Episodes

Episode 3: Havana Hard Time as Consul

In this episode, we travel to Havana, Cuba to meet the consul Nicholas Trist, as he struggles between the dilemma of morals and money. We will explore the role of Cuba and the consul in the slave trade. We dive deep into the story of ship deserters, flag foolery, and international crime!

This Episode’s Experts

Matthew Taylor Raffety

Matthew Taylor Raffety is a professor of history at the University of Redlands where he teaches American and Atlantic, and diplomatic history.  He holds a BA from Williams College and an M.Phil and Ph.D. from Columbia University. His first book, The Republic Afloat: Law, Honor, and Citizenship in Maritime America published by University of Chicago Press in 2013. Most recently, he contributed a chapter on the transnational history of maritime law to A World at Sea: Maritime Practices and Global History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020). Currently, he is working on a monograph about Nicholas Trist’s difficult years in Havana.

Leonardo Marques

Leonardo Marque is a Professor in the History Department at Universidade Federal Fluminense, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in 2013. His work includes themes related to capitalism, slavery, and the slave trade in an Atlantic context. His first book, Por aí e por muito longe: dívidas, migrações e os libertos de 1888, explores the trajectories of former slaves in the last years of slavery and in the post-emancipation period in the state of Paraná, Brazil. His second book, The United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776-1867, explores the different forms of U.S. participation in the transatlantic slave trade and how they changed over time. Currently, he is working on a project that project explores the connections between local and global impacts of gold mining in colonial Brazil. He has also been working closely with People of the Atlantic Slave Trade (PAST) which is part of the broader The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database Project, hosted at www.slavevoyages.org

Transcript

Nicholas Trist to Secretary of State John Forsyth, December 9, 1839

A foreigner who feels himself inconvenienced, or fancies himself aggrieved in any way, either by a difficulty with another individual, or by the operation of the laws, is apt to fancy that he has but to call upon the consul ” for protection,” as it is termed; and that, thereupon, the waving of the consular wand will suspend ‘the action of the Government, and set every thing to rights. The extent to which this fallacy prevails is altogether inconceivable, except to one who has filled the post of consul at a place frequented as Havana is by his countrymen. 

Abby Mullen: Nicholas Trist sent this letter back to the Secretary of State near the end of his time as consul. On paper, Trist looked like an ideal consul: well-connected, well-versed in the law, familiar with the concerns of American merchants, though he wasn’t a merchant himself. In reality, his beliefs about the world, combined with his abrasive personality, set him up for failure again and again and again. Looking back on some of Trist’s actions, though, we might actually want him to fail.

I’m Abby Mullen, and in this episode of Consolation Prize we’re going to Havana, Cuba. Cuba turns up in the news with some regularity these days, like here in 2017:

I just signed, while you were walking in, an order directing, Secretary Mattis who is doing a great job, thank you. To reexamine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay.

[Donald J. Trump 2017 SOTU]

Abby Mullen: But the United States has a much longer history with Cuba, though it’s probably not any more edifying. When we talk about American relations with Cuba in the early nineteenth century, one word has to dominate: slavery.

The story of Nicholas Trist in Havana intersects with slavery at many places. He made a lot of enemies because he defended the little guys–the common sailors–against their greedy and cruel captains. But his sympathies didn’t extend to the most vulnerable and oppressed: in fact, we’ll talk about the ways he might have made it possible to enslave more black people. But before we talk about Trist’s actions, we need to understand a bit about Havana. So, let’s set the scene. What’s Havana like when Trist arrives?

When Trist arrived in 1834, Cuba was one of the last holdouts of the Spanish empire–one of its last remaining colonies in the Caribbean. Mexico and other Latin American colonies had declared their independence, but Spain had managed to hold on to Cuba, for the moment. But they didn’t have a strong grasp on the port of Havana. Matthew Raffety, who’s writing a book about Nicholas Trist, sees Havana as 

Matthew Raffety: The place where Americans came to make a lot of money. Without having to pay a ton of attention to the regulation. That the government was either not sufficiently competent to see what they were doing. Or sufficiently corruptible or complicit to let them do whatever they wanted. So, it was a pretty wild and pretty open town And those ex-pat American merchants and captains had really established themselves with a lot of power and economic control prior to Trist’s arrival.

