Book Review: The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage

The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage

By John Harris
Yale University Press, 2020, $30.00 hardcover
Reviewed by David T. Dixon

A large crowd gathered in the yard of a New York City jail nicknamed “The Tombs” to witness the execution of Nathaniel Gordon on February 21, 1862. Gordon had been convicted of violating the Act of 1820 that forbid slave trading and was sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln rebuffed petitions for clemency from more than 11,000 New Yorkers. With two state governors, various federal and local officials, and eighty-four U.S. Marines looking on, Gordon ascended the steps to the scaffold while cursing district attorney Delafield Smith. As the body of the condemned man dangled in silence from the noose end of a rope, Gordon’s widow may have wondered why her former husband had been treated with such cruelty. After all, the illegal slave trade had been booming while hiding in plain sight in America for decades, yet Gordon was the first and only slave trader ever executed under American law.

Execution of Gordon, The Slave Trader – Harper’s Weekly, March 2, 1862

John Harris, an assistant professor of history at Erskine College in South Carolina and a native of Northern Ireland, expanded his PhD dissertation to create The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage. Harris explains how and why illicit human trafficking thrived in defiance of international efforts to suppress it and U.S. laws designed to end it. Harris employed deep research in primary sources from archives in Brazil, Portugal, Great Britain, Cuba, and America to construct a convincing and original argument in clear and concise prose.

Harris begins by summarizing efforts led by the British to ban the transatlantic slave trade during the first half of the nineteenth century. Illegal importation of enslaved African people directly to U.S. shores dried up in the 1820s, but Americans remained heavily invested in the illegal trade to Brazil and Cuba.  American vessels delivered more than a half million captives to plantations in those countries, benefitting from diplomatic arrangements with Great Britain that made search and seizure of U.S. flagged vessels difficult. Once Brazil outlawed the Atlantic slave trade in 1850, Portuguese merchants relocated to Lower Manhattan in New York City, where they set up shop, purchasing ships under the names of American citizens, devising elaborate money laundering schemes, bribing local customs officials, and managing a high-risk triangle trade of African slaves, Cuban sugar, and American ships that generated a 91 percent return on investment.

Harris hits his narrative stride in chapter three with vivid and disturbing accounts of life aboard American slave ships, using detailed testimony taken during the trial of the owners and captain of the slaver Julia Moulton. She transported 664 captive African people, as many as half of whom were children who took up less place and thus yielded increased profits. Four hundred enslaved people suffered below deck, “stacked like cordwood” according to one crew member. Five and a half square feet was allocated to each male adult amid three and a half feet of headspace. Enslaved people on another ship, the Clotilda, were kept below deck for thirteen consecutive days and nights with hatches nailed shut to avoid detection by the British Navy’s West African Squad.

Suppression efforts on the part of the American government were lax and ineffective, so British prime minister Lord Palmerston hired Cuban American Emilio Sanchez and others to spy on Americans in New York City and report on slave trading. By the middle of the 19th century, Great Britain was spending 1.3% of its annual budget on efforts to suppress the slave trade. The British counsel in New York leaked some of Sanchez’s intelligence to U.S. authorities, who did nothing with the information. Successive Democratic presidential administrations obfuscated rather than take action against the illegal trade. Many Southern politicians blamed Spain for the illicit commerce. Their proposed remedy: annex Cuba as a future slave state. Legislation to cripple the Atlantic slave trade in the U.S. Senate, led by William Seward, foundered in 1859 as the sectional crisis neared its tipping point.

The incoming Lincoln administration provided both the will and financing for the U.S. government to finally get serious about ending the transatlantic slave trade, securing funds for former harbormaster turned New York federal marshal Robert Murray to step up enforcement efforts. Such work resulted in the arrest, trial and conviction of Nathaniel Gordon, among others. After Gordon’s execution, Secretary of State William Seward negotiated a treaty with the British that relaxed right of search rules for British cruisers who intercepted slavers flying the U.S. colors. This effort was important in light of the recent Trent Affair that had damaged U.S./British relations and fed Lincoln’s strong desire to deter Great Britain from recognizing the Confederate government. Seward’s diplomacy effectively ended American involvement in the international slave trade. Portuguese merchants who had dominated the illicit activity were gone from Manhattan with a year and the American slave ship Marquita, flying Spanish colors despite having sailed from New York, was captured by the British of the coast near the Congo River in 1863.

