Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Traderby Ron Soodalter
On a frosty day in February 1862, hundreds gathered to watch the execution of Nathaniel Gordon. Two years earlier, Gordon had taken Africans in chains from the Congo -- a hanging offense for more than forty years that no one had ever enforced. But with the country embroiled in a civil war and Abraham Lincoln at the helm, a sea change was taking place. Gordon, in the wrong place at the wrong time, got caught up in the wave.
For the first time, Hanging Captain Gordon chronicles the trial and execution of the only man in history to face conviction for slave trading -- exploring the many compelling issues and circumstances that led to one man paying the price for a crime committed by many. Filled with sharply drawn characters, Soodalter's vivid account sheds light on one of the more shameful aspects of our history and provides a link to similar crimes against humanity still practiced today.
Booklist (starred review)
"A remarkable story."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Hanging Captain Gordon tells with satisfying thoroughness, clarity, and drama the half-forgotten story of the only slave trader executed under American law.... A solid achievement."
William Lee Miller, author of Lincoln's Virtues and Arguing About Slavery
"An engaging book about a forgotten incident in American history."
The Washington Times
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Hanging Captain GordonThe Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader
By Ron Soodalter
AtriaCopyright © 2006 Ron Soodalter
All right reserved.
Chapter One: Lucky Nat
Early in 1860, a young sea captain from Portland, Maine, sailed south to Havana, Cuba, leaving behind a two-year-old son and a pretty young wife. The fourth in as many generations to bear the name, Nathaniel Gordon was a short -- five-foot-five -- and muscular man with a ruddy complexion, a dark beard, and small piercing eyes. Gordon was not
a handsome man; a reporter once described him as "repulsive" in appearance. His demeanor reflected a quiet intensity and a confidence found in one used to giving orders. He was a slave trader -- a "blackbirder" in the slang of the time -- and upon arriving in Cuba, he would take command of a full-rigged ship and provision her for a voyage to the Congo River, on the west coast of Africa. It would be his fourth slaving expedition.
Nathaniel Gordon's early life is sketchy, where information exists at all. Large numbers of personal records were destroyed in major fires in Portland in 1866 and 1908. Gordon was born on February 6, 1826, almost certainly in Portland. (His attorney would later claim that he was born in British waters, under the British flag, on one of his father's voyages, and was consequently not an American citizen.) Gordon's father was a merchant captain, and his mother would sometimes accompany her husband on board ship. In addition to Nathaniel, she would bear two girls: Dorcas Ellen was four years older than her brother; Mary, named for her mother, was almost exactly eight years younger. The Gordons were an old New England family; Nathaniel's earliest American ancestor arrived at Plymouth nine generations earlier, in 1621, aboard the Fortune.
On February 22, 1862, the day after Gordon's death, the New York Times published an extensive article about his life. In all likelihood, it represents an amalgam of recollections by the clergymen, doctors, and jailers who knew him briefly, and were retelling Gordon's own accounts of his life. And the writer, presenting the second- or thirdhand story, added the expected Victorian embellishments, to provide both a history and a morality lesson.
Thirty-five years ago, in the City of Portland, a well-to-do couple were gladdened by the birth of a son. [In fact, Gordon had died just fifteen days past his thirty-sixth birthday.] The boy, who was delicately made, grew rapidly, and in his earliest years, developed unusual vigor of mind, which gave promise of a useful and honorable manhood. At the age of fifteen he manifested suddenly a desire to go to sea. His parents, who had fondly watched his rapid progress at school, demurred, but the boy, already the ruler of the domestic circle, was determined, and to sea he went. His father, Capt. Gordon, had been a seafaring man for years, and soon recovered from the disappointment which, to the mother, has been a source of life-long grief, and which was the means by which the son NATHANIEL GORDON attained [his] disgraceful end.
The writer describes an admirable young Gordon who avidly pursues a sailor's life, and whose skill, loyalty, and abstinence from "vicious habits" win him friends and impress his employers. When, at 20, he is offered a captaincy, he continues to work with zeal, and impresses the citizens of Portland with his "ability, energy, and good reputation." His enthusiasm takes a dark turn, however, as he is consumed with a craving for riches, according to the Times account.
Gordon has property worth thousands of dollars, the article continues, and is part owner of a "fine ship" by the time he is 25, but he sells everything, resigns his command, and travels to California in search of greater riches. The writer has Gordon falling in with "certain moneyed parties" on the return trip, who lure the young captain into the slave trade, tempting him with "enormous profits, little risk of detection and certain immunity from punishment."
