Baltimore's African Slave Trade Connection

by Ralph Clayton
If there was any suspicion that a vessel was being constructed for the trade it could be forfeited under the act of Congress of 1807. Yet Baltimore's shipbuilders, lured by potential high profits, continued building vessels for human cargos for decades past that date. The rewards, it appears, were deemed well worth the risk.

It is hoped that the visit of the slave ship Amistad in Baltimore's inner harbor last year has rekindled interest in the history of the African slave trade. Unknown to most Marylanders is the fact that there was a substantial connection between the African traders and the monumental city.

Prior to the act of Congress of 1807 abolishing the African trade in this country, there is evidence that slave merchants shipped a number of slaves of pure African descent from Baltimore to the port of Havana, Cuba.

Although the records of Cuban newspapers of the late 19th century are incomplete, several reflect the shipments regularly arriving in Havana from Baltimore and other Southern cities. A number of these slaves were listed as "Chinos" (mulattoes), while many were categorized under the term "Bozales," a word that inferred pure African descent.

Those newspaper files that still remain for perusal indicate the shipment of several hundred slaves from Baltimore to Cuba in a two-year period between late 1790 and 1792. Considering the lack of sources, historians have assumed that the actual number was considerably higher.

Baltimore had a second, and equally sinister, connection to the illegal African slave trade. A number of local shipbuilders were chosen to construct vessels that could provide the speed and versatility necessary for the illegal trade. Vessels would be built and partially outfitted in local shipyards and then completed for the trade in a secondary location.

During the autumn of 1829 the brig Liberia arrived in Baltimore from the coast of Africa. On board was a letter from a gentleman who had formerly resided in the city but now had occasion to live and travel in Africa. "The slave trade is carried on still with activity...when passing the Galenas I saw six or eight slavers waiting a cargo. Even from the river whence I at present write there are some for a similar purpose. The greater part of these are Baltimore-built vessels under Spanish colors."

So common was the perception that Baltimore was the city of origin of the majority of slavers that one reporter, unable to determine the port from which a seized trader had originated, indicated, "It was probably Baltimore Built".

A major report published in the spring of 1840 revealed a list of 21 American vessels engaged in the slave trade during the spring and summer of 1839. Of the vessels discussed, eleven, or more than 52%, were identified as being Baltimore built.

If there was any suspicion that a vessel was being constructed for the trade it could be forfeited under the act of Congress of 1807. During the last week of December, 1839 the schooner Ann was seized at Jackson's Wharf (Fells Point) on the suspicion of being fitted to engage in the African Slave Trade. The Ann, a new vessel, had yet to make a maiden voyage when it was confiscated.

During the second week of February, 1844 an odd spectacle drew the attention of local Baltimoreans. Palm oil was being unloaded from a Baltimore-built schooner lying at the bulkhead, opposite Number 84 South Street (near the current site of the Pratt Street Pavilion). The vessel's heavy raking masts, eighty-foot-long deck, sixteen-foot beams, ten-foot hold, high bulwarks and six guns made for an ominous appearance.

The craft had not long since been captured by a British cruiser while in the process of taking African slaves to Brazil. The schooner had already made five successful voyages (with about 500 slaves on each) before being seized. She was attacked while taking on another cargo of approximately 500 slaves. Many of the slaves were still above deck when the apprehending cruiser fired her guns, killing seven of the Africans. The remaining slaves were liberated and the vessel condemned and sold to a merchant at Sierra Leone.

Extremely high profits continued to promote the furtherance of the illegal trade for many years. In 1849 reports surfaced indicating that a Baltimore clipper had cleared $400,000 from eleven slave-trading voyages over a four-year period.

Greed would continue to promote local shipbuilders' participation in the construction of vessels for the illegal trade as well as the burgeoning legal domestic slave trade that flourished in Baltimore and throughout the South between 1815 and 1860. For Baltimore, like the London of Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

It all depended on who you were.

Ralph Clayton, a librarian and historian, resides in Baltimore.

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This story was published on April 4, 2002.