Abby Mullen: In one artist’s illustration of Havana from 1830, we can see a broad avenue, kind of like the fancy parts of Europe, though with palm trees in the background rather than elms or Pines. You can almost hear the clopping of the horses’ hooves as they trot down the avenue, pulling gilded carriages with elegant ladies wearing enormous plumed hats. These fine ladies and gentlemen are clearly of European descent–they could be from all over Europe or the United States. Merchants might move to Havana from Great Britain, France, Spain, the United States, and even countries like Denmark. Some of the well-to-do men ride on horseback through the plaza, on horses with ornately decorated manes and tails. The Spanish soldiers stand nearby talking to the merchants. I’ve always wondered why white was the color of choice for formal military attire, given the large dust clouds in this illustration. We also can’t see the sweat that’s undoubtedly soaking through the fancy clothing that all of these gentry are wearing in this tropical climate. But all in all, it seems like a very fine place to be if you have wealth to display.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Vue de la promenade principale de la Havane hors les murs. Vista del paseo extramuros de la Habana.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

But there are parts of this illustration that hint at the complexities of a city like Havana. All the people on horseback or in carriages are white. They don’t even seem to notice the black people walking by them, shackled, carrying heavy loads ahead of an overseer’s whip. Slavery is the backbone of Havana society that’s present but largely ignored in this etching. 

We’ll talk more about the enslaved people in a little bit. But there’s one more group of people that seem to be ignored also. Sitting over in the shadows, watching the parade of wealthy merchants go by, are a few sailors. The good life for merchants did not translate into the good life for sailors. Their Havana looked nothing like this. 

I can’t definitely say that Havana was like Tortuga from the Pirates of the Caribbean, but I can’t say it wasn’t like that. There were probably fewer pirates, at least in the 1830s. But there was a lot of scum and villainy. Sailors from all over the world roved the wilder parts of Havana, and sailors weren’t exactly known for their genteel manners or kindly dispositions. yes, of course this is a stereotype–but one with some truth to it. A pretty significant number of these sailors were American. Havana could be a dangerous place for all of them. According to William Shaler, who was Trist’s predecessor

“There is no port in the world where seamen are exposed to so many and such fatal seductions as in Havana.” 

Abby Mullen: Sure, maybe they saw the prospect of drinking, or women, or gambling, or whatever other vices you can imagine. But Shaler reported that American sailors coming into the port of Havana were treated so badly by their captains that they deserted to get away from the cruelty. So it didn’t take much imagination for sailors to see that any life was better away from the beatings and harassment.

Shaler reported at least one ship where the entire crew deserted when they got to Havana. Shaler, and Trist after him, believed that ships’ captains were being cruel on purpose–to make the sailors desert. But this practice seems counterintuitive–you can’t sail a ship without a crew–so why are the captains doing this? And if captains are being so cruel, why are any sailors staying? 

The answer is partially a legal matter. The cost of desertion was very steep. A U.S. law passed in 1790 set the penalty: sailors who deserted before finishing the voyage they contracted for forfeited all their wages, and they could even be obligated to pay for replacing their labor on the voyage. Captains sometimes took advantage of this law and refused to pay wages to the sailors who jumped ship because of the cruelty, even if the captains had provoked their desertion.

Sailors did know the law, but some also deserted unintentionally. Captains and others reported that unscrupulous boarding house owners also entrapped sailors, getting them so drunk or steeped in gambling debt that they were essentially captives in the port. 

So, sailors who deserted didn’t do it on a whim: they needed strong motivation–or strong coercion. For Shaler, desertion was a huge problem because he had to represent both sides. On the one hand, captains came to him asking for help getting their deserters back in order to man their ships–or at least collect their debts. On the other hand, sailors came to him to ask for help getting their wages, and Shaler tried to help them as much as he could. And sometimes Shaler even had to go find sailors who had fallen into bad hands in the port and rescue them.  

Sailors could also be cut loose in the port of Havana in a different way. The port was extremely busy, but unloading cargoes took a long time. So sailors also had a lot of opportunities to find more lucrative jobs on other ships, especially if the captain they arrived with was slow to pay out, at which point the sailors could legally break their agreement. Shaler feared that the lag in payout was causing men to sign on to slave ships, which paid well. 

Shaler died of cholera in Havana. In his place, President Jackson appointed an old friend, Nicholas Trist, and Trist inherited all of Shaler’s headaches with these captains and their deserting crews. Trist was a political appointee; he had no connections to Havana or to the merchants that traded there–he wasn’t one of them. He went to Havana because he thought that a consulship in Havana would make him rich. 

Matthew Raffety: Trist is a really complicated, interesting guy. He even looked odd. He was very tall and very thin. Well over six feet, well under 200 pounds, even his enemies and, he had a lot of those had, had to acknowledge he was pretty brilliant. Even his friends had to acknowledge he was pretty exhausting. I’ve never encountered somebody in the archives, who wrote more about less. And with such passion and such anger. 

Nicholas Philip Trist
[Between 1855 and 1865] Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Abby Mullen: This, for instance, is from the letter he wrote reporting on the perversity of the captains in causing their sailors to desert.

