American Navy: West African Station (1843-62)

Figure 1.--

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 The squadorn was withdrawn in 1824 and for nearly two decades the United States was absent from the West African station.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.

First Effort (1820-24)

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. Despite the Squadron's efforts, results were limited. Ans the U.S. Navy would not return to the West African Statation for two decades.

Grampus: Amistad Captives (January 1840)

The Van Buren administration ordered the Grampus to New Haven, Connecticut. The mission was to sureptiously spirit the Amistad captives out of the city to defuse the politically explosive issue. President VanBuren saw that he needed to carry the South to win the election was not about to support what ammouted to a slave rebellion. The Grampus was to take them back to Cuba where they would have been executed for mutiny or reduced to slavery. The mission, however, failed. The Amistad Africans became involved in a complicated legal battle whichbwas finally settked by the Supreme Court (1841). The Court ordeed them freed. They were subsequently f=returned to Africa (1842).

Paine-Tucker Arrangement (1840)

After the mission in New Haven proved impossible to carry out, the Navy issued very different orders. Grampus was a 97-foot U.S. Navy schooner commanded by Lieutenant Paine. He was ordered to cruise off Africa in an effort to seize slavers. Paine conferred with Royal Navy Commander Tucker and agreed to coordinate their operations. The plan was to cruise jointly and to turn over ships seized as appropriate. Paine would turn over British slavers to Tucker and visa versa. The arrangement became known as the Paine-Tucker Arrangement and was formalized by inclusions in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842).

1840 Presidential Election

The Depression affected the popularity of Van Buren and the Democrats, providung a real opportunity for the Whigs to win the White House for the first time. Harrison had began his campaign soon after losing the 1836 election. He was 64 years old and the rigors of travel at the time may have affected his health. Harrison's party rivals (Henry Clay and Daniel Webster) also had their eyes set on the White House and campaigned extensively. The Whigs desperate to gain the White House, nominated the ageing war hero. They also nominated Democrat John Tyler for vice-president, hopeing to gain support in southern states where the Whigs were weak. The Whigs calculated that they could gain the support of southern states-righters who were appauled with Jacksonian Democracy. The slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" is perhaps the most famous in Ameican political history and was a full-blown appeal to flag-waving nationalism. Clay believed he could retain party leadership and sought to down play his nationalist to keep from alienating the South. Webster began describing himself as a "a Jeffersonian Democrat," again to avoid alienating the South. After the election, however, both men attempted to control the new president.

Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842)

The Webster-Ashburton Treaty was the treaty negotiated by Daniel Webster and Lord Ashburton which settled the United States-Canada boundary east of the Rockies. The negotiators had hoped to solve the OIregon Question as well, but agreement here proved impossible. The Senate rejected the Paine-Tucker Arrangement. There were, however, anti-slavery provisions which survived in the Treaty. This is interesting. American had outlawed the slave trade, but the southern states all legalized slavery. It is interesting that a Treaty with anti-slavery provisions could be approved by the Senate. Article 8 called for cooperative cruising. Each country committed to supply a squadron of 80 guns. The Treaty specifically stated that no British ships were allowed to search American shipping. The 80-gun committment did not mean one or two heavily armed ships. What was needed was several fast, small vessels with shallow drafts. Slavers were fast vessekls with little armament. That would have slowed them down. Thus naval vessels on the West African station only needed ligh armament to stop a slaver. Thus the vessels of the small U.S. Navy were ideally suited for anti-slavery operations.

Perry's Squadron (1843-45)

Matthew C. Perry who as a junior officer had served on the first American squadron on the West African Station in the 1820s was given command of the renewed American effort. Perry's squadron assigned to the West African Station consisted of the frigate Macedonian, sloops-of-war Saratoga and Decatur, and the 10-gun brig Porpoise. There was also a storeship. The vessels assigned changed, but this was the typical makeup during first 15 years. His orders did not focus on anti-slavery operations and the results achieved relected this.

Matthew C. Perry (1809-55)

Commodore Matthew C. Perry was the leading Americam naval figure in the period between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. 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. He promoted the idea of steam power for naval vessels. Hehelped convince the Navy to launch the first steam-driven warships, the side-wheelers Mississippi and Missouri (1842). He commanded the squadron that returned theU.S. Navy to the WrestAfrican Station (1843). He commanded the fleet that landed Winfield Scott's army at Vera Cruz and established the blockade of Mexico. He also commanded the American fleet that opened Japan to western trade and communications (1853).


Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur issued carefully worded orders to Perry (March 30, 1843). "You are charged with the protection of American Commerce ... and with suppression of the Slave Trade, so far as the same may be carried on by American Citizens or under the American Flag." He cautioned Perry, "while the United States sincerely desire the suppression of the slave trade ... they do not regard the success of their efforts as their paramount interest." Upshur partially justified the enterprise to President Tyler on the basis that the U.S. Navy African Squadron would assist American traders enter the palm oil trade which at the time was controlled by the British and the French. [Graham, pp. 4-5.]

Porto Praia

Perry set up the base for his squandron at Porto Praia. This was a port on the island of São Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands. The islands were Portuguese territory. The Cpe Verde Islands were basically west of Mauritania/Senegal. Senegal was the beginning of Sub-Saharan Africa. It was some distance from the primary slaving areas, 1,500 miles from the Gulf of Guinea and 2,500 miles from mouth of the Congo River. The port offered Perry's squadron a refuge in rough weather, but like the African coast was fever-ridden during the summer. The Cape Verde islands were about 3,000 miles from New York and a port of call for the growing American whaling fleet moving into the South Atlntic. As a result, Porto Praia had an American consul. This meant that the Navy could land supplies without interference of the local authorities. Perry wanted floating storehouses, but this would have cost more and Congress decline to fund his request.

Sailing conditions

The sailing conditions were no ideal for capturing slavers. It was hard to cruising under sail in areas that the slavers would be most likely encountered. The winds along the Guinea Coast were normally light and highly variable. The prevailing winds blew from west to southwest. The prevailing currents ran west to east as far south as the mouth of the Congo River. This essentially made the Guinea Coast a lee shore. This made the return voyage to Porto Praia difficult, especially if they moved close to shore. Asa result they often sailed well off shore which meant that they were unlikely to encounter the slavers. [Booth, 89-90.]

American commerce

Perry following his orders gave considerable attention to protecting American commerce. Africans atacked and murdered the crew of the American trading vessel Mary Carver. In retaliation, Perry burned several villages and executed the ringleaders.


Perry had played aole in estanlishing the Liberian settlement for returning freed Africans. The settlement was attacked by indigenous Africans. Perry used his squadron to support the settlement.


Perry's squadrons because of its orders and Perry's fufillment of those orders had almost no impact on the slave trade. Perry commanded the squadon on the West African station for 2 years (1843-45). During that period only one suspected slaver was seized. The USS Porpoise stopped the brigantine Uncas, but no slaves were found aboard. Perry wrote to Secretary of the Navy Upshur "I cannot hear of any American vessels being engaged in the slave trade nor do I believe that there has been one so engaged in years." [September 5, 1843.] Royal Navy officers knew better. British captains forwarded correspondence on slavers flying the American flag . Perry dimissed the British reports. Part of the problem was documentation. Lieutenant Bridge explained that because U.S. laws were draconian (entailing the death penalty ), American slavers flew foreign flags (Usually Portugal, Spain, or Brazil). They would also have American registration papers if approached by the Royal Navy. Bridge understanably refused to criticise his commander, describing him as "a gentleman of the highest professional character, persevering, sagacious, and determined." [Ward, pp. 46-47.] J.Y. Mason suceeded Upshur as Secretary of the Navy. He defended Perry in his annual report on the Navy to the president. (November 25, 1844). He commented, "The operations of the squadron have, it is believed, exercised a favorable influence in preventing the slave trade ... [because of] the presence of our own naval forces, with authority to visit all vessels under the American flag, it is not probable that our citizens will engage in this disgraceful and perilous traffic, or our flag be used by others to any great extent." [Wright, p. 93.]

New Orders (1849)

Secretary of the Navy Upshur did not give Perry detailed instructions on what to look for. Thus Perry was left to look for actual slaves. The Secretary of the Navy provided more detailed instructions as to what to look for when they stopped American-flag vessels suspected of being slavers (1849). The Navy ordered the Americans to look for the "presence of more Water Casks, Handcuffs and other articles than the crew required ..." They were also to look for papers being thrown overboard and importantly for double sets of logbooks or vessel registration papers. The American officers were instructed to closely inspect consular certificates which were sometimes forged. American slavers apparently commomly used the reverse side of a half dollar coin. Bparding officers were instructed not to be "too harsh on suspicion of being a slaver but if the captain acts in an insolent manner to refuse compliance" the sailors could bring him aboard the cruiser. Secretary Upshur also addressed the issue of foreign slavers using American flag as a kind of shield against Royal Navy patrols. This was effective because the United States did not permit the Royal Navy to inspect its vessels and would have sparked an international incident. Upshur instructed the American officers that they should not think that "the mere hoisting of [the American] flag shall give immunity to those who have no right to use it". [General Orders]

