Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Chapter 5: “‘The Ship of Slavery’: Atlantic Slave Trade Suppression, Liberated Africans, and Black Abolition Politics in Antebellum New York” (Excerpts)

In the fifth chapter of Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images, Sharla M. Fett discusses how black abolitionists in the late antebellum period fought against the Atlantic slave trade and worked for the liberation of Africans from condemned slave ships as part of their larger vision of Atlantic emancipations. The chapter shows how the illegal slave trade became an important issue through which the Presbyterian minister and former slave James W. C. Pennington and other free African Americans connected local and Atlantic struggles. Fett scrutinizes the ambiguous status of liberated Africans that gave rise to a larger debate on emigration, colonization, and West Indian apprenticeship with reference points all over the Atlantic Basin. By examining Pennington’s speeches and the content of New York newspapers such as the Weekly Anglo-African, Fett’s chapter adds to scholarly understanding of how black activists sought to remake the paths of slavery into paths toward free labor and citizenship. Below is an excerpt from the chapter:

Despite the general concern with slavery suppression issues among northern black activists, only James Pennington became actively involved in the question of what would happen to Africans rescued from American-intercepted slavers. The arrival of 1,400 liberated Africans in Key West in late April 1860 and President Buchanan’s speech to Congress requesting authorization to contract with the ACS for their removal moved Pennington to speak out on the fate of the recaptives. Significantly, Pennington in this case chose not the Weekly Anglo-African or even the Liberator but the World,a newly founded, moderate, white-owned religious daily. Voicing his convictions in this broader forum generated a flurry of comments that engaged Pennington in debate outside black activist and abolitionist circles. His July 13 letter to the editor was soon answered by several others (including one from a former naval officer) to which Pennington
quickly replied. As the debate widened, participants merged their discussion of the fate of liberated Africans with questions of African American identity and labor at home and around the Atlantic world.

Given the heightened state of slavery politics in the summer of 1860, why did the arrival of so many sick and displaced young Africans in the Florida Keys prompt Pennington’s involvement? The possible answers to this question stem from Pennington’s religious beliefs and political ideology as well as from his personal struggles. To begin with, James Pennington’s own experience of continued vulnerability as a fugitive may have heightened his appreciation of the liminal nature of the “freedom” of liberated Africans. Although Pennington had escaped to the North as a young man, his family remained in slavery, and for much of his adult life the threat of recapture under fugitive slave law hung over him. Furthermore, James Pennington’s entire career reflected an international orientation that would have led him to take more than a passing interest in the transatlantic slave trade. Settling first in Brooklyn, Pennington went on to pastor churches in Connecticut and New York, and in 1849 he received an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Heidelberg. His work as an abolitionist took him to England, Scotland, France, and Jamaica. Perhaps influenced by memories of Africa echoed within the slave community in which he grew up, but certainly shaped by his international antislavery travels, Pennington developed a global concept of black destiny that extended his vision beyond the condition of black Americans. “The free colored men of the North look further than the South,” he proclaimed, and in return, “colored men of other localities in the world are exchanging views with us.” Throughout his career, Pennington embraced an ideology of black progress, premised on the beliefs that African Americans had a responsibility to redeem themselves as a people and that the laws of nature pointed toward continued improvement over the past for all people of African descent. Abolitionism, African missionary work, economic advancement, educational uplift, as well as the eradication of the slave trade all fit into this ideology of progress.

Prior experiences with illegally trafficked Africans also motivated Pennington’s unique interest in recaptured Africans in 1860. The seizure of the Amistad in 1839 and the ensuing trial to determine the status of the self-liberated Africans who had risen up against the Amistad captain and crew served as one of the formative events for Pennington’s interest in Africa. In 1841, the US Supreme Court ordered the immediate release of the Amistad Africans. Pennington,
then a young paster of the Talcott Street Colored Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, organized the Union Missionary Society that sponsored the African missions of several liberated Mende men. The Amistad trials and, in particular, his personal contact with the African men shaped Pennington’s conviction that missions, not colonization, were the just and effective way for African Americans to involve themselves in the future of the African continent.

Paths of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Interactions, Identities, and Images edited by Ana Lucia Araujo is available in hardcover. It is also available as in different ebook formats, which start at $19.99 to purchase and $9.99 to rent. Professors who wish to use this book along with others in the slavery studies collection for their classes should use the Cambria Book Cloud, which allows for the bundling of ebooks at only $9.99 per title for each student.

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