The incessant machinations of which this place has been the theatre, from the moment almost when I first entered upon the discharge of the duties of the office, have been specially directed of late to the production of new excitement upon the subject of the regulations in force at this port in regard to the shipping of seamen. The manifestations of their success are not to be mistaken; and this will probably soon be displayed on a grand scale, in fresh floods of preposterous misrepresentations and calumny, through the press of our country, and in more memorials to Government. That the subject may be at once understood, I now transmit some documents which were designed for use in the report…

Nicholas Trist

Matthew Raffety: I think he either would have been fantastic on Twitter or terrible, being concise was not his thing. But being angry over and over again about minor slights, that’s, you know, the real sort of chef’s kiss of the Trist ethos. 

Abby Mullen: Trist turned up near a lot of famous people and events. If you’re thinking, “I’ve heard of this guy before,” it may be because you remember he was the negotiator for the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the treaty that ended the US-Mexico War. But that was after this. Trist had been “greatness-adjacent,” as Matt says, his whole life.

Matthew Raffety: He studied law with Jefferson. He was a West Point dropout. He ultimately married Jefferson’s granddaughter. Was at one time or another, the personal secretary to three different men who either would be or had been president. He worked with Jefferson and then Monroe, and then Andrew Jackson.

Abby Mullen: These personal connections didn’t help Trist once he got the job. Even before Trist got to Havana, he was being set up for failure. The merchants who held a lot of power in Havana didn’t want him, and they made that quite clear. First, they tried to get another person appointed to the position before Trist arrived. When that didn’t pan out, one of the merchants tried to pay Trist off not to take the job. 

 Matthew Raffety: The merchants didn’t want him for a number of reasons. One, he was not one of them. They wanted somebody and this is something that Trist in his writings complains about at length. They wanted somebody who was really there to serve the interests of this growing American merchant community. Right. They wanted somebody who was one of them. They wanted somebody who would take their word for things facilitate their business, you know, it’s fine if he operates on his own account, but what they got was a southerner instead of a northerner, a Democrat instead of a national republican or Whig, a political appointee, instead of somebody with any background or experience in Havana.

Abby Mullen: Given all these differences, it’s not surprising that Trist and the merchant communities of Havana would have their disagreements. But Trist’s absolute refusal to compromise his idiosyncratic personal sense of honor or the honor of the consulship set him up for a number of showdowns during his tenure as consul. 

Matthew Raffety: There’s a philosophical debate about what a console is supposed to do, whose interests is it supposed to serve? 

Abby Mullen: Trist decided that he was there to serve the interests of the common sailors. Because of this, over his term in Havana, Trist accumulated many powerful enemies amongst the New England merchants. They disliked both the work he did against them, and also how he went about it. We might also be a little surprised and exasperated at the way Trist goes about his job. In particular, I shake my head a bit at Trist’s insistence on protocol–some of his biggest fights were ostensibly about whether he had to go to an American ship to bring paperwork, or whether the American captain had to come to him. But I think there’s a bigger issue here: Trist felt that he didn’t get the proper respect from these captains, and so he took out his irritation in slightly petty fights that blew up. But he also seems to have had a penchant for arresting American captains on the slightest provocation.

Matthew Raffety: The most significant case had to do with something that happened on board the Kremlin a vessel out of Boston in 1838, which was captained by a guy named Abraham Wendel Jr. There ends up a dispute between Wendell and his first mate, a guy named Bush. Wendell is outraged when Trist takes Bush’s side. And one of the things Trist notes is, as a good Jacksonian a lot of contradictions here is very much a Virginia gentleman and demands to be treated as such, but also he’s a good Jacksonian democrat who believes in the equality of white men. And he argues that he was identified by that merchant community almost immediately as not in their interest but as a sailor’s consul. And a lot of his problems follow from the fact that he takes the men’s complaint seriously. In this particular instance, it gets its snowballs into threats and allegations back and forth and ends with Wendell getting thrown in Spanish prison in Havana for six months. Which ends up a huge scandal and there are public meetings in Boston in New York and, you know, public protests and pamphlets back and forth. Trist described Wendell he said one meeting was quite sufficient to make me aware what class of shipmaster he belonged to. And as much as he took pleasure in speaking of his man in a tone, which if used by a stage driver, with respect to his horses could not fail to fill his passengers with disgust. Like that is a very Tristian insult.

Abby Mullen: This encounter was just one of many. They weren’t just about desertion–really in all disputes between captains and sailors, Trist took the sailors’ side. Trist’s view of himself as a Southern gentleman also irritated the captains, who thought that he was putting on an awful lot of airs for someone who loved the common man so much. But there was another problem: living like a Southern gentleman isn’t cheap. 

Matthew Raffety: He imagines that moving to Havana is going to be the thing that kind of secures his fortune in two ways one, he thinks he’s going to make a lot of money as the consul. It was one of the few consuls that did have consular posts that did have a salary because it was one of the sort of top tier most important ones. But even more than that, he thought he was going to make just a ton of money from the fee structure. And he also believed that he was gonna make a fortune as a merchant in his own right.

