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On March 23, 1820, off Africa’s western coast, Captain Vicente de Llovio of Spanish merchant brig Antelope uneasily watched an unfamiliar vessel enter the Bay of Cabinda. Antelope had been anchored for two weeks in the bay, where the Congo River meets the Atlantic Ocean. De Llovio and his 24-man crew had been sharing the anchorage with an unnamed Portuguese vessel. Both crews had come to trade with a figure the Europeans knew as the Prince of Cabinda. The prince was a mambouk, or local representative of the king of Ngoyo, ruler of an area north of the Congo River.

Business had been going smoothly but now here came trouble. A large ship, also a brig but rigged unusually, with square sails on the foremast and only gaff-rigged—that is, in the shape of a triangle truncated at the top—fore-and-aft sails on the mainmast, a configuration sailors called “hermaphrodite”—was coming at Antelope

In his dealings with the prince, de Llovio had been exchanging European trade goods for captive Africans. Whether taken prisoner during tribal wars common in the Congo watershed, kidnapped by brigands, or convicted of criminal or civil infractions, the bartered unfortunates were destined for Havana, Cuba, and its slave markets.

That the newcomer was flying a Spanish flag did not reduce de Llovio’s apprehension, confirmed when at the interloper’s rails appeared several dozen musketeers. Gunners were running out the hermaphrodite brig’s cannons. Hands took down Spain’s flag and raised the ensign of the Republic of Banda Oriental. Now known as Uruguay, Banda Oriental then was a Portuguese colony in South America in revolt against the mother country and also at war with Spain. 

A British hermaphrodite brig of the same type as the American-built privateer Arraganta. (Zurt Swimmer/Alamy Stock Photo)

Though a merchantman, Antelope, in acknowledgment of seagoing reality, mounted on its sides four 8-lb. muzzle-loading cannons to discourage unwanted company. The oncoming vessel, which reflagging instantly identified as either pirate or privateer—the latter an armed ship empowered by letter of marque to harry the issuing nation’s enemies—was keeping just out of range. Had de Llovio had his crew rig a spring line Antelope could have rotated at anchor and brought its own guns to bear. He had not rigged a spring line, however. His men looked to be outnumbered two to one. With only 12 muskets and 12 cutlasses in his ship’s armory, resistance was futile.  

The raider came to rest at Antelope’s forward bow, poised for the approaching vessel’s gunners to rake its target along nearly its entire length with no chance of fire being returned. Captain de Llovio surrendered. A boarding party swarmed over the bow rail, quickly and bloodlessly herding Antelope’s crew below decks to join the Africans confined there. Boatmen from the hermaphrodite quickly subdued the Portuguese ship.

In minutes, Captain Simon Metcalf and the crew of Arraganta—who enjoyed the status of privateersmen, since Metcalf held a letter of marque from Bandas Oriental authorizing him to plunder Spanish and Portuguese ships—had captured two prizes. Besides the ships and their material goods, the booty included nearly 300 kidnapped Africans who had now gone from being Spanish chattel to commodities highly valued in the illegal American slave trade.

U.S. revenue cutter Vigilant chasing, firing upon, and subduing a renegade vessel. (DVIDS) (DVIDS)

Arraganta originally had been named Baltimore, after the Maryland port at which the ship had been built. Metcalf and his 36-man crew were Americans, save for two Britons and a Spaniard. On three previous privateering runs, they had captured four Spanish ships, taking more than 1,100 Africans whom Metcalf sold on the illicit market in the United States for kidnapped Blacks. That very busy market owed its existence to an 1808 federal ban on importing slaves to the United States, which had pushed the smuggler’s selling price of a robust young African man to $800. 

Treatment of “recaptured” Africans, as they were called, was much more severe than penalties imposed on convicted smugglers. When smugglers were seized, almost inevitably in the South, whichever state the smuggler had landed in had jurisdiction over the liberated Africans. Pending adjudication, they could be sold into slavery, with the state getting the proceeds, or “bonded out” to planters obligated to provide for their welfare in exchange for their labor. If found not to have been previously enslaved, recaptured Africans were to be declared free persons and returned to Africa. During court proceedings, however, most disappeared, with planters claiming they had run off or died of disease. A planter in this situation forfeited the bond he had posted, but the profit on a surreptitiously sold slave more than made up for that business expense. 

However, the case of the Africans seized from Antelope proved to be a turning point in deciding the fate of Africans recaptured at sea.

