I decided I couldn't justify making two updates about the Secotan
incident, so this one's going to be a long one. (Content note: racial/ethnic slurs, some of which you might never have heard before.)
“…We were at the Pinckneys’ when word got out that Mayor Pringle had ordered the militia to arm itself and report to the docks and forts, and that all women, children and Negroes were to remain in their homes until further notice. Stephen went home to collect his musket.
“Mother, Julia and I remained at the Pinckneys’ through dinner. No one had much appetite for food. We kept hoping to hear some rumor of what was happening but nothing came. The Pinckneys assured us their Negroes were loyal and would never turn on us. Why they thought they needed to say this I don’t know.
“Stephen returned just after sunset to escort us home. He said that a ship from Virgina with valuable cargo had failed to arrive in port today and everyone was afraid it was pirates. How long has it been since there were pirates in South Carolina? I know he would never lie to me but I wonder if someone lied to him.
“Stephen and the others are patroling the streets tonight. The city sounds very quiet. If anything it sounds a little too quiet. God, please don’t let anything happen to him. Our family has suffered enough. We can’t lose him too.”
From the journal of Elizabeth Miller, February 9, 1837.
In parts of America that the postwar canal boom had left behind, and that the nascent railroad grid had yet to reach—specifically the Atlantic coast between Norfolk and Savannah—when a large number of slaves needed to be transported at once, it was common to do so by ship. Men and women confined in the hold were easier to keep track of, and had fewer opportunities to escape, than almost anywhere else.
But the ships of the coastwise slave trade were not the putrescent Middle Passage abominations whose stench carried for kilometers over open ocean. Their voyages were of a few days at a time, with many opportunities to bring provisions and fresh water on board and the bilge regularly cleaned. Thus, instead of being the lepers of the sea, shunned and useless for all other purposes, they could carry other cargo as well—and even passengers.
The Secotan, a 40-meter, 245-ton brig out of Wilmington, North Carolina, with a crew of ten, was a fairly typical example of such a ship. On February 6, it disembarked from Hampton Roads on what was meant to have been a routine and leisurely three-day journey to Charleston. On board were five passengers, including 25-year-old Captain Timothy Meaher’s newlywed bride. In the rear hold were medicines, dyes, expensive soaps, and 6,000 liters of bottled Shenandoah wine. In the forward hold were 127 men, women, and children.
But another way in which coastwise slave ships differed from Middle Passage ships is that they were not purpose-built to hold humans captive for the length of an ocean voyage. At some point well before dawn on February 9, a young man named Henry Brown (later Henry Secotan Brown) found a way to unfasten the grate in the ceiling of the forward hold. His fellow prisoners boosted him up onto the deck, quickly followed by as many of the strongest of them as possible.
Two crewmembers armed with knives tried to stop them, but were soon outnumbered. One slave and one crewmember were killed in the resulting fight. Another crewmember fired off the flare rocket which, after Savannah, all ships carrying slaves as cargo were required to be equipped with. Captain Meaher awoke from sleep and emerged on deck just in time for Brown to personally knock the musket out of his hand. The other passengers and crew, unprepared for this incident, panicked and climbed into the rigging.
Having taken command of the Secotan, Brown ordered Meaher to steer a course for Florida. He did not, of course, trust Meaher, and did not turn east until well after Meaher told him to. This was a wise decision, as Meaher had been trying to steer him directly into the well-guarded harbor of Savannah.
Just before sunset on February 9, the Secotan dropped anchor off the coast, and several escapees took a boat to the nearest land. The local Saltwater Geechee advised them—with some difficulty, as they spoke radically different dialects—that they were in the Sea Islands of Georgia, but that another night’s sailing would take them to the coast of Florida, provided that they stayed far over the horizon to avoid detection.
What Brown suspected, but did not know, was that he was already being pursued. The fact that a brig with an expensive cargo had failed to arrive in port on the appointed day was enough to draw the attention of Captain Henry K. Hoff of the U.S. Revenue Cutter John Langdon. When he received word from another vessel whose lookout had spotted the Secotan’s rocket, he reasoned that the ship would most likely be making for Florida and began pursuit.
Though it was fighting the Gulf Stream, the Secotan was a fast ship, but the Langdon was faster. Around dawn on February 10, Brown began his approach to the Florida coast, only to find the Langdon several kilometers to stern and on a path to intercept the Secotan before it reached shore. Worse, the Langdon was accompanied by another Crowninshield-class cutter, the USRC Alexander McDougall out of Brunswick. Both cutters were equipped with four six-pounder guns, which added up to eight more guns than the Secotan had.
