Modern history

Book Four

THE CROSSING

15

A Filthy Voyage

“Your captains and mates . . . must neither have dainty fingers nor dainty noses, few men are fit for these voyages but them that are bred up to it. It’s a filthy voyage as well as a laborious [one].”

Sir Dalby Thomas, commander of the Royal Africa Company at Cape Coast, the Gold Coast, c. 1700

“Look at that shipbuilder who, bent over his desk, determines, his pen in hand, how many crimes he can make occur on the coast of Guinea; who examines at leisure the number of guns he will have need of to obtain a black, how many chains he will need to have him garrotted on his ship, how many strokes of the whip to make him work. . . .”

Abbé Raynal, L’Histoire philosophique des deux Indes, 1782 edition

THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE was, for much of its long life, a governmental enterprise in the countries concerned. The Portuguese Crown set the tone, in establishing the principle that expeditions to the coast of Africa had to be approved by its Casa da Guiné, and were subject to taxation. Certain merchants were given licenses to trade in slaves and other “merchandise” in Africa, the assumption being that they would sell sublicenses to other traders. An early beneficiary, as we have seen, was the formidable Lisbon Florentine Bartolommeo Marchionni, who had the privilege of trading on the Slave River, Benin, between 1486 and 1493, and in the “rivers of Guinea”—that is, Sénégal, Gambia, and so on—between 1490 and 1495. In the sense that he operated on the grand scale, but with governmental backing he was the characteristic European slave merchant.

By the sixteenth century, it had been laid down that a Portuguese trader to West Africa, for gold as well as slaves, should discharge charitable obligations in Lisbon and also help to maintain the clergy in the Cape Verde Islands; should send at least twelve ships to Africa within three years; should undertake not to sell or barter European weapons to the Africans; and should accept that the settlers in the Cape Verde Islands would trade freely on the mainland opposite, with their own produce, and bring back as many slaves as they personally needed. For many years, traders in slaves who went to West Africa were also supposed to stop at Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands, and pay duties; though they often did not, and so an official was appointed to collect those taxes on the African river Cacheu. Later, the Portuguese Crown generally agreed to farm out the collection of all these taxes to various businessmen, who made money in consequence, in Angola as well as in the Cape Verde Islands and elsewhere, till a change of policy was introduced in 1769 by the great reformer Pombal. All the same and despite the participation of many entrepreneurs, the prime mover in the slaving business was the state.

There were similar obligations in Spain with respect to merchants who bought slaves from the Portuguese before taking them to the New World; a license was required from the very beginning, and there was, on top of that, a tax of two ducats for every slave delivered. Later, as has been amply shown, the asiento, or contract, to deliver slaves to the Spanish empire was another much-valued source of income for the Spanish Crown.

In different ways, the French, the English, and the Dutch crowns developed similar financial interests in the slave trade and monarchs from King Louis XIV of France to King George I of England, the kings of Sweden and Denmark, not to speak of the stadtholder in Holland and the duke of Courland, divided though they might be on every other matter, had a mutual interest in the prosperity of the slave traffic.

The main trading nations also created privileged companies concerned to carry slaves from Africa to the New World; the Portuguese, for example, founded the Cacheu Company, in the seventeenth century, and the Maranhão and Pernambuco companies in the late eighteenth century; Holland had their very grand West India Company, and Britain established the Royal Adventurers, the Royal Africa Company, and in the end, the South Sea Company. Spain, too, had numerous companies with a privileged status in the eighteenth century; and the reader will sensibly have forgotten how many Guinea companies were founded by France after Colbert established the first one in the 1670s. There was also John Law’s extraordinary New Company of the Indies. Even the Scandinavian countries had their special, if more modest, enterprises. All these firms sought to establish numbers of slaves to be carried, as well as the prices at which they were to be sold, and interfered in other ways with the free working of the market. Only the Portuguese tried to interfere in order to lay down rules how the slaves were to be treated and transported.

The only nation free from this curious mixture of capitalism and state management was the United States, one of the smallest of slave carriers.

These state companies were directed by a diversity of individuals, half bureaucrats, half entrepreneurs but, in the end, it was recognized almost everywhere that private enterprise, with as few restrictions as possible, brought the best results.

The individual slave trader who played such a part in the eighteenth century, in particular, is a person of consuming interest. The typical “slaver”—we can, oddly enough, use the noun for the individual and for his ship—is easy enough to picture, in his substantial countinghouse, with meeting rooms on the ground floor of that building, bedrooms for the family on the first floor and, above, rooms for his clerks. The fine hôtels of the Montaudoins in Nantes, and the Nairacs in Bordeaux, with the head of Neptune over the big door, are admired today; and, though one can only imagine their equivalents in London (where the redevelopment of the late twentieth century finished what the Luftwaffe began), there are streets in both Liverpool and Bristol where houses of old slave traders still stand. Stanislas Foäche can be traced in Le Havre (just), and Jean-Baptiste Prémord in Honfleur, as can Coopstad, Rochussen, and Michiele Baalde in Rotterdam. The noble houses of slave merchants of Spain’s golden age, such as the Caballeros and and the Jorges, and the families of the Genoese Corzo and Pero López Martínez, survive in old Seville. Across the Atlantic, the splendid mansions of Nicholas and John Brown in Providence, George de Wolf (Linden Place) in Bristol, or the Vernon family in Clarke Street, Newport, are still visited—even if Philip Livingston’s house in Duke Street, New York City, has vanished, along with his splendid country mansion in Brooklyn Heights.I

A typical slaving expedition in the eighteenth century would require a substantial sum to fit out: perhaps 250,000 livres in France, the same kind of sum, the admirable historian of the trade from La Rochelle, Jean-Michel Deveaux has pointed out, as would be needed to buy a large house (hôtel particulier) in a fashionable street in Paris, such as the Rue Saint-Honoré.

The typical slave trader was interested in all kinds of commerce as well as slaves: he might be a banker, such as Pierre Cornut, who financed the second slave voyage from Bordeaux in 1684; or always also concerned in whaling, in order to make spermaceti candles, as was the case with the Browns of Providence or Aaron Lopez in Newport, Rhode Island; or he might have been a man such as the giant John Brown, who drew his brothers into the slave business and then became interested in the China and Baltic trades, insurance and banking, in gin as well as in slaving; while Richard Oswald of London was first interested in tobacco, from Maryland, and did well as a commissary feeding the British troops in Germany in the Seven Years’ War. All the Basque merchants, such as Ariosteguí or Uriarte, who led the Spanish slave commerce in the second half of the eighteenth century, were general traders, for whom slaving was an important but not a dominating part of their commercial activities. Jacques-François Begouën-Demeaux reached Le Havre in the 1720s, made a fortune, and then embarked on the slave trade about 1748. He always limited his interest to a third share. Richard Lake, who both bought and sold slaves in Jamaica, was known also as “a great coffee planter,” very generous in his manners, and hospitable, too. Etienne Dhariette, the first large slave merchant of Bordeaux, had, in the 1670s, an interest in 133 ships which left his city for the West Indies as well as Africa, many carrying engagés, French indentured laborers—masons, surgeons, and coopers—to the “islands,” even if he soon saw that he could make more money carrying blacks than whites. The same was true of the Liverpool slave merchant Foster Cunliffe, who operated so successfully in Chesapeake Bay as well as Liverpool. Samuel Sedgely of Bristol was a slave trader who interested himself in carrying convicts to Maryland, as did Lyonel Lyde, one of the partners of Isaac Hobhouse, who had interests in copper. Sugar and tobacco, rice and indigo were traded by many of these merchants in the New World, as well as East Indian cloth, silk, iron bars from Sweden, copper goods, and linen in the Old.

