Sep 25

USS Constellation Captures the Slave Ship Cora

Saturday, September 25, 2010 12:01 AM


Late in the evening on September 25, 1860, while patrolling the waters off West Africa, USS Constellation captured the slave ship Cora with 705 Africans imprisoned on her slave deck. From 1859 to 1861, the sloop of war Constellation (1854) served as flagship of the United States Navy’s African Squadron, a fleet of eight vessels with orders to protect American commerce and suppress the transatlantic slave trade. After eighteen years of poor performance, the squadron started showing signs of life due to the introduction of steam-powered vessels, a supply depot closer to the Congo River (the center of slaving activity at the time), a constricted cruising ground, and better cooperation with the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron.

Cora flew no flag but when she ignored Constellation’s warning shots, the flagship gave chase. The 431-ton barque raced along the coast in a frantic attempt to make it out to the open water. Her crew threw over hatches, spars, and boats to lighten her load but could not out-sail the sloop. After firing several more shots, the last of which cut away part of Cora’s running rigging, the slaver finally hove to and was boarded. The boarding party, led by Lt. Donald McNeil Fairfax, immediately discovered the slave deck and the human cargo within.

Ordinary Seamen William Ambrose Leonard recalled, “The scene which here presented itself to my eyes baffles description. It was a dreadful sight. They were all packed together like so many sheep; Men, Woman, and Children entirely naked, and suffering from hunger and thirst. They had nothing to eat or drink for over 30 hours. As soon as the poor negroes were aware that we were friends to them, they commenced a shouting and yelling like so many wild Indians. They were so overjoyed at being taken by us that I thought they would tear us to peices [sic].”

Master Thomas Eastman and a prize crew of eleven sailors and three marines sailed Cora to Monrovia to deliver the 694 surviving Africans to Reverend John Seys, the United States Agent for Recaptured Africans in Liberia. Many of them were apprenticed to saw mills and cared for by local Liberian families. As captured Africans were forcibly taken from all over the interior of the continent, there was no single “home” to return them to and American officials feared that returning the Africans to the Congo River basin would result in their recapture.

Cora’s captain and mates were brought to New York to stand trial. The first mate, Morgan Fredericks escaped as soon as Eastman anchored Cora at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in December of 1860. The captain, John Latham, later escaped from prison during a furlough. The other two mates were charged with voluntary service aboard a slaver. Sentenced to ten months in prison and fined $500 each. Cora was confiscated and auctioned only to be stopped once again under suspicion as a slaver in March of 1861.

Constellation stayed on station until August of 1861, capturing one more slave ship, the brig Triton. After the Civil War erupted, all naval vessels on foreign station were needed for service elsewhere. The Lincoln Administration quietly granted the Royal Navy the right to search American vessels suspected as slavers in 1862 and the US African Squadron was no more. While Constellation was flagship of the US African Squadron, the squadron captured fourteen slave ships and freed almost four thousand Africans from a life of servitude in the Americas. One hundred and fifty years ago 705 of those Africans were freed by Constellation.

The former flag ship of the African Squadron is part of Historic Ships in Baltimore and is open for visitation year-round.

  • Jim Valle

    The “poor performance” of the African Squadron for much of its existence was largely due to the fact that it was a political football. Northern senators and congressmen of the Abolitionist persuasion wanted a strong American presence off the Coast of Africa to apprehend slavers under the terms of the Webster-Asburton Treaty of 1843. Southern politicians strongly resisted any American efforts to interfere with the Slave Trade and could usually count on the sympathies of likeminded presidents. Consequently the African Squadron was hampered by contradictory orders and instructions, the lack of adequate funding, the dispatching of unsuitable ships or none at all and a variety of other stumbling blocks. This nonsense persisted until the inauguration of the Lincoln Administration put an end to it with a clear mandate to get the job done once and for all.

  • w hingerty

    My gggrandfather Alfred Hingerty was The Boatswain(warrant officer) on the Constellation during this period. I have Naval medical records that show his visits to sick bay in Oct 1860. What I would like to know is where can I find out more about the ships company and officers during this period. He also served on the USS Falmouth. Since we were Virginians, its hazy as to his subsequent discharge. He did collect a pension after the war. During the war years he lived in Kittery Me. But then returned to our farm in Tidewater VA.

  • My gg grandfather John S Nicholas was the Captain of Constellation during this time. I would love a reference to any pictures that exist of the crew during this period.

  • The Redneck

    Jim has the problem right, but the reasons completely backwards.

    Southerns were opposed to the slave trade (it must be admitted, not for reasons of altruism but because it would devalue the slaves they already held(–in fact, one of the only major differences between the Confederate constitution and the US constitution was that the Confederate constitution completely banned the slave trade. The slave trade, and the notorious Triangle Trade in particular, was thoroughly northern-dominated–the ships were northern-built, northern-crewed, northern-insured, and brought profit for northern investors.

