Legacy Post NEU Public History of Slavery

Horror Made Illegal

The Middle Passage and the U.S. Navy in the Nineteenth Century

by Cameron Boutin and Jordan Barnes


In this essay, Boutin and Barnes examine the ambivalent stance taken by the U.S. following the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, despite the continuation of enslaved labor within the country. They compare the mixed enforcement record of the U.S. Navy to that of Britain’s in terms of finding and capturing ships illegally engaged in transported captured African people across the Middle Passage.

Included in this discussion is the resistance of those on the ships to their forced migration, with the Amistad serving as a key example. Although the ship was seized near Long Island, New York, the ship docked in Connecticut (where the subsequent trial took place), in part because slavery was still legal in that state and Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, who had captured the ship, hope to claim the human cargo as his property under maritime salvage laws. For more on the Amistad, see our Resources page.

The Horror Made Illegal:

Laws put a legal and theoretical end to certain practices – such as the international trade in enslaved Africans, who for several centuries were subjected to the horrors of the Middle Passage. The United States abolished the international slave trade in 1808 and Great Britain had abolished it in 1807. Yet these laws abolishing the international slave trade were only as good as their enforcement by Great Britain and the United States, which was often sporadic, and the illicit nature combined with rising profits made conditions on slave ships even more wretched and fatal.

An underwater sculpture of 26 people forming a circle hand in hand facing out into the ocean
Davide Carozza, “Jason de Caires Taylor, “Vicissitudes”,” Deeps, The Black Atlantic, Duke University, (accessed on July 25, 2015).

The process of abolishing, enforcing, and prosecuting the international slave trade after 1807 and 1808 was quite uneven, and for the decades between the abolition of the international slave trade and the abolition of slavery itself, Africans continued to endure the Middle Passage between Africa and the United States. Both the United States and Britain committed to ending the slave trade, but their unique situations led to vastly different results. In the U.S., the enforcement of the acts that banned the slave trade and condemned it as an act of piracy fell to the navy, which faced political and practical problems that prevented it from committing fully to the prosecution of the trade and the freeing of enslaved Africans.

Between 1807 and 1820, the Congress passed several acts in an attempt to find a legal solution that discouraged the illegal trade and provided effective enforcement. In March of 1807, Congress passed a law to close the slave trade, setting the next nine months as the period for traders to close their operations. The established penalties affected the various elements of the slave trade. Slavers, suppliers, and buyers all faced fines up to $10,000 and jail time as well as the forfeiture of slaves and ships. In 1818, a new statute was passed that lowered fines to $5,000 and imprisonment to no more than seven years. This alteration did not reflect new views of the trade as less heinous but rather brought the punishments into the typical range of the era. In the most influential legislation since 1807, Congress passed new laws in 1819 that condemned the enslavement of people through its provisions for returning enslaved people to Africa and setting rewards for rescues. This stands in contrast to earlier laws that focused merely on the suppression of an illegal trade. To facilitate these new goals, the law authorized the President to send “armed vessels of the United States, to be employed to cruise on any of the coasts of the United States … or the coast of Africa.” This new intent behind prosecution of illegal slave trading became more explicit when slavery was made an act of piracy, the worst crime on the sea, by Congress in 1820.1)

These pieces of legislation required constant enforcement on the seas. Trade in slaves was lucrative prior to the abolition and became more so once the United States officially shut it down. The United States deployed the African Slave Trade Patrol Squadron to the West Coast of Africa in 1819. Its presence for the next two decades was sporadic, however, due to rotations and the small number of ships in the U.S. Navy.2)

The Squadron failed to make any major captures during this time. This lack of captured slave ships, however, was not an accurate representation of the amount of illegal trade being conducted. In contrast, the British Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron was quite successful during this period. In 1828-1829, the HMS Black Joke successfully took eleven slave ships, a fraction of the overall accomplishments of the Royal Navy. Further proof of the endurance of the Middle Passage lies in accounts of ships taken over by slaves themselves. Most famously, the slaves on board the Cuban schooner Amistad seized the ship on July 1, 1839, and ordered the captain and crew to sail the ship back to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the U.S. brig Washington apprehended the Amistad off of Long Island, New York. On one level the Amistad trial documents testified to the illegality of the international slave trade. A court summary of the enslaved Africans’ experiences, for example, emphasized the “unlawfullness” of their capture and sale:

That on or about the 15th day of April, 1839, they were, in the land of their nativity, unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly, and wrongfully, by certain persons to them unknown, who were there unlawfully and piratically engaged in the slave trade between the coast of Africa and the island of Cuba, contrary to the will of these respondents, unlawfully, and under circumstances of great cruelty, transported to the island of Cuba for the unlawful purpose of being sold as slaves, and were there illegally landed for that purpose.3)

