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Nova Virgem: The Story of a Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Slave Smuggler

Mason Daniel Miller
Thesis: May 2001
Chair: Dr. C. Wayne Smith
Nautical Archaeology Program

With the close of the legal transatlantic slave trade in 1807 agricultural markets of the New World were reluctant to relinquish their dependence on free labor from Africa. British insistence on the opposite eventually caused most of those who held out to give in and end the traffic, but not for some time. Brazil held a unique privilege during the early stages of the abolition of the slave trade. Through treaty with Great Britain, Brazilians were allowed to continue the trade provided they met a number of conditions. Among these were a limit of five slaves per two ship tons, the mandatory presence of a surgeon on all slaving voyages, and most importantly the restriction of all slaving voyages to ports south of the Equator.

This thesis will examine the story on one Brazilian slaver, the Nova Virgem, which was captured in July 1828 off the coast of Nigeria by HMS Primrose. Taken 300 miles north of the equator, with more than 350 slaves aboard, the ship was declared a legal prize of Britain and sent to Sierra Leone for trial and later condemned. As this vessel's tale unfolds it is soon evident that the slavers had broken the law in almost every aspect of their voyage, from the tonnage calculation to clearance papers signed by Bahian officials. This thesis will examine the voyage of this Brazilian slaver in order to ask a very important question: Why was this ship breaking laws virtually every step of the way?

In the end, the Nova Virgem will be shown as a raindrop in a storm of slave smugglers being stopped by the umbrella of the British government and navy. These laws were being broken because it was well known that slavers could do so with little fear of the consequences. With the potential for tremendous profits the negligible slap on the wrist that might, under remote possibilities, be awaiting them was almost something to be laughed at. This story reflects the battle of morality and "civilization" versus the desire to reap a profit.

Like any commerce, the slave trade was simply the product of shrewd businessmen providing their customers with what they wanted. As long as there is someone willing to purchase a commodity, there will be someone there to sell it. The story can be seen as almost identical to modern drug smuggling. No matter how hard the authorities may wish to end the traffic, they will never achieve their goals unless the people of the nation cooperate. Without the aid of the country's citizens, the traffic will continue simply because the police are bound by the law and the smugglers are not.

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