The beginning of March, 1854 gave Pierre Soulé his big chance to secure Cuba for the United States and slavery, even with the duels. The Captain-General of Cuba, the Marqués de la Pezuela, seized the American steamer Black Warrior when it stopped in Havana in transit to New York from Mobile with a load of cotton. The ship’s manifest left it in technical breach of Spanish revenue laws, even if it did so by longstanding convention.
In other circumstances this could have come down to a misunderstanding. Maybe somebody new at the docks didn’t know the usual procedure and upheld the letter of the law instead of letting things slide. But the Spanish dispatched the Marqués de la Pezuela with an eye to defending Cuba from filibusters like John A. Quitman. His program of emancipation, interracial marriage, and arming Cuba’s black population to fight off any Americans or others coming ashore generated a bit more panic than he probably wanted, giving the filibustering a new urgency.
That said, we have more than circumstance to go by in calling the seizure a deliberate warning shot to American adventurers. Matters like these fell under the purview of the American consul in Havana. The Spanish agreed to that and had long accepted an American consul in Cuba for just that purpose. The Marqués de la Pezuela simply refused to deal with the Acting Consul, eventually going so far as to tell him to mind his own business.
Marcy wrote to Soulé on March 11, telling him about the affair and advising him that new instructions would follow once Pierce’s message to the House came out. Those instructions came on the 17th and told Soulé to seek satisfaction from Spain to the tune of $300,000, lobby for some kind of closer cooperation between the Consul and Captain-General in the future, and convey the American expectation that Isabella II would “visit with her displeasure” the responsible officials. After that, Ettinger quotes Marcy:
having presented the case in its strong features, it is not expected by the President that you should enter into any further discussion of it, but you will obtain as early a reply as practicable to your demand
The instructions did not fly across the Atlantic via satellite, of course. Nor did they chirp along telegraph lines not yet run under the ocean. Marcy’s messenger did not set sail until March 17. Soulé’s first instructions did not reach him until April 4 and the full set did not come into his hands until April 7, 1854. By this time, the Black Warrior‘s owners had paid their fine. In fact, they paid it the day before Marcy’s courier left the United States.
The paid fine might have satisfied the Spanish officials, but even with the ship and cargo back in the possession of their owners the offense against the United States remained to resolve. If nothing else, national honor demanded some kind of remittance of the fine. But really, Soulé had a perfectly good crisis on his hands. Why let that go to waste?