Abby Mullen: Before Trist came to Havana, his friends and colleagues warned him that his vision didn’t match the reality of the post. But he went anyway, and just as his friends predicted, his fortune didn’t materialize. So he needed a plan B. To live in the style to which he was accustomed, he needed to find a business that would make him some money. Unfortunately, Trist was an exceptionally bad businessman.

Matthew Raffety: He had sugar plantations, both in investments in sugar plantations both in Louisiana and in Havana. But he kept getting caught in cash squeezes both from the Biddle panic. And then the deeper panic in 1837. He’s always in a position where he and other investors are about to go in. He signs the papers and then those investors have to pull out because of financial collapse. If the secret to you know comedy is timing, he was very funny, economically. He tried to broker a new breech loading us made weapons to the Spanish authorities. He tried to sell guard dogs. He tried to sell Guinea grass as animal feed. He invested in tropical fruit, especially pineapples, sugar, coffee, tobacco. 

Abby Mullen: Here’s an example of one of the ventures, advertised in Washington DC’s National Intelligencer in December 1834:

Advertisement in the National Intelligencer, December 2, 1834: Choice Havana Cigars! Twenty thousand Havana cigars, selected from the factories of “Colon” and “Gutierres,” by our consul at Havana, Mr. N. P. Trist, embracing the “Trabucos” and “King” cigars, the finest ever offered for sale in this country.

Washington DC’s National Intelligencer, December 1834

Matthew Raffety: He invested in railroad construction and mining concerns. he tried to drum up businesses for American manufacturers of horseshoes and charcoal furnaces. He wrote a treatise on how to keep tile roofs from leaking like he was basically going into the roofing business at one point. And none of it worked. By 1837, he’s reduced to begging his lawyer to slip newspapers inside one another and bundle them together in one envelope to duck paying the full cost of the postage. After he ends his run as consul, late 1840 early 1841, he still has his house he stays in Cuba until 1845, mostly making his living from eeking out what he can from the sugar investments, but also taking in boarders and having his wife raise a market garden to make ends meet. he’s kind of, this sort of classic Jacksonian man on the make, except none of it works. It’s all disaster.

Abby Mullen: The thing is, pretty much every commercial venture in Havana revolved around, or at least came into contact with, one institution: slavery. Trist certainly held an interest in enslaved workers through his investments in sugar plantations, but his connections to slavery were more than that, and they put him at odds with not only the merchant communities of New England, but also the abolitionists of Great Britain and the world. After the break, Havana and the slave trade.

Kris Stinson: This week, the voice of Nicholas Trist is read by Craig Bruce Smith. Just like Trist, Craig has a lot to say about honor–through his book about the American Revolution, American Honor. The American Revolution was not only a revolution for liberty and freedom, it was also a revolution of ethics, reshaping what colonial Americans understood as honor and virtue. As Craig demonstrates, these concepts were crucial aspects of Revolutionary Americans’ ideological break from Europe and they were shared by all ranks of society. Craig focuses his study primarily on prominent Americans who came of age before and during the Revolution–notably John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. He shows how a colonial ethical transformation caused, and became inseparable from, the American Revolution, creating an ethical ideology that still remains. 

By also interweaving individuals and groups that have historically been excluded from the discussion of honor–such as female thinkers, women patriots, slaves, and free African Americans–Craig argues that the Revolutionary era witnessed a fundamental shift in ethical ideas. This thoughtful work sheds new light on a forgotten cause of the Revolution and on the ideological foundation of the United States. You can get Craig’s book wherever you get your books–Amazon, Bookshop.com, or your local bookstore. Thanks for reading for us, Craig.

Now, let’s get back to Havana.

Abby Mullen: Remember, Trist desperately needs money–and in Havana, money is tied to slavery. Havana was known for being one of the hotbeds of the transatlantic slave trade in the early 1800s–in other words, when Africans were forcibly brought from their homes in Africa, they often came to Havana before being sold to enslavers across the Caribbean, Latin America, and even the United States. 

To understand how Havana became fully intertwined with slavery, we have to back up a bit. Actually, a few hundred years. According to Leonardo Marques, who studies the transatlantic slave trade during the colonial period, all of the European imperial powers relied on the slave trade; some, like the Portuguese and the British, took a leading role in supplying the enslaved labor and others, like the Spanish colony of Cuba, depended on it. 

Leonardo Marques: The Spanish Empire is actually the empire that mostly depends from other empires for their supply of enslaved Africans. And of course, different powers will take advantage of that, over this entire story. Though during the long, 16th century, the Portuguese are pretty much the main suppliers for the Spanish, you know, for Spanish territories. Cuba, of course, is receiving some enslaved Africans from the very beginning. 

