On November 3, 1853, USS Constitution stopped the New York schooner H. N. Gambrill off the coast of Africa, about 60 miles south of the Congo River delta. There was evidence indicating the ship was en route to pick up enslaved people who would be illegally sold into captivity. But the assertions of the crew were a conflicted mess, and it was unclear who even owned the ship, much less what it was doing. As one of Constitution’s lieutenants questioned Gambrill‘s crew, the would-be slaver’s story unraveled like the plot of a bad TV detective show.

H. N. Gambrill was the last capture of USS Constitution’s career, but the dramatic case is also a window into the difficulties encountered by the U. S. Navy in its efforts to suppress the slave trade.

Constitution had joined the Africa Squadron earlier in the summer of 1853. The U.S. Navy had maintained a presence off the coast of West Africa since 1842 as part of an international agreement to suppress the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the success of the squadron was debatable. Few slavers had been captured, and it was unclear whether American ships were poorly deployed, not acting aggressively enough, or if the slave trade was on the decline.

With importation of enslaved people banned in the United States, much of the slave trade was going through Cuba. The Spanish colony was a clearinghouse for transport of enslaved people to other Caribbean islands, South America, and more furtively into the United States.

Under the leadership of Commodore Isaac Mayo and captained by Commander John Rudd, Constitution was assigned in December 1852 to serve as the flagship for the entire Africa Squadron. The ship departed New York in March 1853, while the previous commodore of the squadron simultaneously left his station in Africa to return to the United States. Despite the absence of leadership on the squadron’s station, Constitution did not even arrive off the African coast until July. By the time it stopped the Gambrill in November, the ship had yet to seize a single slave trader.

The delay was due in part to a side trip tasked to Constitution, but additional stops by Mayo compounded the late arrival. Constitution was assigned to deliver a U.S. consul, Colonel Joseph H. Nicholson, from the United States to Tunis. Before getting there, however, Mayo spent a week in Gibraltar and two weeks in Italy, during which he left the ship to go sightseeing. Even after Col. Nicholson departed in Tunis, Mayo spent another three days sightseeing in Algiers and another week in Gibraltar before finally leaving the Mediterranean to head toward Madeira. Upon arrival, the ship’s squadron duty officially began on June 18.

The huge length of the African coastline made patrolling difficult. Constitution intercepted Gambrill near the mouth of the Congo River, more than 2,000 miles from the squadron’s primary base in Porto Praya in the Cape Verde islands.

Capture of Slave Ship H.N.Gambrill, by Cheslie D’Andrea, 1987. [USS Constitution Museum Collection, 1140.1]
Initially, Gambrill’s paperwork looked to be in order when Lieutenant Christopher Raymond Perry Rodgers boarded the schooner, but there was no list of cargo. As Rodgers began to search the ship, he discovered the camboose house, where the ship’s galley and stove were located, was locked:1

“The cook objected to my entering it, but on speaking to the Captain, he made no further objection and the door was opened,” Rodgers later wrote in his report. “On taking away a tarpaulin, I found a very large copper boiler, recently set in brick work — such a copper as would be required to cook the food for slaves.

“On opening the hatches I found a deck of loose hemlock boards laid smoothly and carefully upon the tiers of casks, which upon examination were found to contain provisions and several thousand gallons of water. — The fore-peak, usually occupied by the crew, had no bulkhead to separate it from the hold, but the crew’s quarters were next to the cabin.”

For Rodgers, the unusual accommodations, along with provisions far exceeding those needed for the small crew, were signs that the ship was intended to carry enslaved people.

Gambrill’s captain and mate insisted that most of the ship’s cargo from America — 100 barrels of provisions — had been unloaded at Kabenda (now Cabinda, Angola) just a few days earlier. The captain said he delivered the cargo to a man bearing an order from the ship’s owner, but that he had no receipt for the landed cargo. He claimed the extensive provisions remaining on board were to be delivered to another recipient in Ambriz, a small village about 100 miles further south along the coast, but he had no paperwork proving that either, and the barrels on board had no markings.

