The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails

The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails

by Erik Calonius

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On Nov. 28, 1858, a ship called the Wanderer slipped silently into a coastal channel and unloaded its cargo of over 400 African slaves onto Jekyll Island, Georgia, thirty eight years after the African slave trade had been made illegal. It was the last ship ever to bring a cargo of African slaves to American soil.
Built in 1856, the Wanderer

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On Nov. 28, 1858, a ship called the Wanderer slipped silently into a coastal channel and unloaded its cargo of over 400 African slaves onto Jekyll Island, Georgia, thirty eight years after the African slave trade had been made illegal. It was the last ship ever to bring a cargo of African slaves to American soil.
Built in 1856, the Wanderer began life as a luxury racing yacht, flying the pennant of the New York Yacht Club and cited as the successor to the famous yacht America. But within a year of its creation, the Wanderer was secretly converted into a slave ship, and, with the New York Yacht Club pennant still flying above as a diversion, sailed off to Africa. The Wanderer's mission was meant to be more than a slaving venture, however. It was designed by its radical conspirators to defy the federal government and speed the nation's descent into civil war.
The New York Times first reported the story as a hoax; however, as groups of Africans began to appear in the small towns surrounding Savannah, the story of the Wanderer began to leak out; igniting a fire of protest and debate that made headlines throughout the nation and across the Atlantic.
As the story shifts between Savannah, Jekyll Island, the Congo River, London, and New York City, the Wanderer's tale is played out in heated Southern courtrooms, the offices of the New York Times, The White House, the slave markets of Africa and some of the most charming homes Southern royalty had to offer. In a gripping account of the high seas and the high life in New York and Savannah, Erik Calonius brings to light one of the most important and little remembered stories of the Civil War period.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The slave trade became illegal in the U.S. in 1808, but for half a century after that, a black market in chattel slavery thrived. In his first book, former Newsweek correspondent Calonius tells the fascinating, heartbreaking story of the last slave ship to dock on these shores, in 1858, the Wanderer. Originally built as a sugar baron's racing yacht, it was outfitted, as the New York Times reported, for "comfort and luxury." But a trio of greedy proslavery radicals, known as "fire-eaters," transformed her from plaything to slaver: deck planks and inner framing were removed and iron tanks inserted. Then the ship headed to Africa, and eventually returned to Georgia's Jekyll Island with its human cargo. (En route, 80 Africans died.) Calonius charts the subsequent media outcry and trials, and follows the Wanderer's history through the Civil War, when, in a delectably just turn of events, the U.S. government seized the ship and turned it into a Union gunboat. This is fast-paced narrative history, and Calonius has a terrific eye for atmospheric details. Still, one wishes he had provided more analysis of the larger themes in Southern, American and Atlantic history that this tragic episode illumines. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1858, a converted luxury yacht named the Wanderer unloaded a cargo of 400 African slaves on the coast of Georgia. Journalist Calonius uses contemporary accounts, court records, and more to uncover details of the ship's extraordinary voyage and the reasons for it. The importation of slaves into the United States had been illegal for almost 40 years, but a group of Southern extremists known as Fire-Eaters were determined to restart the trade to further their sectional agenda. Failing that, they hoped to provoke a crisis that would result in secession. While always a minority in the South, these Fire-Eaters included leaders of society in cities like Savannah and Charleston. Few of the slaves were ever found by the authorities, and the men who were tried for the crime of slaving were all acquitted. Calonius vividly describes the action and personalities involved in this tale spanning from New York City to the slave coast of Africa, shedding light on a little-known aspect of the contentious climate and the debates that raged around America on the eve of the Civil War. Recommended for academic libraries and public libraries with Civil War collections. Dan Forrest, Western Kentucky Univ. Libs., Bowling Green Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal

Adult/High School
Calonius tells with gripping detail the history of the black-market slave trade that persisted after the United States made the business illegal in 1808. The author focuses on the Wanderer , a speedy pleasure yacht owned by a sugar tycoon. In 1858, a trio of pro-slavery radicals calling themselves "the fire-eaters" transformed it into a smuggling boat and used the vessel to carry 400 captured slaves from Africa to the sales block at Jekyll Island, GA. The federal government captured the fire-eaters, uncovering a plot led by New York businessmen and Southern operatives not only to continue the slave trade, but also to split apart the country. The book follows the outcry from Northern media sources like the New York Times , the dramatic court trial, and the ironic ending when the federal government transformed the Wanderer into a gunboat for the Union during the Civil War. Photos of the key players and plans of the ship are included. Written in a fast-paced style more reminiscent of thrillers than history books, the highly accessible text digs deep into the motivations for the Civil War and illuminates some of the darkest corners of our nation's past.
—Matthew L. MoffettCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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St. Martin's Press
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Chapter Eight
Into Africa
on september 16, 1858, the Wanderer approached the muddy mouth of the Congo. She flew the triangular pennant of the New York Yacht Club atop her mainmast--a bright red cross on a field of blue, with a white star shining in the center. Behind that, from the aft shroud, snapped the Stars and Stripes. Both emblems represented the power and prestige of the Western world.
Beneath those emblems, standing at the forward rail, resplendent in their club uniforms and yachting caps, were Corrie and Farnum. Behind them was sailing master Nicholas D. Brown, alias "Dennis Brown," alias "Seth Briggs," his red beard flowing in the wind. And around him was the crew, a rough assortment of sea-hardened Portuguese and Greeks, who hung in the rigging and scurried busily down below.
As they had approached the continent, Corrie and Farnum had watched the gray line of Africa grow green and take shape, revealing its low mountains and narrow beaches. Now, as they entered the river, an earthy fragrance washed over them, the perfume of innumerable brightly colored flowers, hanging thickly from the vines that had scaled the trees, mixed with the unmistakable odor of rot--the accumulated burden of organic material that was roiled to the surface of the river by crocodile tails and the hooves of the Black Hippos.
As she drifted up the Congo on the flood tide, the Wanderer brought the native children running to her, just as she had brought the Irish children to her, running and leaping over the docks along lower Manhattan. These African children, though, were not dirty and torn, but as shiny as drops of tar. Plunging into the river, they ran knee-deep after the yacht in a splashing joyful dance, shrieking with excitement. Their mothers, alerted by the commotion, put down their baskets and watched, while the men, who had been poking around in the gardens behind their huts, dropped their sticks and ran toward the shiny apparition as well.
A Portuguese sailor named Miguel Arguirir was now at the helm of the Wanderer. He had traveled to the African coast before, and knew the Congo River as well as any white man could. But now, at his side, stood two muscular black men, each with tattoos that swept across their faces like blue spiderwebs, and teeth that had been filed to fearsome points. They had joined the Wanderer as soon as she entered the river, bringing their canoes softly against her side, slipping noiselessly over the rail. Arguirir knew them, and with a smile, handed them the wheel. Now the two Kroomen, as their tribe was named, would take the Wanderer the rest of the way up the river.
The first village they passed was soon replaced with another village, with more excited children splashing in the river, more little huts, more smoky fires, more goats and chickens. Then came another village, and another. After several hours, the Wanderer reached a point in the river where the banks disappeared, overtaken by mangroves, their branches set with white herons and the roots bent out of the water like knees, with the river eddying and swirling below. It was here, where the river ran raggedly between the shoals, that the Wanderer passed a number of wrecked ships--schooners and packet steamers, mostly, that had run aground. All that was left were their blackened ribs, protruding from the yellow mud, or an occasional bowsprit, festooned now with squawking birds.
At last the yacht arrived at a group of buildings set together in a clearing by the river. They had been built on pilings, and over the years the pilings had sunk unevenly into the mud, so that the buildings now leaned haphazardly against one another, as though they were a reflection in wavy water. This was Punta da Lenha, the trading center. It had been built nearly one hundred years earlier, a riverbank crossroads where Europeans could acquire elephant tusks, ivory, beeswax, gold dust, and, of course, the prime export of Africa--slaves. Since the traders were called "factors," the complex itself was called a "factory." As the Wanderer approached, Corrie wrote in the yacht's log: "Arrived at Punta da Lenha. Anchoring off the factory."
While they were still a few hundred yards away, Corrie unfolded his brass spyglass and scanned the factory. In the hot afternoon light, not a soul was seen, neither on the wharf nor in the buildings. But as the Wanderer drifted closer, a black merchant appeared on the wharf, followed by another, and then, like ants discovering a prize, a dozen more. Soon the wharf was alive with African salesmen. Some held elephant-hair necklaces up for examination; others offered red parrot feathers, antelope horns, and ivory bracelets. Parrots and monkeys, screaming at the end of their tethers, were lifted for examination as well, as were chickens, piglets, and goats.
Corrie and Farnum had barely absorbed this commotion when they saw a band of men heading toward them from the far side of the factory. They were the most desperate-looking knot of outcasts Corrie had ever seen, unwashed, unshaven, and dressed in coarse seamen's clothing. As they stormed onto the wharf, pushing past the merchants, they hailed the Wanderer in a swarm of accents--Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, English, Dutch. Corrie would later learn that these men were sailors that had been put ashore when their slave ships had run aground--or, more likely, had been scuttled through the efforts of the British African Squadron.
Now these captains, pilots, navigators, slave drivers--pirates all of them, and experts in the traffic in slaves--rushed to the end of the pier, offering their services in whatever adventure the Wanderer would choose to pursue. With the cries from the merchants, the shouting of the pirates, the barking of dogs, the shrieks of the parrots and piglets, the waving of arms and the grotesque facial expressions of all kinds, what had been a pastoral watercolor moments earlier was transformed into bedlam.
As Corrie watched, a distinguished-looking man in a linen suit could be seen pushing his way through the crowd. Arguirir recognized him, and ordered a skiff put out from the yacht. Once the man was aboard, Arguirir introduced him to Corrie as Mr. Harrington, the chief agent of the factory. With a brief exchange of words, the two descended below deck to the lounge. It was only after an hour of serious negotiations that Harrington emerged again and was rowed back ashore. Copyright © 2006 by Erik Calonius. All rights reserved.

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