Abby Mullen: Initially, enslaved people worked in the silver mines of Brazil and elsewhere. But for Cuba…

Leonardo Marques: The key change comes with the expansion of sugar production in the 18th century. And that of course, changes the demand for labor within the island. The structural problem appears once again. So, Cuban elites are trying to create their own branch of the slave trade, but they mostly fail. They always depend on this supply from the outside and when you know sugar production starts to take off. The British, of course, are the main slave traders in the Atlantic world along with the Portuguese, but the British are the main ones actually taking advantage of this new opportunity, let’s say right from the perspective of the slave traders.

Abby Mullen: Cuba is one of the many places that slave ships go, both to provide enslaved workers for the sugar plantations in Cuba, and to send enslaved people elsewhere in the world, including the United States. 

During the American Revolution, all the states technically banned the slave trade, but some re-opened it later, and other states seemed to turn a blind eye. At the beginning, Americans could be involved in all phases: American slave ships could be built in American ports. Expeditions to Africa could be financed by American merchants, and underwritten by American and British insurance companies. The American crew of the American ship could bring back Africans to Cuba, other places in the Caribbean, and the United States, where American plantation owners could enslave them or sell them. 

Leonardo Marques: You could say you have a very coherent form of US participation, right, that is very direct, and it’s very similar to everything we saw over the three or four centuries of the early modern period. And Cuba, of course, is one of the main destinations here. Some of these guys are actually investing in sugar plantations as well. So you know that the DeWolf family from Rhode Island, who are the largest slave traders in US history. And of course James DeWolf becomes a US Senator, one of the richest guys in New England, it’s actually invest on Cuban plantations as well. So, they are not only seeing the opportunity created, as you know, suppliers of slaves, but also as sugar producers, and a number of New Englanders start to invest on those plantations. 

Abby Mullen: But things change in 1808. That year was the first year that it was possible for the United States to officially ban U.S. involvement in the slave trade. Why this year? The date 1808 is literally inscribed in the Constitution.

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9, Clause 1

Abby Mullen: To his credit, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law the act abolishing the international slave trade so that it would go into effect the first day that it could: January 1, 1808.

There had been other laws previously passed that attempted to restrict the ways Americans could be involved in the slave trade, but these laws seem to have been largely ignored. The 1808 full ban on the slave trade was a bit different.

Leonardo argues that this piece of legislation had a significant impact on the trade–not because Americans stopped being involved, they didn’t. But rather because now certain parts of the process were more difficult for Americans to do. Some active participants in the slave trade, like the DeWolf family, did get out of the business after 1808. Many slave traders must have seen the handwriting on the wall–1807 is the year in which U.S. ships carried more enslaved people than any other year, by a very big margin. In 1808, the number dropped to almost 0. You can see this from data in the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. You should really go check this site out at slavevoyages.org The slave trade is much more complex than we can deal with here, but this great digital project can help. Anyway. Some Americans found ways to get around the law or indirectly involve themselves in certain aspects of the slave trade while leaving the actual transportation of enslaved people to others.

Leonardo Marques: The US really becomes the most powerful producer of ships, right. So, US built ships are really outstanding. A lot of the tradition in shipbuilding in the United States is developed in the context of wars against the British, not only War of Independence, but the 1812 War. The US ships become notoriously famous for their speed and of course, their capacity against the British Navy, which is becoming the main opponent of the slave trade, right. So, it is in a sense, almost a lateral move, or a logical move for slave traders to actually go after those ships. And they start to appear. I mean, they of course are part of the slave trade as part of this early US branch of the slave trade. Right. So, US slave traders, by the late 18th, early 19th are probably the most efficient, or one of the most efficient slave traders of the Atlantic world. They are actually going into the South Atlantic, Mozambique, Rio de la Plata in South America, and making profits all over the place. Right. And to a large extent, that’s possible because they have very fast and efficient ships to use.

The number of us ships or the number of us ships being used in the slave trade are on the rise right over the 1810s, 1820s, 1830s. We see this over the first half of the 19th century and beyond, all the way to 1865. The number of US built ships become a mainstay we could see of the transatlantic slave trade.

Abby Mullen: Technically, it’s against the law for American ships to be used in the slave trade. So, the big question is: When does a ship become a slave ship?

Leonardo Marques: British legislation also had people calling for and even including articles prohibiting that ships are sold for slave traders but once you have the actual sales taking place, it becomes a problem how to actually persecute those individuals. Do they do intentionally sell those ships for slave traders? A lot of British authorities, and not necessarily connected to the slave trade in any way. But, you know, defenders of free trade. And people who actually believed that free trade would just lead to a more propped prosperous reality. A lot of them are arguing that you know, to trying to restrict those kinds of commercial activities would be a distraction of the trade as a whole. You can’t actually blame ship builders, for example, unless you have, you know, a very clear case of you know, a slave trader, making a demand for a specific ship. So actually, finding where exactly is the illegal moment becomes a challenge.

Abby Mullen: While the slave trade flowed through Havana, the Americans would be involved in some way, whether through ships, crews, or something else. And that brings us back to Nicholas Trist.

