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CRUISE OF THE 6 PERRY” ON THE AFRICAN COAST.
On September 28, 1849, Lieutenant Foote was assigned to the command of the brig Perry, and ordered to the coast of Africa, for the protection of American commerce and the suppression of the slave-trade. The squadron to which the Perry belonged was under the command of Commodore Gregory, whose flag-ship was the John Adams, and with whom, it will be remembered, he made his first voyage as a midshipman in 1823.
As this was one of the notable periods of his life, and had decisive results upon the infamous slave-trade, it should be treated deliberately; and for this purpose free use will be made of Lieutenant Foote's own papers, log-book, private journal, and especially of his work entitled “Africa and the American Flag.”
A good idea of the nature and extent of the cruising-ground of the Perry is given in the following extract from Admiral Foote's book, and this will also serve as a sample of the style and character of that work:
“If a chart of the Atlantic is spread out, and a line drawn from the Cape Verde Islands toward the southeastern coast of Brazil; if we then pass to the Cape of Good Hope, and draw another from that point by the Island of St. Helena, crossing the former north of the equator, the great tracks of commerce will be traced. Vessels outward bound follow the track toward the South American shore, and the homeward bound are found on the other. The vessels often meet in the centre of the Atlantic; and the crossing of these lines off the projecting shores of Central Africa renders the coasts of that region of great naval importance.
“The wide triangular space of sea between the homeward-bound line
Cruising-Ground of the “Perry.”
and the retiring African sea-board around the Gulf of Guinea constituted the area on which the vigilance of the squadron was to be exercised. Here is the region of crime, suffering, cruelty, and death from the slavetrade; and here has been at different ages, when the police of the sea happened to be little cared for, the scene of the worst piracies which have ever disgraced human nature.
“ Vessels running out from the African coast fall here and there into these lines traced on the chart, or sometimes across them. No one can tell what they contain from the graceful hull, well-proportioned masts, neatly trimmed yards, and the gallant bearing of the vessel. This deceitful beauty may conceal wrong, violence, and crime—the theft of living men, the foulness and corruption of the steaming slave-deck, and the charnel-house of wretchedness and despair.
“It is difficult in looking over the ship's side to conceive the transparency of the sea.
The reflection of the blue sky in these tropic regions colors it like an opaque sapphire, till some fish startles one by suddenly appearing far beneath, seeming to carry daylight down with him into the depths below. One is then reminded that the vessel is suspended over a transparent abyss. There for ages has sunk the dark-skinned sufferer from the horrors of the middle passage,' carrying that ghastly daylight down with him, to rest until the sea shall give up its dead, and the slaver and his merchant come up from their places to be confronted with their victim.''*
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the era of the greatest woe in the slave-trade. Then it became cruelly and murderously systematic. The question what nation should be most enriched by the abominable traffic was a subject of diplomacy. England secured the greatest share of the criminality and of the profit, by gaining from her other competitors the right by contract to supply the colonies of Spain with negroes. But our own country entered largely into this business, and in later times chiefly by means of small and ill-found vessels, which, as they were watched by the cruisers, were crowded and packed with negroes, at any risk of loss by death,
* “Africa and the American Flag," p. 14–16. The ending of this passage calls to mind Ruskin's powerful description of Turner's still more powerful picture of the “Slave-ship,” in his “Modern Painters.
so that a successful voyage might compensate for many captures. In olden times there were vessels fitted expressly for the purpose—large Indiamen or whalers. Lieutenant Foote says:
"If ever there were any thing on earth which, for revolting, filthy, heartless atrocity, might make the devil wonder and hell recognize its own likeness, it was on one of the decks of an old slaver. The sordid cupidity of the older, as it is meaner, was also more callous than the hurried ruffianism of the present age. In fact, a slaver now has but one deck; in the last century they had two or three. Any one of the decks of the larger vessels was rather worse, if it could be, than the single deck of the brigs and schooners now employed in the trade. Then the number of decks rendered the suffocating and pestilential hold a scene of unparalleled wretchedness."
In bad weather, when the hatches were closed, the death of numbers from suffocation would necessarily occur, and in the efforts of the more athletic to get at the air, the weaker would be strangled. The height between decks was so small that a man of ordinary size could hardly sit upright. The slaves were obliged to lie on their backs, and were shackled by their ankles, the left of one being fettered to the right of the next, so that the whole number, in one line, formed a single living chain. When one died, the body remained—during the night, or in stormy weather for a longer time, and until it was in a putrid state-secured to two living bodies.
