Thursday, June 1, 2023

Two Navies Capture a Slave Ship

By John Pentangelo
HRNM Director

The sloop-of-war USS Constellation, launched from Shiphouse B at Portsmouth, Virginia’s Gosport Navy Yard in 1854, served as flagship of the U.S. Navy’s Africa Squadron from 1859-1861. The squadron patrolled the west coast of Africa to suppress the transatlantic slave trade and protect legal American commerce. During this cruise, Constellation captured two slave ships, and worked with the British Royal Navy to capture a third. The capture occurred during the first months of the American Civil War. Constellation was soon called home to a nation divided and a Navy with a new mission.

USS Constellation capturing the slaver bark Cora in 1860 (NHHC)

On May 19, 1861, Constellation came to an anchor five miles off Shark’s Point at the mouth of the Congo River. The Congo River Basin was a hive of slave trading activity in the region and much of it occurred upriver where large wooden warships could not approach. The paddle steamer HMS Prometheus hailed Constellation to share information about several vessels waiting to take on slaves at Punta da Lenha. The location was a major slave-trading complex consisting of fifteen slave “factories” approximately twenty miles up the Congo River. Constellation’s captain, John S. Nicholas, knew of a suspicious American vessel there but, as he informed Commander Norman B. Bedingfeld of Prometheus, he could not get up the river to investigate. Bedingfeld offered his sloop to tow a boat upriver and Captain Nicholas immediately dispatched a cutter under the command of Lieutenant Philip C. Johnson.

Armed with pistols and cutlasses, Lieutenant Johnson’s force of fifteen officers and men rowed over to Prometheus. To avoid detection, Bedingfeld waited until after darkness fell on May 20th to steam past Shark’s Point. The British commander was sure that local spies would alert traders upriver of this combined operation. They arrived at Punta da Lenha at 10 p.m. and found the American brigantine Triton at anchor.

Commander Philip C. Johnson, photo taken during or shortly after the Civil War (NHHC)

According to one Constellation crewmember, Triton’s master thought Johnson and his band were English. He hoisted the American ensign because the United States treaty with Great Britain did not give the Royal Navy rights to search American vessels. So when Johnson boarded, Triton’s master resisted inspection. The lieutenant showed his U.S. Navy buttons and the cutter’s boat flag and then proceeded to search the brig. He determined that the crew had made all preparations to take on a cargo of slaves. The party discovered a false deck where slaves would be held, coppers, and a hold full of rice and water in excess of the crew’s needs. Prometheus towed the prize to the flagship the next day. On May 25, Nicholas returned the favor by tipping Bedingfeld off to the location of the Spanish schooner Jacinto. Prometheus captured and burned Jacinto because it was in a state of disrepair.

Officers and politicians of both nations celebrated the operations. Bedingfeld lamented that this type of work had not occurred sooner, as he saw several American vessels at Punta da Lenha that later shipped slaves. Indeed, this was the sort of action required to seriously curb the trade. Like many slavers, Triton had been captured before. The gunboat USS Mystic took the brig (then registered out of New Orleans) almost a year earlier on July 16, just off of Black Point.

Captain Nicholas ordered Midshipman George A. Borchert and a prize crew to sail Triton to Norfolk. The captain asked Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to discharge the prize crew since upon reaching the United States they had served two years on station. Triton ultimately anchored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on July 9, 1861. The U.S. government confiscated the brig after court proceedings.

With his mission completed, Midshipman Borchert, a native of Georgia, immediately tendered his resignation from the United States Navy. While aware of sectional conflict during his cruise and secession, he arrived home to find two nations at war. By the end of the month he was appointed a midshipman in the Confederate States Navy. At the same time, his former shipmates across the Atlantic were receiving disturbing mail about secessionists firing on Fort Sumter. Constellation’s capture of the slave ship Triton was a successful mission that occurred just weeks after the Confederate seizure of several federal installations such as the Gosport Navy Yard. When Constellation anchored off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in September, Shiphouse B in Portsmouth, Virginia, was destroyed by fire and the shipyard was in the hands of the Confederacy.

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