The Slave Ship Wanderer - A Tale of Courage and Adversity

The Tale of the Slave Ship Wanderer

In 1808, Britain ceased their slave trade, and encouraged other nations to do the same. The United States followed suit, passing the Federal Slave Importation Act officially outlawing the practice of bringing slaves into the United States. But there were those unsavory types who refused to give up the lucrative practice.

Wanderer (built initially as a pleasure yacht by Col. John Johnson) was sleek and fast and could sail at a breath-taking 20 knots. At 114' and 234 tons, it was a thoroughbred of ships.

Johnson later sold the ship to William Corrie, who partnered with Charles Lamar of Savannah. Lamar wished to deal in slaves, and he needed a ship to bring them over. In New York, Corrie had the Wanderer converted to carry slaves, including the installation of a tank that held 15,000 gallons of water.

Back then, around 1857 (when Wanderer was constructed), it wasn't hard to recognize a vessel's potential as a slave ship. And Corrie and Lamar's conversions were suspect. But somehow, despite suspicions, Wanderer slipped through the cracks (probably with the help of some well-greased palms).

Wanderer Exhibit, St. Andrews PointWanderer Exhibit, St. Andrews Point

The Wanderer Takes On Slaves

First stop - Angola, where the captain had pens and benches built for an expected cargo of about 500 human beings, who were to be forcibly taken to the U.S. and sold as slaves.

Corrie and Lamar were despicable blackguards, but they couldn't have done what they did on their own. They had plenty of help.

They worked closely with a certain Capt. Snelgrave, the go-between for an illegal slave trading firm out of New York. Corrie and Lamar asked Snelgrave to find them 500 slaves. Snelgrave got the slaves from barracoons (warehouses built especially to house captured Africans) far up the Congo River. Before loading, Corrie and Lamar had the slaves branded.

How much did it cost to purchase a fellow human being?

  • $50.00 per head
  • barrels of rum
  • casks of gunpowder
  • weapons (cutlasses and muskets)


The Wanderer sailed for home in mid-October, riding low in the water under a full complement of human cargo.

The passage back to the States took a harrowing six weeks. We can only imagine the horror of that trip on the 487 Africans on board. Each person had their own space: 12 inches in width, 18 inches in height, and less than five feet in length. Packed like boards within a stinking, filth-encrusted hull, with little ventilation, they were unable to stand.

Slaves Packed on Ships

How Slaves Were Packed on the Ship

It wasn't long before sores marred their flesh, and weight melted from their bones. Periodically, they were hauled to the deck in small groups, and washed down with stinging salt water.

There were casualties among the human cargo. Of the original complement, 78 died on the trip, their wasted bodies unceremoniously thrown overboard for the sharks.

On November 28th, the slave ship Wanderer, with the surviving 409 slaves packed tight in the squalid hull, reached Jekyll Island.

Unloading Human Cargo in the Dead of Night

Corrie and Lamar had another confederate--Henry duBignon, Jr., who at that time owned Jekyll Island. Jekyll's southern beach was chosen for its seclusion as the ideal place to unload their  contraband. From there, it was an easy task to transport slaves to the markets in Savannah, Augusta, South Carolina and Florida.

For their troubles, the partners sold their slaves for about $600.00 apiece. So 409 slaves times $600.00, yielded a return on investment of $245,400.00--for the devil's work.

The incident caused outrage in the North. The South, for their part, continued to lobby against any laws on importing slaves. Lamar and partners were brought to trial for trafficking, but were not convicted.

Panel in the Wanderer ExhibitPanel in the Wanderer Exhibit

They Were People, With Hopes, Dreams, and Families

Unfortunately for Corrie and Lamar, more caring folks were quick to inform on their clandestine activities. The Wanderer's documents were proven counterfeit. The partner's were investigated, the perpetrators arrested and tried in Federal court for piracy.

The New York Times had this to say of the South: "If they fail to hang the men, if their officials are so lax, or their juries so perjured, as to permit this trade to be carried on with impunity, in face of all our laws against it — they will suffer all the consequences of an actual complicity in the proceeding itself…the entire population of the North will wage upon them a relentless war of extermination.”

But the case could not be proven. That, along with Lamar's status as a leading Savannah citizen, kept the trio from being convicted. They were found not guilty and released.

The incident was not without repercussions, however. Northerners were incensed, and demanded President Buchanan do something. This led to the Feds adopting a more aggressive stance on slavery.

And a few years later, the North and South would contest the matter on the bloody fields of the Civil War.

Wanderer Abstract SculptureSlave Ship Wanderer Abstract Sculpture

Later History of the Slave Ship Wanderer

In later years, the infamous ship

  • changed hands frequently
  • was once stolen and used as a pirate ship
  • was, on that same trip, the scene of a mutiny led by the first mate, who set the captain adrift in a life boat, and returned the ship to authorities in Boston
  • was captured by the Yankees as an enemy vessel and served as a gunboat, a tender and a hospital ship in the Civil War
  • became a merchant ship after the war
  • sank off the Cuban coast in January, 1871

Want to learn more? Visit the Jekyll Island Museum in the Historic District.

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