It seemed obvious that the Uncas was involved in the illegal slave trade. The brig, flying the American flag, was spotted in March 1844 lying at anchor by the mouth of the Gallinas River. Located near the border of Sierra Leone and Liberia, this was a notorious site for the trade in enslaved Africans that remained ongoing despite having been banned for decades by both Great Britain and the United States. When his crew spotted the Uncas, Josiah Oake, commander of a British naval vessel called the Ferret that was patrolling the West African coast for slavers, became suspicious. He brought his concerns to Thomas Craven, captain of the American warship Porpoise, part of a small fleet known as the Africa Squadron invested with the authority to intercept American ships trying to skirt the trans-Atlantic slave trading ban.
Craven boarded the Uncas, where he discovered iron “grating for the hatches” that was typical for illegal slavers. Craven learned as well that although the Uncas as he found it carried only ballast, it had brought cargo “suited to the slave marts on the coast,” all of it intended for delivery to “a notorious slave dealer” who worked out of Havana. Craven was sure that the Uncas was “undoubtedly engaged in illicit trade,” but without enslaved people on board, he could not justify detaining it. It was only upon the request of its captain, who claimed to be “in distress, and requiring aid,” that the Uncas was escorted across the Atlantic to New Orleans, where its owners resided and where it was registered.
The Uncas arrived in New Orleans in late April 1844, and the events surrounding its capture were widely reported in the city’s newspapers. Like Craven, all of them agreed that the ship had likely been involved in something nefarious in West Africa. But without actionable evidence against it, the Uncas was allowed to get back to business. In October 1844, its owner advertised that it had “been thoroughly overhauled” and would soon set sail for Havana.
A couple of months later, word came that the Uncas had encountered a storm, had yet to arrive in Cuba, and was feared lost. But it was not lost, and its next appearance in the public record exposed the enormity of the horrors in which it and its owners, captains, and crews were involved. Indeed, the full story of the Uncas reveals it had been involved in those horrors, both domestically and overseas, from the moment of its construction.
One of us, a professor of history at the University of Alabama, first encountered the story of the Uncas while researching a book on some of the most infamous domestic slave traders in 19th century America. The other, an archaeologist for the city of Alexandria, Virginia, discovered while working on the history of the slave jail those traders operated in that city that there remained much more to tell. Ultimately, the journeys of the Uncas show how the line between the legal and illegal slave trades of the 19th century was hazier than we think, and how the history of American slavery was always also a global history.
The Uncas was commissioned to be a slaver. After leaving the Connecticut shipyard where it was built, it arrived in New York City in September 1833, and it sailed from there several weeks later for final delivery to its purchaser: John Armfield, partner in the slave trading venture known as Franklin & Armfield that was then the largest company of its kind in the entire country.
The company, which Armfield founded in 1828 with a fellow slave trader named Isaac Franklin, specialized in the long-distance forced migration and sale of enslaved people within the boundaries of the United States. From a headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, that functioned as his offices and as a slave prison, Armfield purchased people in Maryland and northern Virginia. He then sent them to Louisiana and Mississippi, where Franklin sold them from facilities in New Orleans and Natchez. Perfectly legal, the domestic slave trade was given momentum by the American ban instituted in 1808 on slave imports from overseas, the ongoing expropriation of Indian land in the lower South, and the labor demands of booming cotton and sugar economies. It could be as profitable for its operators as it was devastating to the enslaved people trafficked in it as merchandise.
Most domestic traders forced their captives to walk to their destinations chained together in long lines that formed caravans known as coffles. Franklin & Armfield sometimes did that, sending enslaved people on a punishing journey of more than a thousand miles that could take several months. But John Armfield saw efficiencies and opportunities in sending enslaved people to Isaac Franklin coastwise instead, packing them into ships at the port of Alexandria that would sail down the Eastern Seaboard, around Florida into the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Mississippi River to New Orleans. It cost more to send enslaved people to the lower South that way, but it was much faster than walking, and it imparted predictability to the company supply chain that most of Franklin & Armfield’s competitors lacked.
Armfield started shipping people from Alexandria soon after Franklin & Armfield was founded, paying for space on vessels belonging to other merchants and shipowners. But as the company increased in size and stature, the partners decided to buy their own ship, purchasing a brig called the Tribune in the summer of 1831. The Uncas would be the Tribune’s twin.
Constructed, like the Tribune, at a shipyard along the Connecticut River, the Uncas cost Franklin & Armfield $7,250, which was the modern equivalent of a bit less than $250,000. Equipped with two masts and a single deck, it was almost the same size as the Tribune, a bit more than 80 feet long and 23 feet wide, with 9½ feet of interior height. Built with a square stern for stability and maximizing space in the hold, the Uncas appeared much like many other merchant ships of the age.