The purchase of plantations in the West Indies was a preoccupation for some slave traders: Abraham Redwood, Aaron Lopez, James de Wolf, and George de Wolf all had them, as did Simeon Potter, the father of slaving at Bristol, Rhode Island. The London Scotsman Sir Alexander Grant, one of the dealers in slaves whose ships turned to Havana in 1762, had been a country doctor in Jamaica, to begin with, but had seven plantations on that island, totaling eleven thousand acres, at his death in 1772; his ships carried his own sugar back to En-gland, and their captains bought slaves at the mouth of the river Sierra Leone (from a property of which he was also part owner, Bence Island). John Tarleton of Liverpool most unusually had an estate and a store in Curaçao. The wife of Richard Oswald, Mary Ramsay, inherited land in Jamaica, to which her husband carried slaves; he himself not only owned part of the island off the river Sierra Leone on which to assemble his cargoes bought in Africa but, like Samuel Touchett of Manchester, also had property in the then undeveloped Florida, where he bred slaves.

In much the same way, many families of Nantes had relations or agents in the French Caribbean, especially in Saint-Domingue, where, for example, the Walshes of Nantes had plantations. The Gradises of Bordeaux also had their cousins, the Mendèses, looking after their interests there.

Many merchants had themselves been captains of ships in the trade. The most distinguished example was, no doubt, Captain Jean Ducasse, “the hero of Gorée,” who became one of the main beneficiaries of the French asiento of the early eighteenth century. Another was Manuel Bautista Peres, the Portuguese converso, a captain of slave ships from Angola in the early seventeenth century before establishing his great fortune in Lima. About a quarter of the slavers in Nantes had once been ships’ captains, or were sons of such—for instance, Louis Drouin, the “second-richest man in Nantes,” was the son of Captain René Drouin. The most successful slave merchant of La Rochelle, Jacques Rasteau, had been a captain when young. Slave captains who became merchants in North America included Godfrey Mallbone and Peleg Clarke in Newport and James de Wolf in Bristol, Rhode Island, along with Joseph Grafton in Salem, Massachusetts. Obadiah Brown, founder of the firm which became Nicholas Brown & Co., went as supercargo on Providence’s first slave voyage, in 1736. In New York, Jasper Farmer, who, in the 1740s, captained the Schuyler family’s Catherine, later himself invested in slave ships trading to Africa. In England, Captains James Bold and John Kennion, both of Liverpool, became rich merchants, the latter being the monopolist in Havana during the British occupation. Patrick Fairweather, of Liverpool, was a slave captain in the 1770s but, by the 1790s, owned his own ship, the Maria. The most successful slave merchant in Liverpool in the 1790s was John Dawson, who had begun life as a captain of privateers, capturing the French merchant ship Carnatic in 1778 on the high seas, and bringing it back, full of diamonds, to the Mersey. He married the daughter of the powerful shipbuilder Peter Baker, several times mayor, and he and Baker collaborated in the late 1780s to carry a great number of slaves to Cuba, owning over twenty ships, some of them capable of carrying a thousand slaves.

Sometimes ships were captained by men who either owned them or had a share in them. This happened often in the early Portuguese days, and continued till the late eighteenth century: and later examples were Thomas Hinde of Lancaster, and William Deniston and Peter Bostock of Liverpool, as well as John Rosse of Charleston.

The most powerful merchant at the end of the eighteenth century in London was Richard Miles, who had been employed by the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa at several British forts on the Gold Coast, and ended his official career as commander of Cape Coast Castle. He had always, by his own statement to a select committee of the English Privy Council, “traded the whole time on his own account.” He was a cultivated man, who could speak Fanti.

In some ways, though, the concept of a slave trader acting as an individual is misleading. For most “independent” slave voyages were financed by partnerships, with, say, six or more merchants participating in the cost of the voyage, perhaps associating again on other occasions; in smaller ports, such as Whitehaven, in England, professional men, spinsters, pawnbrokers, and milliners were all investors in the trade. The same was true of La Rochelle especially when, in the late eighteenth century, slaving vessels accounted for over a third of the number of voyages which set off from the town. The most frequent type of association, in Liverpool as in Newport, in Nantes as in Rio, leading to a slave voyage was one of relations, the only tie which could be trusted to endure. So the slave trade seemed, to a great extent, a thing of families: the Montaudoins, the Nairacs, the Foäches, the Cunliffes, the Leylands, the Hob-houses, the de Wolfs, the Browns. Many partnerships were between father and son: for example, Guillaume Boutellier et fils at Nantes, David Gradis et fils at Bordeaux, Jacques and Pierre Rasteau at La Rochelle. Often, though, a trader would have many partners in his working life: Isaac Hobhouse, the most interesting slaver of Bristol—he never traveled, he said, because he had “such a feeble constitution . . . that I stir little abroad”—traded in company with seven major associates, two of them his brothers.1

Complete outsiders might also seek shares. Carter Braxton, a planter of Virginia, later a revolutionary statesman, wrote in 1763 to Nicholas Brown & Co., of Providence, Rhode Island: “Sirs . . . I should be very glad to be concerned in the African Trade and will be a quarter of the voyage, if you choose it. . . . I should choose to be insured, and whatever Expence came to my Share more than the slaves sent, I would remit by return of the vessel that bro’t the slaves. The whole of the voyage I leave you to conduct and you may begin to prepare if you please, . . . [for] the price of Negroes keeps up amazingly.”2

Nearly all Liverpool slave voyages were financed by people who lived in Liverpool—though Liverpool society embraced many conditions, and though there were one or two exceptions from farther afield, such as manufacturers from Sheffield, or gunmakers from Birmingham who also invested. French firms often depended on silent partners from far away: in order to survive the difficult years of war, Henry Romberg, Bapst et Cie of Bordeaux relied, for instance, on Frederick Romberg and the Walckiers brothers, of Brussels—one of the rare involvements of the latter city in the transatlantic slave trade. Financiers in Paris, such as Dupleix de Bacquen-court, Duval du Manoir, and Jean Coton, Tourton et Baur invested heavily in, first, Law’s New Company of the Indies, later in Antoine Walsh’s Société d’Angola and the Société de Guinée. Eventually these hardheaded men turned to invest in private firms. Thus, two-thirds of the Begouën-Foäche partnership of Le Havre after 1752 belonged to Parisians.