Harris’s fine book synthesizes the latest scholarship on the transatlantic slave trade and adds critical insight into how global capital markets, geopolitics, transnational criminal syndicates, and international espionage rings operated and exerted influence on U.S. events throughout the Civil War period in America.

David T. Dixon is the author of Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020).

10 Responses to Book Review: The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage

  1. Interesting and relatively fair article. The comments on Cuba are mildly off; in the earlier 1850s, there was talk, both North and South, about annexing Cuba to expand the cotton trade with Britain, etc., but it died out as the possibility of war with Spain arose (google: Knights of the Golden Circle). By the time of the Civil War, big plans for international expansion of cotton had dwindled to a small spot in Mexico and possibly one small Central American country, with little enthusiasm from any potential recipients. The Northwest Territories were never seen as potential for cotton; the admission of Texas in 1845 did add territory for cotton. Since cotton was the agricultural export gold rush of its day (57% of all exports in 1857), it was a key economic issue for all. The Northern slave trade was not essential to the South, and was in fact a burden, as seen in the Constitution when the South compromised grudgingly to allow it only until 1809, with a $10/head tax for the Federal Government for as long as it persisted.

  2. The execution is an interesting new revelation; when I think of NYC during the Civil War, I picture the draft riots of 1863.

    1. The New York newspapers called it “the thunder clap.” In it’s wake, the slave traders tucked tail and fled the U.S.

  3. There was slavery in Cuba?
    The Erie (Nathaniel Gordon’s ship) was one of many known to have been engaged in the illicit trans-Atlantic slave trade during the antebellum. Hermosa in 1840; Cora and Clotilda were two other ships operating in 1859/ 1860; Nightingale in 1861; and the Esmeralda was captured in November 1864. The trade would not have been conducted if it were not profitable; and a “merchant” ship sets out on a voyage only if it has someplace to discharge its cargo. Of course, slave ships were not all bound for the USA; legally, NONE of them were.
    In 1860 there were many nations/ locations in the Western hemisphere involved in the slave trade, as receivers: but none “legally” because the trans-Atlantic slave trade was outlawed. It appears that “they arrived here because of a storm” became common excuse for the arrival of slave ships: sometimes the captured persons were returned to Africa; other times, Slave Interests quickly mobilized and spirited the people away, beyond the reach of law enforcement. (The “coasting trade” was not supposed to reach to Cuba, but sometimes storms came up…) Countries known to have “assisted” with perpetuation of the slave trade from 1820 -1861 include Cuba, Peru, Texas, West Indies (various islands), Brazil… Nicaragua had its laws against slavery repealed during William Walker’s rule of 1856 – 1857. And filibusters from the United States appear to have as one of their goals “expansion of slave territory.”
    Then, of course, there was “railroad expansion to the Pacific.” Interests North and South competed to build that first Eldorado of a rail line promising boundless profits, with southern interests (remember the Gadsden Purchase) believing it would lead to continued viability of the slavery system: expansion of slave holdings; access to more cotton markets (and tobacco markets) from the West Coast.
    Reference: De Bow’s Commercial Review: a monthly magazine reflecting Southern agricultural and business interests, firs published at New Orleans in 1846 by J.D.B. De Bow
    [To fully understand how the U.S. Civil War came about, it is important to recognize the direction that leaders of the American South were attempting to go. This book by John Harris appears to broach some important questions…]

  4. Good review. The tie-in of New York finance to slavery as well as the reliance of the sugar refiners in Brooklyn and New York form the other two legs of the area’s slave stool.

  5. This ties in nicely with a book I’m currently reading, “Dreams of Africa in Alabama” by Sylviane A. Diouf. It’s about the Clotilda, the last slave ship to land Africans on American soil in the summer of 1860. It also talks about the boom of illegal slave trade and mentions Gordon in one of the chapters. The tragic part is that even if a slave ship was discovered before landing, the “cargo” would not be returned to their where they embarked, but sent to Liberia or Sierra Leon. if they were already in America, no effort was made to send them home. It talks a great deal about the illegal slave trade in the south and how so many people got away with it up to the 1840s and 50s. It’d be a nice companion to Harris’ book.

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