The difference lay below decks, where Franklin & Armfield had the Uncas fitted out to carry human beings as freight. An observer who toured the similarly outfitted Tribune reported what that looked like. “The hold is appropriated to the slaves,” he wrote, “and is divided into two apartments. The after hold will carry about 80 women, and the other about 100 men.” Running the length of the compartments were wooden platforms “about 5½ or six feet deep,” one a few inches off the floor and the other about halfway to the ceiling, on which enslaved people slept at sea. How much space that left for each person depended on how many people Armfield decided to ship, but it was not usually a lot. The observer wrote that “the slaves lie, as close as they can stow away.”
The Uncas left Alexandria for New Orleans for the first time on Oct. 30, 1833, carrying 92 enslaved people. For the next three years, the ship plied the Atlantic on behalf of Franklin & Armfield, making 13 round-trip voyages between Alexandria and New Orleans. On those voyages, it carried roughly 1,500 enslaved people away from their homes and families in the upper South, and it sometimes returned from the lower South with sugar, cotton, tobacco, and other items that merchants had arranged to be brought back on their behalf.
The Uncas helped advance the dominance of Franklin & Armfield in the domestic slave trade. It also helped make personal fortunes for John Armfield and Isaac Franklin, who sold it in the fall of 1836 only because they decided to retire from slave trading. But the new owner intended no such thing, and in his possession the commercial activities of the Uncas crossed the divide from the immoral into the illegal.
The divide was a porous one anyway. The new owner of the Uncas was a man named William H. Williams, a slave trader who worked out of a notorious slave jail in the District of Columbia known as the Yellow House, located half a mile from the Capitol along what is today the south side of the National Mall.
For a while, as historian Jeff Forret details in his book Williams’ Gang, Williams used the Uncas much as Franklin & Armfield had. Between the fall of 1836 and the summer of 1840, Williams repeatedly sent the Uncas from Baltimore and Alexandria, mostly to New Orleans, trafficking enslaved people he planned to sell or whom he was shipping on behalf of other traders. Looking to make extra money during an economic depression that began in 1837, Williams also dispatched the Uncas on more far-flung voyages, sometimes sending it into the Caribbean to bring merchant goods back to the United States.
But in the fall of 1840, leaning into his greed and perhaps into some desperation, Williams broke the law. The state of Virginia provided that enslaved people convicted of capital crimes might be reprieved on the condition that they be sent outside of the United States for sale. Williams decided to bring convict slaves to the lower South instead, even though many states, fearful about prospective future offenses, banned importing enslaved people convicted of crimes for purposes of sale. Williams had a co-conspirator purchase 27 enslaved people out of the state penitentiary at Richmond, mixed most of them in with 42 other captives he was keeping in the Yellow House, and sent them together on the Uncas to Mobile, Alabama, hoping that when they arrived, no one would be the wiser.
The governor of Virginia, however, got wind of Williams’ scheme. He sent word to officials in the lower South to be on the lookout, and when Williams and the Uncas arrived in Mobile in late October 1840, the mayor and the port collector in the city were waiting for them. “We do not know exactly what was done by our authorities to get rid of them,” one city newspaper reported, “but we believe that they were prevented from landing here.”
Williams tried landing near New Orleans instead, but there his luck was worse. He told the mayor, William Freret, that he planned only on moving the enslaved through the city and intended to sell them in Texas, which was then an independent republic and technically outside of the United States. Freret nevertheless had Williams arrested for violating Louisiana’s law against importing enslaved criminals. Several months later, Williams was convicted and fined $12,000. The enslaved people in his custody were seized and placed in the Louisiana penitentiary, costing Williams tens of thousands of dollars more.
By Williams’ own account, the financial hit was “ruinous,” and it put him in such a “disastrous position” that he chose to spend a year in the Orleans Parish jail rather than pay his fine. But he was still looking at sizable legal fees and losses, and although selling the Uncas would not dig him entirely out of the hole, it was an obvious place to start.
By February 1841, the Uncas had a new owner, a naturalized American citizen born in Cuba named Pedro Sabate. It also appears to have been taken out of commission for a time and refitted, after which it was slightly smaller than it was when initially constructed, making it a bit faster in the water. And a bit harder to catch.
Between February 1841 and March 1843, the Uncas made nearly two dozen round trips between New Orleans and Havana. It seems to have operated mostly as an ordinary merchant ship carrying goods and passengers, though historian Randy Sparks has observed that the deep commercial ties between the two cities extended to the illegal slave trade. But whether or not the Uncas carried enslaved people out of the United States for sale or imported them from Cuba illegally, it made a definitive turn to outlawry in May 1843.
On May 22, 1843, Pedro Sabate sold the Uncas to an Italian ship captain named Carlo Rauch. Two days later, it cleared New Orleans for Havana. From there it sailed for the West African coast, returning to Havana in November with a cargo of enslaved Africans. Weeks later, the Uncas set forth for Africa again. This was the voyage on which the Uncas was stopped by Thomas Craven and the Porpoise under suspicion of engaging in the slave trade and returned to the United States.
