Mainers engaged in the slave trade
An act of Congress made foreign slave-trade illegal in 1794 and a federal law passed in 1820 made it a capital crime of piracy but some Maine mariners managed to profit from the abhorrent business in a shell game of Brazilian intermediaries and falsified documents.
Juries were reluctant to convict traders while slavery was still legal in the southern states. In fact, when Captain Cyrus Libby of Scarborough appeared before the Portland, Maine Circuit Court in 1846, no American had ever been hanged for the crime.
As captain of the Brunswick brig “Porpoise,” Libby had sailed to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and remained onboard as master while the vessel was chartered for a year to notorious Brazilian slave dealer, Manoel Pinto da Fonseca. Defense attorneys presented evidence at the trial that a lease signed by both parties, included a clause prohibiting any contraband trade. Captain Libby claimed he had only been following the instructions of the vessel’s owner, George F. Richardson, a merchant born in Limington, Maine, who had since passed away.
Libby was acquitted by the First Circuit Court, even though the “Porpoise” had been seized with two East African boys aboard. The branded young slaves, Pedro, and Guilherme, testified that the Maine brig had sailed along the eastern coast of Africa as tender to the slaver, “Kentucky”. They told the jury that their job had been to serve Captain Paulo Rodrigues, agent to Fonseca, who sailed aboard the “Porpoise”. The crew had not been told they would be working for a slave-trader until they had no other way home. They testified that Captain Libby often accompanied Captain Paulo to the African slave factories. He had clearly been aware of the true nature of the voyage, they said, when the “Porpoise’s” boats were used to load slaves onto her sister vessel. Cyrus Libby denied any knowledge of the cargo on the brig “Kentucky” and claimed he had been shown official documents indicating that Pedro and Guilherme were free.
While on the outward voyage, some of the 500 slaves aboard the “Kentucky” revolted. The armed crew easily regained control but forty-six African men women and children were publicly executed and dismembered to discourage further rebellion. The “Kentucky,” hailed from New York but was built in Prospect, ME. She avoided capture by the over-painting of her name with “Franklin of Salem”.
The “Porpoise” was seized when a disgruntled member of the crew slipped a note to American authorities at Rio de Janeiro. George W. Gordon, American Consul to Rio, on board the U. S. Frigate “Raritan” fought the Brazilian Government for jurisdiction over the slave-traders. For the sake of international diplomacy, Secretary of State James Buchanan insisted that he release the crew but the Consul refused to hand over the “Porpoise” or the slave boys onboard.
After the trial, Cyrus Libby was a free man but the “Porpoise” was not returned to her owners. It had already been sold by the government for court costs. A decade later, a Boston Court ruled that the vessel had been rightfully seized.
The slave known as Guilherme moved to Milton, Massachusetts and became a well respected barber. Pedro was taken in by the U. S. Marshall for the District of Maine, Virgil D Parris, Esq., of Paris, Maine. Pedro Tovooken Parris learned to speak English with his new family. He studied reading, writing and arithmetic at public school and joined the debating society to hone his public speaking skills. During the 1856 Massachusetts Gubernatorial Campaign he worked for candidate George W. Gordon, telling voters how the former Consul had rescued him from slavery.
Pedro died of Pneumonia in 1860, while still a young man. Almost everyone in Paris, Maine attended his funeral. His adopted brother, Percival J Parris wrote an account of the former slave’s life and illustrated it with drawings by Pedro himself. The article was published in “Old-Time New England” in 1973. (digitized by Historic New England)
The first American ever to be convicted and hanged for the crime of trading human beings was also from Maine. Nathaniel Gordon of Portland was convicted for carrying 897 slaves aboard the 500 ton merchant ship Erie. Half of Gordon’s captives were children. Lieutenant Henry Todd, of the U. S. Navy reported that the main deck was so crowded that one could scarcely put his foot down without stepping on their naked bodies. Abraham Lincoln sealed Nathaniel Gordon’s fate. After a long, horrific career he was executed in New York City on February 1, 1862.
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