Illegal Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Execution of Nathaniel Gordon in New York City

New York City was the epicenter of the illegal transatlantic slave trade for 30 years from the 1830s to the beginning of the Civil War. On February 21, 1862, it also became the site of the first and last execution of a slave trader in the United States, Nathaniel Gordon. As the New York Times put it, it was “a debt of long standing due to society, to justice, to public morality

The Slave Trade Act of 1794 prohibited exporting slaves from the United States to any foreign country and made it illegal to “build, fit, equip, load, or otherwise prepare” a vessel within U.S. borders for slave trading. 1807, the US government, outlawed the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States”, and in 1820, it declared it piracy, which meant it was a capital crime.

But with a globally soaring demand for cotton, sugar, and coffee, the need for slaves increased, especially in Cuba and Brazil. The American government did very little to enforce its laws. US ships continued to sail to Africa and bring captivated people across the Atlantic to Havana and Rio and profits rose up to 90% (10 times more than a century earlier).

New York City’s economy had been a long time depending on trading from and to the slave South and skyrocketed when NYC started to dominate trade between Southern cotton plantations and British textile mills. It now became the most important port of the illegal, but highly lucrative slave trade. Ships were converted into slave ships, outfitted, loaded with supplies by New York businesses. New York insurance companies insured vessels and human cargo. New York investors funded slaving expeditions for easy money and huge profits.

Thousands of Africans were kidnapped in the triangular trade between Havana, New York City, and the African West Coast. One of the most infamous groups was the Portuguese Company, a network of Portuguese and Spanish merchants with headquarters in Manhattan who “managed” the enslavement and transport of about 160,000 African people to Cuba.

They used a legitimate business trading with Madeira wine or used dummy dry goods as cover while trading slaves with the help of NYC lawyers and investors as politicians such as the consul general for Portugal as well as the US consul in Havana who signed approvals and documents.

The scheme most often used was elaborate: US ships were outfitted and loaded with provisions in New York, sailed to Havana under the US flag, and with an American crew. In Cuba, the vessels were sold, renamed and the crew was exchanged for a new one, consisting of most Spanish, Portuguese, and a few American seamen. A Spanish captain was also taken on board, first as a passenger. Upon crossing the Atlantic, the Spanish captain took over command and the ship contained to sail under the Spanish flag.

Nathaniel Gordon, born on February 6, 1826, in Portland, Maine, took command of the slave ship Erie in Cuba, leaving Havana on April 17, 1860, heading towards West Africa. It was his 4th voyage of this nature. After trading 150 barrels of whiskey for 897 humans – two-thirds of them children – he intended to return back to Cuba. But his ship was seized by the US Navy off the African coast on August 8, 1860. The slaves were brought to Liberia and given medical attention.

Gordon was arrested and taken to New York, where he was indicted under the 1820 Piracy Act. This was just before Lincoln was elected, and appointed Edward Delafield Smith as a federal attorney, who was determined to end the slave trade. The first trial ended in a hung jury in June 1861, but in a second one, Gordon was convicted on November 9, 1861, and sentenced by Federal District Judge William Davis Shipman on Nov. 30, 1861, to be hanged on February 7, 1862.

Lawyers, friends, and family appealed to Lincoln to pardon Gordon. 18,000 people from Portland signed a petition on behalf of his young wife and infant child. But Lincoln, known to be merciful and exercise his clemency powers generously, was determined to set an example and standard, especially given the prominent role New York played in the transatlantic slave trade. He even refused to see Gordon’s wife and his mother and to speak with his wife Mary Lincoln – who had instead met them – about the matter.

I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa
Abraham Lincoln, February 4, 1862

Lincoln did grant Gordon two weeks extra time to prepare for his death, as he had been misled to assume that he would be pardoned. After attempting suicide the night before, Nathaniel Gordon was executed on February 21, 1862. The execution was national and global news and sent the intended message. The New York Times wrote:

We are sorry for his family and friends, but we cannot but rejoice that the Slave-trade has received so heavy a blow. Our City has been disgraced by it long enough. Our whole country has shared that disgrace. We rejoice in the belief that the prospects are brighter for the future, and that the sternness with which the law has been carried out in this instance will be effectual for the destruction of so enormous a crime within the borders not only of this City, but of the whole land.

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