ERIC WIBERG – Palowna & Orestes, 1826 Spanish slavers wrecked in The Bahamas

MANY slave ships met their end in the Bahamas, but not many know of an awkward period between when Britain outlawed the trade in slaves in 1807, and slavery itself, in 1834. Although Spain abolished the slave trade in 1811, it’s colony Cuba refused to do so, and in fact continued importing slaves until at least 1867. British held a front line against slavery for much of the 1820s through the Havana Anglo‐Spanish mixed commission for the suppression of the slave trade. Into a political cauldron of rights and righteousness, a large complex intelligence organization was formed by the British Navy, using naval ships, spies and more to report on and interdict slave ships as they crossed the Atlantic from West Africa to Cuba along and through the southern Bahamas.

Tragically, some Cuban captains felt it more advantageous to destroy their ships and human cargoes and run away to trade another day. This is the story of two such ships in 1826: both the Palowna and the Orestes grounded in the Bahamas, with one of them yielding living Cubans and dead Africans, the other a dead Cuban and surviving enslaved persons. In both cases – south Andros and south of Bimini, the wrecks have not been discovered or documented. Tony Jaggers cites just two of many dozen slave ships wrecked in the Bahamas: in July 1801 the George was wrecked in Nassau during a hurricane that sank 120 other vessels in The Bahamas. The British slave ship Agnes under Captain Kitts was en route from Africa to The Bahamas in 1802 with slaves when it also wrecked near Nassau, with the crew and ‘cargo’ of slaves rescued.

In the cases of Orestes and Palowna wrecks brought emancipation of slaves. Slavers would run themselves aground to avoid slave trade laws allowing British vessels to board and capture other ships on the high seas. Traders relied on those ashore who could be bribed, to flee inland. Some British regulations constricting the slave trade could endanger not only the vessels and crew, but slaves as well. The Royal Navy was tracking the Spanish slave-trading brigantine Orestes for years, noting on 6 April, 1824 that “Orestes, Don Domingo Zurbano, master, entered Havana in ballast from St. Thomas (Sao Thome), on the coast of Africa.” Then on 13 June, the same “notorious slave trader” left Havana for Africa under Captain G. F. Vega.

 The British relayed on 20 July 1825 that Orestes, with Don Doze Ramon Mutio in command left Havana for Africa, arriving during September. On 19 January, 1826, her mate related how “her whole cargo, amounting to 285 (slaves), was shipped in five hours” an incredibly short time to stow that many people for up to two months. Harassed by British, Orestes set off immediately for Havana, and during the voyage, between 22 and 25 Africans perished. Five weeks later she was chased by - and evaded - two British schooners. One of them was HMS Speedwell under command of a hard-driving British lieutenant named James Cooper Bennett.

The British ships broke off the chase for fear of running aground in The Bahamas. On 28 February, 1826 the desperate Orestes, however, was crossing the shallow Great Bahama Bank when she struck aground at night near the Grass Cut Cays, desolate shrub-covered rocks at the bottom of the Tongue of the Ocean. The site is miles southeast of Mars Bay, South Andros, and about 80 nautical miles due south of Nassau and north of Cuba. Within two days, those slaves who, had survived were left to drown by all “white men,” including Captain Don Jose Ramon Mutio, “who died shortly after.”

Less than a week later, on 5 March, Lt. Bennett made it to the site and “captured the slave ship  Orestes, thereby freed 238 captives. The crew had taken refuge on one of the Cays, leaving their captives without food or water. Bennett was unable to get the ship afloat and so took the freed captives as well as the  master  of  Orestes, the mate, and a passenger. During the voyage to Havana, Don Mutio died, as did 26 enslaved people.  HMS Speedwell  was able to land 212 enslaved people.” Lt. Bennett discovered “several dead Africans.”

In accordance with the Treaty of 1817, they were “consequently declared to be free from all slavery and captivity,” and the vessel “declared to be a good and lawful Prize” by a mixed British and Spanish Commission on March 15, 1826. The 221 souls were wedged between the law against slave trades and the reality of their demand which brutal sugar harvesting requires. The circumstances of being a freed slave in a slave society still rife with enslavers, smugglers, and privateers is hardly a joyous one. During this politically volatile time, each emancipation was an affirmation of good to reformers and abolitionists; it was one step further from an absolutely slave society.

Less than a month after the Orestes rescue, 165 slaves aboard the brigantine Palowna suffered the very fate from which the Orestes victims had been rescued. On the night of 28 April, 1826, the Palowna was arriving from Africa and transiting the waters between Bahamas and Cuba when she “struck on a rock, rounded off, and sank immediately. Lieutenant A. B. Lowe, commander of the schooner HMS Union, came upon the Palowna where she had sunk on shoals fringing the Grand Bahama Bank. He noted that the ship “did not once show its colours,” or flag, indicating it was up to nefarious traffic.

The eulogy of these 166 souls is summed up in Lt. Lowe’s letter to Commander Hobson at Crooked Island on June 22, 1826: “...the captain, two men and the informant secured the boat, and were the only persons saved.” His superior in Jamaica, Halsted confirmed that “R. W. Eliot, merchant of Nassau, Bahamas, informed him that 20 bodies of Negroes, in a state of nudity, were found by a [New] Providence wrecker, washed up on the Orange Keys.”

For all practical purposes, the best hope that the British had of preventing the sale of African captives was to capture them alive on the high seas, then win legal jurisdiction over them in Havana. In this case only the Cubans survived. Somewhere on a windswept uninhabited rock east of the Gulf Stream, 35 nautical miles west of North Andros, 45 miles south of Bimini, 140 miles north of Cuba and 100 miles west of Nassau are the shackles and other cruel implements used to pin 166 terrified and doomed persons to their floating prison as waves and wind swept over them.

The only witnesses to their fates escaped alive and were rescued by those British naval officers tasked with rescuing the enslaved. As frustrating as their mission to Havana was, the British did manage to liberate 445 slaves in Havana between December 1825 and June of 1826, including the 212 persons from the Orestes.


truetruebahamian 4 weeks ago

Your research and presentations are elucidating and appreciated. Thank you.


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