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Findings from the Miscellaneous Personal Name Collection: The Case of the Slave Ship Antelope

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Detail of 1825 John MacPherson Berrien letter on Antelope slave ship trialDetail of 1825 John MacPherson Berrien letter on Antelope slave ship trial

This is one of the most fascinating documents I have found so far in the Miscellaneous Collection. It’s a letter written by attorney and politician John MacPherson Berrien on March 4th, 1825, the same day he started his term as a U.S. Senator from Georgia.

The above detail of the letter reads: “…the U.S. have consequently a rightful possession of a number of human beings, who are claimed by the Sp[anish] and Port[uguese] consuls as slaves, but who allege themselves to be free…”

Mr. Berrien was writing about the case of the Antelope, an event similar to the Amistad but 16 years earlier, where the fate of 280 Africans was decided.

The Antelope case takes many complicated turns. In 1819 a privateer named “Columbia” sailed from Baltimore to the coast of Africa. The Columbia flew the flag of Uruguayan revolutionary leader Jose Artigas. The ship turned to piracy on the high seas, and was renamed several times in order to hide its identity. While sailing under the name “General Ramirez,” the crew commandeered an American slave ship named Antelope. The two ships sailed together to Brazil to sell their human cargo, where the General Ramirez was wrecked.

The Antelope then set sail for the United States with the surviving crew and supplies from both ships, under the command of Captain John Smith. While off the coast of the United States, it was taken into custody by the United States Navy schooner Dallas, under the command of Captain John Jackson.

Immediately, a legal battle arose among conflicting domestic and international interests. Francis Scott Key is mentioned in this letter as a defense attorney for the Africans.The Supreme Court’s decision on the fate of the captured Africans can be read in this overview from the United States National Archives.

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