In 1821, after sailing to the proposed site of the colony at Cape Mesurado, present-day Monrovia, Lt. Robert Stockton and Reverend Eli Ayers journeyed twenty miles inland to “convince the most powerful of the native leaders, “King Peter,” to discuss terms to sell the land.
The Africans objected to the intruders and accused them of “kidnapping Africans,” and “destroying the slave trade” – the first was the African tribe’s primary business, the second the African tribe did not want to happen.
Americans were trying to eliminate the slave trade from Africa and provide repatriation for Africans freed in the US – but working against these humanitarian efforts were an increasingly complex slave trade, New England-built slave ships and cotton mills (the latter made profitable by Massachusetts inventor Eli Whitney’s invention), and New York merchants and banks hungry for profits. It is noteworthy that none of the slave ships sailed under the Confederate Battle Flag.
“An American Business”
“[In] mid-1799 Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott wrote the customs collector at Boston that “Captain Decatur of the Navy during his late cruise . . . near Cuba, met with the brig Dolphin of Boston, William White [the] Master, with 140 to 150 slaves for sale [and] procured on the coast of Africa.”
Wolcott directed the collector to “take requisite measures to enforce the law.”
And, in April 1800, the Secretary of the Navy passed along to the treasury secretary a short list, sent along by Captain Bainbridge of the USS Norfolk, of suspected slavers who recently returned from Cuban waters to Philadelphia.
With the enactment of the 1800 statute, the Navy immediately began seizing suspected slavers and sending them in for adjudication. The first three were captured in the space of a month. The sloop Betsey of Boston takes the honor of being the first slave-trading vessel captured by the US Navy.
Meanwhile, other factors encouraged the trade, among them the wide use of the cotton gin and the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The former vastly increased production, and the latter moved the slave economy westward to new lands.
[After the war of 1812] the slave trade became logistically complex. The selected American-registered vessel was chartered in Cuba or Brazil by a slave dealer and sailed to Britain or elsewhere to load a cargo particularly suited for the African coast trade: cheap muskets, rum, etc.
[Often] the vessel needed to hover off the coast while the agents ashore gathered the human cargo . . . And once the Africans were gathered and the night was dark, canoes were loaded with the slaves and rowed from shore to ship. Then the ship was “sold” on the spot and became Spanish, Portuguese or Brazilian . . . [and] made passage back to the Western Hemisphere with the slave cargo.
Thus, given fast, American-built vessels; immunity from search; and growing profits, the trade was becoming an “American business.” Though it should be kept in mind that the major markets in this era were Brazil and Cuba, and rarely were slave cargoes brought directly to the United States.
By all accounts the last half of the 1830s marked a quickening of the slave trade, particularly to Cuba, fed by high prices and minimum interference from American cruisers.
The British Mixed Commission at Havana reported the arrival of 240 illegal slavers during the years 1836 through 1839, fifty-eight of which were under American colors. And it was reported that a New York mercantile house had taken in $240,000 in profits on the trade in the space of fourteen months, and that slaves had brought ten times their purchase price at Havana in the same period.”
(African Squadron: The US Navy and the Slave Trade, 1842-1861, Donald L. Canney, Potomac Books, 2006, excerpts pp. 2-4; 21-23)