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    A U.S. ship is captured and accused of illegal trading in slaves

    American Illegal Slave Trading: Collection of Official Letters and Documents Concerning the Capture of the USS Independence. All items are dated August 1848 through February 1849 and together tell the fascinating story of the events following the USS Perry's seizure of the USS Independence, based on her suspected participation in the illegal slave trade in the South Atlantic Ocean. This collection is comprised of documents from the Independence, official letters (mostly true copies) from naval commanders, and letters (some true copies) from the master of the Independence, Owen Burns. Also included are two depositions from the legal case against the Independence.

    According to these documents and letters, the Independence had been chartered on November 20, 1848, to carry her cargo of "Rice, Lumber, various boxes of merchandise, and empty oil casks" from New York to the River Plate in South America. At 8:00 p.m. on December 17, 1848, off the Brazilian coast near Rio de Janeiro, Lieut. John A. Davis, commander of the Perry, ordered the Independence to "Heave to." The ship "shortly afterwards was boarded by an armed Boat" of crewmen from the Perry and searched. But there was trouble during the search. In a deposition (the true copy is included) dated December 20, 1848, Dr. Edward R. Squibb, a member of the Perry's boarding party and a future pharmaceutical manufacturer, testified that when he boarded the Independence and searched the cabin, Owen Burns, the master of the ship, was reluctant to turn over certain letters. Once when Squibb picked-up a letter to read, Burns snatched the letter "from my hands and tore it in pieces before I had read it, but that at my protestation, he Burns, gave up the fragments to me with apparent reluctance." A similar incident occurred later to Squibb when Burns again "drew another written paper in form of an open letter from between the leaves of a book which I was examining, and quickly tore said paper in pieces and threw the pieces overboard."

    As a result of the search, Lieut. Davis determined there was enough evidence to accuse the Independence of illegal slaving activity. He then ordered a "prize crew" under the command of Lieut. James B. Lewis to take the brig to the U.S. Marshall for the Eastern District in Norfolk, Virginia. On December 18, 1848, Lieut. Davis wrote a letter (the true copy is included in this collection) informing the U.S. Marshall, "I have this day seized the American Brig Independence, Owen Burns, Master, upon the high seas, on suspicion of being engaged in the Slave Trade, in obedience to my Instructions from the Commander in chief of the U.S. Naval Forces on the Coast of Brazil [George W. Storer]; and I hereby . . . send her with a prize crew on board, to the port of Norfolk in Virginia, there to be placed under your control and jurisdiction." Lieut. Davis includes the two main reasons - the "suspicious circumstances" - that made him seize the brig. One was that the Independence was bound for a different port than specified in her "consular and port clearances". Another was that the cargo was "precisely of the kind commonly carried to Africa by slave dealers."

    Also on December 18, Lieut. Davis sent another letter (the true copy is included) informing Commodore Storer that he had "seized the American Brig Independence". Davis then supplied two reasons for sending them to Norfolk, Virginia, rather than New York: "first the inclement season of the year . . . secondly, the want of proper clothing to her crew."

    As the Independence waited off the coast of Brazil to be taken to Norfolk, Burns, the brig's master, was held onboard. Through at least four letters (the true copies are included), he protested his arrest and petitioned the U.S. Navy officers to allow him to go into Rio de Janeiro. One letter was addressed to Lieut. Davis (December 18, 1848) and reads, "I am informed by Lieut. James B. Lewis that this brig is a prize to the U.S. Brig Perry, and it is your intention to put on board another crew and send her to the U. States and that I cannot have any further intercourse with Rio de Janeiro. . . . I wish it to be well understood that if you force me under the existing circumstances to leave Rio without my business being settled you will subject me to very heavy losses, and that I will hold you personally accountable before a Court of the U. States for the sum of $25,000." Burns next appeals "on the word of a gentleman" to the "the Amer. Commanding officer on this station [Storer] he be allowed to go on shore." (A December 18, 1848, letter [true copy] from Lieut. Davis informs Burns that Commodore Storer had denied his request for shore leave.) In another true copy, Burns writes to Commodore Storer (also dated December 18) protesting his arrest and communicating his anger at being turned down for an interview. "I shall now appeal to the Laws of my country to accord to me that justice which you refuse."

    Burns continued to challenge his arrest after his arrival at Norfolk. From there he wrote two letters (the original autograph letters signed are included) dated January 30, 1849, and addressed to Secretary of the Navy John Mason. In the first, Burns complains about his treatment by Lieut. Davis and Commodore Storer: both treated him with "the same discourteous treatment. . . . Such are the unjustifiable means taken to blast my prospects in life . . . an oppressive abuse of power." In the second letter, Burns summarizes the events that brought him to Norfolk.

    Burns and the Independence were convicted of being part of a large and illegal slave trade which continued to bring hundreds of thousands of African slaves to Brazil long after the legal trade had been banned in the U.S. in 1808 and in Brazil in 1832. Many American ships like the Independence were part of the profitable business which caused the U.S. Navy to get involved in the early 1840s. Between 1844 and 1854, twenty-eight slave trading ships were seized by the U.S. Navy.

    The USS Independence has a very rich and full history. Launched from Boston in 1814, she served in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, on the Mediterranean Sea against the Barbary States, and on various diplomatic missions. Interestingly, the brig was the flagship of the Brazil Squadron in the South Atlantic from 1837 through 1839. Following her apprehension by the Perry and her return to Norfolk in January 1849, the Independence was decommissioned. The 105-foot USS Perry was launched in 1843 from Norfolk, Virginia. She sailed on various missions around the globe until the Mexican War, when she was used to blockade Mexican ports. The brig joined the Brazil Squadron under the overall command of Commodore Storer in 1847. Following her mission in the South Atlantic, the brig took an active part in the Civil War. The Perry was decommissioned in 1865 and sold. This collection contains many other significant documents and letters which continue this remarkable and historically important account.

    More Information:

    Other letters and documents in this collection include:


    A true copy of Lieut. Davis' letter (December 18, 1848) ordering Lieut. James B. Lewis to take possession and command of the Independence to the U.S. Marshall in Norfolk, Virginia.


    A true copy of the manifest of the cargo on board the Independence (comprised mostly of barrels and boxes of "assorted sundries").


    A register of the U.S. Navy crew "transferred from this vessel [USS Perry] to U.S. Prize Brig 'Independence'". The register is dated December 18, 1848, and lists Lieut. Lewis as the commander.


    One and one-half page charter party between a merchant and Owen Burns for the Independence.


    A list of the crew of the Independence (all crewmembers were from New York and had an average age of twenty-seven years).


    Various other true copies of U.S. Consulate papers and related letters. Some copies are themselves duplicated in this collection.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    June, 2010
    8th-9th Tuesday-Wednesday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 2
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
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