A decade after penning the refrain, “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave,” Francis Scott Key prepared a different — but no less impassioned — set of remarks on liberty and freedom for an audience of Supreme Court justices.
In “Dark Places of the Earth: The Voyage of the Slave Ship Antelope” (Liveright, $28.95), historian Jonathan M. Bryant chronicles the dramatic course of events in the 1820s that led Key and America’s preeminent legal, political, and business forces to battle over the fate of 280 slaves. It ended in a landmark decision — unforgivably overlooked by history — that would presage the Amistad case. Bryant, a professor at Georgia Southern who specializes in both the history of slavery and Constitutional law, tells for the first time the full story of this momentous ship.
“I joke with people and tell them this is the most important Supreme Court case you’ve never heard of,” remarked Bryant.
Seized off the Florida coast in 1820 while returning from Africa, the slave ship Antelope held hundreds of captives below deck. Despite surviving the Middle Passage, the slaves now found themselves thrust into a new form of limbo. Though slavery was legal in half the United States, the international slave trade was not. Were the men, women, and children aboard free, or a form of property in the eyes of the law?
“The Antelope was a Spanish slave trader out of Havana, Cuba, that traveled to the coast of Africa,” explained Bryant. “There it was captured by a privateer. They loaded 331 captives on board the two ships and set off for Brazil.
“A man named John Smith, who was commanding the Antelope, continued on hoping to find a market for these people,” said Bryant. “This was 1820, and France, Holland, the United States and Great Britain had all outlawed the international slave trade, so finding a market proved more difficult probably than Smith ever imagined. He tried … and ultimately the Antelope was captured by a United States revenue cutter off the coast of Amelia Island in Florida.”
Bryant continued, “The crew of the Antelope was brought to Savannah, in fact landed at Bolton’s Warf, and was put in the Savannah city jail and charged with piracy. The Antelope itself was brought to Savannah, and by this time the number of captives had been reduced to 258. The mortality is truly horrific. Even more horrific was what the city discovered when the captives disembarked from the Antelope here in Savannah: they were children. The average age of the 258 living captives was probably less than 14.
“They were so sick, so dehydrated, so ill that the marshal’s intentions that they would march from their landing out to the Savannah horse racing track, which is about two miles west of the city, wasn’t going to work,” he said. “These captives couldn’t march anywhere. He had to hire a teamster, a guy named William Richardson, to transport the sickest to the racetrack, and there, living in what was dubbed ‘African Encampment,’ these captives began what turned into an incredibly long wait.”
Never had the waters been murkier when it came to buying and selling your fellow man, as the legality of each ship’s human cargo was determined by individual treaty between nations. Bryant masterfully narrates the incredible machinations revolving around the eventual case, which would drag on for seven years, and take a considerable toll on the captives awaiting a decision. Which right — that of liberty or that of property — would take precedence?
“Dark Places of the Earth” is the riveting account behind the deliberations, and its sad outcome for the men, women and children at the heart of the legal battle, who — after being put to work in the Savannah area for the duration of the trial — would eventually be sold elsewhere into slavery, “returned” to European traders or settled in the burgeoning colony of Liberia.
As John Quincy Adams would note in his own arguments regarding the Amistad: “One step further and the case of the Antelope would have conferred unfading glory on the Supreme Court. One step more, and the heartless sophistry would have been silenced, and the cold-blooded apathy to human suffering would have been stung into sensibility.”
Epic in scope, providing rich portraits of life at sea and trade in the Atlantic world, slavery and its hazards in the malaria-ridden South, and the tension between the ethical and financial interests of a slew of chummy Southern gentlemen adjudicating the case, “Dark Places of the Earth” is an invaluable contribution to the understanding of antebellum America.