The Story

1800 Seventh Month.—A special meeting of the Society was called at the suggestion of the committee on the slave-trade; their minutes were produced, by which it appears that two American vessels, having on board a considerable number of black people,  supposed to have been bound to the Havanna, had been captured by one of the armed vessels of the United States, and sent into this port; and that the said black persons are now in circumstances demanding the attention of this Society. A committee[1] was appointed to watch over their situation, and that of any others who may be hereafter brought in under the acts of Congress, against the slave-trade. and to afford them such assistance and protection, by co-operating with the officers of the General and State Governments, as may be necessary, and to provide places for such as are found to be free.


And so it was that the Abolition Society of Pennsylvania took up the cause of assisting 118 African slaves who had, by a series of unlikely circumstance, arrived three days earlier at the Philadelphia Quarantine station off Fort Mifflin aboard the schooner Phoebe, of Charleston.

It was not unusual for a vessel to stop at the quarantine station. Philadelphia, which was then the nation’s capital, had been struck by serious yellow fever epidemics in the 1790’s. The true cause was a mystery, but the disease was suspected to be contagious and it was not unusual for ships arriving from the West Indies to have yellow fever victims aboard. In response, the recently created Philadelphia Board of Health (1795) required that all vessels be inspected upon arrival and cleared before disembarking passengers or cargo.  If sickness was observed, the vessel was kept in quarantine, often for several weeks, until no new cases arose[3]. During the quarantine period, the sick were treated at the city’s “pest house”, or Lazaretto[4], on State Island, just up the Delaware from the Fort.

The Phoebe’s Africans were joined two days later by 17 others aboard the Schooner Prudent, of Newport. Both vessels had been taken as prizes off Cuba by the sloop-of-war USS Ganges under a Federal law that made it illegal for American ships, crews or owners to participate in the foreign slave trade. After placing prize crews aboard, the Ganges captain, John Mullowney, ordered the vessels to Philadelphia, the Ganges’ home port.

It appears the Africans were released from the confines of their vessels at the Fort and were housed temporarily somewhere close by. Some required hospitalization and were cared for at the Lazaretto Hospital. Six died there and were presumably laid to rest in the Hospital’s burial ground[5].


[1] Geo. Williams, S. P. Griffiths, David Thomas, R. Patterson, Samuel Bettle, T. Harrison, and Edward Garrigues.

[2] Needles, Edward, An historical memoir of the Pennsylvania Society, for promoting the abolition of slavery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, Merrihew and Thompson, Printers, 1848.

Online: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/wu.89062309380, accessed 8 Mar 2018.

[3] The Phobe “came up from the Fort” on Aug 21, presumably having cleared quarantine. Gazette of the United States, & daily advertiser, 21 Aug 1800, 2465:3. Available at Chronicling America.

[4] In 1800, this was the Old Lazaretto on State Island which was replaced shortly thereafter by a new one further downstream from the City on Tinicum island. The Old Lazaretto no longer stands. The new one does.

[5] See: To the boarding, nursing & medical attendance of Sundry Africans, landed from the schooners Phebe & Prudent, taken by the Ganges, City Of Philadelphia Board of Health, State Island Accounts 1794-1801, Philadelphia City Archives, H78.1 RG 37.13. The City paid for the coffins and burial expenses as well. The last Africans left the Lazaretto Hospital on Oct. 31.