Successful slaveowners would often buy substantial country properties, as, of course, most merchants did. Jacques Conte, the slaver who led the revived trade in slaves at Bordeaux during the Peace of Amiens, in 1802 established his agreeable château at Saint-Julien-Beychevelle, in the heart of the great vineyards of the Médoc. Richard Oswald, as has been noted, found rural happiness at Auchincruive in Ayrshire, a house designed by the brothers Adam, while his partner, John Boyd, had himself built a vast pile at Danson Hill, near Bexley Heath. Thomas Leyland of Liverpool established himself in Walton Hall, outside Liverpool. Another slave merchant of Liverpool, George Campbell, erected a strange, ecclesiastic-looking house with gargoyles, which he appropriately named Saint Domingo, at Everton. John Brown’s house at Providence, Rhode Island, was the best house in New England; and, in a few years, the same would be said of James de Wolf’s clapboard mansion, Mount Hope, about twenty miles away, overlooking the port of Bristol: “Spacious and substantial. Nothing was wasted, and nothing stinted,” wrote the historian of the family; while the United States Gazetteer would add, “For elegance of style, for the general splendor of its appearance, and the beauty and extensiveness of the various improvements, it will rank among the finest in our country.” There was a deer park.

Equally, in South Carolina, Henry Laurens bought at least eight properties, including his own favorite, the Mepkin plantation, on the Cooper River; his chief rival in the slave trade, Samuel Brailsford, bought the Retreat plantation, on Charleston Neck, in 1758. Long before, the Jorges had bought property near Constantina—in the Sierra Morena, to the north of Seville—where they made a strong wine which they used in the slave trade.

Some slave merchants founded good collections of pictures: in London, for example, the Boyds, George Aufrère, and Oswald. Oswald had a good collection of Dutch masters, including a Rubens; Aufrère claimed to possess a Dürer, a Raphael, and a Rembrandt; but Boyd owned what he considered to be three Brueghels, nine Rubenses, a Velázquez, four Turners, and sixteen Morlands. It was said that Baltasar Coymans had many pictures in his house in Cádiz, including “some marine landscapes”; his dining room was full of maps.

Other slave traders invested in manufactures; thus the Browns of Providence “introduced the cotton manufacture into the country,” said their historian, who added amiably that that “was financed originally by the transfer of funds acquired in maritime pursuits”—not all slaving, admittedly.3 In Nantes, the greatest slaving family, the Montaudoins, were the first into the manufacture of cotton. John Kennion of Liverpool—the would-be monopolist of Havana in 1762—interested himself in the same in Rochdale; and the omnifarious Samuel Touchett, whose achievements in manufacturing cotton led him into slave trading, invested in Paul’s spinning machine. Brian Blundell of Liverpool invested in coal; Henry Cruger and Lyonel Lyde, both of Bristol, interested themselves in iron; and Joseph and Jonathan Brooks of Liverpool were the biggest builders of the city and built the famous town hall, designed by John Wood, with its sculpted heads of slaves on the frieze. Samuel Sedgely of Bristol was also concerned in the shipment of convicts to Maryland. John Ashton, a slave trader in Liverpool in the 1750s, helped to finance the Sankey Brook Canal, which linked his city so creatively with Manchester. Still, the profits of the slave trade never seem to have been a decisive reason for an industrial development, even if many successful slave merchants participated in them.

Some slave merchants would end their lives as bankers: the best example is Thomas Leyland, who founded his own bank, Leyland and Bullins, in 1807, and died in 1827 leaving the then splendid sum of £600,000.

All Christian denominations were involved in the slave trade. But, usually, the dominating religion of the port concerned decided the religious complexion of the merchants. In Liverpool, London, and Bristol, for instance, most slave merchants were Anglicans; in Nantes, Bordeaux, Lisbon, and Seville—and, of course, in Bahia and Luanda—most were Catholics. But in La Rochelle, the slave merchants were mostly Huguenots, as they were Calvinists in Middelburg, and there were important Huguenot slaving firms elsewhere: the Dhariettes and the Nairacs in Bordeaux, as well as the Ferays in Le Havre. The Nairacs believed that they were not ennobled, and the Laffons de Ladébat were so, because of their religion, though the former had sent twenty-five ships to Africa between 1740 and 1792, and the Laffons a mere fifteen.

Quakers were important in the slave trade in the eighteenth century in New England, especially in Newport, where the Wanton family was still trading slaves in the 1760s. Friends were also prominent in the slave trade in Pennsylvania, often carrying slaves from the West Indies to their own city. Among these, William Frampton seems to have carried the first slaves to Philadelphia in the 1680s; he was followed by James Claypole, Jonathan Dickinson (he carried Africans from Jamaica to Philadelphia on his shipReformation), and Isaac Norris (who, however, had some doubts about the commerce: “I don’t like that kind of business,” he wrote to Dickinson as early as 1703), as well as William Plumstead, Reese Meredith, John Reynell, and Francis Richardson.4 In England, the Quaker gunmaking firm of Farmer and Galton of Birmingham sent at least one ship, the Perseverance, to carry 527 slaves to the West Indies.5

In Brazil, the slave merchants of Bahia had their own religious brotherhood, which organized a regular procession at Easter, beginning at the Church of San Antônio da Barra, whither a bust of Saint Joseph, long venerated at Elmina as the patron of the slavers, was brought in 1752.

The bishop of the Algarve in 1446 may have been the only prince of the Church to send out a caravel to Africa. But other spiritual potentates were shareholders in voyages. The Cardinal Infante Enrique, brother of King Philip III of Spain, was, through his secretariat, a formidable trader in slaves to Buenos Aires during the early seventeenth century. Both the Jesuits and their traditional enemies were much involved. In Bordeaux at the end of the eighteenth century, most Freemasons appear to have been slave merchants.

For a time, in both Spain and Portugal, the slave trade was dominated by Jewish conversos: for example, Diego Caballero, of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, benefactor of the Cathedral of Seville; the Jorge family, also in Seville; Fernão Noronha, a Lisbon monopolist in the early days in the delta of the Niger, and his descendants; and the numerous merchants of Lisbon who held the asiento for sending slaves to the Spanish empire between 1580 and 1640. The most remarkable of these men was Antônio Fernandes Elvas,asentistafrom 1614 to 1622, connected by blood with nearly all the major slave dealers of the Spanish-Portuguese empire during the heady days when it was one polity.

Yet these men had formally become Christians. The Inquisition may have argued, and even believed, that many of them secretly practiced Judaism, tried some of them in consequence, and left a few of them to be punished by “the secular arm.” Some no doubt were, indeed, secret Jews, but it would be imprudent to accept the evidence of the Holy Office as to their “guilt.” That body, after all, was said to have “fabricated Jews as the Mint coined money,” as one inquisitor himself remarked.6

Later, Jews of Portuguese origin played a minor part in the slave trade in Amsterdam (Diogo Dias Querido), in Curaçao, in Newport (Lopez and the Riberas), and in Bordeaux (the Gradises, Mendèses, and Jean Rodrigues Laureno).II In the late seventeenth century, Jewish merchants, such as Moses Joshua Henriques, were prominent in the minor Danish slave trade of Glückstadt. But, more important, there is no sign of Jewish merchants in the biggest European slave-trade capitals when the traffic was at its height, during the eighteenth century—that is, in Liverpool, Bristol, Nantes, and Middelburg—and examination of a list of four hundred traders known to have sold slaves at one time or another in Charleston, South Carolina, North America’s biggest market, in the 1750s and 1760s suggests just one active Jewish merchant, the unimportant Philip Hart. In Jamaica, the latter’s equivalent was Alexander Lindo, who later ruined himself providing for the French army in their effort to recapture Saint-Domingue.

