The Cuban spy who helped thwart the U.S. slave trade

Zong crew throwing slaves overboard 1781

Even though the United States made slave trading illegal in the early 1800s, American ships and seamen were still involved in human trafficking decades later. Statesmen would look the other way, bribes were getting thrown around all over the place, and those getting caught simply walking away with “Not Guilty” verdicts from their juries because so many people don’t seem to give a damn about anything except money. By the 1850s, slave traders were setting themselves up in Manhattan and using New York’s large port and mediocre law enforcement to send their ships to Africa and traffic people to Cuba, Brazil, and of course, the American South.

All the while, Britain had made itself the staunch opposition to slave trading and was actively condemning the trades still happening in the Americas. They would send their own ships to patrol the African coastline in search of vessels involved in human trafficking, but the U.S. made it illegal for Britain to search any of their ships for possible people crouching below deck, all in the name of “naval security.” So, of course, the British turned to spies and informants, with one notable ally being Emilio Sanchez, a Cuban immigrant who worked as a ship dealer in New York.

Sanchez was a man on a mission. He claimed that he unknowingly got caught up in a slave-voyage-gone-wrong, and he was angry at his betrayers for tricking and giving him a bad reputation. He made it clear to the British consul in New York that he wanted to bring the entire industry to its knees. He wanted to be their Kraken. He wanted to be unleashed onto the Atlantic slave trade to wreak havoc and drown every single slave trader in their own corruption and deceit. He wanted revenge — also money because spies have to eat, too.

Slavery in America

And sweet Cthulhu, was he good at it. When Sanchez wasn’t successfully figuring out four out of every five illegal trading ships on route at a time, he was writing anonymous op-eds to the media in which he made clear his intentions to destroy the slave trade and expose corrupt officials. With Sanchez’s help, the British were able to thwart 30 slave ships between 1859 and 1862, saving around 20,000 Africans from slavery in the Americas.

Newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln eventually managed to chase the slave traders out of New York and allow British ships to search U.S. vessels, marking the end of the Atlantic slave trade. Sanchez had a huge hand in exposing these traders in the first place but got screwed over in the end when the British refused to pay him what they had promised and cut ties with him completely. Maybe he saw it coming. After all, instead of freeing some of the African people onboard these intercepted slave ships, the British shipped them to the British Caribbean to temporarily work there as indentured laborers, proving that humans are just the worst and also super hard to trust.