How the United States profited from trafficking enslaved Africans to Brazil

How the United States profited from trafficking enslaved Africans to Brazil

© SlaveryImages
Between 1831 and 1850, ships bearing the American flag accounted for 58.2% of all black expeditions to Brazil

With about 450 Africans from the Congo River region, the American schooner Mary E Smith was the last to try to land enslaved in Brazil. On January 20, 1856, she was captured in São Mateus, Espírito Santo, in an operation that made it clear that the Eusébio de Queiroz Law, approved in 1850 prohibiting the entry of slaves, in fact intended to end the slave trade in the country. Before it, treaties signed by pressure from England after Independence became known as “laws for English to see”, because in practice the local authorities themselves were complicit in smuggling.

Weighing 122 tonnes and worth an estimated $ 15,000, Mary E. Smith was built in Massachusetts specifically for the slave trade. Even before leaving Boston for Africa, on August 25, 1855, the schooner caught the attention of the British and American authorities. There was even an attempted arrest at the exit, but the captain, Vincent D. Cranotick, managed to expel the intruders and leave.

Few trafficking vessels were monitored as much as Mary E. Smith. The Navy in Rio de Janeiro, upon receiving correspondence from the USA, alerted British, Brazilian and American officials about the impending arrival of the schooner. As she approached the coast, she was approached by the warship Olinda and taken to Salvador, Bahia.

The situation was worrying. Mostly young people between 15 and 20 years old, Africans suffered from several diseases – in the 11 days of travel between São Mateus and Salvador, 71 more died. When Bahian officials condemned Mary E. Smith and took the survivors to the city, the population would have panicked: since August of the previous year, Salvador faced a cholera epidemic, and it was believed that the presence of sick Africans would worsen the situation. situation. More Africans died in the weeks that followed. On February 14, of the 213 who survived, 88 were still very sick, including cholera.

The captain also died on Mary E. Smith’s arrival in Salvador, escaping the charge of illegal slave trade. On June 30, 1856, 10 crew members were tried – of these, 5 were US citizens. The sentences varied from 3 to 5 years in prison, in addition to the payment of a fine of 200 thousand réis (something around US $ 112 thousand) for each African who would have entered Brazil.

Indirect resources

Mary E. Smith’s story is symbolic not only for marking the end of the slave trade in the country, but for indicating the United States’ participation in illegal activity. Between 1831 and 1850, ships bearing the North American flag corresponded to 58.2% of all black expeditions destined for Brazil. The estimate is that they transported almost 430 thousand Africans – it was Camargo, an American brig, by the way, who in 1852 successfully landed the last slaves in the country.

Unlike Mary E. Smith’s Africans, who were emancipated and placed under state supervision for 14 years, the 500 or so who arrived at the port of the Bracuí River, in the Angra dos Reis region, did not have the same fate. “After disembarking, due to the proximity of the Serra do Bananal where coffee plantations existed, you started to hide them in the slave quarters”, says History professor Martha Campos Abreu, from the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF).

The local authorities even tried to recover the enslaved, ordering for the first time a search for the farms, in a demonstration of what was to come with Mary E. Smith. But the attempt was almost in vain: according to history professor Beatriz Mamigonian, from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), only about 70 were recovered. The brig commander, Nathaniel Gordon, in turn, managed to escape. After setting fire to Camargo, he fled to the USA – a decade later, he was hanged for his participation in the drug trade, the only American to suffer capital punishment for the crime.

Ships with American flags were among the few immune to English surveillance

© SlaveryImages
Ships with American flags were among the few immune to English surveillance

In 1896, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois drew attention to the relationship between the USA and Brazil during the period of illegal trafficking. “The American slave trade has finally come to be conducted primarily by United States capital, on United States ships, commanded by United States citizens and under the United States flag,” wrote Du Bois.

Author of The most distant South: the United States, Brazil and the African Slave Trade (Companhia das Letras, 2010), historian Gerald Horne adds a chorus of American critics to the country’s role in Brazilian slavery. “The Brazilian government should seek redress, because these slave traders were violating the laws of Brazil and practicing illegal activity. The fact that it happened 170 years ago does not diminish the complaint, there is no statute of limitations in international law for crimes against humanity, and smuggling was a crime against humanity, “said Horne in an interview with BBC News Brasil. “But there is a reluctance to bring justice to at least Brazilians who are descendants of slaves brought by American ships.”