Old enemies of the Jews, Gypsies played a minor part in the slave trade, in the cities of Brazil in the eighteenth century, where they gained a name for sadism and were suspected of stealing children to sell as slaves.

Many slave traders were deputies, or members of Parliament, or their equivalent. In England, for example, in the eighteenth century, the list includes Humphrey Morice, George René Aufrère, John Sargent, and Sir Alexander Grant, all of London; James Laroche and Henry Cruger of Bristol; Ellis Cunliffe, Charles Pole, and John Hardman of Liverpool, as well as Sir Thomas Johnson, mayor of Liverpool, who was partly responsible for one of the first slave ships to leave his city, the Blessing, in 1700. French deputies to the National Assembly in 1789 included the biggest slave trader of Bordeaux, Pierre-Paul Nairac. The slavers in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia included Thomas Willing, mayor of that city; Henry Laurens of Charleston; Carter Braxton of Richmond, Virginia; and Philip Livingston of New York. John Brown of Providence became a congressman for Rhode Island, and James de Wolf of Bristol would become a United States senator. Caleb Gardner and Peleg Clarke, both slave captains, served in the Rhode Island Assembly. Back in England, most mayors of Liverpool in the second half of the eighteenth century were traders in slaves. Miles Barber, the mayor of Lancaster in the 1750s, was the richest of that little port’s slave traders.

Slave traders were often philanthropists. Foster Cunliffe is recalled on a plaque in Saint Peter’s Church, Liverpool, as “a Christian devout and exemplary in the exercise of every private and public duty, friend to mercy, patron to distress, an enemy only to vice and sloth. . . .” Brian Blundell of Liverpool was a founder of the Blue Coat school. Robert Burridge, last of a slave-trading family in the Dorset port of Lyme Regis, was similarly remembered for his charity towards the aged, the infirm, and “such poor as generally receive the Lord’s supper.” Philip Livingston of New York founded a professorship of divinity at his own old university, Yale, and helped establish the first Methodist society in America. John Brown in Providence founded the admirable university which now bears his name. Abraham Redwood’s library in Newport still stands secure as a monument to that trader’s munificence. René Montaudoin in Nantes gave away thousands to charities. Even the hardheaded Isaac Hobhouse of Bristol left a guinea to be paid to each of the twenty poor men and women who lived in the street adjoining the quay at Minehead, where he had been born.7

The slave trade engaged the interests of many foreigners in the places concerned; at the beginning, in Lisbon and Seville, Florentines took a decisive part. These included Columbus’s friends the Berardi brothers, whose headquarters was Seville and, of course, Bartolommeo Marchionni. That entrepreneur’s Seville agent in the early 1500s was Piero Rondinelli, also of Florence. Another Florentine interested in the slave trade in the mid-sixteenth century was Giacomo Botti, an associate of Hernán Cortés, to whom that conquistador left his best bed. Then there were the early imperial privileged monopolists (Gorrevod, and the Welsers’ representatives) while, from the beginning, many Genoese were to be found in the Spanish trade, culminating with Grillo and the Lomelins, who obtained the asiento as late as the 1660s. Coymans in Cádiz was, of course, Dutch. In Nantes, George Reidy and Benjamin Thurninger came from Switzerland, and Irish immigrants, such as the Jacobite Antoine Walsh, were at the top of a long list of foreign-born slave merchants of the eighteenth century. (Other Irish slave dealers were to be found in Havana: Richard O’Farrill of Longford, for example, in the early eighteenth century and, far more wealthy, Cornelius Coppinger of Dublin in the 1760s, the gaunt ruins of whose castle still bleakly stand near Glandore, County Cork.) An important investor in Nantes was the firm of Peloutier (Germans in origin) and Bourcard (or Burckhardt), connected with the Basel firm of Christoph Burckhardt, who formed a partnership in 1756 to manufacture calicoes for the slave trade. In Rhode Island, Aaron Lopez and his brother-in-law, Abraham Ribera, were originally Portuguese as well as Jewish. Henry Laurens in Charleston had a Huguenot grandfather, as did James Laroche in Bristol, England, and George Aufrère of London.

The colossal slave trade from Angola to Brazil was, by the late eighteenth century, generally organized by Luso-Africans, descendants of lançados, Portuguese adventurers who had stayed behind to live with Africans. They would obtain the slaves from, or in, the interior, hold them in “barracoons”III at Luanda, on the coast, and then treat directly with Brazilian captains, from Rio de Janeiro and Bahia.

Aristocrats, such as the duke of Chandos in London, the father of the writer Chateaubriand in Saint-Malo, and the Espivents and de Luynes of Nantes (though the latter originated in Orléans), were frequently involved. Many independent merchants in France were ennobled because of their mercantile success, as happened in the case of nearly all the biggest slave merchants of Nantes. Philip Livingston of New York, grandson of the founder of Livingston Manor, and John van Courtlandt, who descended from Stephanus van Courtlandt, proprietor of a vast Hudson River property, should surely be accepted as aristocrats in a broad sense.

•  •  •

None of these slave merchants financed more than a hundred voyages to Africa for slaves. The maximum probably would have been the eighty organized by the Montaudoin family of Nantes. Out of over 1,130 négriers in France in the eighteenth century, more than half sent only one or two expeditions to Africa, and only twenty-five families invested in over fifteen voyages.8

Several slave merchants testified before British inquiries into the business during the late 1780s or 1790s. They contributed details about what was happening, but few general reflections. If they had had the time to consider the matter, they would surely have agreed with the much-repeated view of (among others) Jean Barbot, the Huguenot who traded slaves in the 1680s that, however unpleasant it was to be a slave in the Americas, it was better than to be one, or even to be a free man, in Africa. They would have accepted too the declaration of Sir Dalby Thomas, the English commander of Cape Coast Castle, who, in 1709, in an essay entitled “A True and Impartial Account of What We . . . Believe for the Well Carrying On of This Trade,” gave a bleak picture of morality in Africa: “The native here has neither religion nor law binding them to humanity, good behaviour, or honesty. They frequently, for their grandeur, sacrifice an innocent man. . . .” He thought that “the blacks are naturally such rogues, and bred up with such roguish principles, that what they can, they get, by force or deceit. . . .”9 Even more violent judgments were made in France: “At bottom, the blacks are naturally inclined to theft, robbery, idleness, and treason. In general, they are only suited to live in servitude and for the works and the agriculture of our colonies,” wrote Gérard Mellier, mayor of Nantes in the late eighteenth century.10 William Chancellor, surgeon on Philip Livingston’s Wolf, wrote in 1750 that the slave trade was a way of “redeeming an unhappy people from inconceivable misery.”11

