Antelope (slave ship)

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The Antelope was a slave ship with more than 280 captive Africans aboard captured by the United States in 1820. It had been legally engaged in the African slave trade under the flag of Spain when it was taken over by a privateer at Cabinda. The legal case on the fate of the captured Africans, known as The Antelope, lasted for seven years, with some of the Africans being turned over as slaves to Spanish owners, while 120 were sent as free people to Liberia.

End of slave trade[edit]

The importation of slaves into the United States became illegal in 1808, under the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves. That act did not include any effective penalties for violation, and did not specify what was to be done with illegally imported slaves. In practice, each state auctioned off such slaves and kept the proceeds. In 1819 the Act in Addition to the acts prohibiting the slave trade gave the President authority to use U.S. Navy and other armed ships to capture slave ships, and to see to the "safe-keeping, support and removal beyond the United States" of any Africans found on captured slave ships.[1]

The ships[edit]

The Antelope was a ship of a little more than 112 tons burthen built in Freeport, Maine in 1802. In 1809 it was sold to a foreign owner, and in 1819 it passed to a Spanish owner in Cadiz, who renamed it the Fenix. The new owner of the Antelope was licensed in August 1819 by the Spanish government of Cuba to trade for new slaves from Africa. In early March 1820 the Antelope was at Cabinda loading African slaves when a privateer flying the flag of an unspecified Latin American republic (several of which were then rebelling against Spanish rule) accosted the Antelope and seized goods and supplies and the best of the slaves from the ship. After the privateer left, the Antelope resumed loading slaves.[2]

A hermaphrodite brig of a little less than 200 tons burthen named Baltimore, under the flag of the Venezuelan revolutionary Luis Brión, arrived in Baltimore in 1819. In December 1819 the ship, now named Columbia, sailed from Baltimore under a letter of marque issued by the Uruguayan revolutionary José Gervasio Artigas. The crew of the Columbia had all sworn that they were not citizens of the United States, but a Revenue-Marine cutter removed four of the crewmen as U.S. citizens before escorting the ship out to sea. Once at sea the ship's name was changed to Arraganta.[3]

The Arraganta boarded or chased American, British and Spanish ships on the way to Africa. In early 1820 the Arraganta encountered the American registered brig Exchange, out of Bristol, Rhode Island, and seized at least 25 Africans that it was carrying. On March 23, 1820, the Arraganta arrived at Cabinda, where it found the Antelope and three ships flying the Portuguese flag, all loading African slaves. The crew of the Arraganta captured the four ships, and loaded the Africans from the Portuguese ships onto the Arraganta and the Antelope.[4]

The Antelope was renamed General Ramirez, and together with the Arraganta sailed to Brazil, where the Arraganta wrecked on the coast. Some of the crew and captive Africans on the Arraganta were drowned or captured. The rest of the survivors were taken aboard the Antelope, which sailed to Dutch Surinam, where the crew of the Antelope tried unsuccessfully to sell the Africans, and then to Swedish St. Bartholomew, where the unarmed Antelope obtained cannon and supplies. The Antelope then sailed to Florida (which was still Spanish at the time), loitering near St. Augustine while flying the American flag. Word of a suspicious ship reached St. Marys, Georgia, and the Revenue-Marine cutter Dallas sailed in search of it. The Dallas found the Antelope sailing north near Amelia Island on June 29, 1820 and stopped it.[5]

The first mate of the Dallas counted 281 living Africans, and two bodies, on the Antelope. Noting that the crew were all English-speaking, and not satisfied with the explanations offered for the presence of the Antelope in the area, the Dallas arrested the captain and crew, and took the ship and its cargo to St. Marys. Crew, ship, and the Africans aboard it were subsequently moved to Savannah, Georgia. Richard W. Habersham, the United States District Attorney for Georgia, reported on July 19 that there were "about 270" Africans (nine of the Africans had died before reaching Savannah). The Africans were placed in the custody of John Morel, United States Marshall for the District of Georgia. Morel reported in early August that he had received 258 Africans. No explanation for the discrepancy was offered. Marshall Morel confined the Africans in an open area at the Savannah race course, which became known as the "African encampment".[6]


John Smith, former first mate of the Arraganta and captain of the Antelope after it was captured by the privateer, was prosecuted for piracy, but acquitted. He then filed a claim for the return of the Antelope and its cargo as a legitimate prize taken by a licensed privateer. Claims for ownership of the Africans were filed on behalf of the Kings of Portugal and Spain, while Richard Habersham filed a claim to place the Africans, as free persons under the provisions of the 1819 Act in Addition to the acts prohibiting the slave trade, into the custody of the United States.[7]

The case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court, which in 1825 rejected the claims of John Smith and the King of Portugal, awarded some of the Africans as slaves to Spanish owners, and directed that 120 of the Africans be returned to Africa. The 120 freed Africans were sent to Liberia in July 1827, where they founded the colony of New Georgia.[8]


  1. ^ Noonan: 17-19
    "Anti-Slave Trade Act of 1819". Federal Judicial Center. Retrieved 24 February 2012. 
  2. ^ Noonan: 13-14, 29
  3. ^ Noonan: 4, 26-27
  4. ^ Noonan: 27-29
  5. ^ Noonan: 28-30, 31
  6. ^ Noonan: 31-32, 45
  7. ^ Noonan: 32-33, 43, 44, 46, 53
  8. ^ "The Antelope - 23 U.S. 66 (1825)". Justia. Retrieved 26 February 2012. 


  • Noonan, John Thomas. (1977) The Antelope: the ordeal of the recaptured Africans in the administrations of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06973-0 Google Books
  • Swanson, Gail. (2005) Slave Ship Guerrero. West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania: Infinity Publishing. ISBN 0-7414-2765-6