Privateer Arraganta had begun this cruise sailing from Baltimore under the name Colombia, flying the flag of Venezuela; that colony also had broken away from Spain and was issuing letters of marque. According to Metcalf, the mission was to hover in the Straits of Florida waiting for a Spanish prize. Soon after weighing anchor, though, Metcalf announced a change in plan. Arraganta was going to head for Africa, there to hijack Spanish and Portuguese slave ships laden with human cargo worth fortunes. 

Many on the crew chafed at this change of terms. They had signed on to attack Spanish merchant shipping in the Caribbean as part of Venezuela’s war of independence, not to raid slave ships off Africa. Plundering Spanish shipping under a letter of marque from a would-be rebel republic was one thing but hauling kidnapped Africans into bondage was another. An American serving aboard a foreign privateer was violating the Neutrality Law and technically committing piracy, letter of marque or no. But the crime, if prosecuted, was treated most often as a misdemeanor. Unless the target had been an American vessel or the case included a wanton murder, jury nullification—that is, when jurors in effect dismiss a charge—was the order of the day. However, stealing slaves was participating in the slave trade, which had little public support outside the South. Additionally, the Act to Protect the Commerce of the United States and Punish the Crime of Piracy, as amended May 15, 1820, declared any American vessel or any American serving aboard any vessel that transported kidnapped Africans to be a pirate. A conviction for piracy was punishable by hanging. To foreclose such an indictment, some privateering Americans, like Metcalf’s first lieutenant John Smith, renounced their American citizenship. And in many instances crew members, upon learning the true nature of a slaving cruise, deserted and tried to sabotage the effort by informing authorities. Crews sometimes even mutinied rather than engage in slaving. Ships’ masters often had to threaten force to keep malcontents under control. 

Contemporary diagrams show how cramped conditions were aboard slave ships. (HN Archives; New York Public Library)

The United States had outlawed the foreign slave trade on January 1, 1808, but slavery remained the keystone of the Southern economy, and in that agrarian region demand persisted for enslaved workers, satisfied by outlaw traders. Patrolling for slavers, U.S. Navy vessels and Revenue Marine cutters caught and captured many smugglers of humans, but without reducing the practice. In the 12 years since 1808, more than 10,000 African captives had been bought or bartered on that continent’s west coast and sneaked onto the American mainland. Operating near slave-state ports such as New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah, and having the support of local smuggling organizations, smugglers brokered deals between transatlantic mariners and illegal buyers. A primary method was to forge documents misrepresenting kidnapped Africans as having been enslaved legally in the United States and claiming to be moving them from shore to a buyer’s location elsewhere. 

Outlaw slaving dangled enormous potential profits. A 300-person shipload could bring $120,000—today about $2.5 million. Half went to the vessel’s owner; crewmen shared the rest. Monthly wages aboard ship in 1820 ranged from $60 for a captain to the lowliest seaman’s $10. Metcalf stood to pull down $60,000; an ordinary seaman, more than $3,000. 

From an opportunistic perspective, official penalties for the crime of attempted smuggling of slaves were light. When a captured slave-smuggling ship was confiscated, its owners, if they could be identified and arraigned, were fined $20,000 apiece. Each crewman was fined not less than $1,000—but to keep their identities secret owners often paid penalties anonymously. Transporting kidnapped Africans prior to May 15, 1820, was legally not piracy but simply smuggling. Now that slave trading had been deemed piracy, and public opinion was strongly against enslaving previously free Africans, many mariners did not want to roll the dice to see if jurors trying them would find them not guilty by jury nullification.

Metcalf always seemed to get away clean and to make his accomplices rich. Earlier that March, a few hundred miles north of the Bay of Cabinda, Metcalf had been attacking two Portuguese schooners loaded with slaves when Royal Navy sloop Myrmidon, patrolling for slavers—Britain had abolished slavery in 1807—interceded. Hauled into Freetown, Sierra Leone, under suspicion of piracy, Metcalf showed his letter of marque. Myrmidon’s captain chose not to risk a potentially costly court battle trying to disprove the validity of Metcalf’s commission. Ordered out of the area, Metcalf turned south. Once beyond British reach, he plundered another Spanish ship and hijacked 25 kidnapped Africans from the illegal slave ship Exchange, operating out of Bristol, Rhode Island.