One or two doubts occurred, all the same, to some prominent North American slave traders. A few Quakers in Philadelphia in the early eighteenth century questioned the ethics of what they were doing—but many of them (such as Jonathan Dickinson and Isaac Norris) continued trading slaves nonetheless. In 1765, Stanislas Foäche wrote home to Le Havre from Saint-Domingue, “La vente [of slaves] m’a donné de cruelles inquiétudes, elle a achevée de me faire blanchir. . . .”12 That reflection did not prevent him from remaining a dealer in slaves in the doomed colony for another twenty years. In 1763, Henry Laurens, the largest slave merchant of Charleston, South Carolina, who, a few years before, had been openly talking of making “a glorious sale of the cargo,” wrote to John Ettwein, future Moravian bishop of North America, to say that he had often “wished that our economy and government differed from the present system but, alas—since our constitution is as it is, what can individuals do? Each can act only in his single and disunited capacity, because the sanction of laws gives the stamp of rectitude to the actions of the bulk of the community. If it were to happen,” Laurens went on, “that everybody . . . were to change their sentiments with respect to slavery, and that they should seriously think that the saving of souls [was] a more profitable event than the adding of house to house and laying field to field . . . those laws which now authorise the custom would be instantly abrogated. . . .” Later, Laurens abandoned the trade, explaining to William Fisher, a merchant of Philadelphia, to whom he had often sold rice, that he did so “principally because many acts [were reprehensible], from the masters and others concerned, from the time of purchasing to that of selling them again. . . .” Laurens was the first prominent person from the South of what soon became the United States to express any compunction about the slave traffic: “I hate slavery,” he later told his son, John, one of the heroes of the Revolutionary War, in 1776. But that was after he had made his fortune.13

At much the same time, in 1773, Moses Brown resigned from the family firm of Brown of Providence, became an abolitionist and freed his own slaves; he often attacked his brother John for remaining in the business.IV Then, in 1788, the son of a prominent slave trader of Bordeaux also turned against the traffic in a sensational way.V But these instances are as nothing against such a vast background of commitment, justification, and neglect of humane consideration.

Most merchants in these slave ports knew the nature of their cargoes. Thus Nantes had a large black population in 1780, including several hundred captives introduced as a result of recent laws making slavery legal in France. The population of Liverpool in 1788 included about fifty black or mulatto boys and girls, mostly not slaves but the children of African merchants who had sent them to England for their education. There were more blacks in Bristol, and far more still in London, some free, most of them living in limbo between liberty and bondage. Middelburg in Zeeland, the biggest slaving port in eighteenth-century Holland, also had its black minority, as did, on a larger scale, Lisbon and Seville. In North American slaving ports there were also slaves but, except in Charleston, fewer than might have been supposed. For example, there were merely seventy-three in Bristol, Rhode Island, very few owned by the family which became, in the 1780s, the dominant one in both the trade and the town, the de Wolfs.

•  •  •

The typical slave voyage is assumed to have been triangular. That geometric figure is supposed to have been emblematic of its special character. But there were many exceptions, such as the journeys made directly between Brazil and Angola. There were also numerous direct voyages between the English North American colonies and Africa in the late eighteenth century, and similar journeys later still between Cuba and Africa. For the first hundred years of the Atlantic slave trade, the Portuguese, as has been shown, sailed between Lisbon and different harbors in Africa; they carried some slaves from Benin to Elmina, or to São Tomé or the Cape Verde Islands. Many expeditions in the eighteenth century ended with the sale of the ship in the West Indies, or its return to Europe in ballast. Still, the classic journey, probably responsible for three-quarters of all the voyages, was one which began in Europe, picked up slaves in Africa in exchange for European manufactures, carried the slaves to the Americas, and then returned to Europe with certain tropical American goods which slaves would probably have helped to harvest.

In the fifteenth century, the Portuguese had founded this commerce by using single-decked caravels, with square or lateen sails, of fifty to a hundred tons’ burden. Each would have been able to carry about 150 slaves. They used even smaller vessels—of, say, twenty to twenty-five tons—for trading slaves between Benin and Elmina, Benin and São Tomé, or even São Tomé and Elmina. The Portuguese also had some vessels as big as 120 tons: three-masted, square-rigged roundships. Ships in the small-scale Spanish slave trade from the Barbary Coast to the Canary Islands in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were probably between thirty-five and forty tons, able to carry no more than about forty slaves each.

A typical slave ship sailing from, say, European ports to Africa and the West Indies would not, in the eighteenth century, have been a specialized vessel. Rather, it would have been a typical wooden cargo vessel, perhaps in the seventeenth century a flute ship (a half-armed ship of war) and, in the eighteenth, a square-rigger with three masts, two complete decks, and fine lines. All slave ships had hulls, some had castles, a few were fast, and others just maneuverable. In the mid-eighteenth century, vessels from the merchant fleet of the country concerned were used as opportunity offered and, where necessary, adapted. Every ship was in its way a work of art of complexity, joinery, and design, in which several different woods would have been creatively combined as if the carpenter had been a cabinetmaker. The ships of Clément Caussé of La Rochelle, for example, were masterpieces. All ships were subject to damaging attacks by barnacles or shipworm, for only in the late eighteenth century did ships of Northern Europe begin to be given copper hulls: an innovation which not only protected vessels from shipworm but increased their speed.

A French slave vessel of about 1700 would have been between 150 and 250 tons’ burden, 80 to 90 feet long, 20 to 25 feet wide, 65 to 75 feet on the keel, with 10 to 12 feet of hold—that is, the size of an average modern fishing schooner. British ships were usually smaller. Slave ships could easily have been bigger and carried more slaves, but the nature of coastal and riverine trading in Africa dictated a range of 100 to 200 tons. At the end of the eighteenth century, the best-known shipbuilder of Nantes, Vial de Chabois, would declare that the ideal négrier was between three and four hundred (old) tons, with ten feet of hold, and four feet, four inches between decks. To show the diverse character of the trade, however, the ships of the asentista Baltasar Coymans should be recalled: they ranged from the Profeta Daniel, of 430 tons, to the Armas de Ostende, of 31.

A high proportion of British slave ships, nearly half the total, were prizes, obtained easily at the conclusion of wars, the rest being built in British shipyards. In the 1790s, about 15 percent of all British shipping was intended for the Guinea trade, and almost all of that concerned slaves.

The typical European slave ship, if such a vessel can be hypothesized, would by 1780 still have been less than two hundred tons’ burden. Its owners would not expect it to make more than about six voyages to Africa, or indeed to last more than about ten years: only one vessel out of nearly eight hundred which sailed from Nantes between 1713 and 1775 both made six journeys and lasted ten years. This was the Vermandieu, belonging to N. H. Guillon, which was active between 1764 and 1775. The longest-lasting Dutch ship was the Leusden, which made ten voyages between 1720 and 1738, and carried nearly 7,000 slaves. Ships from Brazil to Angola generally made even fewer voyages—an average of two per ship—though one or two made more than twelve; and four ships belonging to the Pernambuco Company made over ten voyages, one of them, the elaborately named Nuestra Senhora da Guia, San Antonio e Almas, twenty.

