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.
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).