After seizing Antelope at Cabinda, Metcalf handed the ship over to a prize crew led by first lieutenant John Smith, and put the subjugated vessels’ crews ashore. The privateers stowed the captive Africans, along with plunder from the second Portuguese ship moored in the bay, aboard Antelope, then burned the Portuguese vessel. Metcalf headed his little squadron to sea to continue his depredations along the coast. Arraganta soon had taken three more Portuguese schooners, whose plunder topped off the flotilla’s holds. It was time to head west to cash in.

The Atlantic passage went smoothly for the ships, but, as usual for such voyages, around 20 percent of the confined Africans died en route, their corpses tossed overboard. Off Brazil a gale caught the heavily laden ships. Arraganta went down with Metcalf and many hands and captives. Through superior seamanship and by jettisoning his four guns, Smith was able to keep Antelope intact and afloat, and even rescue some members of the crew and captives from Arraganta.

Some slavers so overcrowded their ships that captives made the voyage in fetters on deck. (Library of Congress)

Styling himself captain of a privateer in his own right, Smith forged paperwork identifying the stolen ship Antelope as General Ramirez. He stopped at the first viable market for his illicit cargo: the Dutch colony of Suriname. The Netherlands, like the United States, had banned the slave trade, but not slavery itself. Planters in Suriname were willing to flout the importation prohibition, as long as risk of apprehension was low. Smith had to break off negotiations when disaffected crewmen deserted and informed the authorities. Smith took Antelope—now renamed General Ramirez—north to the Caribbean, stopping at Dutch holding Saint Maarten and then Saint Barthelemy, owned by France, which had banned slavery in 1794. He found no buyers but at Saint Barthelemy sought out a mysterious fellow named Mason, thought by some crewmen to be Arraganta’s owner. In return for cash, Smith received from Mason supplies and the promise of more, along with replacements for his jettisoned guns. These transfers were to take place near Hole-in-the-Wall, a landmark at the east entrance of the Providence Channel through the Bahamas, almost 1,000 miles northwest.

The privateers were nearly a week reaching Hole-in-the-Wall. Arriving low on provisions and water, Smith gained cannons, ammunition, and other supplies promised by Mason. He next set a course for Saint Augustine, Florida, a voyage of 400 miles, where he was refused supplies, even after offering for ransom the governor’s son, whom Smith had taken hostage after spotting the young man aboard a ship at Hole-in-the-Wall.

Until 1818, Smith’s next logical course would have been north for Amelia Island, Florida, near the mouth of the Saint Mary’s River, the line of demarcation between Spanish-held Florida and the state of Georgia. Amelia Island was rife with smugglers and pirates, who were at least tolerated and at worst abetted by local merchants and residents. Frustrated at smugglers sneaking goods from Amelia into the vicinity of St. Mary’s, Georgia, the local U.S. customs agent had complained to the secretary of  the Treasury, prompting an invasion and garrisoning of the island with troops at the town of Fernandina, reinforced by a U.S. Revenue Marine cutter across the river at St. Mary’s. As a result, Smith’s only option was to land his illegal cargo a bit farther south, at the mouth of the Saint John’s River. From there, smugglers in league with the Creek Nation—many members of that indigenous tribe owned slaves—could ferry the captives into Georgia.

However, Smith’s vessel and its shenanigans had not gone unreported. Word of the pirate brig’s predations reached Captain John Jackson aboard the revenue cutter Dallas at Saint Mary’s. Barely a year earlier, Jackson had captured American schooner Hampton at the Saint John’s River. Hampton already had offloaded 92 Africans who had disappeared into captivity, but physical evidence aboard the schooner and testimony from disgruntled crewmen supported forfeiture of Hampton for “being configured for slaving.” This time Jackson meant to save kidnapped Africans from enslavement.

Jackson sailed downriver from St. Mary’s to Fernandina to augment his crew with 12 soldiers from the Army garrison, bringing his complement to about 27, in line with the number of pirates he anticipated aboard his target. Reaching the open sea at about 4 p.m. Thursday, June 29, 1820, Jackson kept the Dallas well offshore and bearing south, probably on the assumption that the pirate vessel’s crew, trying to avoid detection, would be doing the same.  

