The British Plot Against America, Part One

John Slidell

John Slidell (D-LA)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Senator John Slidell of Louisiana had his orders from the state legislature to press for suspending the Neutrality Acts. Those orders largely agreed with his own reasons, presented to the Senate on May 1, 1854. That said, he took pains to both establish his independent reasoning and separate himself, if only rhetorically, from the Cuba panic sweeping the South in response to the Marqués de la Pezuela’s Africanization program. In particular, Slidell feared that the British and French colluded with the Spanish to turn the island into another Haiti, fomenting some kind of race war to purge it of whites and so turn it into a black-ruled, British-dominated protectorate which would then stand poised to snuff out the flame of liberty and light of the world, American democracy.

But Slidell began by declaring himself not moved by the general panic. He, he told the Senate, did not go for hysterics:

Some months since, Mr. President, I was as skeptical as any one on this floor could be about the existence of any concerted plan to Africanize Cuba. I use the world, not for the reason that it has become fashionable, but because it plainly conveys, to my mind, at least, without periphrasis, the complex ideas of emancipation, confiscation, pillage, murder, devastation, and barbarism. Past experience has led me to be surprised at nothing that England might attempt to prevent the possession of this magnificent island by her great commercial rival, a rival destined to be, in a very few years, if, in fact, she be not already, in that respect, her recognized superior. Still, I could not bring myself to believe that Spain, with all her pride and obstinacy, would prefer the destruction of a flourishing colony, peopled by her own sons, to the prospect of its transfer, at some future, perhaps distant day, by honorable and peaceful negotiation, to a friendly nation, for a price that would extricate her finances from that gulf of seemingly hopeless bankruptcy in which they have been so long plunged.

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

Marqués de la Pezuela, Captain-General of Cuba

The perfidious redcoats strike again. While the odor of nationalistic paranoia hangs thick about the words, Slidell did have some actual evidence. Back in 1852, Britain and France jointly proposed to the United States that all three commit to a convention where each renounced any intention to seize Cuba for themselves and guarantee its continued possession by Spain. The United States refused to sign on for that. But where did that idea come from?

The British hatched it. Slidell quoted a letter from the Foreign Secretary to Lord Howden, his man in Madrid, on the whys and wherefores of the policy:

the slaves in Cuba form a large portion, and by no means an unimportant one, of the people of Cuba, and that any steps taken to provide for their emancipation would, therefore, as far as the black population is concerned, be quite in unison with the recommendation made by her Majesty’s Government, that measures should be adopted for contenting the people of Cuba, with a view to secure the connection between that island and the Spanish Crown; and it must be evident that if the negro population of Cuba were rendered free, that fact would create a most powerful element of resistance to any scheme for annexing Cuba to the United States, where slavery still exists.

With regard to the bearing which negro emancipation would have on the interests of the white proprietors, it may safely be affirmed that free labor costs less than slave labor; and it is indisputable that a free and contented peasantry are safer neighbors for the wealthy classes above them than ill-treated and resentful slaves.

Lord Howden subsequently wrote back to the next Foreign Secretary, who came into office shortly thereafter, expressing Spain’s interest in the tripartite convention abjuring Cuban annexation. The Spanish ambassador in London then wrote back:

Her Catholic Majesty desires that, should the Government of the United States not adhere to the declaration respecting the island of Cuba, intrusted to the British and French Representatives at Washington, England and France would declare on their side, that they will never allow any other Power, whether European or American, at any time to possess itself of the Island of Cuba, either by cession, alienation, conquest, or insurrection of the same. Any such declaration made by the two Powers collectively would answer the intention put forward on a former occasion by the United States, never to allow a European Power to possess itself of Cuba. It would, moreover, be in consonance with the idea which, according to the information received by Her Catholic Majesty’s Government, at present prevails with the French and British Representatives, to whose care the negotiations now pending at Washington have been intrusted. 

In other words, if and when the Americans say no, Spain would really like it if France and Britain committed themselves anyway. They could excuse doing so on the grounds that the Americans had a policy of denying Cuba to any European power and so produce through another means the same ends as the tripartite convention would have established. Once the Americans did say no, the British gave a parting shot on the matter in 1853:

while fully admitting the right of the United States to reject the proposal made by Lord Malmesbury and M. de Turgot, Great Britain must at once resume her entire liberty, and upon any occasion that may call for it be free to act either single or in conjunction with other Powers as to her may seem fit.

All bad old Europe seemed to have thrown in with the evil redcoats. Where’s George Washington when you need him?

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