By Frank R. Stockton
Originally published in 1896
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003
HERE was another famous American sailor who came out of New Jersey, who was perhaps of as much value to his country as any other naval commander, although he was not the hero of any great sea fights.
This was Robert F. Stockton, who was born in Princeton, and who entered the navy early in life. He became an excellent officer and a great fighter. His disposition to do battle showed itself not only in leading men into action, but in doing a great deal of fighting himself. He distinguished himself in several naval combats during the war with Algiers. He commanded the "Spitfire" during this war, and, besides taking one of the enemy's vessels in an ordinary naval combat, he captured an Algerine brig, one might almost say, with his own hands. With as many men as a small boat could carry, he left his vessel, rowed to this brig, and at the head of his bold sailors boarded her, vanquished the crew, and carried her off as a prize.
He was afterwards transferred to a larger vessel, and was stationed for a time at Gibraltar. There was a very bad feeling at that time between the American naval officers and those of Great Britain. The War of 1812 was over ; but the British were not inclined to treat the officers of the United States Navy with the respect which the latter thought was due to them. Stockton was not a man to stand still and allow himself to be treated disrespectfully; and whenever he received anything that seemed like an insult from a British officer, he was ready to fight that officer, whoever he might be. It is said that at one time he challenged all the officers in Gibraltar to meet him in single combat, one after another, and he actually did engage in duels with several of them.
During the British war and the Algerine war, Stockton distinguished himself in various ways, both on land and sea. But in 1821 he undertook a very important enterprise in Africa. Many naval vessels had gone from the United States to Africa, but none of them on an errand such as this. Our gallant Jersey captain did not sail to pay tribute, bombard cities, sink vessels, humble African potentates, or to shed African blood; he went on an errand of charity and humanity.
He sailed from America in the interests of the Colonization Society, and his object was to make arrangements on the west coast of Africa for the establishment of a colony, to be composed of negroes who had been slaves in the United States, but who had obtained their freedom. There were many humane people in the United States who believed that the negroes who had been set free from slavery would be much happier and more likely to prosper in their native land, or in the land of their ancestors, than in the United States.
In company with an agent of this society, Stockton sailed for the west coast of Africa in command of an armed schooner called the " Alligator; "and when he arrived at his destination, he took upon himself nearly all the difficult work of selecting territory suitable for the purposes desired, of buying land from the savage natives, of making them understand the character of the settlers who were coming to Africa and of the powerful nation who intended to protect them. He made treaties of commerce and friendship with the ignorant Africans, who, until he came, scarcely knew what was meant by a treaty.
The performance of these complicated and difficult duties required a man of courage and diplomatic ability, who could take things as they came, and who was always ready to act promptly in sudden emergencies. Stockton proved himself to be that man, and he established in the native land of the negro a country to which the Africans who had once been slaves in the United States might freely go, carrying with them all that they had learned of civilization in this country, and where they might live without fear of re-enslavement by the warlike tribes, whose principal business in life then was to capture their fellow-countrymen, and sell them into slavery.
This new country, which was called Liberia, was at first a colony of the United States. It grew and prospered, and in 1847 it became an independent nation, and soon after was recognized as such by Great Britain and the United States; and since then it has made treaties with most of the European countries.
Thus was established the new nation of Liberia, and it is not likely that there was a man in the United States who could have accomplished this great work better than the fighting sailor from Princeton.
After having finished the Liberian business on land, Stockton did some work at sea more in the line of a naval commander. While sailing along the coast, the "Alligator" was sighted by a Portuguese war vessel, the "Marianna Flora," who mistook her for a pirate, and determined to capture her. But when the "Marianna" got near enough, and opened fire on the supposed pirate, she found that the work she had undertaken was very different from what she had expected. To speak figuratively, the "Alligator" lashed her tail, opened her jaws, and began to fight with such fury, that in twenty minutes the "Marianna " was beaten and captured. Stockton put her under the command of one of his own officers with an American crew, and sent her away as a prize to America.
The government of Portugal, when it heard what had happened, declared, that, as their country and the United States were not at war, our Jersey sailor had no right to take one of their vessels; but, as it was asserted on the other side that one of their vessels had first tried to take his, there seemed to be a good deal of justice in what had been done. However, the matter was settled by his exoneration from all blame in the matter, and the return of the "Marianna " to Portugal.
Some time later, the "Alligator" fell in with a French slave ship and captured her; and it is stated that the legal proceedings which followed this capture established the point of international law, that war vessels of all nations have a perfect right to capture a slave ship, wherever it may be found. This was the first step in the work of breaking up the slave trade, which was then carried on by many of the civilized nations of the world.