United States vs. Schooner Emperor (1839)

This series highlights antebellum cases from the files of the Florida Supreme Court and its predecessor, the Florida Territorial Court of Appeals.

With its long coastline, numerous bays, inlets, and treacherous reefs, Florida presented unique problems for the creation and enforcement of maritime law.

One consequence of Florida’s coastal geography and proximity to the Caribbean was that the territory served as a frequent terminus for the illicit slave trade. Although the international slave trade was formally abolished in 1808, slave catchers continued to kidnap African people and transport them across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Such illegal trafficking in human cargo provoked the case United States vs. Schooner Emperor.

Page from the U.S. Supreme Court case U.S. vs. Schooner Emperor (1839)

In early 1837, the schooner Emperor left Cuba for the United States. Its destination was the port of St. Joseph along Florida’s northern Gulf coast. Charles G. Cox, captain of the vessel, intended to discreetly unload his illegal cargo and reap a handsome profit. According to a Florida law passed in 1822, the fine for smuggling slaves into Florida was $300 per infraction. Men like Cox considered this sum well worth the risk.

Harbor officials apparently made no effort to thoroughly inspect the Emperor upon its arrival in St. Joseph Bay. Local citizens, however, alerted authorities when they perceived black people moving about on the ship’s deck. At some point the kidnapped Africans were brought ashore, marched overland, and then ferried across St. Andrew’s Bay (near modern-day Panama City). Their intended final destination was a life of servitude on a plantation in Washington County.

United States Marshall Samuel Duval followed the rumors and recovered the smuggled Africans. Under the law of 1822, these people should have received their freedom, but their fate is unclear from the documents remaining in the case file. Perhaps they were returned to Africa? Documents from the case suggest that the group indeed came directly from Africa, as opposed to having been kidnapped from elsewhere in the Americas.

Attention now turned to the fate of the Emperor. Upon depositing its cargo at St. Joseph Bay, the ship traveled to Pensacola, then Mobile, and planned to return to Havana. Captain Cox apparently took a detour and landed again at Pensacola instead of immediately sailing for Cuba from Mobile. Authorities seized the ship when it docked at Pensacola and took Cox into custody. He quickly posted bail and thereafter disappears from the remainder of records related to the case.

The Circuit Court of West Florida in Pensacola debated what would become of the ship. The evidence implicating the vessel in the illegal slave trade proved scant. No one came forward to testify on behalf of the territory of Florida, so the court determined to return the vessel to its owners. Apparently, too many people still benefited from the illegal slave trade. No one who originally alerted authorities to the illegal cargo came forward and no one pressured the original whistleblowers into testifying.

Lawyers challenged the decision to return the Emperor to its owners and the case went to the Territorial Court of Appeals. The high court determined to put the Emperor up for public auction, with the proceeds reverting to the territory of Florida. Marshall Duval collected the funds, but refused to deposit them into the territory’s coffers. Eventually, Duval conceded, but, because of a lack of evidence, the funds ultimately returned to the claimants of the Emperor.

This case provides an example of the illegal slave trade activity that took place in Florida’s waters before the Civil War. It also demonstrates the difficulty in bringing to justice those that continued to kidnap African people and import them illegally into the United States.

To learn more about this case, see Dorothy Dodd, “The Schooner Emperor: An Incident of the Illegal Slave Trade in Florida,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 13:3 (January 1935): 117-128.