Blog Post

“A Dead Failure”: The U.S. Navy and the Suppression of the Slave Trade

Sarah Batterson, Visiting Assistant Professor, Misericordia University

 When seaman Isaac Mullen penned these words in late 1859 aboard the U.S.S. Portsmouth, his frustration with the Navy’s inability to capture and effectively bring to justice American slave ships was apparent.  Even though the Buchanan administration had increased expenditures and finally added steam ships to the skeletal African Squadron, the U.S. faced a daunting foe.  Lightning-quick slave ships still passed by the British and American blockades using their sailing abilities, superior intelligence of the whereabouts of navy vessels, and duplicate flags behind which to hide.  To the sailors assigned to this unpopular post, the African patrol must have been maddening.  Even when slave ships were searched and found to have storage holds filled with water casks, lumber, medicines, and huge coppers, convictions in American courts were nearly impossible without slaves on board.  To make his job more difficult, a Navy captain also ran the risk of causing an international incident if he boarded and condemned a seemingly legal foreign trader. Read More.

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