Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader

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9780743267281: Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader

On a frosty day in February 1862, hundreds gathered to watch the execution of Nathaniel Gordon. Two years earlier, Gordon had taken Africans in chains from the Congo -- a hanging offense for more than forty years that no one had ever enforced. But with the country embroiled in a civil war and Abraham Lincoln at the helm, a sea change was taking place. Gordon, in the wrong place at the wrong time, got caught up in the wave.

For the first time, Hanging Captain Gordon chronicles the trial and execution of the only man in history to face conviction for slave trading -- exploring the many compelling issues and circumstances that led to one man paying the price for a crime committed by many. Filled with sharply drawn characters, Soodalter's vivid account sheds light on one of the more shameful aspects of our history and provides a link to similar crimes against humanity still practiced today.

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About the Author:

Ron Soodalter is a passionate educator and lay historian. With a master's degree in education and full master's credits in American folk culture, he has taught American history and was formerly a museum curator. He has also been a professional artist and concert guitarist, and has field-collected the traditional ballads of America, Scotland and Ireland. He operates a consortium of special effects and animation studios for the commercial television market. Mr. Soodalter lives in Chappaqua, New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Lucky Nat

Early in 1860, a young sea captain from Portland, Maine, sailed south to Havana, Cuba, leaving behind a two-year-old son and a pretty young wife. The fourth in as many generations to bear the name, Nathaniel Gordon was a short -- five-foot-five -- and muscular man with a ruddy complexion, a dark beard, and small piercing eyes. Gordon was not a handsome man; a reporter once described him as "repulsive" in appearance. His demeanor reflected a quiet intensity and a confidence found in one used to giving orders. He was a slave trader -- a "blackbirder" in the slang of the time -- and upon arriving in Cuba, he would take command of a full-rigged ship and provision her for a voyage to the Congo River, on the west coast of Africa. It would be his fourth slaving expedition.

Nathaniel Gordon's early life is sketchy, where information exists at all. Large numbers of personal records were destroyed in major fires in Portland in 1866 and 1908. Gordon was born on February 6, 1826, almost certainly in Portland. (His attorney would later claim that he was born in British waters, under the British flag, on one of his father's voyages, and was consequently not an American citizen.) Gordon's father was a merchant captain, and his mother would sometimes accompany her husband on board ship. In addition to Nathaniel, she would bear two girls: Dorcas Ellen was four years older than her brother; Mary, named for her mother, was almost exactly eight years younger. The Gordons were an old New England family; Nathaniel's earliest American ancestor arrived at Plymouth nine generations earlier, in 1621, aboard the Fortune.

On February 22, 1862, the day after Gordon's death, the New York Times published an extensive article about his life. In all likelihood, it represents an amalgam of recollections by the clergymen, doctors, and jailers who knew him briefly, and were retelling Gordon's own accounts of his life. And the writer, presenting the second- or thirdhand story, added the expected Victorian embellishments, to provide both a history and a morality lesson.

Thirty-five years ago, in the City of Portland, a well-to-do couple were gladdened by the birth of a son. [In fact, Gordon had died just fifteen days past his thirty-sixth birthday.] The boy, who was delicately made, grew rapidly, and in his earliest years, developed unusual vigor of mind, which gave promise of a useful and honorable manhood. At the age of fifteen he manifested suddenly a desire to go to sea. His parents, who had fondly watched his rapid progress at school, demurred, but the boy, already the ruler of the domestic circle, was determined, and to sea he went. His father, Capt. Gordon, had been a seafaring man for years, and soon recovered from the disappointment which, to the mother, has been a source of life-long grief, and which was the means by which the son NATHANIEL GORDON attained [his] disgraceful end.

The writer describes an admirable young Gordon who avidly pursues a sailor's life, and whose skill, loyalty, and abstinence from "vicious habits" win him friends and impress his employers. When, at 20, he is offered a captaincy, he continues to work with zeal, and impresses the citizens of Portland with his "ability, energy, and good reputation." His enthusiasm takes a dark turn, however, as he is consumed with a craving for riches, according to the Times account.

Gordon has property worth thousands of dollars, the article continues, and is part owner of a "fine ship" by the time he is 25, but he sells everything, resigns his command, and travels to California in search of greater riches. The writer has Gordon falling in with "certain moneyed parties" on the return trip, who lure the young captain into the slave trade, tempting him with "enormous profits, little risk of detection and certain immunity from punishment."

Gordon ultimately commands at least four slaving voyages, according to the Times, two of which made him and his employers an "immense amount" of money. The article describes the young slaver's thrilling life at sea. "Very many hair-breadth escapes, such as daring sailors delight in, were his fortune." Often pursued by both American and British cruisers, Gordon always managed to escape. His life was an exciting one, and he claimed he had found no greater pleasure than when eluding the slave-catchers. "The same adventurous spirit, the same careful study, the same business tact and attentive industry which aided his upward career while engaged in lawful pursuits, marked his disgraceful career, and he was known amongst his fellow traders as 'Lucky Nat.'"

