The Slavers

Here we have four cases all dealing with condemnation of vessels as slave ships. The vessels and the citations for their cases were the Kate 69 US [2 Wall.] 350; the Sarah 69 US [2 Wall.] 366; the Weathergage 69 US [2 Wall.] 375; and the Reindeer 69 US [2 Wall.] 383. All four cases are from the December, 1864 term of the Supreme Court.

These cases have a few things in common. The ships had phony sailing manifests, had items onboard that were not on the manifests, contained kegs and other items that could be used to store large quantities of drinking water, and had owners and masters using assumed names. The decisions rested on the similarities between these vessels and other vessels that had been condemned as slavers.

As we see from the first case, “In actions of this class, the government is not restricted to proof of positive facts in laying a foundation for a presumption or inference that acts have been done in violation of law, but they may invoke circumstances calculated to raise suspicions that the purpose of mind or matter inducing the acts performed were illicit; which suspicions must avail as convicting evidence, unless countervailed or explained by proofs in the power of the claimant to furnish. In the earlier seizures and prosecutions under the slave acts, vessels employed in the trade were found fitted out with arrangements so manifestly designed for that business, that the circumstantial proofs furnished by their preparations and equipment were nearly equivalent to positive testimony. The species of indirect or circumstantial proofs of that order, and then generally regarded as necessary to a conviction, were made public law by the treaty between England and Spain, so far as those high contracting parties were concerned, and were generally acquiesced in by courts of the United States as laying down a safe rule of evidence. It soon grew almost into the course of the courts to look for and demand that extreme force of circumstantial evidence to inflict the condemnation of a vessel upon presumptive proofs alone. Very soon slave traders discarded sets of manacles as part of their preparation. A slave deck was no longer found laid in the vessel or prepared for putting down. She exposed no longer an extraordinary supply of provisions, medicines, or equipments specially adapted to the use of slaves, or other conveniences (except, perhaps, large supplies of water or water casks) peculiar to the trade, on examination of the ship, or a mere inspection of her outfit, to become very forcible evidence of her business and destination. For years past these insignia of slavers, except supplies of water, have disappeared from vessels detected in the trade and laden with slaves on actual transportation; and it has become notorious, from publications of writers thoroughly conversant with the course of the business, from proofs in courts of justice on the trial of vessels seized for violations of the laws, from public documents and the decisions in cases of the arrest of vessels for the offense, that slaving vessels are now employed in the trade, fitted and cleared at ports abroad and in this country openly, with the appearance of lawful traders carrying substantially like cargoes and equipments as those which pursue a lawful trade on the coast of Africa, and that on arrival out to the point where slave cargoes are collected, the ship is, impromptu, put in a state to receive their victims on board, and is thus enabled, often in one hour’s time, to become transmuted from the fitment and aspect of an honest trader to a slaver under way, laden with hundreds of human beings on transportation to foreign markets as merchandise. This new practice of discarding from the preparation of slaving vessels most of the insignia of their real design, and, on the contrary, giving them the semblance of lawful traders, yet possessing the faculty of using at once, in their condition, the means necessary to accomplish their nefarious calling, appeals impressively to justice to put in active service all the capabilities of the law of evidence in order to detect and thwart the imposition and crimes attempted to be carried out. Accordingly, in support and accordance with the doctrine that when the evidence on the part of the government creates strong suspicions or well grounded suspicions that the vessel seized as being employed in the slave trade was fitted out or fitting out for that purpose, the decisions in this Court have been uniform and distinct, that such evidence must produce her conviction and condemnation, unless rebutted by clear and satisfactory proofs on the part of the claimants, showing her voyage to be a lawful one.” [69 US 350, 354-356] Chief Justice Chase said, “The difficulty of penetrating the disguises of crime is enhanced in the case of the slave trade by the circumstance that a very considerable traffic, regarded as legitimate, has sprung up and is carried on with the same African coast from which human cargoes are collected. It does not seem unreasonable, since it is the paramount interest of humanity that the traffic in men be at all events arrested, to require of the trader who engages in a commerce, which, although not unlawful, is necessarily suspicious from its theater and circumstances, that he keep his operations so clear and so distinct in their character as to repel the imputation of prohibited purpose.” [69 US 350, 364] In all four cases, the judgment of the District Courts in condemning the vessels was affirmed for the same reasons. The circumstances and situations of each vessel matched what was normally seen with slave vessels and there was no convincing evidence offered that the vessels were engaged in a legitimate voyage.

These cases show the illegal slave trade was alive and well even as late as December of 1864. They also show the United States was actively engaged in combating that trade, marshaling not only naval forces but also the law to attack the trade and hit the slavers where they could.


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