TBT Repost: Wanderer — the Slave Ship Flying a New York Yacht Club Burgee

For Throw-Back Thursday (TBT) here is a repost of an unlikely bit of history which we posted three years ago.  

USS_Wanderer_(1857)The schooner yacht Wanderer was built in 1857 for Colonel John D. Johnson, a New Orleans sugar baron. At just over 100 feet long, she was luxurious, sleek and extremely fast, reportedly capable of sailing at 20 knots.  The Wanderer is not remembered, however, either for her beauty or her speed. She is remembered as the last slave ship to carry a human cargo to the shores of the United States.

In her only voyage as a slaver, she flew the New York Yacht Club burgee at her peak. That turned out to be a critical detail. The burgee and the complete implausibility of a luxury yacht whose owner wore the uniform of the New York Yacht Club, operating as a slave ship, allowed the ship to slip past the American and British anti-slavery patrol on the African coast.

Within a year of the delivery of the Wanderer, Colonel Johnson sold the yacht to William C. Corrie of Charleston, South Carolina. Charles Lamar was Corrie’s partner in the transaction but chose to stay in the background. Previously, Lamar had attempted to smuggle in slaves in two other ships, but had failed.  Lamar was known as a “Fire Eater,” a radical secessionist and a supporter of reestablishing the slave trade. The importing of slaves into the United States was made illegal in 1807. Lamar and his associates would challenge the law directly with the yacht Wanderer.

Corrie was well connected with Southern politicians in Washington as well as with the New York business community. He was accepted as a gentleman of wealth and position and was granted membership into the New York Yacht Club.

Corrie had a lot of work to do to convert the Wanderer into a slaver. When he purchased substantial provisions and had large water tanks installed in Port Jefferson, New York, the yacht was temporarily seized by the harbormaster. No one was quite sure what Corrie was up to, but whatever it was, seemed suspicious. The New York Times headline describing the arrest was: “Mystery of the Yacht Wanderer — She is seized at Port Jefferson, L.I. — Brought to New York and Overhauled — Curious Outfit — Is it a Pleasure-Trip? A Slave Hunt, or a Filibustering Expedition?”  That Corrie had hired Captain Egbert Farnham, a well-known filibuster, as supercargo, only added to the suspicions. Filibusters in the 19th century were soldiers of fortune.

After protests and assurances, Wanderer was released. Corrie and his crew sailed Wanderer to Charleston to complete more of the conversion work. Eyebrows were raised, but the Wanderer sailed for Africa, arriving at the mouth of the Congo River, in present-day Angola, on September 16, 1858.  Pine loaded in South Carolina was used to construct the slave decks in the hold.

For the next several weeks, Corrie traveled up the Congo River and along the coast to meet with local brokers and tribal leaders to arrange for the purchase of captive Africans.  How did he avoid the 29 British and American ships of the anti-slavery patrol cruising the coast looking for slavers?  Corrie didn’t.  He invited them over for dinner.  As reported in the New York Times of  December 17, 1858:

The British frigate Medusa was on the coast at the time to the visit of the Wanderer, and numerous were the friendly visits, and gratifying were the convivialities that passed between the officers of the two nations. The Wanderer’s people were entertained and feted by the Britishers, and the Britishers in their turn were entertained and feted by those on board the American yacht. So entire was the confidence felt in the latter, and so assured were the gallant John Bulls that their Yankee friends were bent on only a pleasure and information-seeking trip, that the idea of examining the Wanderer, to see if she could possibly be fitted for a slaver, was laughed at when proposed by Captain Farnham as “a very good joke.”

There were Spanish and American slave ships operating on the coast of Africa which were pursued by the anti-slavery patrol. The slavers generally sold their slaves in Brazil, where the slave trade was still legal. Slavery would not be abolished in Brazil until 1888.

The Wanderer made a final trip up the Congo to load slaves. Corrie is believed to have paid for the slaves, at a rate of $50 per head, with rum, gunpowder, cutlasses, and muskets rather than with paper or gold. By mid-October, the Wanderer was ready to begin its return voyage to the United States. The US Navy sloop of war USS Vincennes,  one of the anti-slave patrol, waited offshore for the Wanderer to return from the Congo River, intending to inspect the ship, but was unable to catch the much faster yacht as it set to sea.

The Wanderer arrived at Jekyll Island, Georgia  on November 28, 1858, still flying the yacht club burgee and discharged 409 Africans. 79 had died during the trip. Lamar and Corrie had the slaves shipped to markets in Savannah and Augusta, Georgia; South Carolina and Florida.

