A schematic drawing of a ship that Frederick Drinkwater captained called the Abbot Devereux, from The Illustrated London News, Sept. 19, 1857 Courtesy of the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University

In 1851, Captain Frederick Drinkwater of Portland sailed the Chieftain into New York Harbor.

Technically, the slave trade had been outlawed for decades. In reality, American ships and merchants were continuing to bring enslaved people to Cuba and Brazil as the global demand for sugar surged.

Drinkwater had been on a voyage to bring freed African Americans to Liberia. On the way home, he stopped in Havana. When he returned to the United States and made port in New York City, his ship carried thousands of gold and silver coins – but no cargo.

Kate McMahon, a museum specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture who leads research efforts at the Center for the Study of Global Slavery, has filled in the gaps in his journey.

“More than likely, after he brought the free African Americans to Liberia, he went down the coast of Africa, purchased enslaved people and brought them to Havana and then came back to the United States,” McMahon said.

That voyage was apparently the beginning of a career in the illegal slave trade for Drinkwater, who ultimately owned or captained a dozen slave ships and was responsible for the transportation of at least 5,000 enslaved people during the mid-19th century. The trips are one example of Maine’s involvement in slavery – involvement that has often been overlooked or minimized in history books.


McMahon has identified 200 ships involved in the illegal slave trade, and at least 65 that were built, owned or captained by Mainers. On Friday at noon, she will deliver a virtual presentation on the topic, including how Drinkwater and other captains like him were able to avoid legal or social penalties for their crimes against humanity.

Kate McMahon of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Courtesy photo

“It’s really important that we understand how this shaped the current state that we live in and the ways in which people of color were impacted by this at the time and continue to be impacted by these types of financial exploitation and physical exploitation into the present day,” she said.

Growing up in Shapleigh, McMahon said she did not learn any Black history. As a student at the University of Southern Maine, she got involved with an archaeology project on Malaga Island near Phippsburg, where the state forcibly removed all the residents of a mixed-race fishing community in 1912. She connected with community leaders who had been advocating for greater awareness of Maine’s Black history for years and began to learn more.

Her current research explores New England’s connections to and complicity in the illegal slave trade and colonialism. She is a scholarly adviser at the Atlantic Black Box Project, a grassroots public history project that empowers communities to study those same topics.

McMahon said public interest in this work has grown in since 2020, when a white police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, and in connection with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There certainly seems to be more of an organized effort, but none of this would have happened without the leadership of Maine’s Black community and other communities of color in the state who have been advocating for this work for decades,” she said.



The United States banned the import of enslaved people in 1808. In 1820, Congress declared it to be piracy, a crime punishable by death at that time. But enforcement was lax, and captains like Drinkwater continued to make their fortunes from slavery. (The only person ever hung under that 1820 law was Nathaniel Gordon, who came from a prominent Maine family and also lived in Portland.) The Civil War finally brought an end to the illicit network.

Direct records from that time – ship manifests, insurance documents, trade records – are limited. But McMahon said newspaper reports and other records make it clear that the illegal commerce was not conducted in secret.

“One thing that befuddles and enrages me is that this was well-known at the time,” she said.

McMahon’s talk is hosted by Maine Conservation Voters as part of its weekly Lunch & Learn series. Kathleen Meil, the organization’s senior director of policy and partnerships, said the series started in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic and covers a range of topics.

“The way we often think about this history of slavery in New England is that it didn’t happen here,” she said. “We were the North, we were the good guys. And Kate’s research really challenges that and helps us get a more accurate and nuanced understanding of our history.”

McMahon said Mainers also can learn more about the state’s true history through an upcoming series called the Place Justice Initiative led by the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Tribal Populations.

That program will begin Tuesday with a virtual event featuring Maine House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross and Penobscot Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana. The presentation, “Four Decades & Four Bills: Dealing with Offensive Names & Symbols in Maine,” will explore the efforts by civil rights and Indigenous leaders over the past 40 years to eradicate offensive place names and images in the state.

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