Monument Avenue Naval History Southern Ambitions

What did Matthew Fontaine Maury ever do to deserve his removal from Monument Avenue?

A graffitied Matthew Fontaine Maury Monument from Richmond's Monument Ave, being lifted by a crane for removal.

Maury’s pioneering research in ocean wind and currents as a United States Navy officer resulted in improved commercial routes between major ports in the Atlantic world. In short, the naval oceanographer revolutionized the steamship-based world of commerce in the mid-19th Century. 

Indeed, the committee devoted to memorializing him in 1929 intended to highlight his scientific achievements. As ACWM historian John Coski has noted, the drive to honor Maury for his oceanographic discoveries continued the move by ex-Confederates and their descendants to claim a place in the American pantheon. Historian Matthew Barbee has said that with Maury, “the South’s Lost Cause was brought into the larger narrative of American progress and growth.”

Though Maury’s monument builders only intended to honor him as a scientist, and therefore a global humanitarian, that story is only part of his life. 

This is a globe of the world. In a brass ring set into a wooden stand with three legs. Surface of globe has yellowed and is crcked in several places.
This is a globe used by Matthew Fontaine Maury in his Confederate Navy work. (ACWM)

Maury’s research cannot be separated from his larger vision in the 1840s and 1850s of a seaborn commercial empire linking the United States, the Caribbean Sea, and the Amazon basin in Brazil. 

What tied this “Amazonian Republic”—as Maury called it—together? Ocean currents, certainly. But also slavery.

Maury stood foremost among what historian Matthew Karp has called “proslavery internationalists.” Politicians, newspaper editors, merchants, and United States government officials like Maury, all envisioned a bright commercial future abroad for American slave-grown agricultural products. And they looked southward to the Caribbean for their fortunes. “Let the South not forget to look to the south,” as Maury said.

Maury found that the Mississippi River had much in common with the Amazon River in Brazil. Not only did winds and currents flow easily between the two, but both were “a slavery country.” From Maury’s pulpit at the United States Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments, he preached that the future of United States commerce lay in South America, colonized by white southerners and their enslaved people. There, Maury claimed, was “work to be done by Africans with the American axe in his hand.” Key to his vision was the forced migration of enslaved people from Virginia to Brazil in order to prevent too many laborers, as well as a racial imbalance unfavorable to white control, in the upper south. At Maury’s urging, the United States dispatched a naval flotilla in 1850 to test the navigability of the Amazon River… and the ability of foreign commerce to penetrate Brazilian sovereignty.

The vision of a pan-Caribbean empire based on slavery, and free trade based on ocean-going commerce, that Maury and others championed in the 1850s fueled southern secessionists’ confidence in the viability of their new nation in the global commercial order. 

The Confederacy’s leading internationalists boldly proclaimed their intentions and desires to any European or Latin American leader who would listen. Unfortunately for them, few listened, and even fewer cared. Hemmed in by the Civil War blockade of United States ships of the Navy of which Maury had once been a part, Confederates never had a chance to move enslaved people and other commodities freely between themselves and Brazil. 

A lithograph of Commander M. F. Maury of the Confederate Navy. An illustration from the chest up, of a white man with a dress jacket, high white collar with medium length hair that's balding on top.
Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, C.S. Navy

Despite the blockade, Maury did not cease to pursue Confederate commercial and ideological expansion. He advocated for a trans-Atlantic telegraph to facilitate economic news, and the Confederate government dispatched him to Europe to drum up supplies, technology, and support. The Confederacy collapsed while he was in England. 

Confederate failure did not hinder Maury’s efforts, or his vision. After his nation’s surrender, the ex-naval officer made his way to Mexico, where the French-imposed monarch, Maximilian, installed him as “Imperial Commissioner of Colonization.”  As such, Maury lobbied white southerners to move south to a “New Virginia Colony” with their formerly enslaved people in tow to create a new racial-labor hierarchy. White southern agricultural expertise and Black labor would, Maury and Maximilian hoped, generate the economic and commercial growth that Maury had long envisioned in Latin America. The project failed when Mexican Liberals under Benito Juarez deposed Maximillian. Maury returned to England in 1866 and to Virginia in 1868.

Slavery, however, remained legal in Brazil (until 1888) and this fact attracted hundreds of ex-Confederates to the country as immigrants. The Brazilian head of state, Dom Pedro II, wished to develop Brazil’s cotton agriculture. It was a good match…for the white people involved. 

Maury’s scientific accomplishments might have been enough to earn him more than a footnote in American history books. His status as a prominent Confederate certainly made him eligible for memorialization in the eyes of those who promoted the statue that ultimately landed on Monument Avenue. 

A full picture of Maury’s life and work, however, reveals the inhuman ambitions that may accompany scientific progress. 

Additional Resources

For a brisk description of Maury’s naval service to the United States and Confederate States, and the backstory on his Monument Avenue statue, see “A Confederate for the World” post on the ACWM’s On Monument Avenue blog. 

To learn more about the Confederate international vision for free trade and slavery, visit our new exhibit, Southern Ambitions, at Historic Tredegar.

Featured Image Courtesy of Riley Goodman