News of the Wanderer’s voyage was met with outrage in the North and jubilation in the South.  An article in the New York Evening Post titled, The Slave Trade Reopened, from December 15, 1858, describes celebrations in Washington, D.C. on the news of the Wanderer unloading the slaves:

The friends of Captain Corrie, of the yacht Wanderer, were quite gleeful at Brown’s Hotel last night over the telegraphic dispatch announcing his success in landing a cargo of slaves from Africa on the Savannah River. With their champagne they drank to the success to all future enterprises.

In January 1859, the yacht Wanderer was seized as a slave trader.  Under a 1820 law, those engaging in the slave trade were considered to be pirates. Lamar, Corrie, and their fellow conspirators were tried in federal court in Savannah on three separate counts of piracy in May 1860. They were found not guilty.

A notice appeared in the February 8, 1859 New York Times:

The New York Yacht Club, at their usual meeting, held on Thursday last, passed two resolutions, erasing the name of the yacht Wanderer from their list and expelling her alleged owner, Mr. Wim. C. Corrie, from the Club….”

The article goes on to note, “In this case, an act of paltry bad faith was aggravated not only by the specially illegal and infamous character of the traffic undertaken, but also by the use of the flag and the uniform of the Club on the coast of Africa; where the officers of the Wanderer, while engaged in evading the laws of their own country, deliberately figured as New York gentlemen, and offered the hospitalities of their yacht, under the burgee of the Club, to British and American naval officers, whose duty it would have been, if their true character had been known, to arrest them as criminals and send them home for trial. ….  The thing is worse than illegal — worse than inhuman — worse even than dishonest. It is deplorably sneaking...”

Corrie and Lamar appear to have done well financially with the Wanderer.  After deducting the cost of the yacht, the voyage expenses and the cost of purchasing the Africans, they probably netted around $200,000 based on a market price of $700 per slave. Not bad, considering that the Corrie paid Colonel Johnson $22,000 to purchase the yacht.

Charles Lamar, “Fire Eater” to the end, was shot and killed in what is considered to be the last battle of the Civil War, while attempting to lead a charge against Union troops four days after Appomattox.

The Wanderer was stolen in 1860 for an unsuccessful venture as a pirate. She was taken into the US Navy in 1861 and served as a gunboat, a tender, and a hospital ship during the Civil War.  After the war, she as sold into the commercial service where she operated until lost off Cape Maisí, Cuba, in 1871.

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6 Responses to TBT Repost: Wanderer — the Slave Ship Flying a New York Yacht Club Burgee

  1. Doug Faunt says:

    Hm, this makes the New York Yacht club pennant that SPIRIT OF SOUTH CAROLINA flies rather negative, since we’d like to dispell the image of traditional ships as slavers.
    An interesting bit of history, that I didn’t know, and probably would not have noted before, in any case.

  2. Rick,

    Thanks for the wonderful article on the slave ship Wanderer. You gave me a couple of new pieces of information I did not have. She was built in East Setauket (Setauket Harbor) at the shipyard of Joseph Rowland along Shore Road. The listing is usually Brookhaven which is why the listings sometimes get lost. Brookhaven is the town (323 square miles and runs from the north to the south shore) that actually began in the hamlet of Setauket in 1655.

    Bev Tyler

  3. john Firth-Smith says:

    — This is a very similar tale to this one – google Benjamin Boyd
    One of Australia’s most colorful characters, a wealthy Scotsman
    He was a member of the Royal Yacht Club and his topsail schooner “WANDERER” could fly the white ensign on December 23 ,1841 he set sail for Australia to set up a Bank ,start a shore whaling empire,farm sheep and set up a settlement on Twofold Bay called Boydtown near Eden – after a few years he wet broke and headed to California to the gold rush later returning through the Pacific via Guardalcanal where he was apparently eaten by head hunters along with one other crew mate he was involved with Blackbirding (slaves) from the islands. The WANDERER then sailed for Australia and was wrecked on the bar at the entrance to Port Macquarie
    NSW north of Sydney.
    VERY SIMILAR STORY

  4. Rick Spilman says:

    Interesting parallel indeed.

  5. Rick Spilman says:

    Interesting. Thanks for the information about the shipyard. That is new to me.

  6. Rick Spilman says:

    Just stay away from the Congo River while flying the burgee.