Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The US Navy and the Slave Trade
With Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, and the United States all having outlawed the Slave Trade by 1820, military efforts were begun by all these nations to enforce the ban. Five US Navy vessels left for patrol along the West African coast in 1820-21 to arrest American slavers, and help to establish settlers at Liberia. With the War of 1812 still fresh, US government officials were adamant about British interference with American shipping. Similarly, Spain and France were sensitive to American seizures of their vessels. With difficult physical conditions along the African Coast, and diplomatic or political resolutions on the right of mutual search, which was essential for any success, US Naval forces were withdrawn in 1824.

With no way of stopping them, vessels flying the US flag were virtually immune from prosecution, and American ships entered a golden period of slave trading. Traffic to both Cuba and Brazil increased. Tensions escalated once again though as British cruisers began to “visit” (their distinction) American ships suspected of slaving. After negotiations, the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty called for renewed US patrols along the African coast, and cooperation with the British. In reality the first and foremost objective of the American patrols was to protect US shipping interests.

For the next twenty years, ensuring the ability of US ships to sail unimpeded by others was the main object of the African Squadron. Those officers who were zealous in their efforts to restrict the slave trade found little support in lackadaisical administrations and courts at home. The American effort to patrol the 3,000 miles of African coast was never fully realized as it was conceived. If more than five patrol vessels were on station at any one time, it was rare.

In 1859, under pressure from President Buchanan, the African Squadron began to finally show its ability. This was a response to resurgence in the trade that began in 1857, and a corresponding increase in captures by the British. In 1858, the size of the navy was increased, and four steamers purchased in the expansion were stationed around Cuba in late 1859 – their object to intercept American slave ships. Between 1838 and 1859, only two slavers laden with people were captured by US Naval forces. In 1859 and 1860, seven were seized, resulting in the liberation of nearly 4,300 Africans.

Abraham Lincoln’s election as President put into power a leader even more committed to the end of the slave trade, but the Civil War forced the African and Cuban patrols into other duties. It was hoped that the vigorous criminal prosecution of any slavers who were caught would suffice as a deterrent, but it didn’t. In 1862, swallowing all national pride, Lincoln, and Secretary of State Seward, quietly forged a treaty with the British, allowing them to search and seize American vessels. This served to dampen an already fading American interest in slaving. The imminent end of slavery in the United States was helping to bring a close to the trade elsewhere. The US Navy no longer had to focus efforts on its eradication.