The Last Slave Ships, Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society

The US Navy and the Slave Trade

With Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, and the United States all having outlawed the Slave Trade by 1820, military efforts were begun by all these nations to enforce the ban. Five US Navy vessels left for patrol along the West African coast in 1820-21 to arrest American slavers, and help to establish settlers at Liberia. With the War of 1812 still fresh, US government officials were adamant about British interference with American shipping. Similarly, Spain and France were sensitive to American seizures of their vessels. With difficult physical conditions along the African Coast, and diplomatic or political resolutions on the right of mutual search, which was essential for any success, US Naval forces were withdrawn in 1824.

With no way of stopping them, vessels flying the US flag were virtually immune from prosecution, and American ships entered a golden period of slave trading. Traffic to both Cuba and Brazil increased. Tensions escalated once again though as British cruisers began to “visit” (their distinction) American ships suspected of slaving. After negotiations, the 1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty called for renewed US patrols along the African coast, and cooperation with the British. In reality the first and foremost objective of the American patrols was to protect US shipping interests.

For the next twenty years, ensuring the ability of US ships to sail unimpeded by others was the main object of the African Squadron. Those officers who were zealous in their efforts to restrict the slave trade found little support in lackadaisical administrations and courts at home. The American effort to patrol the 3,000 miles of African coast was never fully realized as it was conceived. If more than five patrol vessels were on station at any one time, it was rare.

In 1859, under pressure from President Buchanan, the African Squadron began to finally show its ability. This was a response to resurgence in the trade that began in 1857, and a corresponding increase in captures by the British. In 1858, the size of the navy was increased, and four steamers purchased in the expansion were stationed around Cuba in late 1859 – their object to intercept American slave ships. Between 1838 and 1859, only two slavers laden with people were captured by US Naval forces. In 1859 and 1860, seven were seized, resulting in the liberation of nearly 4,300 Africans.  

Siezure Locations of Slave Ships, The Last Slave Ships, Mel Fisher Maritime Heriatge Society

Abraham Lincoln’s election as President put into power a leader even more committed to the end of the slave trade, but the Civil War forced the African and Cuban patrols into other duties. It was hoped that the vigorous criminal prosecution of any slavers who were caught would suffice as a deterrent, but it didn’t. In 1862, swallowing all national pride, Lincoln, and Secretary of State Seward, quietly forged a treaty with the British, allowing them to search and seize American vessels. This served to dampen an already fading American interest in slaving. The imminent end of slavery in the United States was helping to bring a close to the trade elsewhere. The US Navy no longer had to focus efforts on its eradication. 


Prize Money

The motivation to stop slave ships was enhanced for the crews of the Navy cruisers through a reward program. For each slave ship that was captured, condemned and auctioned, the proceeds would be split equally between the government and the capturing vessel’s crew. If Africans were found on board the slaver, the cruiser’s crew would receive $25.00 per person rescued, and delivered safely to US authorities.

The 1st Class officers split 3/20ths of the prize money, and the other officers and seamen shared smaller divisions in proportion to their respective ranks.


Tunis Augustus Macdonough Craven, Lieutenant Commanding, 
US Steamer Mohawk

T.A.M. Craven, THe Last Slave Ships, Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society

T.A.M. Craven was born at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine in 1813. He entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1829, and was immediately sent to sea. He served on many different vessels after which he was attached to the Coast Survey. In 1841 he was made a lieutenant. In 1846, he served aboard the sloop-of-war Dale, and participated in the capture of California from Mexico. His journal has proved to be a key source of information on the event.

Craven returned eastward in 1849, and rejoined the US Coast Survey. He had command of various vessels involved in the research, and in 1854, along with Lt. J.N. Maffitt, made key observations in the relationship of bottom topography to the nature of the Gulf Stream current. He was offered the command of the Atrato Expedition, one of the most important and ambitious surveys in its time. Its purpose was to survey the Darien peninsula of Panama for a proposed canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. His party sailed aboard from New York aboard the Vorina, in October , 1857. They encountered many hardships in the uncharted Atrato valley, and were often on the verge of starvation, but succeeded in their mission.

Upon his return to the United States, Lt. Craven was given command of the war Steamer Mohawk with the purpose of patrolling the Cuban coast to intercept illegal American slavers. In 1859-60, Mohawk’s efforts saw the successful condemnation of four slavers – Cygnet, Wildfire, Toccoa, and Mary J. Kimball. Writing to his superiors in Washington, Craven tried to convey the horrors of the Slave Trade,

“The Negroes are packed bellow in as dense a mass as possible for human being to be crowded; the space allotted them being in general about four feet high between decks, there, of course, can be but little ventilation given. These unfortunate creatures are obliged to tend to the calls of nature in this place – tubs being provided for the purpose – and her they pass their days, their nights, amidst the most horridly offensive odors of which the mind can conceive, and this under the scorching heat of the tropical sun, without room enough for sleep, with scarcely space to die in…”

In late 1860, he received commendations from both Queen Isabella II of Spain, and the US Board of Underwriters for his many efforts in aiding distressed Spanish and American merchant ships.

In 1860 the United States was feeling the effects of the secessionist movement, and Lt. Craven was adamant about the continued preservation of the United States. On November 15th, he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy that because of “the present deplorable condition of affairs in the Southern States,” and to prevent seizure “by any hands of lawless men,” he was taking it upon himself to defend Ft. Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas with Mohawk. Lt. Fabius Stanly was guarding Ft. Taylor with the Steamer Wyandotte. Because of his foresight, these fortifications at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico remained in Union control throughout the Civil War.