While Trist was consul in Havana, a British abolitionist named Richard R. Madden wrote an open letter to William Ellery Channing in Boston, accusing Trist of active participation in the slave trade. 

It has been my good fortune to have been permitted to converse freely and to communicate even familiarly, on the subject of this communication, with many of the great and good men of this country, of all parties, of all sects, Northerners and Southerners, and finding greatness of mind and goodness of heart limited to no particular latitudes, I have inquired of all, what interest had the United States in promoting the desolation of Africa by affording the inhuman trade in slaves the protection of her flag? And there has been little of any essential difference in the answers I have received. Let me ask you, my dear sir, the same question; and in the name of truth and justice, on behalf of the unfortunate people of Africa, and for the sake of the honor of that flag which will owe its first stain to the infamy of this unhallowed traffic, without the promptest interposition, let me conjure you to give to this question a reply prompt and loud. That will go through the land, arrest attention at Washington, and find its way to the Havana not only as the voice of the highest wisdom of the country, and moreover of public opinion, but as the stern accents of authority that will speak to a functionary who has betrayed his trust, in the language of rebuke, “henceforth be though no officer of mine.”

Madden, Richard Robert, 1798-1886, and William Ellery Channing. A Letter to W. E. Channing, D.D., On the Subject of the Abuse of the Flag of the United States In the Island of Cuba, And the Advantage Taken of Its Protection In Promoting the Slave Trade. Boston: W. D. Ticknor, 1839. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t6930z978

Abby Mullen: Madden is more famous for getting involved in another case that originated in Cuba: the case of the Amistad, the Spanish slave ship whose captives mutinied and ended up in prison in the United States. There’s a movie about the Amistad. Madden’s testimony in that case was all about the status of the slave trade in Cuba; many of these arguments appear in his letter against Trist as well.

Madden laid out all the ways Trist had violated American law and morality by enabling the slave trade, going back at least four years. He specifically called out a number of practices that Trist, or someone in the US consular office, had used. In each instance, Trist had, purportedly, used the power of the office of consul to allow illegal activities to continue.

Quote: These conclusions would be grounded, I presume, on the following assumptions:–

1.         That the Spanish slave-trade has gradually and steadily increased from the year 1829 to the present year; and the importations have been augmented from 15,000 to 25,000 per annum.

2.         That the great amount of American capital invested in slave property in the island of Cuba, and the energy with which the new American settlers have entered on the cultivation of new land, (the establishment of new American plantations averaging during the last three years, twenty a year,) have largely contributed to give an impetus to the trade, which has been fatal to the efforts made for its suppression.

3.         That the recent treaty of 1835, between Spain and England, for its suppression, has been successfully evaded by the practice adopted of shipping the stores for the slave-trade on board American vessels at the Havana.

4.         That American vessels are suffered to proceed with the stores to Africa, and even to return to the Island of Cuba, under the Portuguese flag, with the full knowledge of the Consul of the United States… 

5.         That all the vessels in the Spanish slave-trade, are built in America, chiefly in Baltimore; and are publicly sold for the slave-trade in the Havana by the foreign merchants….[start fade during #4]

Abby Mullen: This list goes on for 8 more points, building up the case that the illegal slave trade has been funneled through Americans. But the last point is the most damning.

11.       That on the dismissal from office of the notorious slave-trader Fernandez, the Portuguese consul, Mr. Trist became the acting consul for that nation.

12.       That the use and abuse of these two flags were of necessity known to Mr. N. P. Trist and were connived at by him.

Madden, Richard Robert, 1798-1886, and William Ellery Channing. A Letter to W. E. Channing, D.D. 1839. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/loc.ark:/13960/t6930z978

Abby Mullen: This is a long list. So let’s break it down a bit. It seems obvious that Madden was trying to indict Americans as a group for their participation in the trade. But he singled out Trist for special censure. Madden alleged that the first way Trist tried to skirt the law was by recertifying the enslaved people themselves. In 1836, he said, Trist had declared a cargo of Africans, indentured servants, bound for work in Texas instead of the slaves they clearly were. Remember–at this time, Texas isn’t a part of the United States–it would have been a foreign country. If we can believe Madden’s interpretation, Trist did do this sort of recertifying more than once–and he even admitted it. 

This wasn’t Trist’s only run-in with the British commissioners in Havana to monitor the slave trade. Madden also accused Trist of being involved in another scheme that was much more wide-ranging and much more serious. recertifying of American vessels as another nationality, or as Madden put it, American vessels were going to Africa under the Portuguese flag. But this scheme, Trist adamantly denied any role in.

Matthew Raffety: I’m not wholly convinced he was directly involved. But you had to be a pure idiot not to see that Havana was being used in what he referred to as flag foolery. A kind of flipping of flags. Basically, these vessels were being built and outfitted in Baltimore sailed down to Havana, sold initially to Spanish, and then after a new treaty between Spain and the UK, then instead took Portuguese owners sail to Africa, where it would go on black birding or slaving missions. The other euphemism was, you know, gone to Africa for salt.