UFF historian Leonardo Marques, one of the greatest Brazilian researchers of the US participation in Brazilian slavery, points out some caveats. For Marques, the North American resources were more present from 1820, but in an indirect way and still very linked to specific groups of Portuguese smugglers. “For a long time, they thought they were Americans, but today we know that many were Portuguese who came to acquire citizenship to conduct the traffic,” explains the professor, who had a doctoral thesis on the subject at Emory University, The United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas 1776-1856, transformed into a book published by Yale Press in 2016.

Flag safety

Interest in the United States was due to a number of factors. The first was the quality of the vessels. Since the colonial period, the New England region has strengthened the tradition of shipbuilding, competing with the British themselves, and wars against the colonists also contributed to the development of boats. “Their quality was very high, they were sailing, faster, and little by little they were overthrowing the British fleet itself”, says Marques. In addition to saving travel time, the vessels were considered to be able to evade British Navy pursuers and pirates.

The American flag was also one of the few immune to surveys on board. From 1807, England began to close in on the slave trade – more than humanitarian reasons, there were different economic interests behind the pressure, including the creation of a consumer market for industrialized products. While domestically both abolitionists and slaves (who believed they already had a sufficiently self-sustaining internal African population) agreed to the measures, the United States refused to authorize surveys on its boats, accusing the British of injuring the former colony’s sovereignty.

For criminals, the situation was perfect: fast ships with a flag immune to English surveillance. No wonder, says Marques, in the period there were several companies from the USA that sold ships to dealers in Rio de Janeiro. “In Jornal do Comércio, there were advertisements for ships as ‘excellent for transporting slavery’,” says the historian.

The situation led to some diplomatic incidents, dividing the authorities between those who believed that the sale of boats and the use of the flag was legitimate, and those who thought that they were not. In 1844, Henry Wise was appointed US minister in Brazil and, together with consul George Gordon, sought to eliminate the country’s flag from the drug trade. Among the measures, they began to send those involved in trafficking to be tried in the USA and promoted the dismantling of schemes of American citizens who sold or chartered boats to Brazilian traffickers.

Consumption financed by slavery

Illustration shows configuration of an American slave ship

© SlaveryImages
Illustration shows configuration of an American slave ship

One of the schemes involved the Maxwell Wright & Co company, which combined two activities that ended up interconnected throughout the 1840s: on the one hand, they sold the ships to slave traders; on the other hand, they exported the coffee produced by the same slaves back to the United States, where the consumer market was growing. In this sense, Marques observes, the participation of the USA in Brazilian slavery transcends the economic question. “The national identity that was being built in the country, of the American coffee drinker instead of tea, is tied up with slavery,” he says.

Professor Mamigonian, whose research focuses on the abolition of trafficking and the transformations of slavery in the 19th century, complements the reasoning: “We see an element very characteristic of 19th century capitalism, when the rise of consumption goes against the grain of abolitionism.” The problem, in this case, was not restricted to the USA. The United Kingdom itself, which in 1833 abolished slavery, continued to consume Brazilian products produced with slave labor and supply industrialized items for the illegal trade in Africa.

The growth of the consumer market for Brazilian products, at the same time that it linked the Americans even more deeply to slavery in Brazil, corroborates the thesis that trafficking would exist with or without the presence of the USA. In his research, Marques notes that although a clause in the agreement between the United States and England allowing the search of vessels would possibly decrease the presence of Americans in the traffic, the control of the purchase and sale of ships would remain ambiguous. Not for nothing, Portuguese traffickers ended up creating their own networks, mainly in New York, even acquiring the country’s citizenship.

The conclusion of the experts is that, as long as there was demand for the products of slave labor in the world market and slavery remained a profitable market (a slave bought in Africa for US $ 40 was worth in Brazilian lands something between US $ 400 to US $ 1,200, around US $ 48,000), there would be criminals willing to keep the system active. So much so that when the capture of Mary E Smith finally signaled that trafficking to Brazil was no longer a good deal, many traffickers turned their attention to Cuba, which adopted similar measures only in 1862.

The end of trafficking in the Americas, in turn, only really happened with the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, the last country in the West to free enslaved Africans.

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