In addition to the crew listed in the ship’s papers, there were three passengers on board. Two were sailors who had come to Africa from New York on another ship and were merely catching a ride down the coast. The third passenger, however, was more mysterious:

“The other was a cabin passenger, and apparently a man of education,” Rodgers wrote. “I had more than one conversation with him, in the course of which he told me that he was a native of Spain — that a few months since he had been captured in a Portuguese vessel called the San Domingo, by an English cruiser, and had been sent on shore by her commander at Kabenda. He at first said that he was supercargo of the San Domingo, but some hours afterwards spoke of himself as a passenger. He said that being tired of the coast of Africa, he had asked the captain of the H.N. Gambrill to take him away from it, and that he had kindly permitted him to work his passage, and as he had been an officer took him into the cabin. He said he had paid no passage money in consequence of his poverty, but I afterwards found in his trunk a hundred dollars or more, chiefly in American gold; besides an ample stock of clothes and many articles proving him to be a man with a free command of money to purchase the superfluities of life.”

The mysterious passenger, Juan Baptista Arbeza, told Rodgers he had been captain of a ship trading between Havana and Cuba, as well as along the coast of Cuba. But in his luggage, Rodgers found hotel receipts from New York earlier in the summer, and receipts for navigational instruments purchased in New York. In addition to the receipts, he also found sextants and charts of Cuba and the Bahamas.

Rodgers went back and questioned the cook and steward in private about the cargo that was supposedly delivered at Kabenda. They insisted there had been no cargo or delivery. Apparently, by that point the pressure of the interrogation was too much for the cook, who finally relented and told the Rodgers the whole story.

The cook said he joined the ship in New York believing it was to be a legitimate trade voyage. But the ship did not leave for six days, and during that time the crew was not allowed to communicate with anyone on shore. Finally, the captain and Arbeza arrived on board, and Gambrill departed New York. During the voyage, the cook and the steward grew suspicious about the mysterious provisions and lack of other cargo. When the steward finally confronted the captain, he admitted that they would be transporting enslaved people.

According to the cook, when Constitution stopped the schooner, it had just departed the Congo where they had loaded freshwater, installed the copper boiler that had been stored in a nondescript crate, and altered the arrangement of the ship’s hold – none of which had been included in the ship’s log. The steward confirmed most of the cook’s story. In his report, Rodgers recalled that he had also talked to a British captain just a few days earlier who claimed to have seen a suspicious American schooner in the Congo.

“All doubt was then removed as to the object of the voyage,” Rodgers wrote.

Any final doubt was answered by two Kru mariners serving on board Constitution. The Kru were free Black West Africans who contracted to work on board European and American ships visiting West Africa. Over the course of USS Constitution‘s service in the Africa Squadron, nearly 100 different Kru mariners served on the ship, with about 20 to 50 on board at any given time.

The Kru on Constitution solved the mystery of the Spanish passenger. They knew Arbeza well, they told Rodgers. They had worked for him within the last two years on board a slave trading ship under his command, and they had seen the enslaved people loaded on board.

“Every thing I saw and heard stamped her unequivocally as a slaver, on the very eve of receiving her cargo,” Rodgers wrote of Gambrill.

H.N. Gambrill was formally seized. A prize crew was put on board, led by Lieutenant John DeCamp, and the two ships sailed to Luanda. After about nine days of repair work and resupply, Gambrill departed for the long voyage to New York, where a court would eventually confirm the capture and auction off the ship.

For “Old Ironsides,” the capture of H.N. Gambrill would be become notable as the last capture of the ship’s long active service career. Following the end of its stint in the Africa Squadron in March, 1855, Constitution returned to the United States and became a training ship for the new U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Duty as a training ship dominated the ship’s remaining active sailing days, which ended in 1881.

1 All information and quotes included in this article are sourced from Rodgers’ account as transcribed by commodore’s clerk Edward Cobb into his journal, Private Journal of the U.S.Frigate Constitution’s Cruise. from December 22d 1852 to June 2, 1855. [USS Constitution Museum Collection, 235.1.]

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This article has been made possible by a Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (#SHARP) grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Author(s)

Carl Herzog
Public Historian, USS Constitution Museum

Carl Herzog is the Public Historian at the USS Constitution Museum.