But these ships would then come back be re-registered as American by the consul. And then pass for coastal and therefore legal slave vessels you know the argument was oh no these are slaves from Virginia being sold to Louisiana right the Portuguese flag gave cover for the African part of the trip and the American flag allowed these new slaves to pass as already American slaves. What Trist’s actual role is in this is very hard to to pin down. he is adamant that he’s innocent.  And his absence, his physical absence for health reasons and for family reasons, from his post for long chunks of time, make that more plausible than it would otherwise be. 

Abby Mullen: When Madden and the commissioners charged with monitoring the slave trade, called out Trist for these acts, Trist responded the only way he knew how–with a LOT of words. One of his responses to the commissioners came in at 276 pages!

Whether Trist was personally involved in these schemes or not, it’s pretty clear that he had no intention of cooperating with the commissioners. He personally believed in the legitimacy of slavery–remember, he’s a Virginian, who had certainly seen slavery up close in the American South and here in Cuba. And he did often remind everyone of all the arguments for slavery. But his objections to the British interference ran deeper than just his personal beliefs. Like many other Americans, he saw conspiracy against the United States embedded in the British interest in eliminating the slave trade.

The conspiracy basically worked like this: The British had always been active participants in the slave trade themselves. When they suddenly wanted to police the slave trade, it wasn’t to abolish the trade, but rather to search any ship of any nationality whenever they wanted, if the vessel looked like it was engaged in the slave trade. Many European nations signed treaties giving them this right, in exchange for getting the right to search British vessels themselves. But the United States didn’t. 

This practice is called “the right of mutual search.” And if you’re wondering why the United States, even some abolitionists, rejected it, look no further than the subject of our most recent episode: impressment. The United States had justifiably objected to British search in the past, and they weren’t eager to hand over that right voluntarily. Sure, some objected because they were engaged in the slave trade and didn’t want to get caught. But many objected because they saw it as a violation of the fragile sovereignty of the United States.

Once Spain and Britain signed a treaty with the right of mutual search in 1835, false flagging took on an even more significant role in the Cuban slave trade. From 1800 to 1835, a majority of the slave ships coming through Havana were Spanish. After the treaty, Portuguese and American ships became much more prominent.

Leonardo Marques: So, the year 1835 had in fact marked a turning point in the history of US participation, the slave trade, a treaty between England and Spain that permitted the capture of vessels equipped for the slave trade. after that year led to the development of new strategies that involve non-Spanish merchants on a whole new level. before 1835 let’s say that a Spanish ship Clearly was prepared to being used in the slave trade, but had no slaves inside could not be captured, that changes with that provision of 1835. So, any ship that is carrying shackles, you know, is clearly prepared to engage in the slave trade could be captured by the British Navy. And it is at this moment that slave traders involved in the slave trade to Cuba start to use the US flag more openly. 

Abby Mullen: Slave traders want to use the American flag because American ships now are some of the few that can’t be searched legally. And the number of American-flagged slave ships goes up by a lot in the later 1830s because of this.

Leonardo Marques: So, it’s not only about the speed anymore, but the speed combined with the protection that the US flag will offer to ships that are being prepared for the slave trade, since the British Navy wouldn’t be able to stop them. And of course, that becomes more complicated as well, because if the ship is keeping the US flag, there’s got to be some sort of documentation proving that the ship is actually of US nationality. And that’s where I would say traced and a lot of the consular activities, both in Brazil and Cuba becomes even more important, because then you have to offer in some way documents that will allow those ships to keep their flag.

Abby Mullen: In order to get this documentation, a slave-ship captain needed a man on the inside–and that’s what Madden accused Trist of being. We’ve already seen how he could recertify ships as Portuguese when they arrived in Havana, but it seems likely that he also made it possible for slave ships to hold both American and Portuguese documents and flags for the whole voyage. Then, if a slave ship were sighted by a British naval vessel, it could haul up the American flag and deny the right of search. Once the ship was gone, it could put up the Portuguese flag so it would be welcomed back into Havana or ports in Brazil. 

Trist could accomplish this in part because for a while, he was both the American and the Portuguese consul in Havana, and thus had access to all the paperwork for both nations. So when the British commissioners started looking into these false flag ships, Trist was right in the center of the whole mess. 

Matthew Raffety: One of the reasons that he is the target of these accusations is very oddly. He was also The Portuguese consul at Havana. The Portuguese in part because of what had been going on with reflagging ships as Portuguese. Their consul, a guy named Sr. Fernandez gets kicked out gets recalled to Lisbon and there’s a gap and nobody to fill in as the Portuguese consul. And so, it’s unusual that it happened in someplace as central and important as Havana, but in far flung ports often you had somebody serving as the console to two or even more nations just by virtue of there’s nobody else to do the job. 

