Erik Calonius & The Wanderer: An interview by Bob Morris

Erik Calonius is a former reporter, editor, and London correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He served as Miami Bureau Chief for Newsweek magazine, where he was nominated for the Overseas Press Award, and as an editor and writer for Fortune magazine, where he was nominated for the National Magazine Award. He has collaborated on some 20 books, and recently with Dan Ariely on the NY Times bestseller, Predictably Irrational. He has authored two books: The WandererThe Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails and, most recently, Ten Steps Ahead: What Separates Successful Business Visionaries from the Rest of Us. He has a degree in English Literature from Ohio Wesleyan University and a masters degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Morris: Before discussing The Wanderer, a few general questions. First, to what extent did your formal education prepare you for a career in journalism?

Calonius: My formal education helped. But my writing today rests largely on my innate love of storytelling, and my years with the Wall Street Journal. The Journal was a great place to learn how to write. A very demanding place, I must add. But if you had the stuff to write front page stories (and fortunately I did) they gave you a lot of encouragement and opportunity

Morris: Who has had the greatest influence of your personal development? Please explain.

Calonius: I’d have to say my son, who from his infancy through his teens taught me patience, forbearance and selflessness. As you will see, Ten Steps Ahead is dedicated to him.

Morris: Who and/or what have had the greatest influence on your professional development? How so?

Calonius: My peers in journalism have been my greatest supporters and mentors. One of my close journalism buddies works at Starbucks now. Another drives a tour bus.  Another is head of Time Inc. Another is the business editor of the New York Times. Another is head of Bloomberg. Wherever they have landed, they have all helped me along my way.

Morris: What prompted you to write The Wanderer?

Calonius: As I described in the preface, I was walking through a museum at Jekyll Island, Georgia and there, on the last wall was a photograph of a painting of the yacht Wanderer. It said that the ship had deposited some 400 Africans on the shore of Jekyll in 1858. I was surprised; I’d never heard of it. Soon I found that the details had been lost in the fog of history. I was looking for a book to write, and this turned out to be the one.

Morris: During your research for it, were there any head-snapping revelations?

Calonius: The greatest revelation was that at the end of the 1850s–just a few years before the Civil War–the largest African slave trading port in the country was not New Orleans, or Charleston, or Savannah, but New York City. I was also surprised to learn that the Southern firebrands who wanted to secede from the Union also wanted a civil war within the South, from which they hoped to emerge victorious and shape an oligarchy.

Morris: Although the slave trade was declared illegal in the U.S. in 1808, it continued for about 50 years thereafter. Here are two separate but related questions. First, to what extent did the absence of a Constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery share responsibility for the continuation of slavery even after 1808?

Calonius: It was the African slave trade that was declared illegal in 1808, meaning you couldn’t import Africans into the states. Slave trading domestically was legal. An amendment prohibiting slavery was suggested, but never enacted because of southern opposition.

Morris: The Wanderer is the last documented ship to bring a cargo of slaves from Africa to the United States on November 28, 1858. When the Wanderer reached Jekyll Island, Georgia from, Africa, approximately 409 of the enslaved Africans had survived. A prosecution of the slave traders was launched, but the defendants were found not guilty. Why?

Calonius: It’s a complicated story, but essentially by the time the conspirators were tried, the nation was already barreling toward civil war. Southern men were not about to hang their own–particularly when the North was even more active in the African slave trade, and not a man there had gone to the gallows.

Morris: What is the significance of the fact that, for a period of time, the Wanderer flew the pennant of the New York Yacht Club?

Calonius: In those days, the pennant of the NY Yacht Club was as known to sailors as the stars and stripes. The Wanderer conspirators knew that, and used it as their cover.

Morris: To what extent did the events associated with the Wanderer help to expedite the process that led to the Civil War?

Calonius: I’ve come to see that the Civil Was started, more than anything, but the incendiary firing of insults and accusations from Northern newspaper into the South and back. John Brown’s raid, and his subsequent hanging was one event that raised sectional tensions and anger to a boil. So did the Wanderer incident and trial.

Morris: What is Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar’s historical significance?

Calonius: Lamar came from one of the most distinguished of Southern families. His father was one of the richest and most accomplished businessmen in the South. His cousin, Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, was the second president of the Republic of Texas. Another cousin was a US Supreme Court Justice. Lamar was held by none other than Lafayette himself when he was baptized.

Morris: Here’s a hypothetical question. In your opinion, could the new nation have survived after winning its independence and then eventually prospered without slavery?

Calonius: There was a time, shortly after independence (and before the cotton gin) when both the Northern and Southern economies could have survived and eventually prospered without slavery. The existing slaveholders could have been bought off. But with the invention of the cotton gin, and the growth of rice crops, slavery was too important to surrender.


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1 Comment

  1. Chris on July 30, 2011 at 2:16 am

    I look forward to reading your book. The only other writing on the ship I had previously read was by Tom Wells, published in the 1960’s. Good o see another.

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