Gordon ultimately commands at least four slaving voyages, according to the Times, two of which made him and his employers an "immense amount" of money. The article describes the young slaver's thrilling life at sea. "Very many hair-breadth escapes, such as daring sailors delight in, were his fortune." Often pursued by both American and British cruisers, Gordon always managed to escape. His life was an exciting one, and he claimed he had found no greater pleasure than when eluding the slave-catchers. "The same adventurous spirit, the same careful study, the same business tact and attentive industry which aided his upward career while engaged in lawful pursuits, marked his disgraceful career, and he was known amongst his fellow traders as 'Lucky Nat.' "
The Times account reads like a story from Dickens, seasoned with a healthy dash of Robert Louis Stevenson: a good boy gone bad for the sake of gold. Actually, it might be said that, far from disappointing his father, Nathaniel Gordon was taking over the family business. When Gordon was 12 years old, his father was arrested for attempting to smuggle a slave into the country. The July 7, 1838, issue of the New York newspaper The Colored American printed an article entitled "Bringing Slaves into the United States," in which it reported that the senior Gordon was charged with importing a single slave from Point Petre, Guadeloupe, on his brig Dunlap. He was "held to bail in $5000," and if convicted, he could have faced the gallows. There is no record of how the case was resolved, but it is safe to say that Captain Gordon never suffered the full weight of the law. Ironically, it was this same circuit court -- Southern District of New York -- that would see Gordon's son Nathaniel on trial for his own life 23 years later.
There was little in the culture or society of Portland to discourage the Gordons -- or any other seamen -- from pursuing careers as slavers. New England's sea captains had sailed to Africa for generations in search of native cargoes. And of all the Northern states, Maine was known as the "least likely to burn with the fires of abolition." By virtue of its geography, as well as a minuscule African American population, it was literally the farthest removed from the heat of the slavery issue. In 1840, when Gordon was 14 years of age, Portland counted only 402 African Americans, out of 15,218 residents; by 1860, the year of his final voyage, the number of residents had grown to 26,342, while the African American population had dropped to 318. There was a small but fiercely dedicated core of men, though, who kept the antislavery issue "before an unappreciative public" from the early 1830s until the Civil War. Their impact was minimal, however. Throughout the state, the speeches of such abolitionist luminaries as William Lloyd Garrison, Austin Willey, and Reverend David Thurston were disrupted by mobs throwing eggs and wielding hoses, with the featured speaker exiting ignominiously through the rear door.
Maine's abolitionists were largely involved in fruitless debates with those who favored colonization of the Blacks. As the antislavers saw it, America's responsibility lay with freeing Blacks, not merely removing them from its shores. In the end, their efforts in Maine failed utterly.
The churches of Portland, and of Maine in general, would not begin to adopt an antislavery stance until around 1856. The state's most famous clergyman was the Reverend John W. Chickering, whose High Street Congregational Church numbered the Gordons among its flock. (Young Nathaniel attended Sunday school there.) Of all the churches and denominations in Maine, the Congregationalists were the richest and the most politically conservative, but Reverend Chickering, on a trip to England in 1846, "had passed himself off...as a committed anti-slavery man." Whether this was the truth or merely an attempt to impress his hosts, he came under a storm of criticism -- which sank to the level of personal vilification -- from Maine's die-hard abolitionists. To their way of thinking, Chickering talked a good show abroad, but did nothing for the cause at home, other than speak out against slavery "in the abstract....And who was not against slavery in the abstract?"
Growing up in the city where generations of Gordons had achieved commercial success and social status, and where racial consciousness was practically nonexistent, Nathaniel developed into an enterprising young man. Only two years after he earned his captain's papers, he
was involved in a telling incident off the coast of Brazil. The first half of the nineteenth century saw Cuba and Brazil alternating positions as most favored site for outfitting ships and selling slaves. In the late 1840s, the port of choice was Rio de Janeiro, and would remain so until Brazil virtually closed its ports to the slave trade. In June 1848, the 1,000-ton, iron-hulled U.S. Navy steamer Allegheny was assigned to the coast of Brazil to patrol for slavers. Gorham Parks, United States consul to Brazil, sent orders to its commander, Lieutenant William W. Hunter, alerting him to the presence of the Juliet, captained by Nathaniel Gordon.