Abby Mullen: So, let’s review: Richard R. Madden accused Trist of facilitating the slave trade in two ways. Number 1, by reclassifying enslaved people as indentured servants. Number 2, by recertifying vessels as American or as Portuguese depending on the need of the vessel, in order to cover up their participation in the slave trade. As Leonardo and Matt have explained, false flagging could be useful for both voyages from Cuba to Africa and from Cuba to the United States. OK, but remember, Matt doesn’t think Trist is guilty of these charges. So if he isn’t, then who is?

Matthew Raffety: Some of them blame a young 19-year-old he hires to work in the consul’s office. a guy named Peter Crusoe, who was born in Gibraltar, raised in Brazil, and could work fluently in several languages including English and Portuguese, And Spanish. Crusoe seems to have been the real knob and the one who was really using the consul’s office. To do this, how complicit or how aware Trist was as an open question. I do know that he kept paying Crusoe’s rent after he fired him for more than a year. So you know, that is perhaps circumstantial, but significant.

Abby Mullen: Now if you’re feeling a little bit of cognitive dissonance right now, you’re not alone. I honestly have a hard time wrapping my head around Trist’s character and actions. On the one hand, there’s no question that in his dealings with American sea captains mistreating their sailors, he went to bat for the common sailor time after time. 

Yet when the opportunity arises to help enslavers keep the slave trade alive, putting Africans into far worse conditions than any of those sailors he helped, he doesn’t see it the same way. While Trist was consul in Havana, over 41,000 Africans entered the port of Havana, either to be sold elsewhere or to work the plantations of Cuba.

Whether he actually was personally involved in their transportation or not, he certainly had no moral compunctions against slavery. The one thing that makes it seem even the tiniest bit possible that he isn’t personally involved in the slave trade is his dedication to the rule of law.

Matthew Raffety: Even he, I think, would argue, at least in public, that while slavery is, you know, ‘Excellent and terrific, and ultimately, the thing that makes American democracy possible,’ that the sort of your quality is very much a Jeffersonian and very devoted to Jefferson, personally, and also to Jackson, very much a believer in that kind of herrenvolk democracy. That the equality of white men of all rank is made possible by the inequality of race. And so, you know, he’s indisputably a racist and pro slavery, but he would at least insist he is not in favor of the illegal post 1808 African slave trade.

Abby Mullen: In the end, Congress cleared Trist of any participation in the slave trade. His fights with the American captains who came through Havana were what finally did him in. Perhaps the Charleston Mercury summed it up best:

It is possible that the statements respecting him, may be in some degree exaggerated–and if the opportunity were allowed him, he might be able to palliate if not altogether justify his conduct. However this may be, it is obvious enough that he is hated by the Americans in Havana, who have no confidence in his wisdom or his goodness–that his continuance in office must be detrimental to the interests of individuals and the honor of the country—and the sooner he is disgracefully expelled from the position he thus disgracefully fills, the better.

Charleston Mercury

Matthew Raffety: He’s recalled after much scandal and much drama. There’s a 475-page congressional report that just ends with the Commerce Committee saying, ‘Can we please stop talking about this?’ That involves him throwing an American captain and a Cuban jail. Interestingly, he gets in way more trouble for being rude to merchants and captains than he ever does, for possibly engaging in an international crime syndicate to further slavery. But he loses his appointment after the election in 1840. You know, there’s no way he’s gonna survive a Whig administration. And he even writes sort of begging to be let out of his position as consul and argues that he can do more good for the US as a free agent in Havana where he can, you know, report to the president and you know, write his, you know, speak his mind. 

Abby Mullen: Trist was 41 years old when he officially stepped down in 1841 after eight years as U.S. consul. A few years later, Trist negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a feat for which he not only didn’t receive praise but actually received censure. The claims he made on the government for his work in Mexico weren’t paid out until 1871–nearly 25 years after the negotiation. In this venture, too, Trist’s high hopes for success were disappointed.

Credits

Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. This episode was produced by Abby Mullen, and me Kris Stinson, and edited by Brenna Reilley. Fact-checking is by Deepthi Murali. Music is by Andrew Cote. Special thanks to our experts, Matthew Raffety and Leonardo Marques. You can find out more about them in our show notes at consolationprize.rrchnm.org. Our voices this week are Craig Bruce Smith, Jessica Otis, Mark Gladwell, and Doug Garland. 

Please go like and subscribe wherever you get your podcast, and please tell your friends! Thanks for listening.

Images in our chapter art:

  •  The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Vue de la promenade principale de la Havane hors les murs. Vista del paseo extramuros de la Habana.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.
  • Nicholas Philip Trist. , The Library of Congress. [Between 1855 and 1865] Photograph.

Further Reading