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.