The street talk in Rio had the Juliet carrying shackles, leaving no doubt as to the ship's purpose. According to local gossip, the ship's cook would be willing to show the officers where the chains were hidden. Because the cook supposedly feared reprisals from local slavers, Hunter would have to wait until after the Juliet left port before boarding her.
The Juliet set sail on June 10; Hunter overtook her five miles out to sea. He sent a contingent aboard her, and ordered a search that lasted nearly 12 hours. But the cook reversed himself, decrying all knowledge of hidden slave chains, and nothing incriminating was found. There were goods and objects that could be used to trade for and sustain slaves on a sea voyage, but these might just as easily serve as legitimate trade goods.
Since there was nothing on board the Juliet to provide Lieutenant Hunter with proof that she was bound on a slaving expedition, he had no choice but to let her go, and to assume that the talk in Rio had been unfounded. Later, however, word circulated that the Juliet had in fact sailed to Africa, taken on a cargo of slaves, and returned to Brazil. There was never any proof, but this was probably Gordon's first slaving voyage.
Gordon again drew official attention to himself in 1851. As the Times article stated, he had indeed gone to California in search of riches. But although the strikes of three years earlier were still luring men by the thousands, he would seek his fortune far from the gold fields. In San Francisco, Gordon met a man named Levi H. Fenner. According to the Fenner family history, Levi Fenner was an ambitious young fellow. Sensing the opportunity for profit in California, he had left his home in Pennsylvania early in 1851 and traveled to New York. There, Fenner and some companions went partners on a brig, the Camargo, in which they made the dangerous trip around Cape Horn to San Francisco, where Fenner started a business, possibly a tannery, and prospered.
In less than a year, he bought his partners' shares in the Camargo, becoming her sole owner. Fenner loaded the brig with a cargo of hides to be taken to New York City for sale. He hired twenty-five-year-old Nathaniel Gordon as captain.
Once at sea, Gordon won over the crew, probably with the promise of gold; he ordered the hides thrown over the side, commandeered the Camargo, and sailed to Rio de Janeiro, where he outfitted the ship for a slaving voyage to Africa.
The voyage of the Camargo has the distinction of being the last slaving expedition to land Africans on the coast of Brazil. But it was not an overwhelming success. Gordon had sailed from Rio under the watchful and suspicious eye of then U.S. consul Edward Kent. Taking a circuitous route in order to avoid naval patrol vessels, the Camargo landed briefly at the Cape of Good Hope, then sailed to the distant east coast of Africa. Here, Gordon boarded about 500 Africans, filled his water casks, and made the return voyage to Brazil. Despite Gordon's precautions, however, he was pursued by a British man-of-war as he approached the Brazilian coast, so he quickly landed his cargo and burned the ship. The Africans were soon seized, and some of the crewmen arrested and charged with slave trading. Through interviews with some of the captured sailors, Consul Kent learned that Gordon had "escaped in woman's clothes, hastily put on in the cabin, his small frame rendering the disguise comparatively easy of accomplishment." "It is now reported," Kent wrote, "that Captain Gordon has gone to the United States, but this fact is uncertain."
Even if Gordon had successfully delivered his cargo, he still might have chosen to burn his ship, to avoid prosecution. The 452-ton bark Sultana was torched by her owners in 1860, after she had successfully delivered between 850 and 1,300 Africans to the coast of Cuba. The crew, claiming to be castaways, traveled to Key West in a fishing boat, and no trace was ever found of the Sultana. Her captain, Francis Bowen, was a known slaver, and rumors of her voyage ran from New York to New Orleans. But the courts could not prosecute on the strength of rumors. The Sultana, despite her fiery end, was a successful slaver.
The brig Sophia made a successful run from Africa to Brazil in 1841, with a load of 500 captives. Once safely docked, she was burned to the water line, "being a telltale liability worth only a small fraction of [her] recent cargo." Twenty years later, the brig Nancy, alternating between legal and slaving voyages, delivered a shipload of 690 Africans to Cuba, and was then set aflame by her captain.
Although the destruction of a fully functional vessel worth upward of $14,000 seems an unnecessary waste, it was a practical decision. If the trip was successful, the profit from the sale of the slaves far exceeded the worth of the ship. Should the voyage prove a disaster, however, the destruction of the ship was often an unfortunate necessity: it was the most expedient way to remove incriminating evidence and eliminate the cost of refitting.
