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The Africa Squadron (1853 – 1855)

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On November 3, 1853, USS Constitution, the flagship of the Africa Squadron captained by Commander John Rudd and under the leadership of Commodore Isaac Mayo, seized the New York schooner H.N. Gambrill off the coast of Africa near 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. Bulkheads had been removed and an abundance of provisions had been loaded aboard – far more than was needed by any ship without living cargo.

The ship’s cook eventually told one of Constitution’s lieutenants that Gambrill‘s captain was planning a slaving voyage to Cuba. A prize crew was assigned to the schooner and sailed it back to New York, where the court adjudicated its disposition. H. N. Gambrill was the last capture of USS Constitution’s long career.

The economy of slavery was a contentious issue on its way to boiling over into a civil war in the United States. Engaging in the trade of enslaved people had long been outlawed, both by the United States and as part of a series of international treaties. As an element of those treaty commitments, the United States, Great Britain and other nations had maintained a naval presence off the coast of West Africa, attempting to capture illegal slave ships.

For the United States, participation in the patrols reflected the complex paradox of suppressing the slave trade at sea, while still contending with the legality of slavery and the ongoing demand for more enslaved labor in many states.

Mayo, the Africa Squadron commander, was himself an enslaver residing in the state of Maryland. Though he fulfilled his duty to the U.S. Navy in the Africa Squadron, he would later tender his resignation on May 1, 1861 as hostilities between the North and South were escalating at the onset of the American Civil War.

Despite the legality of slavery in the United States in the early 1800s, the importation of enslaved people was outlawed in 1808. That ban on importation may have been approved earlier, were it not for an article in the U.S. Constitution, agreed upon at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, stating Congress could not prohibit the importation of persons prior to 1808. During the 20-year interim, legislation outlawed vessels participating in the slave trade to other countries, even if importation by itself was still legal. When ships were caught, legal confusion remained over what was to happen with the enslaved persons from seized ships. Many ended up enslaved in the United States anyway.

Even after 1808, enforcement was slim throughout the War of 1812. During that time, slave traders developed a pattern of bringing in enslaved people to northern Spanish Florida, then transporting them upriver across the open border with Georgia. In 1819, Congress passed new legislation that mandated enforcement off the African coast. The United States also began sending formerly enslaved people to Africa, particularly to an area that would eventually be designated as the new nation of Liberia. In 1820, USS Cyane, the former British frigate captured by Constitution at the end of the War of 1812, accompanied the first ships to transport formerly enslaved people to what was then a part of Sierra Leone (later became part of Liberia).

In 1822, Great Britain and other nations signed the first in a series of international treaties banning the slave trade. The United States rejected participation. At issue was the right of search; the United States refused to permit other nations to board American ships, even if those ships were suspected of being slave traders.

Americans were still wary of British ships finding an excuse to board American vessels. In the years leading up to and during the War of 1812, the British had a practice of boarding American ships and pressing the crew into the Royal Navy. The American right against unreasonable searches impeded other treaty participants, and even U.S. ships, from effectively stopping and seizing slave traders. Twenty years passed before the United States, amid growing abolitionist sentiment, agreed in 1842 to participate with Great Britain in maintaining a naval squadron off the coast of Africa.

Duty in the squadron was difficult. Malaria was common, but its cause (i.e. mosquitos) was not understood. The low-lying coastline was monotonous and often difficult to discern. Navigators had to be on guard for mistaking one settlement for another. The oppressive heat was broken up only by violent squalls and thunderstorms.

As a result, American ships tended to make their base of operations at Porto Praya in the Cape Verde islands, rather than anywhere on the African mainland. The dominant medical paradigm of the time supported the idea that malarial fever was spread by the dense humid air. Staying offshore and minimizing American sailors’ exposure to the coast was seen as the best mitigation.

Another strategy was to enlist more Black sailors, who were seen as being less susceptible to the illness and better able to endure the hot weather. Beginning with the squadron’s first commodore, Matthew Perry, in 1842, this included recruiting more Black Americans, but also involved hiring free Black West Africans, originally from an ethnic group known as Kru. Beginning in the 16th century, migrant workers from several ethnic groups in pre-Liberian West Africa, including Kru people, travelled from their homes to work both on shore along the coast and on the ships, including U.S. Navy ships, that were increasingly frequenting the region. As their reputation and role in international trade developed, the term Kru grew from describing a specific ethnic group to a unified term for West African mariners and workers from a variety of ethnic groups who were serving on European and American ships. These mariners became known to Americans and Europeans as “Krumen” or “Kroomen.” 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.

Despite Constitution’s seizure of the Gambrill and the seizure of several other slave traders by other ships in the Africa Squadron, the trade continued during the early part of Isaac Mayo’s tenure as commodore. Writing to the Secretary of the Navy after capturing Gambrill in November 1853, Mayo reported that he felt Constitution’s large size and heavy guns were ineffective in the duty. Constitution’s firepower grossly exceeded what was needed to capture the slave trading ships, and the Constitution’s huge rig announced the ship’s presence wherever it went, giving the slave ships plenty of opportunity to evade capture.

By the end of Constitution’s tour in the squadron in 1855, however, Mayo reported that there were fewer Americans involved in the trade, and that the trade overall seemed to be on the decline. This was not the case.

The observations of Mayo and other American captains reflected the inefficiency of the squadron in capturing slave traders. A total of only 36 suspected slave ships were intercepted between 1844 and 1861, but 15 of those occurred in the two years between 1859 and 1861. In his book, Africa Squadron: The U.S. Navy and the Slave Trade, 1842-1862, author Donald L. Canney argues that the massive difference in the number of seizures is attributable to two factors: Steamships began replacing sailing ships, making movement along the coastline far swifter and more dependable. At the same time, the squadron moved its base of operations from Porto Praya to St. Paul de Loando (now Luanda) in Angola, ensuring that the ships spent more time along the coast, rather than at the island base, which was nearly 1,000 miles northeast of the nearest edge of the squadron’s cruising ground.

Despite those changes, the slave trade continued. Slave traders used Cuba as a clearinghouse for trans-Atlantic trading. From there, enslaved people were sent to other Caribbean islands, South America, or into the United States. Legal repercussions for those caught were usually not severe.

Following the outbreak of the American Civil War in the spring of 1861, the United States recalled its Africa Squadron for war duty and relented to eliminating the prohibition on British searches and seizures of suspected American slave ships at sea. This allowed the Royal Navy to step up enforcement off Cuba, despite risking war with Spain. In the ensuing years, effective legal enforcement and changing Spanish attitudes wore away at the Cuba slave trade. By about 1870, there were no more slave ships to be found there.

When the American Civil War broke out, Isaac Mayo was one of nearly 300 U.S. Navy officers to submit letters of resignation. Although President Abraham Lincoln accepted nearly 100 resignations, he chose instead to formally dismiss Mayo from the U.S. Navy on May 18, 1861, the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge. It is unclear whether Mayo ever received the dismissal letter. On that day or just before, Mayo died of a gunshot wound in a possible suicide.

USS Constitution