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The Pen is Mightier


In January 1807 a British Order-in-Council, inspired by James Stephen (lawyer, Aboilitionist, and brother-in-law of William Wilberforce) allowed the seizure of neutral ships trading with French ports or ports under French control.  Stephen knew that this would hit not only Napoleon’s France, but also supplies to slave plantations in the Caribbean, and the slave trade.  It also had a huge impact on American trade generally, with hundreds of American ships being seized.  Relations between the two countries were further embittered by the impressment of seamen from such ships into the Royal Navy; and this led directly to the War of 1812.  It made an anti-slave trade treaty between the two countries impossible to achieve for two generations. John Quincy Adams, famously hostile to the slave trade, was asked while he was ambassador in England, whether there could be a worse evil?  His reply was that it would be worse if the US Government allowed ships flying the American flag to be stopped and searched by British warships, as that would make slaves of the whole American people.  Many Americans shared his viewpoint, and some were even more vehement, like General Cass, who wrote: "Who can doubt that English cruisers stationed upon that distant coast, with an unlimited Right of Search, and discretionary authority to take possession of all vessels frequenting those seas, will seriously interrupt the trade of all other nations, by sending in their vessels for trial, under very slight pretences?"

But without a mutual Right of Search, no anti-slavery treaty could be of any use.  Successive attempts at an Anglo-American treaty all broke down on this point.  The Americans sent out their own squadron to police the west coast of Africa, but its ships were expected to be as punctilious in respecting other flags as they expected the British to be of the Stars and Stripes. American warships could touch none but American vessels, and not even those unless they were actually carrying slaves - the Americans had no equipment clause.  There were never enough of them – the American warships numbered between two and seven between 1843 and 1857, they were generally the wrong type of ship for the service, and their bases were much too far away – Madeira, or Porto Praya in the Cape Verdes, at least a thousand miles distant. 

It was common practice for slave traders to arrive on the coast under the untouchable American flag, and then 'sell' the ship, load slaves and switch to the Brazilian flag (under Brazilian law, the ship might be forfeit if caught, but the crew could not be punished).  A foreign ship might have one American on board to assume the role of 'owner and master' at need; while almost all slavers carried multiple sets of papers to allow them to assume different nationalities as the situation required.  The American officers were as frustrated as their British counterparts, watching an illegal trade carried on under their noses.  At one point in 1840 British and American officers reached their own agreement to allow each other to stop any suspect vessel, with the British surrendering any slavers found to be American to the nearest available American cruiser, and the Americans handing over vessels of other nationalities to be dealt with by the British.  Known as the Paine-Tucker agreement it was regrettably short-lived, Congress immediately disavowing it.

The spread of Britain’s web of anti-slavery treaties and the vigilance of the Royal Navy gradually drove one nation after another out of the slave trade, until by 1858 the British squadron was reporting 22 out of 23 slave ships captured as being American.  The United States responded by sending out reinforcements for their squadron.  But it was not enough.  Without an Anglo-American agreement in place, the slavers needed only to be able to tell the Union Jack from the Stars and Stripes to have an open door through which to escape.