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An infamous voyage
THE WANDERER: THE LAST AMERICAN SLAVE SHIP AND THE CONSPIRACY THAT SET ITS SAILS
By Erik Calonius
St. Martin’s Press, $25.95,
REVIEWED BY KIMBERLY PALMER
On July 4, 1858, a ship called the Wanderer left Charleston, S.C., and set sail for the Congo. Disguised as a luxury cruise ship, the Wanderer had first raised suspicion when it docked in Long Island and loaded far more supplies than usual for a casual cruise. Officials surmised (correctly, as it turned out) that the ship was a slave ship.
In “The Wanderer,” Erik Calonius brings to light the tale of the last known ship that brought slaves to the United States from Africa. Using newspaper accounts, letters and legal documents, Mr. Calonius, formerly a London correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Miami bureau chief for Newsweek, reconstructs the journey in painstaking detail.
Where little or no evidence remains of the Wanderer’s voyage — including the brief excursion into Africa and the slave market where the ship’s crew purchased the slaves — Mr. Calonius writes that he used eyewitness accounts of the slave trade to describe what the slaves and the crew of the Wanderer likely experienced.
The result is a compelling and heartrending record of a journey that helped push the nation to the brink of the Civil War.
Transporting slaves from Africa was outlawed in 1820, but nearly four decades later, the practice — profitable but risky — continued. The Wanderer’s crew eluded the law by charming officials who were not all that interested in enforcing it.
When the ship reached the 3,000-mile long African shoreline, patrolled by 28 British and American ships, one of the British patrol ships spotted it. The Wanderer’s captain — William C. Corrie, a well-connected Southerner — invited the crew aboard. “After months of tedious Africa duty, the British were more than happy to explore this luxury yacht,” writes Mr. Calonius.
Corrie invited the crew to stay for dinner as well as after-dinner champagne and cigars on the deck. The British patrollers said goodbye after deciding the Wanderer was simply a cruise ship and not a slaver.
Soon after that meeting, the crew rolled up the ship’s luxury carpets and put away its library books in preparation for nearly 500 slaves. Each one was given a space that measured just 12 inches in width, 18 inches in height, and less than five feet in length — smaller than a typical slave ship.
Corrie purchased the slaves from a dealer and had them branded with a hot iron. During the return voyage, 80 slaves perished because of the harsh conditions below deck. Those that survived were unloaded in Georgia. After the Africans were spotted by locals, federal prosecutors started to build a case against the Wanderer’s owners.
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