The Wanderer The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails

Erik Calonius

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

320 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
On November 28, 1858, a ship called the Wanderer slipped silently into a coastal channel and unloaded its cargo of over 400 African slaves onto Jekyll Island, Georgia, thirty eight years after the African slave trade had been made illegal. It was the last ship ever to bring a cargo of African slaves to American soil. Built in 1856, the Wanderer began life as a luxury racing yacht, flying the pennant of the New York Yacht Club and cited as the successor to the famous yacht America. But within a year of its creation, the Wanderer was secretly converted into a slave ship, and, with the New York Yacht Club pennant still flying above as a diversion, sailed off to Africa. The Wanderer’s mission was meant to be more than a slaving venture, however. It was designed by its radical conspirators to defy the federal government and speed the nation’s descent into civil war. The New York Times first reported the story as a hoax; however, as groups of Africans began to appear in the small towns surrounding Savannah, the story of the Wanderer began to leak out, igniting a fire of protest and debate that made headlines throughout the nation and across the Atlantic. As the story shifts between Savannah, Jekyll Island, the Congo River, London, and New York City, the Wanderer's tale is played out in heated Southern courtrooms, the offices of The New York Times, The White House, the slave markets of Africa and some of the most charming homes Southern royalty had to offer.  In a gripping account of the high seas and the high life in New York and Savannah, Erik Calonius brings to light one of the most important and little-remembered stories of the Civil War period.


Praise for The Wanderer

"A compelling and heartrending record of a journey that helped push the nation to the brink of the Civil War."—The Washington Times
"Calonius' book stands out as a history . . . full of imagery that fills the reader's mind with those images, of historical characters that have been fully breathed to life . . . a highly recommended and fascinating read."—Touch the Elbow
"Rich in atmosphere, sprung with surprises, The Wanderer is my favorite kind of history: a voyage into the turbid waters of a past we thought we knew, a past we scarcely could have imagined."—Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder
"Calonius brings to life this extraordinary story, from the luxurious yacht club salons and Southern courtrooms to the Congo, in an account that reveals the complicated legacy of slave trading, one that has yet to be sorted out in contemporary America."—Booklist
"Calonius tells with gripping detail the history of the black-market slave trade that persisted after the United States made the business illegal in 1808. The author focuses on the Wanderer, a speedy pleasure yacht owned by a sugar tycoon. In 1858, a trio of pro-slavery radicals calling themselves 'the fire-eaters' transformed it into a smuggling boat and used the vessel to carry 400 captured slaves from Africa to the sales block at Jekyll Island, GA. The federal government captured the fire-eaters, uncovering a plot led by New York businessmen and Southern operatives not only to continue the slave trade, but also to split apart the country. The book follows the outcry from Northern media sources like The New York Times, the dramatic court trial, and the ironic ending when the federal government transformed the Wanderer into a gunboat for the Union during the Civil War. Photos of the key players and plans of the ship are included. Written in a fast-paced style more reminiscent of thrillers than history books, the highly accessible text digs deep into the motivations for the Civil War and illuminates some of the darkest corners of our nation's past."—Matthew L. Moffett, School Library Journal 
"In 1858, a converted luxury yacht named the Wanderer unloaded a cargo of 400 African slaves on the coast of Georgia. Journalist Calonius uses contemporary accounts, court records, and more to uncover details of the ship's extraordinary voyage and the reasons for it. The importation of slaves into the United States had been illegal for almost 40 years, but a group of Southern extremists known as Fire-Eaters were determined to restart the trade to further their sectional agenda. Failing that, they hoped to provoke a crisis that would result in secession. While always a minority in the South, these Fire-Eaters included leaders of society in cities like Savannah and Charleston. Few of the slaves were ever found by the authorities, and the men who were tried for the crime of slaving were all acquitted. Calonius vividly describes the action and personalities involved in this tale spanning from New York City to the slave coast of Africa, shedding light on a little-known aspect of the contentious climate and the debates that raged around America on the eve of the Civil War. Recommended for academic libraries and public libraries with Civil War collections."—Dan Forrest, Western Kentucky University Libraries, Bowling Green, Library Journal
"The slave trade became illegal in the United States in 1808, but for half a century after that, a black market in chattel slavery thrived. In his first book, former Newsweek correspondent Calonius tells the fascinating, heartbreaking story of the last slave ship to dock on these shores, in 1858, the Wanderer. Originally built as a sugar baron's racing yacht, it was outfitted, as The New York Times reported, for 'comfort and luxury.' But a trio of greedy proslavery radicals, known as 'fire-eaters,' transformed her from plaything to slaver: deck planks and inner framing were removed and iron tanks inserted. Then the ship headed to Africa, and eventually returned to Georgia's Jekyll Island with its human cargo. (En route, 80 Africans died.) Calonius charts the subsequent media outcry and trials, and follows the Wanderer's history through the Civil War, when, in a delectably just turn of events, the U.S. government seized the ship and turned it into a Union gunboat. This is fast-paced narrative history, and Calonius has a terrific eye for atmospheric details."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

ERIK CALONIUS is a former reporter, editor and London-based foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He served as Miami Bureau Chief for Newsweek. This is his first book. He lives in Charleston, SC with his wife and son.

Read the full excerpt


  • Erik Calonius

  • Eric Calonius is a former reporter, editor and London-based foreign correspondent for the Wall St. Journal. He served as Miami Bureau Chief for Newsweek. This is his first book. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife and son.