To begin with, all the Portuguese ships which dominated the early slave traffic had the names of virgins or saints; how many Our Ladies of Misericordia or of Conceição, São Miguels, and São Tiagos traversed the green sea of darkness in that epoch we shall never know exactly. In the eighteenth century, those names still held their lead among Portuguese and Brazilian ships: out of forty-three ships which carried slaves under the flag of the Company of Grão-Pará and Maranhão, all had the names of saints except for two (those were the Delfim and the Africana); and, out of fifty ships of its sister Pernambuco Company, all but ten had religious names. In one list of slave ships to Bahia, Nossa Senhora appeared 1,154 times, with fifty-seven different suffixes, above all Nossa Senhora de la Conceição (324 times); while male saints were used 1,158 times, of whom San Antônio (of Padua, but with his identity moved to Lisbon) was the most popular (695 times). Bom Jesus appeared 180 times (above all, the Bom Jesus do Bom Sucesso).

After 1800, however, pagan deities became frequent among Portuguese and Brazilian ships—Diana, Venus, Minerva, Hercules appearing often—while religious names declined. (In the nineteenth century, they would appear on the Bahia list only a few dozen times out of 1,677 voyages.)

In the Anglo-Saxon world, the most frequent names of ships were Christian names, especially girls’ names, sometimes, in the comfortable Anglo-Saxon way, with a qualification: the Charming Sally, for instance. In the three years 1789, 1790, and 1791, 365 ships left Liverpool, London, and Bristol to go slaving in Africa; of these, 121 had girls’ names, Mary, Ann, Margery, Diana, Hannah, Fanny, Isabella, Ruby, and Eliza being the most popular. But sometimes there were more sophisticated Anglo-Saxon designations; for example, the Othello, owned by William and Samuel Vernon of Newport. The Reformation and the Perseverance also appeared; both belonged to Quakers, one to the Dickinsons in Philadelphia, the other to the Galtons of Birmingham.

In France, however, most ships received the name of some kind of quality. Thus over a quarter of the slave ships leaving Bordeaux were called the Confiance, the Coeurs-Unis, the Paix, or some such concept. Neither the Amitié (one belonging to Rasteau, in La Rochelle) nor the Liberté (one belonging to Isaac Couturier, in Bordeaux) was unknown. But even in France, feminine Christian names were the second-most-frequent appellations: a fifth of them in Bordeaux, again commonly, as in England, with a qualifying adjective: the Aimable-Cécile or the Aimable-Aline. Among the last slave ships sailing from Nantes before the revolution in Saint-Domingue were the Cy-Devant, the Nouvelle Société, the Soldat Patriote, the Ami de la Paix, and the Egalité. The last vessel before the revolution closed down business for a time was the Subordinateur, belonging to Haussman & Company.

•  •  •

Portuguese vessels in the early days might have about twenty officers and men on the small caravels, and sometimes sixty on a nau. Matters changed over the years. Assuming a burden of 150 tons in the late eighteenth century, the captain, officers, and crew might number thirty on an English ship, while there could be forty-five on the somewhat larger Dutch or French ships. These crews would undertake formally to serve, obliging themselves to obey the captain as if he were their commander in battle. They must have realized that their chances of survival were poor: worse than those of their slave cargoes.

On early Portuguese ships, there would always be a notary, to supervise the trade and prevent illegal trading.

The crews on French ships were more numerous at the beginning of the eighteenth century than at the end. Thus, in 1735, the Victorieux, of Nantes, belonging to Antoine Walsh’s father-in-law, Luc Shiell, 250 tons, employed ninety-nine crew members, or one man per two and a half tons. In the late eighteenth century, the proportion was more likely to be one man per five tons, as it usually was in England.

The captain on an English slave ship would probably be paid £5 a month (100 to 200 livres in France). René Auguste de Chateaubriand of Saint-Malo, on the Apollo in 1754, received 150 livres and also gained a 5 percent on bonus slaves delivered live: a rather high percentage, for a bonus of 1 or 3 percent was normal. The other officers, the mates, the surgeon, and the cooper and carpenter would all receive between £1 and £4 a month. As to the crew, experienced seamen might be paid £2 a month, inexperienced ones 30 shillings, boys £1 only. Half of these wages would customarily be paid in advance, before leaving home, the rest “at the port of delivery of the said vessel’s negroes in America in the currency there.” On ships from other European countries, payments would be similar. On all vessels, coopers were well paid, because of the need to carry so much water: three hundred barrels, say. Carpenters, whose task was to refit vessels from carrying cargoes to carrying captives, often received more than the other specialists.

Most of the crew would be men in their twenties, the captain and the mates in their thirties, but some of the specialists might be older, even in their fifties; and there were many boys in their teens.

Sometimes, especially on Rhode Island ships in the late eighteenth century, and on Brazilian ships from the sixteenth century onwards, members of the crew were free blacks, and sometimes the sailors might themselves be slaves, rented out as shipboard labor by their masters. The caravel Santa Maria das Neves, for example, carried seven blacks out of her fourteen crew when she traveled between the river Gambia and Lisbon in 1505-6. At that time, African slaves often crewed ships between Guinea and São Tomé. In the mid-sixteenth century, a French geographer, André Thevet, thought that the whole crew of one of the Portuguese ships which he saw were slaves; for that reason alone, he said, the captain would not engage in any close fighting. In the late eighteenth century, almost half of the 350 Brazil-bound ships for which records seem to survive included slaves in their crews. These blacks could become able seamen, but never officers or captains.

Most officers and some of the specialists had extra rights: for example, to carry a slave or two of their own (four such “privilege slaves,” say, for a captain, a boy for an ensign). The Royal Africa Company allowed a captain the right of two slaves free of freight for every hundred whom he carried; if 150, three; if five hundred, five; and so on; “the captain marking his own slaves [with a burning iron or a silver mark] in the presence of all his officers. . . .”14 The South Sea Company offered its captains four free slaves for every 104 slaves delivered live, and would then offer to buy them at twenty pounds each. The purpose was, of course, to encourage the captains to interest themselves in the well-being of their cargoes. The first mate in that company had a similar privilege of carrying one free slave; the second mate and surgeon, one between them, etc.

The captain had to be a man of parts. He was the heart and soul of the whole voyage, and had to be able, above all, to negotiate prices of slaves with African merchants or kings, strong enough to survive the West African climate and to stand storms, calms, and loss of equipment. He had to have the presence of mind to deal with difficult crews who might jump ship, and he had to be ready to face, coolly and with courage, slave rebellions. A good captain would always discuss with his officers all the problems which might arise. Thomas Clarkson, in his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, records the exploits of several brutal masters of slave ships, including murderers, but courage, patience, and serenity were frequent. French sea captains had to take exams before assuming a command. Many captains carried little libraries of useful books: for example, on the Créole of La Rochelle in 1782, the captain had, besides six volumes dealing with naval construction and maritime techniques, and six commercial works, the twelve volumes of the complete works of Rousseau, a history of Louisiana, the voyages of Père Labat, and the Histoire philosophique of Raynal. The latter, despite its ferocious criticisms of slavery, was much read by slave captains (the father of Chateaubriand referred to the abbé as “un maitre-homme”15). The French adventurer Landolphe who tried, unsuccessfully, to develop the region around the river Benin as a slave colony in the 1780s, read Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which criticized the institution of slavery in a lapidary manner, on the banks of that waterway.

