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Made in USA: trafficking

The search for the "Camargo", one of the many American slave ships that came to Brazil

ReproductionOn February 21, 1862 the captain of the “Nathaniel Gordon” was hanged in the United States, the only American who was executed for taking part in the selling of blacks. “For four decades such trafficking had been considered, by Law, an act of piracy but until then no one had been punished. The Lincoln administration turned a page in history and with this hanging our history will never be the same again”, somberly declared an article in Harper’s Weekly in that year. Gordon was known of old by Brazil and in 1852 had the “privilege” of commanding the last black slave ship, the American brig, Camargo, to successfully land 500 Africans on Brazilian soil. After dispatching his “cargo”, Gordon set fire to the ship to avoid prison (trafficking had been prohibited in the country since 1850), and slipped away to the USA wearing women’s clothing. But he was not the only American aboard a vessel made in Baltimore, Maine or New York to enjoy the advantages of navigating under a Yankee flag and profiting handsomely from trafficking blacks to Brazil and Cuba.

“Thousands of North American citizens got rich from the slave trade. They were known because they bought and rented ships to Brazilian slave traders in the ports of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. The vessels constructed in the United States supplied the slave-trading posts on the African coast, provided decisive support for slaving expeditions and transported thousands of Africans to the Brazilian coast”, says Brazilian expert Dale Graden, from the University of Idaho. An American consul in Rio de Janeiro in the 1840’s reckoned that a profit of between 70% and 100% was made from these slavery expeditions in ships from the USA, which came from both the pro-slave south as well as the supposedly abolitionist north. The nationality of these ships is still maintained like a ghost even after so many decades. “One of the many problems we had to obtain authorization to dive in search of the remains was the fact that it was a vessel built in the USA, which according to the Unesco Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage may cause diplomatic rows even today”, explains historian Gilson Rambelli, from the Federal University of Bahia, and coordinator of the project “The underwater archeology of a slave ship – The story that’s not in books” funded by FAPESP. Rambelli’s objective was precisely to locate in Porto Bracuí, Angra dos Reis (to the south of Rio de Janeiro), remnants of the “Camargo”, the brig of Captain Gordon. Starting with a report from local divers who had recovered lamps and parts from the brig (later used to decorate a hotel and which have now disappeared along with other artifacts), Rambelli organized an expedition to find the remains of the ship. “For underwater archeology it’s a precious time capsule, capable of giving a voice to those whose suffering was something forgotten by history.”

ReproductionScenes of horror on slave shipsReproduction

“American vessels had many advantages when it came to slave trafficking because they were fast and capable of losing pursuers from the British Royal Navy and pirates. In addition they saved time on the voyages, and an essential saving in water and supplies and, therefore, in lives, in this case the ‘perishable cargo’: human beings”, he observes. “From the political point of view the American flag provided for certain privileges, like on-board inspections not being allowed, thereby eliminating the danger of being taken prisoner by the English.” For the researcher, the possibility of being able to set fire to a ship reveals the profit made from the trafficking, which permitted them this “luxury”, for freeing both the crew and the customers, powerful men from the region, from facing justice. “Angra and Ilha Grande were always smugglers paradises”, says Rambelli. Researching the slave trade today is not as easy as trafficking was then. In 2004, the historian sent the Navy a request to explore the bottom of the sea and almost one year later received a negative reply, which got him started on a veritable “naval battle” in order to be able to complete his project. The following year he sent another request for authorization, this time to the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage (Iphan). As a result he only managed to carry out a few dives before his funding ran out, having located timber from a ship, which he believes may indicate where the “Camargo” is located. “If on the one hand archeological research has wasted precious time with political and bureaucratic red-tape, on the other if it has allowed Iphan and the Navy to sit down and discuss the subject. It is making our concern legitimate and opening the way to a future understanding of the importance of underwater archeology in Brazil.”

