The Fells Point shipyard of Baltimore builder William and George Gardner built many fast merchantmen during the 1830s, as well as for the slave and opium trade. One Fell’s Point free black carpenters was Fred Bailey (later Fred Douglass) who helped build the slavers Delorez, Teayer, Eagle at Price’s Shipyard, plus the Laura at Butler & Lamdin yard in the same city. In 1844, Bostonians George and John Dixwell of Augustine Heard & Co. ordered fast clippers built by the Gardner’s to carry Bombay opium to China, where it was outlawed. One of their most notorious opium clippers built for the Dixwell’s was the “Frolic,” despite an 1844 treaty forbidding American ships carrying in into China.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org
Illicit Trade in Slaves and Opium
“Probably the most notorious slave ship ever built in the United States, the Venus, was widely discussed in the newspapers at the time. On July 4, 1838, the Venus reached completion at Fells Point . . . the Venus was neither a warship nor a merchantman, but a slave ship in disguise. Indeed, like the merchant traders of New England, Baltimore shipbuilders had a long tradition of employing ruses to conduct their craft in defiance of the law.
The Gardner’s were careful; to protect themselves by selling the slave ships they built to foreign buyers. These transactions through intermediaries, though contrived and transparent, sufficed to enable the Gardners and other Baltimore builders to construct the world’s most profitable slavers while remaining officially and legally ignorant.
As soon as the Venus was ready to be launched, [owner] Lambert Giddings [transferred] the vessel to Jose Mazorra, a notorious [Cuban] slave trader. As the Venus left Havana “with equipment for the slave trade,” we may assume that during her nineteen-day layover in Cuba carpenters were busy fitting her out with platforms in her hold and tons of iron shackles and chains.
On November 5, the Venus, still under the American flag, arrived at Lagos on the West African coast . . . and departed Lagos with a cargo of about 1,150 slaves. The American flag and papers had provided protection for the vessel until the slaves were driven aboard, whereupon the vessel was given over to an agent of Jose Mazzora who carried . . . fraudulent papers . . . disguised as a wholly different vessel.
Continued “foreign” orders for slavers during 1838 and 1839 helped the Gardners’ business survive the financial panic of 1837. [The slaver Venus] would bring international recognition to the Gardners – and ultimately an order for two opium clippers from John and George Dixwell of Augustine Heard & Co. [of Canton, China and Ipswich, Massachusetts].”
(The Voyage of the Frolic: New England Merchants and the Opium Trade, Thomas N. Layton, Stanford University Press, 1997, excerpts pp. 41-43)