The Nightingale of Boston and the Last Gasps of American Slave Trade

In early spring of 1861, the Nightingale of Boston set sail for Liverpool. Her cargo was grain, bread and barrels, broken down for easy shipping and ready to be reconstructed in England to transport goods. But Liverpool was just a waypoint for the 1100-ton vessel.


Nightingale (Currier & Ives)

Most of its American crew was dismissed to find passage on other ships. As it was loaded with copper goods and cloth, a new crew was assembled from the sailors who worked the port – French, Spanish, and Portuguese – all looking for work at the docks. The destination was kept vague, though at first sailors presumed they were headed to China. But as the departure neared, some of the men began growing suspicious. The cargo didn’t seem right for China and there was altogether too much ballast loaded into the ship for a profitable voyage.

Many of the small crew wanted off, sensing something was amiss. But they were kept on board until well out at sea. Their suspicions were soon confirmed. As the ship made its way south around Africa it changed course and headed into port in the Congo. By then the crew had figured out the ship would likely be taking on slaves.

International slave trade had been outlawed by the US and Britain in 1807 and 1808. The US barred ships from being built and fitted out for the slave trade. But transporting slaves was a lucrative business and there was a ready market in South America and Cuba for slaves. Some were even smuggled into the United States, though such ventures were far more difficult since importation of slaves was illegal.

The trade in slaves had proven to be a flash point in U.S. – British relations. Slave trade flourished in America between the states. Yet any slaves that arrived on British soil were entitled, by law, to be granted their freedom and no compensation paid to their owners.

In 1835 the U.S. merchant vessel Enterprise was blown off course and forced to land in Bermuda. The 78 slaves aboard were granted their freedom. It was one of several such incidents – among them the famous La Amistad case – that played out as abolitionists fought to end the practice of slavery,  .

The British were a leading force in stopping the slave trade. In its Royal Navy was a special contingent of vessels known as the “Preventative Squadron.” Its mission was to stop ships taking slaves out of the ports of Africa for sale in South America. Though it seized roughly 1,600 ships and freed 150,000 kidnapped Africans who were headed toward slavery over 30-plus years, the squadron was overmatched.

As America grew more interested in stopping the slave trade, it added ships to the effort. But the potential profits from slavery were enormous.

By the time the Nightingale slipped into Cabenda Bay and up the Congo River in April of 1861, the cat and mouse game of slavers vs. government ships was well established.

The Nightingale hadn’t started out life as a slave ship. It was built in 1851 at the Portsmouth, N.H. shipyard of Samuel Hansom Jr. and launched under the name Sarah Cowles. She was the finest, fastest clipper ship of her day.

The plan for the ship was for it to put in to Boston Harbor where it would be sumptuously outfitted for a wealthy contingent of tourists to travel to the London World Fair. After that she was to join the China Trade.

But the vessel never made that voyage.  The shipping firm Sampson & Tappan spotted the vessel in Boston Harbor and bought it immediately. The firm was active in trade in China, San Francisco and Australia. The company immediately spotted the ship’s potential and for years it earned a reputation as one of the fastest clipper ships in existence.

By 1860, however, the vessel had changed hands in Salem and was sent to Rio de Janeiro. Along the way it was outfitted as a slaver. Its name was changed to the Nightingale to honor Jenny Lind, a Swedish singer who traveled the world performing as the Swedish Nightingale and a likeness of her had been fitted to the bow of the ship as a figurehead.

As the pressure grew on slavers, their means of operation grew more barbaric as they pressed to get every dollar for their cargo. A middle deck was added to many slave ships so that the numbers of slaves could be maximized. These middle decks weren’t tall enough for people to stand or, in some cases, even sit upright. As the conditions worsened, slave revolts were more common and captains resorted to harsher means for putting them down. A slave who fought for his freedom might have a limb cleaved off or be thrown overboard as a warning to others who might try an uprising.

In April of 1861, the Nightingale was no stranger to the prevention squadron. She brazenly flew the U.S. flag and bore the name “Nightingale, of Boston” on her transom. The USS Saratoga was patrolling the waters off Africa at the time and she twice stopped and boarded the Nightingale looking for evidence of slaves. But found none. British ships, too, stopped the vessel but released it when no slaves were found aboard.

But someone gave the captain of the Saratoga a useful piece of information – perhaps one of the angry crew who felt duped into serving on the ship. The Nightingale was to put out to sea and wait on April 20 and return under cover of darkness to port and be loaded with slaves. The plan was for the speedy ship to be on its way before either the British or American vessels could react.

The captain of the Saratoga waited in port and watched as Francis Bowen, captain of the Nightingale, brought the ship into port. Before the Nightingale could leave, the Saratoga seized and boarded the slave ship. The Navy officers found 961 slaves locked aboard the ship. With his orders clear, the captain of the Saratoga put the ship into port in Liberia – a state created by freed slaves – and released the captives.

The Nightingale was returned to America where it was seized by the government and put into service supplying Union army troops fighting the Civil War. The vessel’s captain, Bowen, had slipped away in Africa – possibly aided by someone on the Saratoga’s crew.

The Nightingale, meanwhile, went on to a 30-plus year career following its decommissioning at the end of the Civil War transporting oil to San Francisco, laying under water cable and as a general cargo ship.

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