American Navy: West African Station (1820-24)

Figure 1.--.

The first significant American naval anti-slave trade operations were conducted by the Monroe Administration. After Congress passed the Slave Trade Act (1819), President Monroe ordered the small U,S. Navy "to seize all vessels navigated under our flag engaged in that trade." [Hagan, 93-94.] The Navy dispatched five ships to African waters (January 1820-August 1821). The first ship deployed was the frigate Cyane. Soon after the brig Hornet, the frigate John Adams, and the schooners Alligator and Shark. Both these scoomers were fast 200-ton Baltimore clippers. They were 86 feet long and carried 12 guns with a crew of 70 men. The speed and armament of these ships made them well suited for seizing slave ships.

Matthew C. Perry

A young Lt. Matthew C. Perry was second in command of the Cyane when it was posted to West Africa (1820). Perry would return two decades later as commander of the African Squadron (1843). The slavery issue had concerned the Perry family from an early point. They had helped found the American Colonization Society. Perry had specifically requested posting on the Cyane Its mission was to escort the brig Elizabeth which was bringing the first group of freed slaves to found the new Liberia settlement.

Cyane (April 1820)

The Cyane was the first American vessel on the Wes African station. After helping deliver freed slaves to help settled Liberia, the Cyane was deployed for anti-slave parols (April 1820). They intercepted nine slavers. Six of thoses vessels were American ships (Baltimore, Charleston, and New York). The American vessels, however, had obtained Spanish documentation wehich made prevented the Cyane from seizing them. Based on his patrols, the captain estimated thar more than 300 slave ships were involved in the AAtlantic slave trade.

John Adams and Hornet (September 1820)

The John Adams and Hornet joined the Cyane (September 1820). The strengthened squandron took four more slavers. The Cyane departed for the United States (October 19). Conditions aboard the vessels on the West African station was very difficult, especially the tropical heat--temperatures up to 120°F. [Cummings] The Adams patrolled the waters off what is now Sierra Leone and Guinea. Here cooperation developed between the Americans and the British. Slavers would load their cargo on the shallow Pongas River in inlets and mangrove estuaries where the Royal Navy cruisers could not enter. The Adams deployed a ships barge with officers and misshipmen accopanied by a British officer, Capt. Nash of the brig HBM Snapper (October 22). They proceeded up the Pongas and ebcountered the "the American schooner Exchange anchored near us, a prize .... She is a slave trader from Baltimore via Havannah." The Adams had difficulty taking effective action because the slavers had Spanish papers. And there were dangers in approaching the African coast, exposing the crews to mosquitos and diseases like malaria. Many came down with fever and some died. Finally the Adams sailed for the Caribbean (November 21). [Cummings]

Shark (July 1821)

Lieutenant Perry after returing on the Cyane from the West African Station asked for another African posting. He was committed to the American Colonization Society effort in Liberia. The Navy gave him command of the schooner Shark (July 1821). He was asigned to transport the U.S. commissioner to Monrovia, the site for which Perry had helped select. Perry then chsed down a slaver. The Americans were apauled by the conditions of the 133 Africans aboard. A Midshipman William F. Lynch wrote in his journal that they looked like "so many Egyptian mummies half-awakened into life." The slaver was, however, French. This meant that the U.S. Navy had no authority to take action and Perry released the vessel. The Shark's officers offered to reimburse Perry fr any fines he might incur for an "illegal capture". [Lynch] Shark sailed for the West Indies (November 1821).


Fighting the slave trade in the 1820s required a diplomatic effort. The only force capable of interdicting slavers was the Royal Navy. During the Napoleonic Wars the Royal Navy could seize the vessels of French and allied nations with abandon. After the War, however, this was no longer possible. A range of diplomatic efforts was required to gain pemission from foreign governments to allow the Royal Navy to inspect their vessels. This included the United States which because of the impressment issue (which had in prt caused the War of 1812), the idea of allowing the Royal Navy to inspect Americn ships was an extremely sensitive issue. During the Monroe presidenct the possibility of cooperation with the British on the efforts to end the slave trade (1820-24) A House committee reported that "a mutual right of search appears to be indispensable to the great object of abolition."(1821) [Soulsby, p. 20.] Abolitionist sentiment was growing in the northern states. The Missori Compromise had temprrily defused the slavery issue by placing limits on the spread of slavery. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had anti-slavery views, but because he wanted to be president, he did not persue them. He was finally convinced to compromse on the issue of the right of search and a treaty was negotiated with the British. The Senate where the Southheld considrable sway demanded amendments to limit the actual right of British ships to stop and inspect American ships. Here Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford who desired to be president criticsed the proposed treaty to discredit Adams. The Senate amendments so weakened the proposed the treaty that the British rejected it. As a result, the opportunity for Anglo-American cooperation was lost. America was not the only country the British were negotiating with. The British also tried to obtain permission to search the vessels of other countries, such as France, Portugal, and Spain. The British ffort had, however, only began and in the ear;ly 1820s these countries had not yet granted permission. Both France and Spain protested American seisure of suspected slavers flying their flag. Secretary Adams eventually was forced had to assure the French that there would be no searches of French vessels in peacetime. [Soulsby, p. 23.]


The United States had little to show for its first efforts to end the Atlantic slave trade. The country had only a small navy and a substantial part of it was deployed off West Africa. Th American squadron from May 1818 to November 1821 took only 11 suspected slavers and liberated only 573 captive Africans. As a result of the meagre achievements, substantial costs, health problems, and diplomatic complications, the Navy withdrew its squadron from the West African station (1824). American vessels would not return until 2 decades later (1843).

Indian Ocean Squadron

The Amerucan anti-slave trade patrols were primarily conducted off West Africa. There was also a small Indian Ocean squadron that engaged in anti-slave trade ptrols. They were in place to come to the aid of U.S. merchant and whaling vessels. The USS Dale carried out the Johanna Expedition in the Comoros (1852).

Renewed Anti-Slavery Operations (1843)

The United States deployed a naval squadron off West Africa to cooperate with the Royal Navy in ening the slave trade. For a range of reasons including both lack of commitment at home and diplomatic problems, the American sqandon had little impact. The squadorn was withdrawn in 1824 and for nearly two decades the United States was absent from the West African station. American participation was brought up again in the negotiatins over the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842). The U.S. Navy returned to the West African Station under command of navalmluminary Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1843). The mission did not, however, focus exclusively on interdicting slvers and the results reflected this.


Cummings, J.S. Manuscript journal, Uss John Adams (Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport).

Hagan, Kenneth J. This People’s Navy: The Making of American Seapower (New York: Free Press, 1991).

Labaree, Benjamin W. et. al. America and the Sea: A Maritime History (Mystic: Mystic Seaport, 1998).

Lynch, William E. "Naval Life; or Observations Afloat and on Shore" (New York: Charles Scribner, 1851).

Soulsby, Hugh G. The Right of Search and the Slave Trade in Anglo-American Relations, 1814-1862 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933).


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