    The last known slaveship was the Huntress…. out of New York.

  • Marjorie Buss

    My gg grandfather’s son, Stephen Bayard Wilson,, Jr. was ship’s clerk on the Constellation during that time. He contracted “African fever and died while taking the Triton back to the States. I would appreciate any pictures of the crew. Stephen Bayard Wilson, Sr. took command of Constellation, but due to a severe injury, he had to relinquish command.

  • Marjorie Buss

    My gg Grandfather, Stephen Bayard Wilson, took command of the Constellation in May ,1859, but due to a serious injury,he relinquished command. His son Stephen Bayard Wilson, Jr.continued as ship’s clerk. He contracted African fever while part of the prize crew of the Triton and died.
    Any pictures of the crew would be appreciated.

  • Maurice Chalk

    I have a small loving cup inscribed: BEST WISHES TO, NANCY WEST MINOR, FROM, SHIPS COMPANY, USS CUMBERLAND, USS CONSTELLATION. I have found that the two ships were part of the Africa Squadron and the Constellation took over the Flagship role from the Cumberland in l859. I have been unable to find any reference to a Nancy West Minor, who may have been related to a crew member of either ship. Any information would be of great assistance to solving this mystery.

  • c herbert gilliland

    For Mr Hingerty–

    From William Leonard’s diary, 1860- (with my added comment based upon naval correspndence:

    January 24th 1860–an appointment by the Flag officer
    Today all hands were called aft upon the quarter deck. The 1st lieutenant read an appointment by the flag officer; Wm Long, our chief boatswain’s mate, was appointed to the office of acting boatswain. He is a very good sailor and will make a first rate boatswain. Our own boatswain is going home in the Supply.
    [The boatswain, Alfred Hingerty, has suffered some kind of stroke or paralysis, and is being invalided home. He will recover sufficiently to return to the squadron in a few months.]

    C. Herbert Gilliland

  • I am responding to W. Hingerty, Alfred H. HIngerty was also my g.g.g.grandfather and my dads g.g.grandfather, my dad is 87 years old now. Alfred was the father of my g.g.grandmother Hannah Hingerty Turner, she was born in 1838 in Portsmouth VA, her mother was Mary Jane Howard Hingerty, she was Alfred first wife, she died sometime around 1850ish and then he married his second wife Ellen, He had 5 children with Mary Jane already, then another 5 with Ellen Hingerty , then she passes, I am looking for anyone with connections to him and to try and make contact, I have connected with a Michael Hingerty in the past and would like to try and find the HIngerty family in and around Virginia, Isle of Wight area, Suffolk, where ever they are, and would really like to learn more about the family farm mentioned by W. Hingerty in a previous post. Please contact me with any connections to Alfred H. Hingerty, the Boatswain on the Constellation during this time period and beyond. Thank you..Alison H. Perry

  • Manuel Eastman

    Im looking for thomas eastman, but the period of 1770-1844 he has a company of boats.. and in 1812 comes to argentina with san martin… my english its very bad so i cant tell you more.. if anyone knows something… i give my email… [email protected]
    see you..

  • alison hinchcliff perry (Hingerty)

    This is a reply to W. Hingerty, I am your direct relation, as Alfred Hingerty was also my G.G.G.grandfather, and my fathers g.g. grandfather. My G.G. grandmother was Hannah Hingerty (Turner) his eldest daughter who he had with his first wife, Mary Jane Howard Hingerty and there first 5 children, she died and he married Ellen Hingerty in which he had at least another 5 children, then she died and he married the third wife elizabth arrington and she was the one who outlived him and of course he had no children with her and she took his pension and orphaned his remaining children. I would love to talk to you, contact me via email and I wanted to find out more about the history and the farm in Tidewater. Hope to hear from you soon…Sincerely, Alison Hinchcliff-Perry, HIngerty is from the Hinchcliff line, my maiden name. Hannah Hingerty Turner and my grandmother is Dorothy Turner. I do have a few pictures of Hannah in her elder years. Would love to see any pictures of Alfred Hingerty..

  • WodaabeMan

    I’ve heard comments but haven’t found any historical records concerning the compensation of US Navy crews for the capture of a slave vessels. One commenter mentioned that each crew member received $25 per captured individual that was on the slave ship. That would equate to $17,625 for each crew member of the Constellation, a pretty good payday in the 19th century! And a nice incentive to capture as many slavers as practical. Are there any historical references to this idea of compensations for the crew of the Constellation?

  • Harold Hillery

    My ancestor, Feela was rescued and FREED from the Slave Ship Cora on that day in 1860.

  • Elizabeth Gilliland

    Actually the crew AS A WHOLE received $25 per recaptive landed ashore alive. So the $17, 625 was then divided according to the rank of each crewman, with a seaman getting $23.00.