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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND

Seizing a Slaver, 1853

Old Ironsides' Battle Record: Documents of USS Constitution's Illustrious Deeds

In 1853, as the flagship of the African Squadron under the command of Commodore Isaac Mayo, Constitution cruised the coast of Africa looking for slave traders headed to the Americas. On 3 November, sails were sighted and the Constitution gave chase, eventually bringing to the American schooner H. N. Gambrill. Although no one knew it at the time, this was to be Constitution's last prize.

The following accounts of the seizure of H. N. Gambrill are by Commodore Mayo himself, who also gives his opinion of the state of the African slave trade, and by the flag lieutenant of Constitution, C.R.P. Rodgers, who led the boarding party and was charged with investigating the activities of the schooner.

Excerpt of a letter from Isaac Mayo, commander U.S. African Squadron, reporting the capture of the suspected slave trader H. N. Gambrill on 3 November 1853.

Flagship Constitution
St. Paul de Loando,
Nov. 10, 1853

I have the honor to report that on the morning of the 3rd of Novr., while near the African Shore, about Sixty Miles South of the river Congo, I fell in with the American Schooner H. N. Gambrill, of New York, and found on board of her the most unquestionable evidence of her being on the eve of receiving a cargo of slaves. I have therefore felt obliged to seize and send her home for trial.

Lieutenant DeCamp of this ship, will take her to New York, and deliver her to the proper authorities. I send for the information of the Navy Department a memorandum, made by my Flag Lieutenant, on the day of the capture, who was charged with the duty of examining the suspicious circumstances connected with the vessel, and with the persons found on board of her.

In this connection I beg leave to state my belief that, the Slave trade is reviving on this Southern Coast, and that the American flag is extensively used in its prosecution. Several cargoes of Slaves have been recently carried off in American Vessels, which having regular papers, defy the English cruisers, and hope to elude the vigilance of our Squadron, knowing it consists of only Three Vessels, serving on a coast of great extent, and dependent for provisions upon our depot at Porto Praya, in going to and from which much time is unavoidably consumed.

Information concerning the movements of all vessels of War, is carried along the Coast, by the Slave dealers, with wonderful celerity, and the Masters of the Slave vessels, are provided with every expedient to avoid capture, by means of double sets of papers and flags, and every other device that experience and interest can suggest. I have become convinced that the large force concentrated in the Constitution might be much more advantageously distributed, at the same expense, in several smaller vessels....

I have the honor to be Very Respectfully Your Obt. Svt.

I. Mayo
Commander in Chief
U.S. Naval Forces
West Coast Africa

Source: National Archives, Record Group 45, African Squadron Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from the Commanding Officers of Squadrons,1853, no. 36.


Excerpt of Memoranda from Lieutenant C.R.P. Rodgers, USS Constitution, detailing the seizure of the slave trader H. N. Gambrill on 3 November 1853.

U S Ship Constitution
At Sea 3rd November, 1853
Memoranda relating to the seizure of the American Schooner H. N. Gambrill

On boarding the American Schooner H. N. Gambrill, this morning, I found her papers apparently formal and correct, but I could find no list of her cargo, -- the Captain informing me that he had sent it to Ambriz. I then proceeded to examine the vessel and on going to the caboose house found it closed. The cook objected to my entering it, but on speaking to the Captain, he made no further objection and the door was opened. On taking away a tarpaulin, I found a very large copper boiler, recently set in brick work -- such a copper as would be required to cook the food for slaves.

On opening the hatches I found a deck of loose hemlock boards laid smoothly and carefully upon the tiers of casks, which upon examination were found to contain provisions and several thousand gallons of water. -- The fore-peak, usually occupied by the crew, had no bulkhead to separate it from the hold, but the crew's quarters were next to the cabin.

I found three persons on board whose names were not on the crew list, and the Captain informed me that they persons he had found at Kabenda, to whom he had given a passage to Ambriz. -- Two of them told me that they had arrived at Kabenda a short time since, in the Amn. Schr. [American Schooner] Sarah Hope, from New York, and were on their way to Loando. The other was a cabin passenger, and apparently a man of education. I had more than one conversation with him, in the course of which he told me that he was a native of Spain -- that a few months since he had been captured in a Portuguese vessel called the San Domingo, by an English cruiser, and had been sent on shore by her commander at Kabenda. He at first said that he was supercargo of the San Domingo, but some hours afterwards spoke of himself as a passenger. He said that being tired of the coast of Africa, he had asked the captain of the H.N. Gambrill to take him away from it, and that he had kindly permitted him to work his passage, and has he had been an officer took him into the cabin. He said he had paid no passage money in consequence of his poverty, but I afterwards found in his trunk a hundred dollars or more, chiefly in American gold; besides an ample stock of clothes and many articles proving him to be a man with a free command of money to purchase the superfluities of life.

