This post is part of a week of cross-posting between Defence-in-Depth and Imperial Entanglements, the blog of an AHRC funded funded project in the Hispanic Studies Department of Warwick University.


Alliances between maritime Empires in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were rarely harmonious; but only a few hold the distinction, of being completely dysfunctional. The post-Napoleonic War alliance between Britain and Spain for the purpose of abolishing the slave trade was one of the few. The anti-slave trade treaty of 1817, which had pledged Spain to Britain’s anti-slave trade cause and was the cornerstone of the alliance, established a court of mixed commission at Havana for the purpose of condemning illegal slave ships (see this post for an explanation of the treaty and the courts). The treaty, however, did not come into effect all at once. Spanish slave trading on the coast of Africa north of the equator became illegal in 1817. Slave trading south of the equator, which was far more profitable, did not become illegal until May of 1820. The treaty also guaranteed a five month grace period that allowed slave voyages which left a Spanish port before May 1820 to return legally with slaves until October 1820. The early dysfunction of the alliance is perfectly illustrated by negotiations in 1820 between Britain and Spain over the five month grace period and a Spanish slave ship named Jellus.

Seven days after the expiration of five month grace period granted for the completion of voyages, the British commissioners at Havana became aware that the Jellus had arrived in the Port of Havana on the 6th of November 1820, was admitted, and allowed to land a cargo of one-hundred seventy-eight slaves brought from the coast of Africa. The ship was in clear violation of the treaty but had not been captured at sea by any warship. The Spanish authorities chose not bring her before the court of mixed commissions. She was, therefore, outside the influence or jurisdiction of the court of mixed commission and subject only to Spanish domestic law.

The British commissioner’s response to the news of the Jellus was to confront the Governor of Havana. On the 8th of November he wrote to the Foreign Office, recounting his interaction with the Cuban officials and asking for advice. He had approached the Governor with the disclaimer that though the situation involving the Jellus was outside of his duty it was: ‘Incumbent upon me, under all the circumstances of the case, to call His Excellency’s attention to the arrival of the Jellus’. He reminded the governor of the 1817 treaty and the decree issued by the Spanish government that provided for the punishment of such ships and persons as engaged in the slave trade after the termination of the grace period. The Governor’s response was described as a very ‘full and friendly discussion’ in which he pointed out that five months was not enough for a voyage from Cuba to the coast of Africa south of the equator. This being the case, and since the Spanish government allowed ships to sail up till the 30th of May 1820, it was ‘expected in good faith’ that as long as the ships could prove that they had not delayed unnecessarily in their voyage they would be admitted into port after the expiration date of the 30th of October.

The commissioner, legally unable to do anything about the Governor’s interpretation of Spanish domestic law, politely pointed out to him that his interpretation of the decree made any mention of the five month grace period superfluous and that the Governor was considering the grace period to be of unlimited length. The Governor responded that the grace period would be considered to be ten months but that he could not say that the penalties mentioned in the decree would be imposed even after the expiration of that grace period. At a loss of what to do with these explanations from the governor, the commissioner concluded his letter by saying that he did what he hoped was his duty as regarded the spirit of the treaty by bringing the Jellus to the attention of the Cuban Governor.

There were four main avenues for the exchange of information when it came to Anglo-Spanish slave trade negotiations and there was minimal, if any, crossover between them. British commissioners were able to communicate with Cuban officials and with the British Foreign Secretary. The British Foreign Secretary was able to communicate with Spanish ministers in Madrid. Spanish ministers communicated with Cuban officials. Once the British commissioners in Havana had spoken to the Governor and written to the Foreign Office, the situation was out of their influence. However, negotiations around the five month grace period and the Jellus were conducted along other avenues.

