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Voyage to a Thousand Cares

"A compelling account"-- Int. Journal of Naval History
"Combining the best elements of a seafaring yarn with the seriousness of the ante-bellum slave trade"--CHOICE

Winner of the John Lyman Book Award from the North American Society for Oceanic History


Catalog copy:


Although many books have been written on the slave trade and many others on life in the antebellum Navy, no other book has succeeded so well at bringing to life the issues of America's role in the Middle Passage while exposing the thoughts of a nineteenth-century naval officer.




9 December 1844. Laborious tasks which no white man could endure are imposed upon the black man without the least consideration of his sufferings, or capability. Stripes are dealt to him unsparingly to hasten his exertions, coarse fare is penuriously dealt to him, the term of sleep allowed him is unnaturally brief and he is awakened by the lash or goad and driven to labor. And yet through all this he lives for years, his heart breaks not; and when the rare occasion is allowed him of a few extra hours for repose or recreation he forgets his tasks of labor, his stripes, yea! all his grievances--he laughs, dances, and enjoys the short respite granted him to its utmost extent without reflection for either the past or future. And this pliant and yielding nature of the African procures for him the reputation of having been intended by nature as a slave. Alas! The poor black! When will the time come when you shall stand among the nations of earth and be considered by them as a man--as a free man? I fear, not until your black complexion shall be changed.

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A year after the Yorktown's arrival on the African coast, Lawrence records the capture of the slave ship Pons:


1 December 1845. Wind South and Westward in light breezes, heading SSE--at 2:15 discovered a sail standing to the Westward. At about 3:15 made her out a barque (American built); showed her our colors. She showed American colors, but her manner of steering being so wild that suspicion was awakened in the minds of the officers as to her legal character.

Consequently we bore down on her, hailed her, and received for answer that she was the Brig Pons, Philadelphia, bound to New York--Captain Gallano. A boat was sent on board of her (her main topsail hove to the mast) in charge of the First Lieutenant, and when he got on board Portuguese colors were run up. From the barque the First Lieutenant then informed us that she had no shipping papers and was a slaver with nine hundred slaves on board!!! She was immediately taken possession of--her crew sent on board of us which amounted to forty people in total.


As Lieutenant Steele's boat reached the Pons, her captain, recognizing U.S. uniforms, hauled down his U.S. flag and hoisted the Portuguese, to evade capture. Meanwhile Captain Bell maneuvered the Yorktown closer. As he did so, and at the moment Steele climbed aboard, Bell observed someone throwing something overboard--a handkerchief tied up with the ship's American papers, and weighted with musket balls. Bell called out to get Steele's attention, but by this time the slaves sensed a possible rescue. The jubilation of nine hundred shouting voices erupted beneath Steele's feet. It was a sound, said Bell, that "could be heard a mile"--and rendered Bell inaudible to the lieutenant.


Confronting the Pons's captain, Steele demanded the ship's papers. "I have none; I have thrown them overboard," responded Gallano. "What is your cargo?" asked Steele, receiving the reply, "About nine hundred slaves, from Cabinda, bound for Brazil." Since the ship had shown the American flag, had no papers, and had "Pons of Philadelphia" painted on her stern, Steele took possession of her as a prize. Lawrence continues:


Mr. [Lieutenant Richard C.] Cogdell was then sent on board her as prize master, and myself, as his chief mate with twelve men as a crew. Upon boarding this vessel, I felt such a load of misery fall upon my heart that I almost wished myself a wild beast, that I might escape the pain of sympathy that I felt for the sufferings of the wretched slaves (created my fellow beings) confined on board. Of course, they knew some change in their destiny was about to take place, and in their desperate agonies, hope construed it the change about to take place in their favor, and when our boats approached the barque they hailed us with clapping hands and outstretched arms. But who can represent by words the state of the wretches below in the hold? To mention that their tongues were white and dry for want of water, and that their lips were cracked open from same reason, and their bodies covered with loathsome scabs (called the "Cocrau") and that they were under the influence of a burning fever, that almost burnt one's hand to touch them, would give a faint notion of their suffering--and the atmosphere was of a temperature of about 160 to 180 Fahrenheit--and alas how few could we succor from this miserable state, how few could we alleviate from their sufferings?