He told me he had long commanded a vessel in the trade between Spain and Havana, and a steamer on the coast of Cuba. He said that he had been about two months at Kabenda. On examining his papers I found his passport to go from Cuba to the United States in June, his hotel bills in New York for the months of July and August. and a receipt four nautical instruments bought in New York at that time. I also found letters directed to Rio Janerio, and a commission for some masonic degree in the lodge of the place. -- The letters being from his wife, were returned to him without examination. The captain and Mate stated that had landed a hundred barrels of provisions at Kabenda, and showed the entries in the log book to prove it. The Captain asserted that he had delivered this portion of his cargo to one Don Guillermo, a white man at Kabenda, who had shown him a letter from the owner of the vessel, authorizing him to demand it but he said that he had taken no receipt whatever for it although he admitted that this Don Guillermo was personally unknown to him.

Upon privately examining the cook and the steward, they most positively asserted that no provisions in any quantity and no cargo had been landed at Kabenda -- The cook at last told me the whole story of the voyage, as far as he knew it, in substance as follows. He had shipped to go in the schooner on an honest trading voyage to the coast of Africa, but after going on board he was somewhat surprised to find that she was detained six days, and that the crew were not allowed to communicate with the shore. At length the Captain made his appearance accompanied by the Spanish passenger, and they went to sea. On the passage the cargo excited his suspicion, and he asked the steward what he thought of the strange quantity of water on board &c. At last the Steward talked with the Captain about it, and the Captain admitted that he was going for slaves.

On their arrival at Kabenda the two passengers came on board who said that they had come out in the Sarah Hope, and after remaining there two days, they sailed for the River Congo. In the meantime they had discovered that the water casks which had formerly been used to contain brandy, had soured and injured the water, and as soon as they got into the fresh water of the Congo, the casks were emptied, and all hands busily employed in filling them with sweet water. -- While doing this the Captain urged to cook assist, offering to pay him for extra work, and the Spanish passenger also offered to pay him after they got the slaves on board. While in the Congo a boat came off and communicated in Spanish with the Captain and Spanish passenger and received a present of a ham and some other provisions. -- They sailed from the Congo on the evening of the 1st, and yesterday the knocked down the bulkhead which separated the forecastle from the hold, broke up a part of the mens chests, threw overboard their old clothes, empty barrels, &c, in order to make room, and laid the slave deck, ready for the reception of the Negroes. The crew moved their quarters from forward, aft. -- They then got up a big box, took from it the copper for cooking, and set it in brick work in the caboose house.

All doubt was then removed as to the object of the voyage.

When the Constitution was discovered from the masthead this morning, the Captain examined her with his glass, and declared that she was the brig he had seen in the Congo. When he found out that it was a frigate it was too late to run away. -- this is the story of the cook. The Steward admitted the refilling of the casks in the Congo, and that the copper had been put up within a couple of days, and that the slave deck had been carefully put its place, but he was evidently unwilling to tell all he knew. -- I found in the chest of the Spanish passenger a Quadrant or sextant and three charts of Cuba and the Bahama islands. -- Two of the Kromen [crewmen] on board the Constitution, declare that they know him well, and were employed by him within two years, at the Gallinas, on the north coast, and that they worked for some time on board a slaver which he commanded, and saw the slaves taken on board.

The Captain or some of his men also told me that while in the Congo they had seen a merchant Brig painted green. -- This was the English Brig Coquette of Liverpool which I boarded on the evening of the 1st. -- Her master told me that he had seen a very suspicious looking schooner, of American model, in the Congo, that afternoon. -- He was convinced that she was a slaver.

The captain of the H. N. Gambrill stated that the provisions found on board were consigned to a Mr. Walker, a merchant at Ambriz to whom he had sent the invoice by a launch, -- but the barrels showed no mark indicating any such consignment, nor had the captain any paper or letter of instructions to prove his assertion.

Every thing I saw and heard stamped her unequivocally as a slaver, on the very eve of receiving her cargo.

The H.N. Gambrill was towed to sea on the 20th August by the steamer Active. -- It may be possible to prove that the Spanish passenger was on board by the testimony of the Captain of the steamer and by the Pilot. -- The log book records that the 25th Oct the Schooner arriver at Kabenda, that ont he 26th she discharged 50 barrels of bread and 10 of beef, and on the 27th forty barrels of beef.-- The cook and the steward most explicitly declare that no cargo was discharged, nor could it have been discharged without their knowledge. The log book also makes the following record in the remarks for October 29th, "at 4 p.m. one cabin passenger and two seamen, passengers came on board." The schooner sailed on the 29th. -- There is no mention of her filling up her water casks in the Congo, although it must have been a work of great labor. -- The only cabin passenger on board when I boarded her was Juan Baptista Arbaza, who came out in her from New York, and there is no doubt in my mind that the entry in the log book recording his coming on board at Kabenda, and that of the discharge of a hundred barrels of provisions, are both false entries.

C.R.P. Rodgers
Flag Lieut.
African Squadron

Source: National Archives, Record Group 45, African Squadron Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from the Commanding Officers of Squadrons,1853, no. 36.

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