _Ibid._, pp. 195-9, 292-3; 1816-7, p. 755. It was eventually confirmed by royal ordinance, and the law of April 15, 1818.

[6] _Statute 28 George III._, ch. 54. Cf. _Statute 29 George III._, ch. 66.

[7] Various pet.i.tions had come in praying for an abolition of the slave-trade; and by an order in Council, Feb. 11, 1788, a committee of the Privy Council was ordered to take evidence on the subject. This committee presented an elaborate report in 1739. See published _Report_, London, 1789.

[8] For the history of the Parliamentary struggle, cf.

Clarkson’s and Copley’s histories. The movement was checked in the House of Commons in 1789, 1790, and 1791. In 1792 the House of Commons resolved to abolish the trade in 1796. The Lords postponed the matter to take evidence. A bill to prohibit the foreign slave-trade was lost in 1793, pa.s.sed the next session, and was lost in the House of Lords. In 1795, 1796, 1798, and 1799 repeated attempts to abolish the trade were defeated. The matter then rested until 1804, when the battle was renewed with more success.

[9] _Statute 46 George III._, ch. 52, 119; _47 George III._, sess. I. ch. 36.

[10] Sparks, _Diplomatic Correspondence_, X. 154.

[11] Fox to Hartley, June 10, 1783; quoted in Bancroft, _History of the Const.i.tution of the United States_, I. 61.

[12] _Amer. State Papers, Foreign_, III. No. 214, p. 151.

[13] _British and Foreign State Papers_, 1815-6, pp. 886, 937 (quotation).

[14] _Ibid._, pp. 890-1.

[15] _British and Foreign State Papers_, 1815-6, p. 887.

Russia, Austria, and Prussia returned favorable replies: _Ibid._, pp. 887-8.

[16] _Ibid._, p. 889.

[17] She desired a loan, which England made on this condition: _Ibid._, pp. 921-2.

[18] _Ibid._, pp. 937-9. Certain financial arrangements secured this concession.

[19] _Ibid._, pp. 939-75

[20] _Amer. State Papers, Foreign_, III. No. 271, pp. 735-48; _U.S. Treaties and Conventions_ (ed. 1889), p. 405.

[21] This was inserted in the Treaty of Paris, Nov. 20, 1815: _British and Foreign State Papers_, 1815-6, p. 292.

[22] _Ibid._, 1816-7, pp. 33-74 (English version, 1823-4, p.

702 ff.).

[23] Cf. _Ibid._, 1817-8, p. 125 ff.

[24] This was the first meeting of the London ministers of the powers according to agreement; they a.s.sembled Dec. 4, 1817, and finally called a meeting of plenipotentiaries on the question of suppression at Aix-la-Chapelle, beginning Oct. 24, 1818. Among those present were Metternich, Richelieu, Wellington, Castlereagh, Hardenberg, Bernstorff, Nesselrode, and Capodistrias. Castlereagh made two propositions: 1. That the five powers join in urging Portugal and Brazil to abolish the trade May 20, 1820; 2. That the powers adopt the principle of a mutual qualified Right of Search. Cf. _British and Foreign State Papers_, 1818-9, pp. 21-88; _Amer. State Papers, Foreign_, V. No. 346, pp. 113-122.

[25] For cases, see _1 Acton_, 240, the “Amedie,” and _1 Dodson_, 81, the “Fortuna;” quoted in U.S. Reports, _10 Wheaton_, 66.

[26] Cf. the case of the French ship “Le Louis”: _2 Dodson_, 238; and also the case of the “San Juan Nepomuceno”: _1 Haggard_, 267.

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