Malaga Incident (1846)

The USS Boxer seized the Malaga off West Africa (1846). The Malaga was loaded with slaving goods and had been chartered by a Brazilian slave trader. The Boxer dipsatched the Malaga with a prize crew to the United States. Once in the United States the case entered the American judicial system. A New England judge ruled that it was no violation of U.S. law to sell supplies to slave traders even though slave trading itself was illegal. The New England judge ordered the Malaga released. The vessel after release was then used to actually transport slaves. Than the owners of the Malaga took the captain of the Boxer to court, sueng him for over $10,000 in damages. The U.S. Navy Department after an awkward delay defending the captain, but it appears to have affected the willingness of U.S. captains to persue the slavers. The U.S. squadron did not seize any morecslavers for 3 years. Finally a Pennsylvania judge resolved the matter. He overturned the earlier court decision and rebuked the Malaga owners who had sueing the Boxer captain (1849). [Howard, pp. 102-07.] Unhappily for U.S. naval officers, an incident in 1846 totally dampened their zeal for blockading. 28

Impact of the American Squadron

The American Navy working together with the Royal Navy seemed to offer the prospect for making real progress against the slave trade. The American ships were only part of theprospect, but the ability to seize American vessels could hve put a dent in the slave trade, especially as America after the abolition of slavery by Britain was one of the major remining countries where slavery was legal. The other was Brazil, than a Portuguese colony. Unfortunately it proved to be a lost opportunity and the potential was never realized. Commander Perry (1843-45) and his sucessors never made a significant impact on the slavers and their reprehensible commerce. Historians differ in the committment of Perry and other commanders to ending the slave trade. In the end it was the Royal Navy that carried the bulk of the burden along the African coast. The American squadron seized very few slavers and almost no legal actins were persued.


The composition of the American squadron varied overvtime, bu normnally consisted of three to five ships. Three of the vessels were the USS Constitution and the frigates Macedonian and Cyane. The choice of these vessels was notable. They were aging vessels from the War of 1812 era. Thus maintenance problems reduced their effeciness. Even more notable was the prominant role of Constitution in engagements with the British and the two frigates were actually former Royal Navy ships seized by the U.S. Navy in combat. Royal Navy officers wondered if the use of these vessels was not a not very veiled affront rather than an effort to cooperate in the effort against the slavers. The ageing vessels were also slow. Thus most of their time was spent sailing to and from the Guina Coast where they were often on station for only a few weeks eah year. The Royal Naby began deploying in their anti-slavery patrols (1848). The United Sttes Navy continued using older sailing vessels for another 10 years. U.S, Navy Commander W.F. Lynch cautioned Secretary Dobbin that the United States would be "perhaps justly accused, of observing the letter and neglecting the spirit" of the Webster-Asburton treaty if small, fast steamships were not assigned to the West African squadron did not replace the sailing vessels (1853). [Lynch, pp. 388-89;] The United States finally deployed the steam sloop-of-war San Jacinto and the steam patrol craft Sumpter and Alyatic to the African Squadron (1859).


Booth, Alan R. Booth. "The United States African Squadron, 1843-1861," Boston University Papers in African History, vol. 1, Jeffrey Butler, ed. (Boston: Boston University Press, 1964).

Graham, William A. "Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 29 November l851," (Washington, D.C., 1852).

Howard, Warren S. American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837-1862 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).

Lynch, William E. "Report of Commander W.F. Lynch, in relation to his mission to the coast of Africa," Appendix B to J.C. Dobbin, Report of the Secretary of the Navy, December 1853 (Washington, D.C., 1854).

Ward, W.E.F. The Royal Navy and the Slavers (New York: Schoken Books, 1970).

Wright, Donald R. "Matthew Perry and the African Squadron, "America Spreads Her Sails: US Seapower in the Nineteenth Century (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1973).

"General Orders, USS Portsmouth, Flag Ship of Commodore F.H. Gregory, Commander U.S. Naval Forces West Coast of Africa," 1849, Misc. Vol. 397, G.W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport.


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Last updated: 3:26 AM 7/25/2012