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The Slave Ship

A Human History

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Life, Death, and Terror in the Slave Trade
Chapter Two: The Evolution of the Slave Ship
Chapter Three: African Paths to the Middle Passage
Chapter Four: Olaudah Equiano: “Astonishment and Terror”
Chapter Five: James Field Stanfield and the Floating Dungeon
Chapter Six: John Newton and the Peaceful Kingdom
Chapter Seven: The Captain’s Own Hell
Chapter Eight: The Sailor’s Vast Machine
Chapter Nine: From Captives to Shipmates
Chapter Ten: The Long Journey of the Slave Ship Brookes
Conclusion: Endless Passage

Excerpt — From Chapter One: “Life, Death, and Terror in the Slave Trade”


When the young woman came aboard the Liverpool slave ship, the Hudibras, in Old Calabar in 1785, she instantly captured everyone’s attention. She had beauty, grace, and charisma: “Sprightliness was in her every gesture, and good nature beamed in her eyes.” When the African musicians and instruments came out on the main deck twice a day for “dancing,” the exercising of the enslaved, she “appeared to great advantage, as she bounded over the quarter-deck, to the rude strains of African melody,” observed a smitten sailor named William Butterworth. She was the best dancer and the best singer on the ship. “Ever lively! ever gay!” seemed to sum up her aura, even under the extreme pressure of enslavement and exile.

Other sailors joined Butterworth in admiration, and indeed so did Captain Jenkin Evans, who selected this young woman and one other as his “favourites,” to whom he therefore “showed greater favours than the rest,” likely as small recompense for coerced sexual services.

Slave-ship sailors like Butterworth usually detested the captain’s favorites as they were required to be snitches. But for the nimble singer and dancer the sailors had the highest esteem. She was “universally respected by the ship’s company.”

Captain Evans gave her the name “Sarah.” He chose a Biblical name, linking the enslaved woman, who was likely an Igbo speaker, to a princess, the beautiful wife of Abraham. Perhaps the captain hoped that she would share other traits with the Biblical Sarah, who remained submissive and obedient to her husband during a long journey to Canaan.

Soon the enslaved men on the Hudibras erupted in insurrection. The goal was to “massacre the ship’s company, and take possession of the vessel.” It was suppressed, bloody punishments dispensed. Afterward, Captain Evans and other officers suspected that “Sarah” and her mother (who was also on board) were somehow involved, even though the women had not joined the men in the actual uprising. When questioned closely, with violence looming, they denied having any knowledge, but “fear, or guilt, was strongly marked in their countenances.” Later that night, as male and female captives angrily shouted recriminations around the ship in the aftermath of defeat, it became clear that both “Sarah” and her mother not only knew about the plot, they had indeed been involved in it. Sarah had likely used her privileged position as a “favourite,” and her great freedom of movement that this entailed, to help with planning and perhaps even to pass tools to the men, allowing them to hack off their shackles and manacles.

“Sarah” survived the middle passage, and whatever punishment she may have gotten for her involvement in the insurrection. She was sold at Grenada, with almost three hundred others, in 1787. She was allowed to stay on the vessel longer than most, probably with the special permission of Captain Evans. When she went ashore she carried African traditions of dance, song, and resistance with her.

Sailor and Pirate Bartholomew Roberts

Bartholomew Roberts was a young Welshman who sailed as second mate aboard the Princess, a 140-ton Guineaman out of London bound for Sierra Leone. He had apparently worked in the slave trade for a while. He knew navigation, as the mates of slavers had to be ready to assume command in the not uncommon event of the captain’s death. The Princess was captured in June 1719 by Howell Davis and a rowdy gang of pirates, who asked Roberts and his mates on the prize vessel if any of them wished to join “the brotherhood.” Roberts hesitated at first, knowing that the British government had in recent years left the corpses of executed pirates dangling at the entrance of one Atlantic port city after another. But soon he decided that he would indeed sail under the black flag.

It was a fateful decision. When Davis was killed by Portuguese slave traders not long afterwards, “Black Bart,” as he would be called, was elected captain of his ship, and soon became the most successful sea-robber of his age. He commanded a small flotilla of ships and several hundred men who captured more than 400 merchant vessels over three years, the peak of “the golden age of piracy.” Roberts was widely known and just as widely feared. Naval officers on patrol spotted him and sailed in the opposite direction. Royal officials fortified their coasts against the man they called “the great pirate Roberts.” He acted the part by strolling the decks of his ship dressed as a dandy, in a lush damask waistcoat, a red feather in his hat, and a golden toothpick in his mouth. His motto as a pirate was, “A Merry Life and Short One.”