There is no information on Gordon's life between the voyages of the Juliet and the Camargo. In fact, we know very little about his third trip, beyond what we are told by U.S. Marshal Robert Murray, the man responsible for Gordon during his trials and imprisonment in 1851. Shortly after returning home from the Camargo debacle, Gordon made a slaving voyage to Cuba in the bark Ottawa after taking on a cargo of Africans. But once again, the vast profits that he had sought eluded him. According to Murray's account, Gordon reached Cuba with only 25 percent of his cargo still alive. Gordon claimed that the others had been poisoned on the Congo River by a rival of the trader from whom he had bought the slaves. Gordon burned this vessel as well, after landing what remained of his "merchandise."
The loss of so many lives on a single trip is truly horrific, but the captains and crews of the slave ships were steeled to it. As far back as 1706, Sir Dalby Thomas, commander of the Royal Africa Company of England, wrote an instructive to potential slavers: "Your captains and mates...must neither have dainty fingers or dainty noses, few men are fit for these voyages but them that are bred up to it. It's a filthy voyage as well as a laborious [one]." In the 160 years that followed, this would not change.
Attrition was the inevitable result of any slaving voyage. There would always be deaths; it was just a question of numbers. The deaths were frequent enough, however, that the crewmen of slavers often told of the schools of sharks that followed their ships all the way from Africa to their final destination. Much has been written about the horrors of the infamous Middle Passage -- the voyage from Africa to America, Brazil, or the islands of the Caribbean -- so called because it represented the second leg of a three-part trip by the slaver: from home in the United States or Europe to Africa for the cargo of slaves; then from Africa to the place of sale; and, finally, home again. The Middle Passage took anywhere from several weeks to three months. Debilitated, often already ill and half-starved from the trek from the African interior to the coast and the waiting slave ship, the Africans
are packed below in as dense a mass as it is possible for human beings to be crowded; the space allotted them being...about four feet high between decks, there, of course, can be but little ventilation given. These unfortunate beings are obliged to attend to the calls of nature in this place -- tubs being provided for the purpose -- and here they pass their days, their nights, amidst the most horribly offensive odors of which the mind can conceive, and this under the scorching heat of the tropical sun, without room enough for sleep; with scarcely space to die in; with daily allowance of food and water barely sufficient to keep them alive. The passage varies from forty to sixty days, and when it has much exceeded the shorter time disease has appeared in its most appalling forms, the provisions and water are nearly exhausted, and their sufferings are terrible.
All ships at sea had their own cacophony of sounds: the wind in the sheets and sails, the groan and crack of wood driven by water and weather, the commands of the officers shouting to be heard above it all, and the responding cries of the crew. Aboard a slaver, the perpetual groans and pleadings of hundreds of desperate, often dying humans were added as well. In 1854, the slaver Captain Theodore Canot, a contemporary of Gordon, recorded his memoirs of a lifetime of trafficking in humans. He tells of the ship Volador, which lost 136 of its 747 captives:
The degree of mortality was not unusual; neither was the overcrowding. The slaves were laid on their sides, spoon-fashion, the bent knees of one fitting into the hamstrings of his neighbour. On some vessels, they could not even lie down; they spent the voyage sitting in each other's laps. The stench was terrific. A British officer testified that one could smell a slaver "five miles down wind."
The death rate among the captives varied, depending on the length of the voyage, the severity of conditions on board, and the callousness of captain and crew. It averaged 17.5 percent among captured American slavers for the period 1844-1864; out of every 1,000 Africans shipped as slaves, approximately 175 perished. Captives died of disease, thirst, starvation, suffocation, exhaustion, suicide, and sometimes simply despair. If a captive attempted suicide and failed, he or she would be mutilated, tortured, or executed to provide an example for the others. Should slaves revolt against the horrific conditions, they would be summarily hanged, shot, or drowned. Between the high rate of mortality aboard ship and that of the slave in his first year ashore -- the period of adjustment to a slave's existence that the owners euphemistically called "seasoning" -- nearly one in every three people taken from Africa in bondage would die during the process of enslavement.
In 1847, the brig Senator boarded 900 slaves. The first night, 74 died of suffocation. Before the three weeks' voyage was done, more than 200 additional captives had perished of thirst. The Senator eventually delivered only 600 of her slaves to Brazil. Through neglect and cruelty, one-third had died.