A full page of handwritten words on paper
“The Slave Trade: The Amistad Africans: Answer of S. Staples, R. Baldwin, and T. Sedgewick, Proctors for the Amistad Africans, to the several libels of Lt. Gedney, et. al. and Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz, January 7, 1840 (page 3)” National Archives. (Accessed 25 July 2015)

In terms of enforcement, however, the capture, sale, and trafficking of African people was not as illegal as the court summary insisted. The very fact of the trial, and the presence of the captive Africans who spoke there, revealed that the Middle Passage had not ended. The summary’s repeated insistence of the “unlawfulness” of each step in the captives enslavement, sounded hollow against the very evidence of slave trading that it provided.

The United States Navy was entirely ineffective at stopping ships like the Amistad, the slave trade, and the Middle Passage until 1842 when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed. Previously, the British Royal Navy stopped U.S. ships suspected of carrying slaves as part of its efforts to suppress the slave trade. This was a major point of contention with the U.S. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty settled the issue by establishing a much more permanent American naval contingent off the coast of Africa to assist in the enforcement of the abolition of the international slave trade.4)

After years of not actively being involved in combating the international slave trade, and thus allowing thousands of slaves to suffer during the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the United States began to once again suppress the illegal commerce in the 1840s. Despite the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty and the U.S.’s renewed commitment to maintain a naval patrol near the coast of Africa, issues relating to the Navy’s leadership contributed to the Middle Passage’s continued existence. Matthew Perry, the commander of the African patrol, was a native of Rhode Island and connected to families with histories of slaveholding. Since his home state’s prosperity had been partly built on the commerce in slaves, Perry was inclined to turn a blind eye to the illegal trade. Perry was almost as keen to prevent the British from inspecting ships with United States flags as he was to abolish the trade.5)In a letter sent in September, 1843, Perry wrote: “I cannot hear of any American vessels being engaged in the transportation of slaves; nor do I believe there has been one so engaged in several years.” 6)An order dispatched to Perry’s eventual successor, Admiral Charles Skinner, further reflects that the Navy’s commanders were more concerned about protecting international commerce than saving Africans from the horrors of slavery by ending the illegal trade. Skinner was told that “the rights of our citizens engaged in lawful commerce are under the protection of our flag. And it is the chief purpose, as well as the chief duty of our naval power, to see that those rights are not improperly abridged.”7)

A typed manifest form listing the names of enslaved people
Slave manifests document the transportation of slaves throughout the southern ports, National Archives (Accessed 25 July 2015)

Even though the leaders of the U.S. Navy were not wholeheartedly dedicated to stopping the slave trade, the American ships patrolling the African coast began to show some effectiveness in their suppression efforts and several vessels transporting slaves were captured. One notable slaver that was seized was the Spitfire, a New Orleans vessel that was captured on the Pongo River in Guinea in March, 1845 by the naval warship Truxton. The Spitfire may have only been a relatively small craft, but it crammed 346 slaves in its hold and intended to sell them in Cuba. Henry Bruce, the commander of the Truxton, reported that “between [the Spitfire’s] decks, where the slaves were packed, there was not room enough for a man to sit, unless inclining his head forward; their food was half a pint of rice per day, with one pint of water. No one can imagine the sufferings of slaves on their passage across, unless the conveyances in which they are taken are examined.” 8)Bruce’s report clearly demonstrates that the Middle Passage was as nightmarish an experience in the nineteenth century as it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Confined to extremely tight quarters in the dark depths of a ship and given little food or water would have inflicted severe and potentially irrevocable physical, emotional, and psychological harm on the enslaved men and women.

The U.S. Navy’s success in capturing the Spitfire and several other slaver ships, such as the Pons, which was carrying 896 slaves when it was seized in 1845, led to the African naval patrol being strengthened in order to further increase its proficiency. However, the fact that the American warships needed to continue to hunt down and capture slaving vessels signified the persistence of the illegal slave trade. The Navy’s patrol ships did not only target vessels that were specifically carrying enslaved people at that time. The U.S. naval forces seized ships that contained evidence of regular slave trading activities, including paperwork indicating involvement in the illegal commerce or the actual physical restraints and other items employed  to confine slaves. One type of document that both signified a vessel’s ties with slave trading and the continued existence of the Middle Passage was the ship manifest which recorded detailed lists of the slaves being transported across the Atlantic, such as the manifest from a craft bound for Mobile, Alabama in 1844.