Precisely where this happened no one knows—Americans would later claim that it was in international waters, while the British would claim that it was within three miles of the Florida coast. But by this time, the American cutters were themselves being followed by their British counterparts, HMRC Oystercatcher and HMRC Night Heron—and these were accompanied by the 24-gun post ship HMS Swamp Cougar.
The Oystercatcher, in the lead, signaled for the Americans to break off the pursuit and return to U.S. waters. When the Americans refused, the Oystercatcher fired a warning shot (or so it was later claimed to be intended as) which clipped the Langdon’s mizzenmast near the base, causing it to break in two. Outnumbered and outgunned near a hostile coast, in command of a vessel never meant to engage the navy of a rival power, Captain Thomas O. Larkin of the McDougall made the only responsible choice—he turned and fled, evading both the approaching squadron and HMS Hong Shark near Amelia Island to return to the safety of Brunswick. Captain Hoff surrendered, allowing his ship to be taken to port in St. Augustine along with the Secotan.
Charles Cerniglia, 1837
February 14, 1837
St. Augustine Naval Dockyard
St. Augustine, Florida
“Judah Benjamin, attorney at law. I hope I find you well?”
“As well as could be ex–”
Timothy Meaher interrupted Henry Hoff. “Judah Benjamin?” He put entirely too much emphasis on the first syllable. Then he turned to Hoff. “Can you believe it? They’ve given us a damned Shylock for a lawyer.”
Hoff scowled at Meaher. “Be civil.”
“No, I quite sympathize,” said Benjamin. “They’ve given me a transplanted croppy for a client. Let us both agree to bear our misfortunes without further complaint.”
“Yes, please,” said Hoff. Meaher scowled. They were standing on the forecastle of the Secotan
, gulls making their music around them.
They wouldn’t be overheard here unless they raised their voices.
“To be clear, Mr. Meaher,” said Benjamin, “you are the captain of this vessel, but not the owner?”
“That’s right. The ship is the property of the Johnson and Eperson Company of Richmond.”
“And are either of you at all familiar with Vice-Admiralty Courts?”
“Not in the least.”
“I suppose that’s to be expected,” said Benjamin. “Well, let me tell you what I shall endeavour to achieve, and what you may reasonably expect.
“Captain Hoff, let me dispose of your case first. It seems the point of dispute is whether the incident took place in territorial or international waters. If the former, you disobeyed a legitimate order—if the latter, Her Majesty’s Revenue Service had no business giving such an order. But no evidence exists to prove the matter either way. Do I have that right?”
“There’s no physical evidence.” He gestured toward the Langdon
, where Benjamin could see the crew jury-rigging the mizzenmast back together with nails and extra spars. “But the captain and crew of the McDougall
can testify to our location as well.”
“This is sounding more and more like a matter for our respective foreign ministries.” Not so long ago, Benjamin had thought of himself entirely as an American who just happened to be living in a British colony. He still sometimes thought of returning, but Florida was very pleasant in its strange and sultry way and he had many friends in Sepharad and St. Augustine. “I can’t say how long it will take to sort this out, but I would anticipate it ending with you and your ship free to sail back to your home port.
“For your case, Captain Meaher, the court itself is in Trafalgar, and there we shall go, along with any who are needed as witnesses. The passengers aboard the Secotan
are of course innocent, and the Royal Navy will repatriate them at no expense, as soon as is practicable. I will present a case to the authorities here in St. Augustine that, in the interest of efficiency, they should be returned to Charleston aboard the Secotan
itself, along with yourself, the crew, and the contents of the aft hold. In this I will certainly fail, but—”
“And what about the forward hold?” snapped Meaher. “What of the slaves?”
Hoff rolled his eyes. “Have you forgotten where we are?”
“Quite right, Captain Hoff. This is Florida. However they came here, they have set foot on our soil and breathed our air. Some of them will most likely be tried on piracy charges, but none of them will ever be slaves again. That much is settled.
“As for the Secotan
, ships taken in international waters while engaged in the slave trade are lawful prizes, but to my knowledge this law has never been applied under such circumstances. I can easily make a case that it should not be. Before emancipation—but after the outlawing of the slave trade—ships would transport slaves in some number from, say, Martinique to Louisiana without being seized. But on a practical note…” Benjamin sighed.