If the “Camargo’s” secrets are guarded by the sea, the American participation in the slave traffic was a watershed for Brazilian slave masters after the Eusébio de Queiroz Law was passed in 1850, which prohibited the black slave trade. “All day long on July 4 (American Independence Day) we decorated the ship to celebrate the date and fired a salute with the cannon we had aboard. At four in the afternoon we again started embarking our cargo and an hour later we had loaded 746 blacks; we weighed anchor and set sail”, said William Anderson, second in command on the “Quinsey”, an American slaving ship, to the American consul in Rio de Janeiro, in 1851. “I’d risk stating that no vessel from the USA is sold in Brazil destined for a port in Africa, unless the captain and crew from the United States, if not the owners, freely and willingly contribute to perpetuating the traffic in slaves”, wrote the North American ambassador to Brazil, Henry Wise, a slave-owning southerner who fought against the traffic in Brazilian waters for the simple reason that most of the Yankee slave ships came from the north, a rival in the Civil War. “Secret unloading was carried out with help from a series of State agents who had been corrupted by slave traffickers and slave masters. The abuse of Navy and Army employees was such that many rented government installations to serve as places for holding slaves. Despite some measures being taken, many doubted the weight of the new law”, assesses sociologist, Luiz Alberto Couceiro, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. The trivial case ended with the “Bracuí case”.

reproductionSlaves were like packed in like sardinesreproduction

In December 1852, the “Diário do Rio de Janeiro” carried the news of the “rumor” that an American ship had unloaded Africans in the port  of Bracuí. The emperor was personally informed that two American sailors, members of the crew of the “Camargo”, had been taken prisoner. The local police chief was also a slave owner and his involvement had repercussions in the Court press. “A contingent of 400 soldiers was sent to patrol the Angra region. After the State intervened in the farms where the slaves had been illegally bought, only 38 blacks were recovered. Furthermore, starting with the political fact, other slaves from the region thought they had the same right and people started escaping. Captured slaves said they had been exercising their right to freedom, like the Africans brought on the ‘Camargo’ who were freed”, says Couceiro. Three months of investigation and political maneuvering led to a show of force with the Empire that wanted to show that it, not the slave owners, gave orders in the nation, saying it was the right moment to adopt an attitude against slave labor. “It was an orchestrated action. According to a letter from the person responsible for the investigation, Ildefonso de Souza Ramos (Eusébio de Queiroz’s substitute), when the boat commanded by the American, Gordon, moored many canoes drew close and the Africans landed on property belonging to the Santa Rita farm”, observes historian, Martha Abreu, from the Fluminense Federal University. Having already been chased by an English ship, Gordon set fire to his own ship, an everyday occurrence with other American commanders of black slave ships. It was worth it: a slave bought in Africa for US$ 40, on Brazilian soil, where increasing coffee production demanded slaves who were no longer “imported”, was worth between US$ 400 and US$ 1200. So a cargo of 800 slaves could yield a fortune of US$ 960,000: US$ 100 in 1850 corresponds to US$ 4000 today.

At least 430 American ships made 545 slavery trips to the Americas between 1815 and 1850, most to Cuba and Brazil. Many whaling ships were converted into black slave ships or served as a disguise for Americans to traffic slaves to Brazilian shores. New York gained the dubious honor of being the largest black slaving post in the world. “It’s a shame that Great Britain and the United States were obliged to spend such an amount of blood and money suppressing slave trafficking”, said  Lincoln a little before taking office as president. The outbreak of the Civil War diverted the few Yankee ships earmarked to patrol American waters to other functions and until 1862 the British had no permission to go aboard vessels flying the flag of the USA. “In my opinion Brazil, in the name of the descendents of slaves brought to its country, should demand compensation from the USA for these illegal acts committed 150 years ago”, says Brazilian scholar, Gerald Horne. The last American ship to transport Africans to Brazil was the schooner, “Mary E. Smith”, which left Boston in 1855, destined for the coast of Espírito Santo, where it arrived in January 1856, carrying 400 blacks, who had been trafficked from Africa. A Brazilian steamer, the “Olinda”, approached the schooner and escorted it to Salvador, where it was found that it was carrying more than 70 Africans who had died from diseases they had contracted on the journey. The population of Salvador panicked, terrified about the possibility of an epidemic. Over the subsequent two weeks when the schooner was retained more than a hundred captives died (including the American captain). The crew was judged and sentenced to three years imprisonment, but appealed to the American consul, Richard Meade. Dom Pedro II even received the oldest among them and granted an official pardon to all of them in 1858.