Meeting street memories: The duplicitous consul
By Peg Eastman
The tumultuous years of the 1850s were a period that set the stage for Southern secession and the conflict that ensued in the 1860s. The Great Triumvirate of Clay, Calhoun and Webster had pushed through the Compromise of 1850, diffusing the tensions between slave and free states; however, all those statesmen had died within the next two years. Afterwards Bloody Kansas and the Dred Scott Decision became known as the most notorious examples of the issue of slavery becoming increasingly volatile across the nation.
In Charleston, one of the issues was the Negro Seaman Act, passed in 1822 after the Denmark Vesey conspiracy. Fearing that free black sailors on ships from outside South Carolina would incite trouble among the locals, black sailors were incarcerated while their ships were in port. The captains were responsible for paying for the jail costs and if they left without paying, the unfortunate sailors could be sold into slavery. Great Britain had freed their slaves in 1833 and the subject of slavery and the pernicious slave trade had become an anathema to them. But Britain was dependent on Southern cotton to run their mills at home, and politicians walked a moral tightrope when it came to buying cotton from the slave-holding South.
In S.C., the British were still trying to have the Negro Seaman Act repealed or amended in 1852 when their arrogant Charleston consul had so offended local sensibilities that he abandoned his post and the Foreign Office appointed Robert Bayley Bunch to tidy things up. Little did they realize that Bunch’s tenure would help alter the course of history.
Although Bunch was British, he had an unusual background. His mother was a New Yorker with Loyalist connections who spied for the British during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. They were rewarded for this by being appointed consuls in New York City. His mother’s family, the Bayleys, was related to a few wealthy New Yorkers including the Van Cortlandts and the Roosevelts. His father was a gunrunner who helped arm and finance the Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar. As a reward he was given land outside of Bogota where he established the first ironworks in Colombia.
Born and raised in New York, young Bunch ended up living on his father’s estate in Colombia after his mother died. In time he became involved in the Foreign Office, participating in clandestine diplomatic activities in New York and elsewhere. When the British consul in Philadelphia died, he applied for the position but owing to his unique qualifications was sent to Charleston, deep in the slave-owing South.
With trepidation, Bunch and his new bride arrived in Charleston in November 1853 and took up residence at 58 Tradd St., a narrow thoroughfare lined primarily with undistinguished townhouses crowded together on small lots. Apparently, Tradd Street did not satisfy the pretentious British consul — when Henry W. Conner purchased 27 Meeting Street in 1855 and turned it into a rental property, Bunch relocated there and used the building as both a residence and the consular office. The consulate was thoroughly British, complete with portraits of the Queen, Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, sketches of noble heads and a large engraving of the coronation.
Detail from the engraving of Queen Victoria's coronation that decorated Bunch's office. IMAGE BY CHARLESTON MERCURY STAFF
Bunch’s new abode was an elegant Charleston single house on a more elevated location than most of the city. Situated on a narrow but deep lot with room for a garden and a line of outbuildings, its position on relatively high ground even allowed for a basement level. On the three-bay façade, a delicate wrought iron balcony was accessed from the drawing room. Dating from ca. 1810-15, the house had Adamesque and Regency mantels and decorative plasterwork of that period. Henry W. Conner may have rebuilt the piazzas with Greek Doric columns. The front half of the piazzas was removed in an early 20th century remodeling when the present Moorish Revival style iron gates were installed.
Once in town, Bunch lost no time in visiting the city’s newspaper offices, jails, private attorneys and harbor master. He conscientiously kept track of transatlantic trade along with Federal and state legislation and litigation in the courts. His duties varied from estimating the value of a ship’s cargo for customs officials, issuing passports to British citizens, notarizing documents to keeping records of British citizens living within the city. His amiable ways helped him gain the trust of Southerners of every type. Before long he enjoyed entertainment in the best homes in the city.
Bunch surrounded himself with people who were sympathetic to the crown’s views on eliminating the Negro Seaman Act. He contacted potential allies; the former state attorney general, James L. Petigru, Unionist Postmaster Alfred Huger and his brother-in-law Col. John Harleston Read of Rice Hope plantation to name a few. Eventually his lobbying paid off and in late 1856 after several false starts, the S.C. legislature changed the law, allowing black seamen to remain on their ships instead of being jailed.
Meanwhile, the elitist consul grew to detest what he perceived as the spoiled and indolent planter class who harbored both fear and need for the mix of enslaved and free Africans in their midst. His private thoughts were written in confidential dispatches to both England and the North. One of the most influential dispatches outlined what Southerners saw as the economic necessity of reopening the Atlantic slave trade to provide labor for the expanding U.S. territories.
Although the transatlantic slave trade had been illegal since 1808, in the summer of 1858 a stark reminder sailed into Charleston harbor with the capture of the slave ship Echo by Lt. John Newland Maffitt, U.S .Africa Squadron off the coast of Cuba. (Interestingly, Maffitt later acquired the nickname the “Prince of Privateers” as a blockade runner and commerce raider for the Confederacy.) Charlestonians had not seen a slave ship in decades, and the presence of the foul-smelling ship caused quite a furor. In the end the Federal government transported the remaining captives to Liberia. Unsurprisingly, the courts in South Carolina refused to indict the Echo’s crew and in January 1859 another slave ship was captured and brought to Charleston. Again, the courts refused to indict.
By the time Bunch returned from leave later, the raid on Harper’s Ferry had increased Southern paranoia about a “servile insurrection.” Paradoxically, Southern politicians were agitating to resume the Atlantic slave trade. Bunch remained consul in Charleston as the radical Fire-Eaters destroyed the Democratic Party at the 1860 convention and endured the crescendo of voices advocating a resumption of the Atlantic slave trade and dissolution of the Union. He witnessed it all and his analytical dispatches greatly influenced Britain’s decision not to recognize the Confederacy.
Bunch left S.C. in 1862. Ironically, the citizens of Charleston never realized the duplicitous role Bunch had played while in their midst. A picture at the S.C. Historical Society depicts a slim man, neatly shaven with a tendency toward baldness. He was described as having an inconspicuous air about him; some might say his presence was nearly invisible — the perfect cover for his double life. The consul spent his last years in Colombia and Venezuela and ultimately attained the coveted title of minister, albeit in territory on the very fringes of the British Empire. He died in 1881.
Today, Consul Robert Bunch is all but forgotten. A Preservation Society historical marker at 27 Meeting St. mentions Bunch’s residency and his influence on England’s decision not to recognize the Confederate States of America. The final entry on the marker commemorates the 1927 residency of Katherine Hughes who ran the Cabbage Row Bookstore at 89 Church Street, made famous as Catfish Row in DuBose Heyward’s immortal novel Porgy.
More Meeting Street memories next month. My appreciation to Robert Stockton for contributing to this article.
A Charlestonian by birth, Margaret (Peg) Middleton Rivers Eastman is actively involved in the preservation of Charleston’s rich cultural heritage. In addition to being a regular columnist for the Charleston Mercury she has published through McGraw Hill, The History Press, Evening Post Books, as well as in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society.