We are not, however, to suppose that the horrors of “the middle passage” were essentially diminished in modern times ; and the diabolical atrocity of those who, in the middle of this century, dealt in “ ebony”—some of them New England captains, from homes where the religion of Christ was taught
-was increased tenfold by the light of humanity diffused abroad. Here was the fountain-head of the slave-supply in the Southern States; and it is a cause of gratitude that our hero
* “ Africa and the American Flag," p. 27.
The West African Coast.
was enabled to do some serious work toward the permanent destruction of this original evil before he actually came to contend with the slave power in its final assault upon the life of the government.
In Lieutenant Foote's notices of Africa, before entering upon the detail of his special work, there is much that shows an observing and penetrative, we might almost say, scientific mind; for example, he thus discourses at length of the philosophy of storms on the West African coast :
“ The vast radiator formed by the sun beating vertically on the plains of tropical Africa, heats and expands the air, and thus constitutes a sort of central trough, into which gravitation brings compensating currents, by producing a lateral sliding inward of the great trade-wind streams. Thus, as a general rule, winds which would normally diverge from the shores are drawn in toward them. They have been gathering moisture in their progress; and when pressed upward, as they expand under the vertical sun, lose their heat in the upper regions, let go their moisture, and spread over the interior terraces and mountains a sheet of heavily depositing cloud. This constitutes the rainy season, which necessarily, from the causes producing it, accompanies the sun in its apparent oscillations across the equator.
“ The Gulf of Guinea has in its own bosom a system of hurricanes and squalls, of which little is known but their existence and their danger. A description of them, of rather old date, specifies as a fact that they begin by the appearance of a small mass of clouds in the zenith, which widens and extends till the canopy covers the horizon. Now if this were true of any given spot, it would indicate that the hurricane always began there. The appearance of a patch of cloud in the zenith could be true of only one place out of all those which the hurricane influenced. If it is meant that wherever the phenomenon originated, there a mass of cloud gradually formed in the zenith, this would be a most important particular in regard to the proximate cause of the phenomenon, for it would mark a rapid direction upward of the atmosphere at that spot as the first observable incident of the series. That the movements produced would subsequently become whirling, or circumvolant, is a mechanical necessity; but the force of the movement ought not to be strongest at the place where the movement had its origin.
"The squalls, with high towering clouds, which rise like a wall on the horizon, involve the same principles as to the formation of the vapor, and are easily explicable. They are not necessarily connected with circular hurricanes; but the principles of their formation may modify the intensity of the blasts in a circumvolant tornado. Since in the Gulf of Guinea they come from the eastward, it is to be inferred that they are ripples or undulations in an air current. In regard to all of this, it is necessary to speak doubtfully, for there is a great lack of accurate and detailed observation on these points.
“Its position and physical characteristics give to this continent great influence over the rest of the earth. Africa, America, and Australia have nearly similar relations to the great oceans interposed respectively between them. Against the eastern sides of these regions are carried from the ocean those strange, furious wbirlwinds on the shallow film of the earth's atmosphere which constitute hurricanes. It is evident that these oceans are mainly the channels in which the surface winds move which are drawn from colder regions toward the equator. The shores are the banks of these air streams. The return currents above flow over every thing. They are thus prevalent in the interior, so that the climatic conditions there are different from those on the sea-board. These circumstances in the southern extra-tropical regions are accompanied by corresponding differences in the character of the vegetable world.
“These winds are sometimes drawn aside across the coast-lines, constituting the Mediterranean sirocco and the African harmattan. Vessels far off at sea, sailing to the northward, are covered or stained on the weather-side of their rigging (that next to the African coast) with a fine, light-yellow powder. A reddish-brown dust sometimes tinges the sails and rigging. An instance of this occurred on board the Perry on her outward-bound passage when five hundred miles from the African coast. "*
In another place Lieutenant Foote happily describes the physical conformation of the African sea-coast, which has had, and will ever have, its influence upon the commerce of that continent:
" The sea-shore is generally low, except as influenced by Atlas, or the Abyssinian ranges, or the mountains of the southern extremity. There is not uncommonly a flat, swampy plain bordering on the sea, where the
* * Africa and the American Flag,” p. 32–34.