[Autograph Letter, Signed, by Horatio Bridge While Serving in the U.S. Navy, to U.S. Senator John Fairfield, Describing the Annihilation of an African Village at Half Berebee and With Controversial Content on Naval Efforts to Suppress the African Slave Trade]
January 17, 1844. pp., on a bifolia, with verso of second leaf docketed and addressed, and some manuscript corrections and edit marks. Original mailing folds. Minor soiling, a few instances of original ink smearing or pooling. Very good. Item #3857
A fascinating firsthand account of American naval participation in a controversial moment of gunboat diplomacy in Africa, and the difficulties involved with American participation in the suppression of the African slave trade, written by the purser of the U.S.S. Saratoga, Horatio Bridge to a U.S. Senator. Bridge's lengthy letter from aboard ship to Maine Senator Fairfield records the Saratoga's efforts to suppress the slave trade along the coast of Liberia (itself an American colony at the time these events occurred), but concentrates mainly on an unfortunate altercation with an African village. While "anchored at Half Berebee," Bridge describes his participation in a punitive expedition led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry against villagers suspected of murdering the crew of the American schooner Mary Carver. This constitutes an early naval adventure by Commodore Perry, who would later find significant notoriety in his dealings with Japan. Bridge first records the encounters with villagers as the Squadron attempts to discover what happened to Capt. Farwell and his crew: "The Squadron has had something to do lately in punishing the murder of Capt. Farwell and crew and the plunder of a Salem schooner (the Mary Carver) to which they were attached. On the 13th ult. the Macedonian, Saratoga, and Decatur anchored at Half Berebee, the scene of the outrage, and thirteen armed boats went ashore to hold a 'palaver' or council. They admitted that Capt. Farwell had been killed by their King, who is since dead, but denied that the mate and crew had been murdered, and said that the vessel had sunk and everything been lost. There was abundance of evidence that a regular plot had been laid to take this vessel as they had taken a Portuguese schooner the year before, and that the goods, sails, cables &c. of the Mary Carver had been divided among the several towns under the rule of the Cracko family, and had been sold or offered to English merchant vessels."
Having met resistance while trying to investigate the situation, the American contingent demanded the truth, and a melee ensued in which American forces gunned down the African interpreter, killed the King and about a dozen other "natives," and burned the village of "60 or 70 houses." Additional tactics employed by the Squadron included destroying additional villages and carrying off livestock and canoes, "the orders of the Commodore being to destroy property but spare life” (albeit unsuccessfully). Following the violence, and after American personnel found "much property...in the different towns which had evidently belonged to merchant vessels," Bridge concludes that "All the colonists, missionaries, and merchant captains agree that the punishment was not only richly deserved, but absolutely necessary to the existence of trade in that part of the coast." Bridge would later recount this incident in chapter ten of Journal of an African Cruiser (New York: 1845), compiled from Bridge's letters and reports and edited by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
A docketed note, signed by E.B. Lee below the address leaf directs that the text of this letter was to be "inserted so far as the mark goes & then to be returned to Mr. Bridge." This is evidently a reference to the inclusion of the first part of the letter in Bridge's Journal of an African Cruiser. A substantial section of the last portion of the letter is crossed out with two large “X” marks. The section to be excluded from publication highlights the difficulty of policing the slave trade on the high seas, and is even critical of the U.S. Navy's ability to halt the slave trade, as it was restricted to searching only suspect ships flying the American flag. This section reads, "As for suppressing the slave-trade, it is all humbug. The doctrines held by our Gov't on the question of right of search and visit preclude our cruisers from meddling with slavers under any other colors than our own. The testimony of English Commanders on this coast and of the colonists & American merchant captains all prove that no slave trade is, or has been for five years, carried on under American colors. Slavers of other nations have doubtless hoisted our flag sometimes as they have all others to conceal their real character. Vessels have been sold at Baltimore and sent here under American colors, which were afterwards used in the slave trade, as vessels have been from Liverpool under English colors. But that any American vessel is engaged in the traffic in such a manner as to make her liable to seizure by us, I do not believe." In the last crossed-out portion, Bridge describes how American ships are engaged in trade with "the colonies of free Colored persons on this coast [who] will derive great advantage from the presence of the Squadron, for we spend much money among them, and give them countenance and influence with the natives and with foreigners."
By the terms of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, the United States and Great Britain mutually agreed on efforts to suppress the international slave trade so "that each shall prepare, equip, and maintain in service, on the coast of Africa, a sufficient and adequate squadron, or naval force of vessels, of suitable numbers and descriptions...to enforce...the laws, rights and obligations of each of the two countries, for the suppression of the Slave Trade." Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry commanded the squadron which included the Saratoga as his flagship, along with the Decatur and the Macedonian. He later shifted his flag to the larger ship, the Macedonian.
Horatio Bridge, a native of Maine, graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825. Nathaniel Hawthorne was his classmate and remained a close friend. Bridge became a lawyer, with a degree from Northampton Law School, practicing for several years before experiencing financial difficulties through a bad investment. He joined the Navy as a paymaster in 1838, and served first in the Mediterranean and later along the African coast with Commodore Perry. By 1854 he was stationed in Washington DC and was instrumental in overseeing the development of procurement and supply systems for the expanded Navy during the Civil War.