Roberts terrorized the African coast, sending the traders there “into a panick.” He so despised the brutal ways of slave-trading captains that he and his crew enacted a bloody ritual called the “distribution of justice,” dispensing a fearful lashing to any captured captain whose sailors complained of his usage. Indeed Roberts gave some of these drubbings himself. Slave-trading merchants responded to this threat to their profits by persuading Parliament to intensify naval patrols on the coast of West Africa. HMS Swallow found and engaged Roberts in February 1722. Roberts stayed upon deck to lead the battle and encourage his men, but took a fatal volley of grapeshot in the throat. His mates honored a longstanding pledge and dumped his still-armed body overboard. The naval vessel defeated the pirates, captured the survivors, and took them to the slave-trading fortress at Cape Coast Castle, where they were tried and hanged en masse. Captain Challoner Ogle then distributed corpses up and down the African coast so local slave traders could hang them up as a message to sailors. Ogle made it a special point to visit the King of Whydah, who had promised him fifty-six pounds of gold dust “If he should secure that rascal Roberts, who had long infested his coast.”

Captain William Snelgrave

Captain William Snelgrave was gathering a cargo of Africans on the “Slave Coast” of Benin to transport to Antigua when, to his surprise, he was invited by the King of Ardra (also called Allada) to visit. This presented a dilemma. On the one hand, Snelgrave dared not refuse if he wanted to curry favor for future supplies of slaves. But on the other hand he considered the king and his people to be “fierce brutish Cannibals.” The captain resolved the dilemma by deciding to visit and to take with him a guard of ten sailors “well armed with Musquets and Pistols, which those savage People I knew were much afraid of.”

Canoed by escorts a quarter mile upriver, Snelgrave found on his arrival the king “sitting on a Stool, under some shady Trees,” with about fifty courtiers and a large troop of warriors nearby. The latter were armed with bows and arrows, swords, and barbed lances. The armed sailors took a guarded position “opposite to them, at the distance of about twenty paces” as Snelgrave presented gifts to a delighted king.

Snelgrave soon noticed “a little Negroe-Child tied by the Leg to a Stake driven in the Ground.” Two African priests stood nearby. The child was “a fine Boy about 18 Months old,” but he was in distress, his body covered with flies and vermin. Agitated, the slave captain asked the king, “What is the reason of the Child’s being tied in that manner?” The king replied, “It was to be sacrificed that night to his God Egbo, for his prosperity.” Upset by the answer, Snelgrave quickly ordered one of his sailors “to take the Child from the Ground, in order to preserve him.” As he did so, one of the king’s guards ran at the sailor, brandishing his lance, whereupon Snelgrave stood up and drew a pistol, halting the man in his tracks and sending the king into a fright and the entire gathering into a tumult.

When order was restored, Snelgrave complained to the king about the threatening action of the guard. The king replied that Snelgrave himself “had not done well” in ordering the sailor to seize the child, “it being his Property.” The captain excused himself by explaining that his religion “expressly forbids so horrid a Thing, as the putting of a poor innocent Child to death.” He added the golden rule: “the grand Law of human Nature was, To do to others as we desir’d to be done unto.” The conflict was ultimately resolved not through theology but the cash nexus as Snelgrave offered to buy the child. He offered “a bunch of sky coloured beads, worth about half a Crown Sterling.” The king accepted the offer. Snelgrave was surprised that the price was so cheap, as traders such as the king were usually “very ready, on any extraordinary occasion, to make their Advantage of us.”

The rest of the meeting consisted of eating and drinking the European food and liquor Snelgrave had brought for the king. African palm wine was also on offer, but Snelgrave refused to drink it as the wisdom among slave ship captains was that it could be “artfully poison[ed].” The sailors had no such worries and drank avidly. Upon parting, the king declared himself “well pleased” with the visit, which meant that more slaves would be forthcoming. As the Europeans canoed back to the ship, Snelgrave turned to a member of his crew and said that they “should pitch on some motherly Woman [among the enslaved already on board] to take care of this poor Child.” The sailor answered, “He had already one in his Eye.” The woman “had much Milk in her Breasts.”

As soon as Snelgrave and the sailors came aboard, the very woman they had been discussing saw them with the little boy and ran “with great eagerness, and snatched him from out of the white Man’s Arms that held him.” It was the woman’s own child. Captain Snelgrave had already bought her without realizing the connection. Snelgrave observed, “I think there never was a more moving sight than on this occasion, between the Mother and her little Son.”