A captain was sometimes a man who would become an owner, as has been mentioned, and that was often his ambition. After a few voyages as captain of another merchant’s ship, he might have made enough money (by, for instance, the sale of his privilege slaves) to invest in other men’s voyages, or to buy a ship of his own. Occasionally, of course, a captain was an owner already, and sailed as such. Robert Champlin of Newport sailed as captain on ships owned by his brothers Christopher and George.

All the same, to be a slave captain was not really a profession: even experienced captains rarely went to Africa more than three or four times. Deputy captains would always have to be ready to take over command, in case, as sometimes happened, their masters died; that happened about once in every ten voyages, at least in the Dutch West India Company’s experience.

Captains made even more statements of what they thought about the trade than did the merchants. For example, Hugh Crow, who captained several voyages of slave ships owned by the Aspinalls of Liverpool, thought that “the abstraction of slaves to our colonies [was] a necessary evil.” He seems to have been sincerely convinced that the African slaves in the West Indies were happier than when they lived as slaves in their own country, “subject to the caprices of their native princes.” Had he been a slave, Crow said, he would have much preferred to have been a black slave in the West Indies than even a free man at home in England—than, say, a fisherman, a coal miner, or a factory worker, or a man sent to jail “for killing a paltry hare or a partridge.” “Think of the wretched Irish peasantry! Think of the crowded workhouses,” he amiably concluded his memoir.16

Joseph Hawkins of Charleston, South Carolina, went to Africa as a slave captain in 1793. Though initially dubious, he confessed, when he reached a slave barracoon, where many slaves had been kept waiting for sale, that he became “fully convinced [that] the removal of these poor wretches, even to the slavery of the West Indies, would be an act of humanity, rather than one exposed to censure. . . . The slaves [whom] I had purchased were young men, many of them being eager to escape from their bondage in Ebo, [and] preferred the evil ‘they knew not of’ to that which they then felt; but,” he admitted, “the majority were evidently affected with grief at their approaching departure. . . .”17

Both Captain Thomas Phillips of London, at the end of the seventeenth century, and Captain William Snelgrave of Bristol, at the beginning of the eighteenth, felt some remorse about their activities but, like some merchants in the same frame of mind, continued nonetheless in the business, both writing accounts of what they did. The comments of Phillips, a Welshman, are remarkable for their time. Speaking of the slaves, he said: “Nor can I imagine why they should be despised for their colour, being what they cannot help. . . . I can’t think there is any intrinsic value in one colour more than another, that white is better than black, only we think it so, because we are so, and are prone to judge favourably in our own case. . . .”18

John Newton, captain of the Duke of Argyll (belonging to the Manesty brothers of Liverpool), the future vicar of Saint Mary’s Woolnoth, thought a great deal about his old trade but, unlike Crow, did not seek to justify it. On the contrary, he explained that he knew of “no method of getting money not even that of robbing for it upon the highway, which has so direct a tendency to efface the moral sense. . . .” All the same, Newton only abandoned the trade because of bad health. He had a vision which led him to become a clergyman but, when he was still a slave captain, he was already a Christian: he wrote to his wife, on leaving Africa on the Duke of Argyll for the West Indies with a cargo of slaves, of “innumerable dangers and difficulties which, without a superior protection, no man could escape or surmount, [and which] are, by the goodness of God, happily over.” He had to face a slave rebellion two days after he wrote that sentence. He added that he overcame the emergency “with the Divine Assistance.” Newton would customarily read prayers twice a day to his slave crews. He was an autodidact: he taught himself Latin and read Virgil, Livy, and Erasmus while still captaining a slaver. That did not prevent him from sometimes putting the “boys . . . slightly in the thumb screws to obtain a confession.” Newton was still a slave captain when he wrote his best hymn, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds.”19

Some interesting reflections were made by Captain Crassous on the Dahomet of La Rochelle, as, in 1791, he touched at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, and pitied the poor Spaniards who, unlike the French, still lived under a violent and arbitrary government. He hoped that one day the example of “the French Revolution would awake poor Spain from its slavery [sic] and lethargy.” He then set off for Mozambique to buy Africans for Saint-Domingue.20

The surgeon on the slave ship was in charge of all matters relating to health, carrying with him such supposed medicaments as gum camphor, pulverized rhubarb, cinnamon water, mustard, and bitters, and was always involved in major decisions about the voyage. Several surgeons, such as Alexander Falconbridge, or Thomas Trotter on the Brookes, or William Chancellor on Philip Livingston’s sloop Wolf in 1750 (he found Africa beautiful but despised the Africans), contributed priceless information as to how the slave trade worked. The surgeon, a most important member of any ship’s company, would receive the same income as a first mate or carpenter, £4 on an English ship.VI But it was not legally necessary to carry a surgeon, and many slave ships economized by neglecting to have one: including most of those flying the flag of the United States.

Some lesser officers on slavers recalled their experiences; one such was Jean Barbot, who traveled on slave ships from La Rochelle in the 1680s. He hoped that officers tempted to be brutal would “consider [that] those unfortunate creatures [the slaves] are men as well as themselves, though of a different colour and pagans.”21 Edward Rushton, second mate in a ship belonging to Richard Watt and Gregson of Liverpool, had his life saved by a slave, and then went blind, after treating slaves suffering from ophthalmia, when bound for the island of Dominica. He subsequently became an abolitionist, a poet, and a bookseller. His West Indian Eclogues included the line “Oh, for the power to make these tyrants bleed!”: a sentiment which endeared him to reformers, even if it caused difficulties for him in his native Liverpool.

Ordinary seamen on slave ships were usually young men of low achievement and aspirations, primarily because of the poor pay, the vile conditions, and the danger. The names of sailors on North American or English ships indicate nothing except dour Anglo-Saxon ancestry: for example, on Frederick Philipse’s Margaret in 1698, we find sailors called Burgess, Lazenby, Powell, Ransford, Harris, Dorrington, Upton, Herring, Dawson, Whitcomb, Whore, Oder, Laurence, and Crook. Members of Parliament would have had much the same surnames.