A barque-rigged example of a privateer sailed out of New Orleans carrying 16 guns. (Historic New Orleans Collection )

Jackson’s hunch paid off. At daylight, a lookout sighted Smith’s ship ahead and bearing south-southeast, about 20 degrees off the cutter’s starboard bow. As Jackson ordered “all sail” to intercept, Smith’s disguised Antelope juked northeast, veering straight for the mouth of the Saint John’s. Smith likely was running for Spanish waters; reaching them would put his vessel out of American reach. He ran in vain. Dallas was a topsail schooner, a design with a lean hull and an impressive spread of sail, meant to run with the fastest vessels afloat. In the service of speed Dallas’s only armament was a 6-pound smoothbore cannon mounted on a pivot slightly forward of amidships. Jackson ordered his troops to conceal themselves and be ready for a fight.

Just before 2 p.m., with Dallas rapidly gaining, Smith began to clear his deck for action. Within half an hour, the cutter had gained the “weather gauge”—the tactically advantageous position upwind of another vessel. Both crews ran out their guns. Rising from concealment, Jackson’s soldiers lined the rail, muskets at the ready. Smith ordered his men to fire; the gunners, pushed to mutiny by their dislike for dealing in slaves, refused to obey. Smith hove to.

Captives bound for the New World depart an African setting, mourned by those left behind. (Granger, NYC)

The cutter’s officers found 280 Africans chained below deck. During the “middle passage,” as the voyage between Africa and a plantation was known, 70 more had died. The boarding party found “seaman’s protection papers” identifying Smith as an American citizen. Many of the “deceived” crewmen readily admitted to being American and were more than willing to share the details of their vessel’s activities.  

With more than enough probable cause, Jackson seized Smith’s ship and arrested its officers and crew. At Saint Mary’s, he left the seized brig and surviving Africans in the charge of 1st Lieutenant William Askwith and six men and continued on aboard Dallas to Savannah, Georgia, to arraign the 28 prisoners and seek guidance on the rescued Africans’ status. 

The piracy case against John Smith should have been easy to prove. However, Smith’s lawyer successfully argued that his client had renounced his American citizenship in order to serve the cause of Banda Oriental’s independence. While the letter of marque Smith presented for the General Ramirez might be fraudulent, since Smith believed it was authentic and piracy was a crime requiring intent, the jury could not convict him, the attorney claimed. The prosecution barely contested these assertions and presented little evidence of its own. Upon being acquitted Smith had the audacity to sue for ownership of the recaptured Africans.

However, U.S. Attorney Richard Wyly Habersham likely had a larger strategy. Had Smith been found to be a pirate, international law demanded that the Africans be returned to their Spanish and Portuguese claimants. Habersham could assert that as a legal privateer Smith, upon capturing Africans at sea, had gained ownership, which he then forfeited by trying to smuggle them into the United States. The result should have been immediate freedom for all the captives.  

An 1839 revolt by kidnapped Africans aboard La Amistad led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling. (Library of Congress)

However, the Africans Metcalf had taken from Spanish and Portuguese vessels were subject to claims from supposed foreign owners. A court had to address such claims before it could free recaptured Africans. Only a group of 25 who had  been seized from an American vessel, Exchange, of whom 18 had survived to reach Savannah, came under no ownership claims. The court ruled that the 18 qualified for immediate release. They were transported to Liberia, an area in West Africa that Blacks repatriated from the United States recently had begun settling with the assistance of the American Colonization Society and the U.S. government. The remainder of the Africans aboard Antelope faced seven years of servitude as claims to their ownership by Spain and Portugal crawled toward the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall. Of 157 survivors, 37 were delivered to Spanish claimants, while Portugal’s claim on the remainder was completely discounted for lack of any individual owners; 120 were sent to Liberia.

Although only slightly less than half of those that Dallas rescued survived to recover their freedom, this episode demonstrated a new American resolve to stop the enslavement of kidnapped Africans. Now persons bound for bondage but recaptured and able to prove they had not previously been enslaved were to be freed. 

In 1839 Africans aboard Spanish slaver La Amistad, bound for the United States, rebelled at sea and commandeered that schooner. U.S. Navy brig Washington intercepted Amistad and brought the ship to New London, Connecticut, occasioning a landmark legal case. Ruling in 1841 in U.S. v. The Amistad, the Supreme Court declared that any African entering the country was free unless a claimant could prove that that person previously had been enslaved under another nation’s laws—reversing the burden of proof in use since the Antelope incident. The last slave ship known to land Africans in the United States was the schooner Clotilda, lately the subject of headlines (see p. 8). The 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery on New Year’s Day 1865.

this article first appeared in American history magazine

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