In early spring of 1861, the Nightingale of Boston set sail for Liverpool. She carried grain, bread and barrels, broken down for easy shipping and ready for reconstruction in England to transport goods. But Liverpool served as just a waypoint for the 1100-ton vessel.
Most of its American crew members found passage on other ships after their dismissal. The French, Spanish and Portuguese sailors who worked the port made up the new crew. Meanwhile, the ship was loaded with copper goods and cloth.
At first the sailors presumed the Nightingale headed to China, because no one really told them their destination. But as the departure neared, some of the men grew suspicious. The cargo didn’t seem right for China, and the ship had altogether too much ballast loaded for a profitable voyage.
Many of the small crew wanted off, sensing something amiss. But they were kept on board until well out at sea. Their suspicions were soon confirmed. As the ship made its way south around Africa it changed course and headed into port in the Congo. By then the crew had figured out the ship would likely take on slaves.
The Slave Trade
In 1807 and 1808, the U.S. and Britain had outlawed the international slave trade. The U.S. made it illegal to build and fit out ships for slaving. But transporting slaves was a lucrative business. South America and Cuba offered ready markets for slaves. Some smugglers even brought them into the United States. But smuggling slaves carried far more risk because the United States also made importing slaves illegal.
The trade in slaves had proven a flashpoint in U.S.–British relations. The slave trade flourished in America between the states. Yet British law allowed any slaves arriving on British soil to be granted their freedom and no compensation paid to their owners.
In 1835 the U.S. merchant vessel Enterprise blew off course and had to land in Bermuda, a British territory. The 78 slaves aboard gained their freedom. It was one of several such incidents – among them the famous La Amistad case – that played out as abolitionists fought to end the practice of slavery.
The British tried to stop the slave trade. The Royal Navy had a special contingent of vessels known as the “Preventative Squadron.” It had a mission to stop ships taking slaves out of the ports of Africa for sale in South America. Over 30-plus years, it seized roughly 1,600 ships and freed 150,000 kidnapped Africans headed toward slavery. But the slavers often proved too much for the squadron.
As America grew more interested in stopping the slave trade, it added ships to the effort. But the enormous potential profits from slavery made their task difficult.
By the time the Nightingale slipped into Cabenda Bay and up the Congo River in April of 1861, the slavers and the government ships had a well-established cat-and-mouse game going.
The Nightingale’s Beginnings
The Nightingale hadn’t started out life as a slave ship. Built in 1851 at the Portsmouth, N.H., shipyard of Samuel Hansom, Jr., she launched under the name Sarah Cowles. She was the finest, fastest clipper ship of her day.
Hansom planned for the ship to put in to Boston Harbor. From there, it would be sumptuously outfitted for a wealthy contingent of tourists to travel to the London World Fair. After that she would join the China Trade.
But the vessel never made that voyage. The shipping firm Sampson & Tappan spotted the Sarah Cowles in Boston Harbor and bought it immediately. The firm actively traded in China, San Francisco and Australia for years. The Nightingale earned a reputation as one of the fastest clipper ships in existence.
By 1860, however, the vessel had changed hands in Salem, Mass., and went to Rio de Janeiro. Along the way she was outfitted as a slaver. Her name changed to the Nightingale to honor Jenny Lind, a Swedish singer who traveled the world performing as the Swedish Nightingale. Her likeness had been fitted to the bow of the ship as a figurehead.
As the pressure grew on slavers, their means of operation grew more barbaric as they pressed to get every dollar for their cargo. Many slave ships had a middle deck added to maximize the numbers of slaves. These middle decks wouldn’t allow people to stand or, in some cases, even sit upright.
As the conditions worsened, slave revolts grew more common and captains resorted to harsher means for putting them down. A slave who fought for his freedom might have a limb cleaved off or get thrown overboard as a warning to others who might try an uprising.
In April of 1861, the Nightingale knew the prevention squadrons well. She brazenly flew the U.S. flag and bore the name Nightingale, of Boston on her transom. The USS Saratoga patrolled the waters off Africa at the time and she twice stopped and boarded the Nightingale looking for evidence of slaves. But found none. British ships, too, stopped the vessel but released it when they found no slaves aboard.
But someone gave the captain of the Saratoga a useful piece of information – perhaps one of the angry crew who felt duped into serving on the ship. The Nightingale put out to sea on April 20 and returned under cover of darkness to port, loaded with slaves. The speedy ship’s captain intended to leave before either the British or American vessels could react.
The captain of the Saratoga waited and watched as Francis Bowen, captain of the Nightingale, brought the ship into port. Before the Nightingale could leave, the Saratoga’s crew seized and boarded her. The Navy officers found 961 slaves locked aboard the ship. With his orders clear, the captain of the Saratoga put the ship into port in Liberia – a state created by freed slaves – and released the captives.
The Nightingale returned to America where the government seized it. The government then put it into service supplying Union army troops fighting the Civil War. The vessel’s captain, Bowen, had slipped away in Africa – possibly aided by someone on the Saratoga’s crew.
The Nightingale, meanwhile, went on to a 30-plus year career following her decommissioning at the end of the Civil War. She transported oil to San Francisco, laid underwater cable and sailed as a general cargo ship.
This story was updated in 2023.