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  • "Of Blood and Treasure":Recaptive Africans and the Politics of Slave Trade Suppression
  • Ted Maris-Wolf (bio)

In June 1860, Francisco, Madia, and 376 other Central African prisoners, "sobbing piteously at the prospect before them," left crowded, disease-infested coastal barracoons to face an equally horrific sight anchored offshore—the 1,025-ton Castillian, a "floating hell" of dysentery, dropsy, and scurvy, which would claim the lives of nearly one-third during a two-month Atlantic crossing. Unlike most transatlantic journeys Africans experienced in the nineteenth century, theirs would be a kind of Middle Passage in reverse, from the United States to West Africa, running counter to their first Atlantic voyage aboard the Wildfire just weeks before, as captives in the illegal slave trade from the Congo River to Cuba. Francisco and Madia were two of nearly three thousand enslaved Africans U.S. naval vessels seized from slave ships in 1860, more than in any other year. How they found themselves in Key West, Florida, and then aboard an American steamer bound for Liberia sheds light on a crucial moment in U.S. history, when an otherwise indifferent president launched the nation's strongest attack ever on the slave trade and thereby forced Congress to debate the tangible and unprecedented repercussions of slave trade suppression. For a few weeks in the summer of 1860, several hundred individuals freed from the transatlantic slave trade found themselves at the heart of the sectional crisis and buffeted by the very same political forces that would soon unleash the Civil War.1

It is unlikely that Capt. William Stanhope, his mate, George Hutchinson, or any of the Wildfire crew took the time to read the front pages on the morning of their departure from New York, December 16, 1859. The headlines struck a common theme, reminding New Yorkers that the world was coming apart and slavery and southern intransigence were largely responsible: "The Slavery Agitation," "Disunion Speech of Mr. Crawford of Georgia," and "How to Save the Union." But Stanhope and the others had little time to ruminate over the morning paper. There was much to do if they were to clear port that day. Items needing storing below included 11 [End Page 53] cases of tea cauldrons, 10 cases of "lookingglasses," 7 boxes of raisins, 75 cases of muskets, 70 barrels of rice, and 1,825 kegs of gunpowder, along with numerous bags of salt, drums of codfish, and crates of crockery. More than $20,000 worth of supplies required stocking, paperwork needed completing, and last-minute preparations of the rigging and tackle had to be made for a transatlantic voyage that could take several months.2

Pierre Lepage Pearce, the owner of the Wildfire and one of New York's most successful slave-trade managers, was more likely to have kept up with the city's news that morning, since Judge Norman K. Hall was soon expected to decide whether or not to condemn the bark Orion, which had followed the planned route of the Wildfire several months before, only to be seized as it left the Congo River with 888 slaves aboard.3 Though little is known of Pearce and his specific dealings, he was likely an agent for one of several Portuguese or Cuban slave-trading firms operating out of New York through payoffs to port authorities, under the pretenses of sham international trading enterprises, or, more likely, some combination of the two.4 Pearce joined other managers and company frontmen, such as José da Costa Lima Viana and John P. Weeks, in purchasing at least fifty-six ships in New York from 1857 to 1860 on behalf of slave-trading firms largely based in Cuba. Historian David Eltis describes such enterprises as farflung companies based on joint-stock principles whose shares were traded in Havana but whose agents extended "from New York to Quelimane in southeast Africa." Through elaborate international networks, slave-trading syndicates facilitated the logistics of sale and payment by employing the latest technology—the speedy West African steamer service that allowed agents to coordinate New York slaver purchases, departures, and expected arrivals on the African coast, with concurrent arrivals of slave cargos from the interior in...