A Slave Ship in New York

New York, Nov. 4, 1860

If you had risen early on that Sunday morning, you probably would have ventured out to marvel at the wreckage left by the past night’s storm. Trees had toppled; shop signs lay smashed on the cobblestones. All along the wharves of lower Manhattan, ships had lost spars and rigging.

And on the harbor’s restless water, a three-masted merchant vessel tossed and bucked at her mooring lines. If you drew close, you might still have caught a whiff of the distinctive stench that every well-traveled mariner in that day and age knew: the reek of close-packed bodies, of human misery, of captivity and death.

She was the slaver Erie, and she had recently come to New York as a captive herself. A U.S. naval vessel, patrolling for ships engaged in the illicit trade, had seized her off the mouth of the Congo River. Flinging open the hatches to the cargo hold, the officers saw a dim tangle of bodies moving in the darkness, packed so tightly that they seemed almost a single tormented soul. Nearly 900 Africans — half of them children — had been stripped naked and forced below decks at the height of equatorial summer, aboard a vessel barely more than 100 feet long. Just a few days into their weeks-long voyage, a witness later recalled, “their sufferings were really agonizing, and . . . the stench arising from their unchecked filthiness was absolutely startling.” Even after their rescue, dozens died in a matter of days.

It might seem odd today that the American government was freeing slaves across the Atlantic while zealously protecting the “property rights” of slaveholders closer to home. Not long after Congress abolished slave importation in 1808, however, U.S. and British naval vessels had begun policing the African coasts and the waters of the Caribbean, occasionally even bringing the captains and crews back to stand trial under federal law. (The freed captives, no matter where in Africa they had come from, were set ashore in Liberia, often to be set to work there in conditions little better than slavery.) It was one of many such hypocrisies, born of political compromise, that most Americans in 1860 took for granted.

Harper’s Weekly Newly freed Africans aboard a slaver, 1860.

Like the majority of slavers at the time, the Erie had been bound for Cuba, where importation was still legal. Her human “cargo” might have fetched somewhere between half a million and a million dollars there — depending, of course, on how many captives perished during the crossing. A mortality rate of one in five or so was taken for granted in the trade, but the Erie’s record on past voyages had been even worse than this horrific average. Still, enormous profits were to be made. The slaver’s New England-born captain, Nathaniel Gordon, had purchased the Africans with kegs of whiskey. He was now a prisoner in the Eldridge Street jail.

The Erie was no stranger to New York. It was, indeed, her home port, as it was of many such vessels. Nearly 100 clandestine — or barely clandestine — slaving voyages had set out from the city over the past 18 months alone. Notorious traders in human flesh hung out their shingles in front of offices on Pearl and Beaver Streets downtown, scarcely bothering to camouflage themselves as legitimate shipping merchants.

Slavery was in the lifeblood of the metropolis. An editorial in that same Sunday’s New York Herald warned local citizens against electing a candidate like Lincoln who might interfere with the institution in the American South. Slave-grown cotton was one of the greatest sources of the city’s wealth, the paper pointed out. Rashly frightening the slave states out of the Union would be “like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.”

The next day, in U.S. district court, the Erie was officially confiscated by the government and ordered to be sold. The slave ship went up for auction a few weeks later at the Atlantic Dock in Brooklyn, sold for $7,550, and was lost to history.

Her captain’s fate would take much longer for the courts — and the incoming president — to decide.

New York World, Nov. 5, 1860; Ron Soodalter, “Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Death of an American Slave Trader”; Karen Fisher Younger, “Liberia and the Slave Ships” (Civil War History, December 2008); “Trow’s New York City Directory, for the Year Ending May 1, 1859”; New York Herald, Nov. 1, Nov. 4 and Dec. 7, 1860; New York Tribune, Nov. 6, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.


Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/03/a-slave-ship-in-new-york/