AntiSlavery & AntiPiracy Patrols

A Cat and Mouse Game

By the first quarter of the nineteenth century most European and American nations had officially recognized the barbaric nature of the African slave trade and signed treaties in support of its elimination. Abolitionists in the U.S., Spain, Great Britain, and elsewhere were beginning to have an impact on their governments’ enforcement policies, which until then were lax or non-existent. By the early 1840s a half-dozen U.S. Navy ships joined the British interdiction fleet off the coast of Africa.  These were augmented by U.S. Navy ships on anti-piracy and anti-slavery patrol in the Caribbean and off the coast of South America.

Integral to an understanding of international efforts to end the slave trade in the first half of the 1800s is the role of the US Navy in the Caribbean Sea. In a rare twist of fate, two USN ships engaged in anti-piracy/anti-slavery patrols wrecked in the TCI.

U.S. Naval presence in the Caribbean began in 1816 as a result of rampant piracy in the region. During the Napoleonic Wars, the American Revolutionary War, and then the War of 1812 the Caribbean was virtually unpoliced. Privateering, encouraged by the warring nations, gradually descended to outright piracy. As a result, small well-armed enclaves in Cuba and other Spanish colonies regularly preyed on American merchantmen . In 1816, the U.S. Navy’s newly-built brig Chippewa was deployed to the Caribbean to address the problem.

Initially, Onkahye was employed with the United States Coast Survey. Between 1843 and 1845 it participated in anti-slavery patrols in the Caribbean Sea and off the coast of South America.  The schooner also operated as a mail packet and dispatch vessel between Norfolk, Virginia and Port Aransas, Texas during the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848) ( New Orleans Daily Picayune, September 11 and October 16, 1845). On June 21, 1848, while sailing from New York to Chagres, Panama, Onkahye was shipwrecked on one of the fringe reefs that border Caicos Islands.

The Brig Chippewa (lost 1816) and the Schooner Onkahye (lost 1848) are two of only a handful of USN anti-piracy/anti-slavery patrol ships whose approximate wreck locations are known.

Chippewa was one of only three brigs built to break the British naval blockade of the eastern United States during the War of 1812, and was one of the first USN vessels assigned to participate in anti-piracy operations during the early 19th century. Onkahye is considered the “genesis” of modern American sailing yachts with its unorthodox hull design by Robert L. Stevens. Individually the ships have indisputable historical significance and together they can illuminate a little-documented period in efforts to end the slave trade. They represent the “cat” in the game of piracy suppression and anti-slavery patrols.