The Times account reads like a story from Dickens, seasoned with a healthy dash of Robert Louis Stevenson: a good boy gone bad for the sake of gold. Actually, it might be said that, far from disappointing his father, Nathaniel Gordon was taking over the family business. When Gordon was 12 years old, his father was arrested for attempting to smuggle a slave into the country. The July 7, 1838, issue of the New York newspaper The Colored American printed an article entitled "Bringing Slaves into the United States," in which it reported that the senior Gordon was charged with importing a single slave from Point Petre, Guadeloupe, on his brig Dunlap. He was "held to bail in $5000," and if convicted, he could have faced the gallows. There is no record of how the case was resolved, but it is safe to say that Captain Gordon never suffered the full weight of the law. Ironically, it was this same circuit court -- Southern District of New York -- that would see Gordon's son Nathaniel on trial for his own life 23 years later.

There was little in the culture or society of Portland to discourage the Gordons -- or any other seamen -- from pursuing careers as slavers. New England's sea captains had sailed to Africa for generations in search of native cargoes. And of all the Northern states, Maine was known as the "least likely to burn with the fires of abolition." By virtue of its geography, as well as a minuscule African American population, it was literally the farthest removed from the heat of the slavery issue. In 1840, when Gordon was 14 years of age, Portland counted only 402 African Americans, out of 15,218 residents; by 1860, the year of his final voyage, the number of residents had grown to 26,342, while the African American population had dropped to 318. There was a small but fiercely dedicated core of men, though, who kept the antislavery issue "before an unappreciative public" from the early 1830s until the Civil War. Their impact was minimal, however. Throughout the state, the speeches of such abolitionist luminaries as William Lloyd Garrison, Austin Willey, and Reverend David Thurston were disrupted by mobs throwing eggs and wielding hoses, with the featured speaker exiting ignominiously through the rear door.

Maine's abolitionists were largely involved in fruitless debates with those who favored colonization of the Blacks. As the antislavers saw it, America's responsibility lay with freeing Blacks, not merely removing them from its shores. In the end, their efforts in Maine failed utterly.

The churches of Portland, and of Maine in general, would not begin to adopt an antislavery stance until around 1856. The state's most famous clergyman was the Reverend John W. Chickering, whose High Street Congregational Church numbered the Gordons among its flock. (Young Nathaniel attended Sunday school there.) Of all the churches and denominations in Maine, the Congregationalists were the richest and the most politically conservative, but Reverend Chickering, on a trip to England in 1846, "had passed himself off...as a committed anti-slavery man." Whether this was the truth or merely an attempt to impress his hosts, he came under a storm of criticism -- which sank to the level of personal vilification -- from Maine's die-hard abolitionists. To their way of thinking, Chickering talked a good show abroad, but did nothing for the cause at home, other than speak out against slavery "in the abstract.... And who was not against slavery in the abstract?"

Growing up in the city where generations of Gordons had achieved commercial success and social status, and where racial consciousness was practically nonexistent, Nathaniel developed into an enterprising young man. Only two years after he earned his captain's papers, he was involved in a telling incident off the coast of Brazil. The first half of the nineteenth century saw Cuba and Brazil alternating positions as most favored site for outfitting ships and selling slaves. In the late 1840s, the port of choice was Rio de Janeiro, and would remain so until Brazil virtually closed its ports to the slave trade. In June 1848, the 1,000-ton, iron-hulled U.S. Navy steamer Allegheny was assigned to the coast of Brazil to patrol for slavers. Gorham Parks, United States consul to Brazil, sent orders to its commander, Lieutenant William W. Hunter, alerting him to the presence of the Juliet, captained by Nathaniel Gordon.

The street talk in Rio had the Juliet carrying shackles, leaving no doubt as to the ship's purpose. According to local gossip, the ship's cook would be willing to show the officers where the chains were hidden. Because the cook supposedly feared reprisals from local slavers, Hunter would have to wait until after the Juliet left port before boarding her.

The Juliet set sail on June 10; Hunter overtook her five miles out to sea. He sent a contingent aboard her, and ordered a search that lasted nearly 12 hours. But the cook reversed himself, decrying all knowledge of hidden slave chains, and nothing incriminating was found. There were goods and objects that could be used to trade for and sustain slaves on a sea voyage, but these might just as easily serve as legitimate trade goods.

Since there was nothing on board the Juliet to provide Lieutenant Hunter with proof that she was bound on a slaving expedition, he had no choice but to ...

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Book Description SIMON SCHUSTER, United States, 2007. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****. On a frosty day in February 1862, hundreds gathered to watch the execution of Nathaniel Gordon. Two years earlier, Gordon had taken Africans in chains from the Congo -- a hanging offense for more than forty years that no one had ever enforced. But with the country embroiled in a civil war and Abraham Lincoln at the helm, a sea change was taking place. Gordon, in the wrong place at the wrong time, got caught up in the wave. For the first time, Hanging Captain Gordon chronicles the trial and execution of the only man in history to face conviction for slave trading -- exploring the many compelling issues and circumstances that led to one man paying the price for a crime committed by many. Filled with sharply drawn characters, Soodalter s vivid account sheds light on one of the more shameful aspects of our history and provides a link to similar crimes against humanity still practiced today. Bookseller Inventory # AAV9780743267281

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