Slaver Captain Nathaniel Gordon of Portland, Maine and his ship, the Erie, was captured at the mouth of the Congo River by the USS Mohican in 1860. Loaded with nearly 900 slaves, the Erie was built in Swansea, Massachusetts about 1850, and owned by a New York City business partnership.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Slave Trading and Respected Merchants
“Ironically, an opportunity for strict enforcement of the slave trade laws was available to the United States almost from the beginning, but it meant collaborating with the British. [In 1807] England, the world’s largest slaving nation, outlawed its own slave trade. Britain’s motives were not especially altruistic [and] in reality, the British were trying to protect the commerce of their colonies by denying slave labor to their competitors, chiefly Spain, France, Portugal, Brazil, and the United States.
Had the United States cooperated with Britain at any point, the slave trade would certainly have ended earlier. As it was, the trade flourished throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, as Yankee captains continued to fit out their ships in Providence; New York City; Portland, Maine; Rio; or any of a dozen other sympathetic ports, and sail to the west coast of Africa for slaves. The Brazilian and Cuban markets were strong, the risks low, and the potential for profits enormous.
Meanwhile, the record of convictions in the courts was as poor as that of seizures at sea. In New York City, where most of the prosecutions took place, only one-sixth of those indicted were convicted. The rest were either acquitted, forfeited bail, escaped from custody, or were released because of hung juries or the court’s unwillingness to prosecute.
From 1837 to 1861 (when Captain [Nathaniel] Gordon alone made at least four slaving voyages), around 125 accused slave traders – officers and crewmen – were prosecuted in New York City; only 20 were given prison sentences, averaging two years apiece. Of these men, 10 received presidential pardons, and 3 more – indicted for capital crimes under the piracy act of 1820 – were allowed to plead to lesser charges. One was briefly convicted of piracy, but the conviction was overturned on a technicality. Clearly, no one in power wanted to hang a man for trafficking in slaves.
[In 1846, the] USS Boxer seized the Malaga, a ship fitted out with all the obvious goods and accoutrements for slaving and chartered to a known Brazilian slave trader. A New England judge ruled that there was nothing illegal about selling goods to a slaver, the charges were dropped, and the Malaga immediately left port on another slaving voyage.
New York had been a slaving city from its inception as a small Dutch settlement. The West India Company delivered eleven Brazilian slaves to tiny New Amsterdam in 1626 . . . New York saw its first slave revolt in 1712, when an armed group of slaves murdered nine whites. Retribution was swift and savage: the gallows claimed thirteen, while three were burned at the stake, one was broken at the wheel, one was starved to death, and another was cooked over a slow fire for an entire day.
Whether in the Caribbean, West Africa, or Madagascar trade, there were always New York slave ships, financed by New York capital. The slave traders were well known to the city’s business community; some ranked among the city’s most prominent members of society, frequently meeting at such places as the Astor House hotel to plan their voyages. The money behind their expeditions was provided secretly by many of New York’s most respected merchants.’
(Hanging Captain Gordon, The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader, Ron Soodalter, Atria Books, 2006, excerpts, pp. 7-9; 43; 70-71)