After the outbreak of war in April, 1861, Craven was put in command of the Tuscarora, and sent to Europe to search for Confederate cruisers. With little action there, Tuscarora was sent home in the summer of 1863. Craven’s command was changed once again, and he was put in charge of the new iron-clad, single-turreted monitor Tecumseh. In April of 1864, orders were given for Tecumseh to join Admiral David Farragut’s squadron in the attack of Mobile, Alabama. On the morning of August 5th, Craven led the charge, and Tecumseh fired the first shot. Eager to engage the new Confederate ram Tennessee, Craven made a charge for her, and 100 yards from the target, a torpedo exploded under the Tecumseh. Craven was in the pilot-house, and he and the pilot met at the ladder to make their escape from the rapidly flooding ship. Craven stood back to let his pilot pass, saying “You first, Sir.” T.A.M. Craven, along with 104 of his men, went down with Tecumseh. His body lies there today, at the bottom of Mobile Bay, in 38 feet of water.


United States Steamer Mohawk  

USS Caledonia/Mowhawk, The Last Slave Ships, Mel Fisher Maritime Heirtage Society

The US Navy Steamer Mohawk was built in 1853, originally as Caledonia, by the Teas and Birely Yard of Philadelphia. The vessel  was rated at 459 tons, with a length of 162.4 feet, beam of 24.4, and depth of hold of 12.1feet. She was launched on June 11th, 1853 for her 1st owner, the Parker Vein Steam Ship Co. Caledonia was sold for $13,000 to Amasa C. Hall, and then immediately sold to Wm. Cromwell and Assoc. In 1856 she began service as a freight and passenger carrier between NY and Portland, Maine.

On September 13, 1858 Caledonia was leased to the US Navy. Fitted with five guns – a 30-pounder, two 32-pounders of 33 cwt, and two 32-pounders of 57 cwt, she was sent to South America as part of an 18 ship fleet whose mission was to elicit an apology from Paraguay for hostile actions taken against the Steamer Water Witch in 1855. The mission was successful.  An option to buy was exercised, and Caledonia became the US Steamer Mohawk on May 26th, 1859.  She was commissioned on September 19, 1859 at New York Navy Yard, Lt. T.A.M. Craven in command, with orders to patrol the north coast of Cuba for the suppression of the Slave Trade. Over the next 14 months she captured four slavers, the most notable being the Wildfire with 530 Africans on board. On November 15th, 1860, with secessionist sentiments rising, Lt. Craven put Mohawk in position to defend Ft. Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas against potential seizure. She maintained this stance until the end of January, 1861.

Mohawk was sent New York, and then sailed as a supply escort to the Caribbean, returning to Florida to participate in the Union blockade of the South until April of 1862. Her station was later changed to South Carolina, again to participate in the blockade, and she held this duty until being sent to Philadelphia for repair on July 6th, 1864. Being in a poor condition, Mohawk was declared unfit for service, and sold at auction on July 12, 1864.

Given a new name, Alliance, the ship spent the rest of her days as a freight carrier sailing out of Boston and Philadelphia. On the night of March 4th, 1869 Alliance met her demise near Hatteras Inlet, N.C. The account of her loss reported the Norfolk Virginian, “By the arrival of the wrecking steamer Resolute…we learn that the iron steamer Alliance, Captain Simms, from Boston for Charleston…had broken up in a southeast gale on the night of the 4th inst., and was settling fast in the sand. The Captain had abandoned her to the wrecking commissioners who had ordered for the benefit of all concerned, the sale at auction on the 8th inst., upon the beach, all materials saved from the wreck, consisting of boots and shoes, bales of hay, and a portion of her machinery.” 


Fabius Maximus Stanly  

Fabius Maximus Stanly, The Last Slave Ships, mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society

Fabius Stanly was born in New Bern, North Carolina in 1815. He began a long career in the US Navy, entering as a midshipman in 1831. After being promoted to Lieutenant he was attached to the Pacific squadron during the Mexican War, and participated in the capture and defense of San Francisco, among many other battles. He was highly commended for his bravery. In 1858 he went to Paraguay commanding the store-ship Supply. Upon his return he was given command of the steamer Wyandotte, and captured the slaver William off Cuba in 1860. During the early part of the Civil War he was commissioned Commander, and took the steamer Narragansett to Mexico and the Pacific where he was a key US diplomat. He later served on the South Carolina coast, and the expedition of Bull’s Run. He eventually was commissioned Rear-Admiral in 1874, and retired shortly after. He died in Washington, D.C. in 1882.


John Newland Maffitt   

J.N. Maffitt, The LAst Slave Ships, Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society

J.N. Maffitt was born at sea as his parents emigrated from Ireland to America in 1819. At the age of six he was adopted by his uncle, and taken to North Carolina. At thirteen, he entered the Navy as a midshipman. Shortly after, he began a 3 ½ year cruise in the Mediterranean aboard the Constitution, and served as aide to Commodore Elliot, commander of the ship. In the 1850’s Maffitt became a leading officer in the US coast survey. In 1859 he received command of the steamer Crusader, and in her captured the slaver Bogota off Cuba with over 400 Africans. Being a loyal North Carolinian, he joined the Confederacy on May 2, 1861. He sailed to England in 1862 to take command of the newly built steamer Oreto. He sailed to the Bahamas where she was fitted with guns, and rechristened Florida. With this vessel, he sailed the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, and was a terror to Union shipping, taking fifty-five prizes while in command. Eventually the effects of repeated bouts of Yellow Fever forced him to retire from military service. With his assets seized by the Union, and in exile, Maffitt entered the English merchant marine service, and ran a steamer between Liverpool and Rio de Janiero. He bought a farm near Wilmington in 1867, and lived there until his death in 1886 at the age of 68.  

USS Crusade, The Last Slave Ships, Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society


Introduction    United States Navy and the Slave Trade    Africa
Slave Ships and the Clandestine Trade
    Africans in Key West
    Liberia    African Cemetery in Key West


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