Either the hassle or the ignominy of being publicly exposed for involvement with illegal slaving was more than Carlo Rauch wanted to deal with. In July 1844, he sold the Uncas back to Pedro Sabate, who sold it a few months later to Joseph M. Anguerra, a New Orleans merchant. But when Anguerra dispatched it from New Orleans to Havana late in December 1844, it was the last time the ship ever sailed from that city.
Anguerra had arranged to sell the Uncas too. After passing through the storm that was thought to have foundered it, the brig transferred to the Havana outpost of the Brazilian merchant firm overseen by Manoel Pinto da Fonseca. One of the wealthiest men in Brazil, da Fonseca was also one of the most notorious slave traders in the Western Hemisphere.
It was hardly surprising, then, that in April 1845 the Uncas was spied once more by a British patrol off the coast of Africa, lying at anchor in Cabinda Bay, near the mouth of the Congo River just north of the border of modern-day Angola. Cabinda Bay was several thousand miles south of where the Uncas had been more than a year earlier, but it too was a hotbed of the illegal slave trade, and particularly a spot from which Africans were taken by slavers to Brazil.
Coincidentally, the British ship patrolling Cabinda Bay was the Ferret, and its officers recognized the Uncas immediately. Lt. J.J. Dornford inspected the brig, and while the cargo of rum, gunpowder, bar iron, and 100 dozen padlocks made him suspicious, the paperwork appeared “to be in proper form,” so the Ferret went on its way. Several days later, however, the Ferret saw a ship at sea, sailing west at a rapid clip. It gave chase and fired “a shot or two, and ultimately three shells,” and on the evening of April 21, 1845, British naval officials caught up to the ship and boarded it. When they did, they discovered it had no papers, flew no flag, and carried no one who would admit to being the captain. The ship’s name on the stern had recently been painted over with black tar, but no one on the Ferret was fooled. They found the ship “to be the same vessel” they had stopped days earlier. They also discovered an atrocity in motion.
As constructed, the Uncas could hold perhaps 200 enslaved people below decks, and by 1845 it was somewhat smaller than it was when it was originally built. When officials from the Ferret climbed onto the Uncas, however, they found it carrying 680 captive Africans. Dornford commandeered the Uncas and began sailing for Sierra Leone, but conditions on the impossibly overcrowded brig deteriorated rapidly.
The Uncas encountered a series of torrential storms, with pouring rain, wind, and thunder and lightning so violent that Dornford wrote “it resembled masses of red hot iron being dropped alongside” the ship. Meanwhile, several of the crewmen Dornford brought with him from the Ferret came down with severe eye infections that nearly blinded them, and “disturbances” began breaking out among the Africans on the Uncas. Though perhaps no longer shackled, they were still confined on board, and they grew increasingly frightened, angry, and miserable.
Overcome by thirst, they broke into casks of drinking water, scrambling to cup the contents in their hands or “dipping pieces of their sleeping-mats in it and sucking it up by that means,” despite Dornford’s observation that the water was “quite putrid,” and smelled “so bad, that salt water is preferable.” Putrid or not, there was not enough of it, and scarcity of both water and food soon led captives to start fighting with one another, using thick pieces of wood as weapons and sometimes strangling “their adversaries by clasping them round the throat with their hands.” An outbreak of dysentery then compounded the ghastliness of the voyage. Dornford himself fell ill, and he reported being so weak that he could barely muster the strength to make the daily observations necessary to guide the ship.
Finally, on Monday, May 12, after sailing for 19 days and covering nearly 2,000 miles, the Uncas limped into Cape Sierra Leone at the edge of the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown. Of the 680 Africans on board the brig when it was captured, 55 had died en route, their bodies thrown into the ocean. The only consolation Dornford could take was “knowing that I did everything that laid in my power to alleviate their sufferings.”
The Africans on board the Uncas would never become slaves in the Americas. After arriving in Sierra Leone, they were freed from their captivity. A list of their names survives in the Sierra Leone Public Archives. Some are noted to have emigrated to Trinidad, but many others appear to have remained in Freetown. It is unknown if they ever returned to their homes.
As for the Uncas, it was turned over to the Vice-Admiralty Court in Sierra Leone, where it was to be condemned and sold at auction. Its ultimate fate is also something of a mystery. But there are some tantalizing archival clues. Together, they suggest that the Uncas may have been “Taken into the Service” and sold directly to the British navy in the summer of 1845. Then it was renamed the Prompt and dispatched as a supply and support ship for the Penelope, a steam frigate that served as the flagship vessel for the British squadron tasked with suppressing the illegal slave trade.
There was some irony in a notorious slaver being used to help capture other slavers. But it was too late for it to be especially useful. By the middle of the 1840s, the Prompt, formerly the Uncas, had become creaky and the hold leaked. In August 1846, it was discharged from the British navy and likely scrapped. Having come into being from the forests of New England and spending more than a decade in the interconnected legal and illegal slave trades of the American South, the Caribbean, Africa, and South America, the Uncas was broken up and returned to the earth.