Commanded by Captain Luke Collingwood, the British ship Zong picked up 400 African slaves and set sail for Jamaica on September 6, 1781. Within two and a half months, he had lost 60 captives; several more were ill, and he was running short of water. If the slaves were to die on their own, the ship's owners would take the loss. However, if they were thrown over the side while living, it could be claimed that they were washed overboard. This would be attributed to "perils of the sea," and the insurance company would have to pay. Consequently, the captain selected 54 sick slaves and cast them overboard, living and bound. Two days later, he followed with another 42. That same day, it rained, providing the ship with enough water for 11 days. Nonetheless, Collingwood threw 26 more into the sea, bound at the wrists. As he was about to prepare another 10 for a like fate, they elected to take their own lives and jumped overboard. The underwriters of the voyage, suspicious, refused to honor the insurance policy. The ship owners sued them, and the British courts obliged them to pay the premium.
Stories abound of slaver captains who chose to jettison their cargo rather than face fine, imprisonment, or forfeiture of their vessels. One such slaver, an Englishman named Homans, had already completed 10 successful voyages, delivering around 5,000 Africans to the shores of Brazil and Cuba. On the return of his eleventh voyage, he found his brig, the Brillante, surrounded by four cruisers. He immediately had his cargo of 600 manacled captives herded to the rail and bound to the anchor chain. When the cruisers' boats lowered and made for the Brillante, Homans had the anchor thrown over the side; it plummeted to the ocean floor, carrying every man, woman, and child with it. When the warships' crews boarded the Brillante, they found clear evidence that several hundred human beings had occupied the hold only moments before, but they could do nothing. They were forced to release the brig, as Homans "jeered in their faces and defied them as they stood on his deck."
What would allow for such a callous disregard for life? Greed. In fact, a successful slaving voyage was profitable beyond all reason. It has been estimated that during the mid-1800s, when Nathaniel Gordon was pursuing his career, a slave purchased in Africa for approximately $40 worth of trade goods would bring a price ranging from $400 to $1,200. Therefore, the selling price of a cargo of, say, 800 slaves ranged between $320,000 and $960,000. Even after factoring in the cost of outfitting the ship, paying -- and paying off -- all the people involved in the voyage, and the inevitable loss of "inventory," a successful slaving expedition realized a profit many times in excess of the initial investment. Consider that $100 in the 1850s would be worth around $4,000 today, and the allure of such a venture becomes apparent. Given such returns, a single successful trip could more than compensate for three or four previous failures, and make the fortunes of investors and captain.
Again, nothing is known of Gordon's seafaring activities during the four years after he burned the Ottawa. However, the Gordon family Bible records that on March 28, 1855, Nathaniel Gordon embarked upon an adventure of another sort. In Cape Elizabeth, within sight of his native Portland, he married Elizabeth Annie Kenney, by all reports a slight and remarkably pretty young woman. Gordon was twenty-nine years old; Elizabeth was fifteen or sixteen. Just over two years later, on April 28, she would bear him a son; in keeping with family tradition, they named him Nathaniel.
Judging by Gordon's final letters, and Elizabeth's devotion to him during his long period of incarceration, the marriage was a successful one, characterized by mutual love and devotion. Given the failure of his two previous trips, it is unlikely that Gordon could afford to lounge on shore for the four years between voyages. The Gordons' lifestyle was far from lavish; Nathaniel, Elizabeth, and their young son lived in his mother's modest row house, along with an aunt. There were probably opportunities for an experienced captain to command vessels shipping out of Portland, and it's likely that Gordon accepted various commissions during this time. At worst, he could have earned money by signing on as a mate or able-bodied seaman. Then, in 1860, came the opportunity to command another slave ship, and Gordon sailed for Havana to take command of the Erie.
The reporter for the New York Times, in his highly embroidered article of February 22, 1862, told of Gordon's goal:
Had he reached the port of destination with the usual proportion of living Negroes, an immense fortune would have been made, and in that event, as he declared, he would have returned to the United States rich and contented, with the prospect of a happy shore-life before him. But it was ordained otherwise.
Copyright © 2006 by Ron Soodalter
Excerpted from Hanging Captain Gordon by Ron Soodalter Copyright © 2006 by Ron Soodalter. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ron Soodalter is a passionate educator and lay historian. With a master's degree in education and full master's credits in American folk culture, he has taught American history and was formerly a museum curator. He has also been a professional artist and concert guitarist, and has field-collected the traditional ballads of America, Scotland and Ireland. He operates a consortium of special effects and animation studios for the commercial television market. Mr. Soodalter lives in Chappaqua, New York.
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