Smuggling of Slaves

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SMUGGLING OF SLAVES. The importation of slaves into the United States was not made illegal until 1808, because of a constitutional provision that forbade congressional interference with the slave trade until that year. By then, however, most of the states had already passed laws prohibiting the trade. Subsequent federal laws included the act of 20 April 1818, which provided for fines, imprisonment, and forfeiture of the vessel used for slave trading, and the act of 15 May 1820, which defined slave trading as piracy and provided for the death penalty for anyone convicted of engaging in it. Although the federal government authorized cruisers and revenue cutters to capture slave traders, their efforts were largely unsuccessful because U.S. naval forces of the time were insufficient to patrol American and African coastal waters adequately. Federal courts were directed to try offenders, but juries, especially in the South, were often reluctant to convict smugglers. These national measures generally emphasized the punishment of smugglers rather than the prevention of smuggling.

In the absence of effective enforcement, the traffic became a very profitable business, supported by northern capital and dovetailing with the domestic slave trade in the South. Illicit cargoes of enslaved African men and women were either infiltrated into the South through secluded rivers and inlets or boldly unloaded at ports of entry where public apathy or the connivance of local authorities permitted the business. Between 1808 and 1860, more than 250,000 slaves were thus imported. The human cargoes of captured slave ships were occasionally returned to be colonized in Sierra Leone or Liberia. More frequently, however, they were sold at auction in the southern slave market to cover the costs of capture and prosecution, thus paradoxically defeating the original purpose of the laws. Sometimes the seized slaves were turned over to the state governor's agents, who committed them under bond to a planter, often the one from whom they had been captured, who thereupon simply forfeited the normal bond and retained the slaves.

International cooperation to suppress the slave traffic was generally ignored or rejected by the United States until 1842, although the Treaty of Ghent (1815) contained a statement condemning the trade. In the Webster- Ashburton Treaty of 1842, the United States agreed to send a squadron with eighty guns to the African coast, but subsequently failed to provide its full quota. More effective was the belated Anglo-American treaty of 7 June 1862, which granted a limited mutual right to search merchant vessels for smuggled slaves and which established three international courts (at Sierra Leone, Cape of Good Hope, and New York) to try the smugglers. The boundaries of the territory in which the mutual right of search existed were greatly extended by another treaty between the United States and Great Britain, signed on 17 February 1863. By 1864, slave trading had come to almost a complete halt as a result of the Union blockade during the Civil War. Finally, in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished domestic slavery, gave the final blow to the slave trade.


Du Bois, W. E. B. The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870. New York: Longmans, Green, 1896.

Noonan, John T. The Antelope: The Ordeal of the Recaptured Africans in the Administrations of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Martin P.Claussen/a. r.

See alsoAntelope Case ; Antislavery ; Middle Passage ; South, the: The Antebellum South .