The Foreign Office responded to the British commissioner’s letter about the Jellus on the 16th of February 1821. It was a very short letter that simply stated Castlereagh’s approval of how the commissioner had conducted himself in the affair. It included a copy of a letter written on the same date by Castlereagh to Sir Henry Wellesley, ambassador to Spain. Castlereagh described, in brief, the situation in Havana regarding the Jellus, and did not spare harsh words for the conduct of the Spanish government in the matter of the now illegal slave trade. He wrote that it was expected that the Spanish government would give orders for the treaty to be properly adhered to.

Castlereagh went no further than telling the government in Madrid that that they must send orders to their unruly colony. At no point was there any threat of force or threat of imposing sanctions upon Spain should the authorities in Havana continue to disregard the treaty. On the 27th of August, 1821, the Spanish government sent a letter to its commissioners at the mixed court of Sierra Leone requiring that they adhere to all articles of the 1817 treaty with specific reference to the events surrounding the Jellus. There was no explanation of what would happen should the orders not be carried out. A similar order does not appear to have been sent to Havana.

Whether or not the government in Madrid did send orders to Havana about the treaty, the slave trade continued to carry on in the Spanish dominions unchecked. In 1821, at least twenty-two ships are recorded as having landed slaves in Cuba or other Spanish-American territory, and this is likely by no means a complete number. Seven of these ships were Spanish slave vessels all of which were in violation of the treaty and should have been condemned. None of them were.

Negotiations over the five month grace period itself ran along similar unproductive lines as those over the Jellus. On the 12th of June, 1820, five months before the Jellus arrived in Havana, Don Santiago Usoz, the Spanish envoy in London in charge of treaty negotiation, wrote to Don Evaristo Pérez de Castro, the Spanish Secretary of State, informing the secretary that he had spoken to Castlereagh about extending the five month grace period in order to prevent financial harm coming to the merchants of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Castlereagh, having run out of patience with Spanish attempts to alter the treaty, responded that since the treaty had been approved by parliament there was nothing the government could do to alter it.

Castro’s response to Castlereagh’s claim that nothing could be done was bold and based on the assumption that the anti-slave trade policy drive in Britain was entirely due to popular opinion. Castro wrote to the Spanish ambassador in London on the 27th of July, 1820, that there was an amiable way for both governments to get what they desired. If the British government gave orders to British warships not to detain any Spanish slave ships which might be carrying papers that marked them as having embarked on their voyage before May 1820, then there would be no need to alter the treaty. Parliament, and the British public, would remain appeased. Cuban slave-traders would then have enough time to complete only their last slaving voyages which were begun before the trade technically became illegal. This would keep the Spanish adhering to the ‘spirit’ of the treaty.

It is possible that Castlereagh never responded to the Spanish Secretary’s request or that the ambassador chose not to mention it. Either way, no such instructions were given to British warships and Castro does not seem to have received a response. However, though that was the end of Castro’s idea to prolong the Cuban slave trade, it is important to note the origin of his duplicitous request. On the 7th of March, 1820, the members of the consulado in Havana wrote to Castro about the adverse effects of the slave trade treaty should the five month grace period be enforced. The solution that the consulado proposed was to have the British government give orders to its warships not to stop any Spanish slave ship which left on its slaving voyage before May 1820.

The correspondence over the Jellus and the five month grace period illuminate how much Cuban affairs dictated the trajectory of Spanish foreign policy in the post-Napoleonic period. In order to keep hold of her ‘loyal colony’ in an era beset by wars of independence, Spain was willing to let Cuban officials and merchants continue the slave trade in contravention of the Anglo-Spanish treaty without censure and, in effect, took instructions from the consuladoin Havana on how to negotiate with Britain over the particulars of the treaty. Without direct communication between British ministers and Cuban officials, the Anglo-Spanish alliance to suppress the Atlantic slave trade turned into a farce of communication back and forth across the Atlantic in which every player involved agreed to work toward a solution and agreed to cooperate but was unable, or unwilling, to take steps that would allow the treaty and the courts to function as intended. This remained true of Anglo-Spanish attempts to suppress the slave trade throughout the 1820s and into the 1830s.

Image: Viscount Castlereagh in 1810, via Wikimedia Commons.

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