“The Navy’s fight against the slave trade is most expensive. To ameliorate these expenses, they sell the ships they capture. But as you can imagine, no one buys a former slave ship who can afford anything better, so this earns them very little profit. Your Secotan
is the finest prize they’ve taken… perhaps ever. If they found some pretext to retain it for sale, I would be disappointed, but not surprised. Especially since well-nigh every British man of means has suffered some degree of loss from the repudiation of American state bonds. In their minds, your whole nation owes them recompense. Such thoughts affect men’s judgment.
“Which brings us to the contents of the aft hold—the wine and medicine and such. The owners of that cargo could not have known it would be shipped on the same vessel as a hold full of slaves. I can make an excellent case that for the Navy to claim this cargo as a prize would unjustly penalize those owners.” And unless the Stablers and the Virginia Frescobaldis choose to reimburse me after the fact, I will be working
pro bono publico on behalf of some of the richest men in this hemisphere. So much for the Jewish reputation for tight-fistedness.
“Now as to you and your crew… am I right in thinking that your conduct in this matter did not contravene your own country’s laws against the slave trade?”
“Nothing illegal about what we did,” said Meaher. “The law says we can’t import new slaves, not that we can’t ship ‘em from one state to another.”
“Then we have no legal hold on you. Like your passengers, you and your crew should be repatriated. It’s simply a matter of getting your testimony for the coming trial.”
“The trial for piracy, as I said. This Henry Brown and his… compatriots did commandeer a vessel on the high seas, after all. We can scarcely ignore such a thing, especially since blood was shed—theirs and yours. It will most likely be a different attorney who prosecutes the case.
“And here in particular, you ought not to get your hopes up. The case of Sangokunle et al
“I believe he means that Portuguee slaver,” said Hoff. “The one that ran aground here back in—when was it?”
“The Paixão de Cristo
, yes. It was nine years ago. The court found the Africans were justified in their deeds.”
“Of course, those men were freshly captured, not born into slavery. I can argue on your behalf that to reclaim the freedom one was born into is a different thing than to seek the freedom one has never possessed. But the same court will be trying this case, and they’ll most likely come to the same conclusion.”
Meaher looked aghast. “Are you serious?”
“Very much so.”
“You mean they’ll let ‘em all go?”
“Is every man in Florida stark mad?”
“It sometimes seems that way.”
“But—but—those—those niggers killed a white man! One of ‘em stabbed Jake with his own knife! That boy Henry knocked the gun out of my hand! They could’ve killed us all just like that! One minute I was sound asleep and the next…” He seemed almost in tears.
“A day and a half,” he said. “Almost a day and a half we spent waiting to see what they’d do to us. Scared if we made the wrong move they’d murder us. Scared if we stayed meek as lambs they’d murder us anyway. Lying awake all night listening to ‘em on deck—they had us outnumbered almost ten to one, and my… and…” He choked.
was on board,” he said. “We were just married. Charleston was going to be our honeymoon. You have any idea what they might’ve done to her?”
“Captain Meaher, are you trying to argue the defense’s case for them?” Benjamin rubbed his temples. The time had come to speak brutal truths. “Because yes, certainly, they might
have slaughtered you all like the crew of the Paixão de Cristo
. They might
have cut you into joints and thrown you to the sharks—or eaten you themselves, for that matter. According to this report, you personally tried to trick them into sailing to Savannah. Is it not so?” Meaher nodded. “After that, many a white man would have killed you as a warning to others. And yes, I have a very clear idea what that mob of young bucks might
have done to your new bride. A hundred times. While you watched. Helpless.
“But they. Did. None
. Of. These. Things.
“I don’t know why, but they didn’t. I tell you frankly, it astounds me that Negroes should ever have proven capable of such forbearance. But all of you emerged unharmed by anything save prolonged fear. There were many witnesses to this. I’ve heard women say—and I trust their judgment above any man’s in this matter—that when your wife disembarked, her hair and clothing showed no hint that any sort of violence had been done to her person.” He shook his head. “They didn’t even drink the wine.”
“He told ‘em not to.” Meaher was looking at the deck, his fingers clutching the railing.
“That Henry—the nigger who knocked the gun out of my hand. He said, ‘Nobody drink none of that till we’re in Florida.’ He didn’t want everybody trying to sail drunk.”
