Memoir fills out Constellation's history Flagship: A newfound account records the sloop of war's distinguished service in fighting the slave trade off Africa.

July 12, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

For 3 1/2 hours, the slave ship Cora ducked the Navy guns and raced from the big American warship. Crew members tossed hatch covers, casks and spars overboard in a desperate bid to lighten their ship. They prayed nightfall would conceal their escape.

But at 11 p.m., when the USS Constellation loomed suddenly out of the mouth of the Congo River, the Cora gave up. In a recently discovered memoir, a member of the Constellation's boarding party recalled what happened next.

"Before we could get the hatches open we could smell [the captives] -- 705 on board," sailor William H. French said of that night, Sept. 25, 1860.

"Naked and half starved, they came swarming up through the hatches. They ran forward and crouched in the bow like so many animals. Some were scabbed with scurvy, and others filth. Oh, awful. I hope I shall never live to see such another sight."

The Constellation's service as flagship of the U.S. Navy's African Squadron was the most dramatic and important military action the vessel ever saw. From 1859 to 1861, the squadron rescued more than 3,700 slaves, arrested their captors and seized a dozen slave ships.

Until now, the public has known little to nothing about that record. But French's memoir, together with logs, journals and letters found by The Sun in the National Archives in Washington, have filled out this nearly forgotten chapter in the ship's history -- and the nation's.

"Race, and the relationship between the races, is clearly the defining issue of modern American society," says Louis F. Linden, former executive director of the Constellation Foundation. "And the story of the Constellation is to a large extent the story of how that relationship began."

The foundation is restoring the ship at the Fort McHenry %J Shipyard,at a cost of $6 million in public funds and $3 million in private donations. Its staff is also assembling memoirs (such as the one provided by French's great-granddaughter), artifacts and documents to clarify decades of confusion about the ship's history and finally tell the true story of the Constellation and the people whose lives it touched.

'You have to tell the story'

Linden and others argue that the ship is more than a naval artifact; the Constellation's distinguished service in fighting the slave trade -- and that of its crew, both black and white -- should be of particular interest to black Americans.

Louis Fields, executive director of the Baltimore African-American Tourism Council, agrees.

"By increasing awareness of the contribution of African-Americans and Africans to the abolition of the slave trade, and the building of these ships," he says, "the Constellation would be a very historic point of interest, not just for African-Americans, but anybody who comes to Baltimore. But you have to tell the story."

The Constellation sailed for Africa in July 1859. A sloop of war, it was built at Virginia's Gosport Navy Yard in 1854 to replace the old frigate Constellation, scrapped a year earlier. The new ship was the last the Navy built without a steam engine for auxiliary power.

On board was the squadron's new commodore, William Inman, an aging, irritable veteran of the War of 1812. The Constellation's captain was John Nicholas. Linden believes the crew of 315 included many black sailors.

Although slavery remained legal in many states, Congress outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808. The British banned it in 1833. High profits, however, encouraged continued smuggling of slaves from Africa to parts of South America, the Caribbean and the southern United States.

Accomplished little

In 1842, the United States and Britain committed naval forces to seize slave ships and confiscate their human cargoes. For years, however, the U.S. squadron accomplished little.

Compared with the British, American warships were too few, too slow and too seldom on patrol. And Congress would not permit the British to search U.S.-flag vessels.

But by 1859, the United States recognized that it needed steam power to catch the speedy Baltimore-built clippers that slavers and their New York financiers increasingly favored. (The Pride of Baltimore is a replica of an 1812 clipper, built for privateering.)

So at least four of the seven ships arriving off Africa in 1859 had steam. Their supply base was moved closer to the Congo slave markets, and the ships were ordered to patrol aggressively.

Prize money

The crew had a financial incentive: They shared a federal bounty for each ship they caught. French said the government also paid $25 for each slave they intercepted. He boasted of "quite a little nest egg" when he quit the Navy.

"We went to Liberia first," French recalled in his memoir, a 1924 newspaper interview preserved by his great-granddaughter, Beverly M. Martinoli of Oxford, Conn.

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