An example of the Navy capturing vessels carrying evidence indicating slave trading is the Martha, a large ship from New York that was seized by the naval vessel Perry in June 1850 near Ambriz, Angola. The Martha’s captain attempted to escape the Navy’s justice by throwing his desk containing documents on the ship’s slaving transactions overboard, but it was soon recovered and the naval officers discovered other evidence of slaving practices. The captain of the Martha ultimately “admitted that, had it not been for the interruption, he would have taken on board 1,800 slaves that night.” 9)The capture of the Martha was later depicted in an illustration because it was such a major success for the African naval patrol and saved a large number of people from being subjected to a life of slavery.

Two ships on the ocean facing each other
U.S. brig Perry [confronting] American slave ship Martha “off Ambriz June 6, 1850.” lithograph. Plate facing pg. 286: Foote, Andrew Hull. Africa and the American Flag. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1854) Source: (Accessed 25 July 2015).

Navy ships continued to patrol the African coastline throughout the 1850s, but nevertheless the illegal slave traffic could not be completely suppressed and Africans still were forced to endure the Middle Passage. Even when slavers were captured by the naval patrol, not all of the enslaved people managed to survive and enjoy a life of freedom. For example, the naval ship Saratoga boarded the Nightingale of Boston at St. Thomas in January 1961 and found that she had 961 slaves on board and was expecting more. 10)The Saratoga seized the slaver ship and freed the slaves, but by the time that the liberated people were transported to Liberia, 160 of them had died from fever. The Middle Passage claimed the lives of Africans in both directions of the route, both from Africa to the Americas and from the Americas to Africa. Besides those liberated slaves who died at sea, others must have suffered from the same sickness. Additionally, the entire shipload of former slaves found themselves delivered to a region of Africa that was not necessarily anywhere near their original home, providing them with new hardships to face.

The outbreak of the American Civil War later in 1861 ended the operations of the African naval slave patrol, since essentially all of the Navy’s ships were utilized to blockade the Confederacy. In the approximately 40 years that the Navy patrolled the waters west of Africa, they captured more than 100 suspected slavers. 11)However, compared to the efforts of the British, whose West Africa Squadron was always much larger than the American contingent and captured hundreds of slavers, the American contribution to ending the illegal slave trade was minimal. Even those men who were arrested for engaging in slaving were rarely convicted or punished in any significant way. Rather than focusing on suppressing the illegal traffic, the U.S. was more concerned with using its naval forces in tasks such as protecting international commerce and participating in military conflicts. In an era in which the international trafficking of slaves was supposed to have been eradicated, tens of thousands of Africans were subjected to the harsh and life-threatening conditions of the Middle Passage, in no small part due to American policies and practices.


The Abolition of the Slave Trade: The U.S. Constitution and Acts.” New York Public Library. (Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Africa Slave Trade Patrol 1820-1861.” Naval History and Heritage Command. 9 May 2014.( Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Anti-slavery Operations of the US Navy Images from Publications in the Navy Department Library.” Naval History and Heritage Command. 23 April 2015. (Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Carozza, Davide. “Jason de Caires Taylor, “Vicissitudes”,” Deeps, The Black Atlantic, Duke University. 19 April 2014. (Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Dow, George Francis. Slave Ships and Slaving. New York: Dover Publications, 2002.

Foote, Andrew H. Africa and the American Flag. New York: D. Appleton & Co, 1854. Internet Archive.(Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Howard, Lawrence Cabot. American Involvement in Africa South of the Sahara. Michigan: Garland Publishers, 1989.

Hugh, Thomas. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Milestones 1830-1860: The Webster-Ashburton Treaty.” U.S. Department of State – Office of  the Historian.(Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Teachers’ Resources: The Slave Trade.” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.(Accessed 24 July 2015.)


1.“The Abolition of the Slave Trade: The U.S. Constitution and Acts,” New York Public Library, 2007,
2.“Africa Slave Trade Patrol 1820-1861,” Naval History and Heritage Command, 9 May 2014,
3.“The Slave Trade,” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration,
4.“Milestones 1830-1860: The Webster-Ashburton Treaty.” U.S. Department of State – Office of the Historian
5.Thomas Hugh, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 727.
6.Matthew Perry quoted in Hugh, The Slave Trade, 727.
7.Secretary of the Navy John Mason quoted in Lawrence Cabot Howard, American Involvement in Africa South of the Sahara (Michigan: Garland Publishers, 1989), 118.
8.George Francis Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving (New York: Dover Publications, 2002), 272.
9.Hugh, The Slave Trade, 762.
10.Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving, 274-276.
11.“Africa Slave Trade Patrol 1820-1861.”