The ship’s linguist then told the woman what had happened, that, as Snelgrave wrote, “I had saved her Child from being sacrificed.” The story made its way around the ship, through the more than three hundred captives on board, who soon “expressed their Thankfulness to me, by clapping their Hands, and singing a song in my praise.” Nor did the gratitude end there, as Snelgrave noted: “This affair proved of great service to us, for it gave them a good notion of White Men; so that we had no Mutiny in our Ship, during the whole Voyage.” Snelgrave’s benevolence continued upon arrival in Antigua. As soon as he told the story of child and mother to a Mr. Studely, a slave-owner, “he bought the Mother and her Son, and was a kind Master to them.”

William Snelgrave could thus think of Africans as “fierce brutish Cannibals” and think of himself as an ethical, civilized redeemer, a good Christian with qualities that even savages would have to recognize and applaud. He could think of himself as the savior of families as he destroyed them. He could imagine a humane outcome for two as he delivered hundreds to a plantation fate of endless toil and premature death. His justifications in place, he could even invoke the Golden Rule, which would soon become a central saying of the anti-slavery movement.

Captain William Watkins

As the Africa, a Bristol guineaman captained by William Watkins, lay at anchor in Old Calabar River in the late 1760s, its prisoners were busy down in the hold of the vessel, hacking off their chains as quietly as they could. A large number of them managed to get free of the fetters, lift off the gratings, and climb onto the main deck. Their first target was the barricado door, behind which lay the weapons with which they might recover their lost freedom. It was not unusual, explained sailor Henry Ellison, for the enslaved to rise, whether because of a “love of liberty,” “ill treatment,” or “a spirit of vengeance.”

The crew of the Africa was taken entirely by surprise; they seemed to have no idea that an insurrection was afoot, literally beneath their very feet. But just as the mutineers “were forcing open the barricado door,” Ellison and seven of his crew mates “well armed with pistols and cutlasses” boarded from a neighboring slave ship, the Nightingale. They saw what was happening, mounted the barricado, and fired above the heads of the rebels, hoping to scare them into submission. The shots did not deter them, so the sailors lowered their aim and fired into the mass of insurgents, killing one. The captives made a second attempt to force open the barricado door, but the sailors held firm, forcing them to retreat forward, giving chase as they went. As the armed seamen pressed forward, a few of the rebels jumped overboard, some ran below, and others stayed on the deck to fight. The sailors fired again and killed two more.

Once the crew had regained control of the situation, Captain Watkins reimposed order. He selected eight of the mutineers “for an example.” They were tied up, and each sailor – the regular crew of the Africa, plus the eight from the Nightingale – were ordered to take a turn with the whip. They “flogged them until from weariness they could flog no more.” Captain Watkins then turned to an instrument called “the tormentor,” a combination of the cook’s tongs and a surgeon’s instrument for spreading plasters. He had them heated white hot and used them to burn the flesh of the eight rebels. “This operation being over,” Ellison explained, “they were confined and taken below.” Apparently all survived.

Yet the torture was not over. Captain Watkins suspected that one of his own sailors was involved in the plot, that he had “encouraged the slaves to rise.” He accused an unnamed black seaman, the ship’s cook, of assisting the revolt, “of having furnished them with the cooper’s tools, in order that they might knock themselves out of irons.” Ellison doubted this, calling it “supposition only, and without any proof of the fact.”

Captain Watkins nonetheless ordered an iron collar – usually reserved for the most rebellious slaves – fastened around the neck of the black seaman. He then had him “chained to the main mast-head,” where he would remain night and day, indefinitely. He was to be given “only one plantain and one pint of water per day.” His only clothes were a pair of long trousers, which were little “to shield him from the inclemency of the night.” The shackled seaman remained in the foretop of the ship for three weeks, slowing starving to death.

When the Africa had gathered its full cargo of 310 slaves and the seamen prepared to sail away from the Bight of Biafra, Captain Watkins decided that the cook’s punishment should continue, so he made arrangements with Captain Joseph Carter to send him aboard the Nightingale, where he was once again chained to the main top and given the same meager allowance of food and water. After ten more days, the black seaman had grown delirious. “Hunger and oppression,” said Ellison, “had reduced him to a skeleton.” For three days he struggled madly to free himself from the fetters, causing the chains to rub “the skin from several parts of his body.” The neck collar “found its way to the bone.” The “unfortunate man,” said Ellison, had become “a most shocking spectacle.” After five weeks in the two vessels, “having experienced inconceivable misery in both, he was relieved by death.” Ellison was one of the sailors charged to throw his body from the fore-top into the river. The minimal remains of the black seaman were “immediately devoured by the sharks.”