“Did he? Well, I suppose he must have possessed some measure of foresight. And the others must have possessed a measure of restraint, if they obeyed. Though I daresay they were disappointed to find themselves here, and still forbidden to drink it.
“In any event, as much as I shall endeavour to expedite matters, the law does nothing quickly. I suggest you make yourselves at home. There are worse places to spend a honeymoon than St. Augustine, Captain Meaher.”
* * *
Back in his office, long after he’d left the Secotan
, Benjamin was already trying to compose his legal case: “The seizure of the Secotan
was the act of men desperate to achieve their freedom. But here we are all free men. There is no desperation here. Now that the captives are free, we may return this ship and her cargo to its owners without fear, and it is right that we do so…” But he was finding it slow going. The exchange still haunted him. Not so much what Meaher had said, as what he himself had said in response.
Slavery was an evil. Everyone knew it. People in places that depended on it tried to pretend otherwise, but no one was really fooled. The question was what would happen when it ended. The fear (a fear Benjamin himself had long shared) was that the former slaves would either seek revenge or simply run riot, having been ruled in every aspect of their lives for so long that they could not rule themselves. For everyone who pointed to the Paixão de Cristo
or the Savannah Fire and said this is why we must be done with slavery
, there were others who said this is why we must not lose control of the Negroes
. Right and wrong had given way, as they generally did, to what had seemed to be the necessities of survival.
That was why, when Queen Charlotte had taken the throne and made emancipation a priority, the cry had gone out from all over the West Indies, Have pity on us! It may be an evil, but we hold a wolf by the ears and dare not let go for fear of our lives!
And from London had come the response: Your lives be damned, wretched colonials—you WILL let go!
And so it was. And now, the West Indies were… well, they were a mess. The market for sugar had gone up again, but they weren’t producing nearly as much as they had been.
A mess, but not a horror. Not Haiti writ large. Not an anarchic charnel house with white blood flowing through the streets of Kingston and Georgetown. Just a mess, and with time and patience, messes could be cleaned up—especially when doing so would be profitable. And Florida, of course, was full of freedmen, some of them armed—there was a battalion of Colonial Marines up at Fort Colborne, perhaps forty miles north of here. They made as good neighbors as any.
And now, even here, with Negroes who had not been given their freedom as a royal gift nor a reward for conscription, but who had taken it by force—even in the moment of their triumph… “They. Did. None
. Of. These. Things.” He’d said it himself. Of course, they’d had their reasons—it would have been unwise to commit needless atrocities against white men if you were planning to seek sanctuary from other white men—but Benjamin was a lawyer. There was no one he found more trustworthy than a man with an ulterior motive to do the right thing.
Benjamin glanced at the shelf to his right, at the autographed copy of Byron’s last book of poetry. He remembered their many conversations over the course of the journey to Spain. George, you madman, you were right
, he thought. You were wiser than I. Or braver—a man who would never let a dragon rest in its lair because he and his were safe from its talons. A man who would never use necessity as an excuse. And in this case, it does not serve as an excuse. Not anymore.
Your Most Bothersome Majesty, you were right, if only by accident. You and Lord Grey and His Cleverness Lord Brougham. Raffles, MacCarthy… you were all quite right, and I fear I’m rather late to the realization.
Better late than never, I suppose.
 James R. Pringle, currently mayor of Charleston
 Elizabeth’s older brother, 17-year-old Stephen D. Miller Jr.
 Elizabeth’s stepmother, 30-year-old Susan Matilda Harriet Chisolm.
 Elizabeth’s half sister, 8-year-old Julia Mary Miller. (This is what’s left of the family. Cholera did a number on them this winter. Also, they’re well placed socially but not in great shape financially, which is why they eat at friends’ homes whenever they can.)
 IOTL the man who arranged the last slave transport from Africa to the U.S. in 1860.
 This is roughly analogous to OTL’s Creole
incident. In that case, the captain’s wife, daughter and niece were all on board.
 Known as Henry Box Brown IOTL, because—I swear this is true—he escaped by tucking himself into a crate and having it mailed to abolitionists in Philadelphia.
 These are essentially Morris-Taney
 I.e. Florida panther. (All these ships were built at Trafalgar and christened by people who knew the really cool names were reserved for bigger ships.)
 Local name for the bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas
 A derogatory term for an Irish person.
 The owners of the Creole
 In the Creole
case, the ship was not seized but was allowed to return. But then, Britain and the U.S. were on much better terms in the 1840s IOTL.
 Again like the Creole