Abolitionist Jonathan Walker was born in Massachusetts in 1799, a State known as the first to codify African slavery and deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade. This brought already enslaved Africans from the Dark Continent’s west coast to the West Indies and North America.
Walker is said to have migrated to the Florida Territory in 1837 attracted by work in railroad construction.
Said to be concerned about working conditions for African slaves used for labor, Walker first conspired with fellow-abolitionist and Quaker Benjamin Lunday to establish a colony of escaped slaves in Mexico. Walker is most notorious for aiding seven African slaves in 1844, who at his suggestion attempted to reach the Bahamas by boat. It is claimed that he fell ill during the voyage and the craft lost its direction with the Africans unable to navigate, but all saved from disaster by a passing sloop in search of wrecks to salvage. All were taken to Key West and turned over to civil authorities; the Africans were likely boarded at the island’s barracoon while awaiting return to their employment. Walker was imprisoned for his crime.
Anchored off Key West on Saturday, July 12, 1844, Master Edwin Anderson aboard the USS General Taylor noted in his diary that at 1PM a corporal’s guard from the island’s US garrison came alongside with Walker who was to be conveyed to Pensacola. Anderson recorded that the prisoner was “confined in double irons and placed below in the hold.” Arriving at Pensacola on the 18th of July, Walker was turned over to the city marshal and held at the city jail. Some accounts claim that the Africans were confined with him, though it was more likely they were returned from where Walker had enticed them.
Tried in federal court at Pensacola, Walker was punished with eleven months imprisonment and a fine of $10,000 which was said to have been paid by Northern abolitionists. It was claimed that Walker’s right hand was “branded” with S.S. to indicate “slave stealer,” though this was likely invented for the benefit of gullible Northern audiences. After release from prison Walker returned to Plymouth, Massachusetts where he found but little sympathy for his actions.
Walker’s abolitionist friends saw him as valuable to their own ends and sent him on a five-month lecture tour of the North to further whip audiences into an anti-Southern frenzy. After events such as this, the American South began reducing its commerce with the North while recalculating the benefit of political union with the Northern States.
Herein lies an important cause of Southern independence, or “secession,” from the United States. The States that prosecuted the war to deny that independence, were led by those New England States primarily responsible for the African slaves in North America and had profited handsomely from the transatlantic slave trade that brought them – already enslaved – from Africa. To his credit, Lincoln had proposed compensated emancipation to deal with slavery, which the sons of New England slave traders loudly denounced.