Sometimes, sailors such as these were lured on board slave ships by “crimping”: that is, being plied with drink at an inn until, penniless as well as intoxicated, they could be carried off as part of a bargain between innkeeper and captain. A carpenter in the navy, James Towne, told a House of Commons committee on the slave trade: “The method at Liverpool [to obtain sailors] is by the merchants’ clerks going from public house to public house, giving them liquors to get them into a state of intoxication and, by that, getting them very often on board. Another method is to get them in debt and then, if they don’t choose to go aboard of such guinea men then ready for sea, they are sent away to gaol by the publicans they may be indebted to.”22

John Newton was convinced that the slave trade ruined the sensitivities of all crews: “The real or supposed necessity of treating the Negroes with rigour gradually brings a numbness upon the heart and renders those who are engaged in it too indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow-creatures.” He also thought that “there is no trade in which seamen are treated with so little humanity.” Officers certainly treated sailors as badly as, or worse than, they treated the slaves. Thus James Morley, once a cabin boy on theAmeliaof Bristol, in answer to a question at a House of Commons inquiry, “How have the seamen been generally treated on board the Guinea ships in which you have sailed?” replied, “With great rigour and many times with cruelty.” He recalled how he once accidentally broke a glass belonging to Captain Dixon: “I . . . was tied up to the tiller in the cabin by my hands, and then flogged with a cat, and kept hanging there some time.” Most seamen, Morley thought, slept on the deck: “They lie on deck and they die on deck.”23 Many witnesses in these inquiries testified that the crews were atrociously treated. In 1761, on board the Hare, Captain Colley of Liverpool killed the carpenter, the carpenter’s mate, the cook, and another man with a handspike. “I have been on a number of ships,” remarked one sailor, “and always found the same treatment as we had on board our own, that is, men dying from want of provisions, from being hard worked and from being inhumanly beat. . . .”24 A French novelist, Edouard Corbière, would, in Le Négrier, point out that a slaving voyage was a colossal challenge to the patience and endurance of the crews: “How many wounds were caused in the characters, the customs, and even the passions of these men so often so diverse who find themselves gathered together in the middle of so many perils in this narrow space we call a ship.”25 Chancellor, the surgeon on Philip Livingston’s ship Wolf, doubted, on returning to New York, whether he could ever “have satisfaction for the misery I have undergone on this voyage.”

Deaths were rarely less than a fifth of the crew, sometimes more: the Nymphe in 1741 lost twenty-eight out of forty-five; the Couéda arrived at Cap François in 1766 with only nine crew members. Perhaps the record was the Marie-Gabrielle of Nantes, which in 1769 lost thirty-one sailors out of thirty-nine. The Deux Pucelles of Nantes lost all her officers in 1750. Analysis of the Dutch slave trade suggests that about 18 percent of crews died on their recorded voyages—in comparison with 12 percent of the slaves. Something like the same statistic must have been true of the English trade: for example, over 20 percent of English crews died on Bristol and Liverpool slavers even in the 1780s. But the crews had a longer time on board the ships than the slaves did.

•  •  •

Slave ships had to be armed. Both the Gulf of Guinea and the Caribbean were infested with pirates. So the average armament of a two-hundred-ton French slaver of about 1700 might have been fifteen to eighteen cannon. Some ships, such as those belonging to the Montaudoins, had even more weapons. Later, the risk of pirates became less and, in the 1730s, ships of two hundred tons might have only eight to twelve pieces. Slave ships which sailed in time of war would be more heavily armed, but they would often have military commissions and be technically corvettes or auxiliary frigates.

All ships were insured, often internationally. Insurance seems first to have been undertaken in Antwerp, but Amsterdam, London, and Paris soon followed, and then the slaving ports themselves would develop their own companies on the initiative of merchants who might have small stakes in the business themselves. English companies would usually insure the few United States ships. French traders at Nantes and La Rochelle estimated that insurance averaged 7 percent of the cost of the ship in time of peace, but the percentage would rise to 35 percent in tense international conditions, even if the ship concerned traveled in convoy. In La Rochelle, the slave ships were often insured in other cities: Nantes, for example, or even Amsterdam, Hamburg, and London. At least one insurer—Duvivier, of La Rochelle—himself became a major dealer in slaves. An important London marine insurer, Hayley, of Hayley and Hopkins, explained in 1771 to Aaron Lopez of Newport that “the premium for a winter voyage from Jamaica is never less than 8 percent and upon vessels not known in the trade can seldom be under 10.”26,VII Still, some North American insurers (Tench Francis, for example, the leader of the bar in Philadelphia) did business before 1774 and, after the revolution, many merchants turned to Boston. Samuel Sanford founded the Newport Insurance Company. When that enterprise became infiltrated by opponents to the slave trade, the Bristol Insurance Company was founded, and that was followed by the Mount Hope Insurance Company, founded by the de Wolfs, themselves large-scale slavers. Rates varied from 5 to 25 percent.

•  •  •

Slave captains would usually receive precise instructions from their owners as to what to do, and where to go. A characteristic instruction was that to Captain William Barry of Bristol, who was told in the 1730s: “As the wind is inclining to be fair, you are ordered with your men (which we allow to be twenty in number, yourself included) to repair on board the Dispatch, brigantine, of which you are . . . Commander and to lose no time but to sail directly . . . to the Coast of Africa: that is, to that part of it called Andony [on the Bight of Biafra, north of Fernando Po] (without touching or tarrying at any other place), where you are to slave . . . The cargo of goods are of your own ordering and, as it’s very good in kind and amounts to £1,330-8s-21/4d, we hope it will purchase you 240 choice slaves, besides a Quantity of teeth [of elephants] . . . provided they are large. . . .”27

A ship such as this would be expected to be at least a year abroad, to cover twelve thousand miles in the voyage, and to anticipate hurricanes in the Caribbean, tornadoes on the coast of Guinea, and almost everywhere rot and pirates, barnacles and leaking. An average voyage, throughout the era of the trade, varied from between fifteen and eighteen months. The fastest journey in the classic era of the trade, in the mid-eighteenth century, was probably that of Michel and Grou’s Sirène from Nantes, which took only eight months and thirty-two days, carrying 331 slaves from Sénégal to Léogane in Saint-Domingue in 1753; only two slaves died.

Each trading port had its peculiarities. Thus merchants from Liverpool often bought provisions in Ireland, so that they could tell the authorities on the Liverpool dock that they were merely leaving for Kinsale. Sometimes, Bristol ships would pick up the spirits for their cargoes in Jersey, a big smuggling port. London ships might go for that purpose to Rotterdam. The captains of Dutch ships from Middelburg or Amsterdam would usually join them when they were already in the open sea. Many French ships would stop for water, wine (sometimes to be used in barter), and fresh food in Portugal (say, Lisbon) or Spain (say, Cádiz). Some French slave ships also put in at Madeira or Tenerife, more often at Praya, in the Cape Verde Islands. Hugh Crow wrote that, in his experience, English slave ships also usually made for the Canary Islands “in the first instance.”

Ships would usually leave with live turkeys, chickens, and even cattle on board, for future killing. A year and a half’s supply of biscuits would perhaps be taken, four or five tons of them. Captains would also try to carry enough wine to provide the crew with a liter and a quarter a day per man. Water would, of course, also be embarked, but no more than necessary to reach Africa. Flour would be available to be made into bread by the ship’s baker. Smoked meat was Ireland’s chief contribution to these voyages, as hard cheese was one of Holland’s. Some fishing would be done to supplement the rations.

There were two classic passages for slave ships to West Africa from Northern Europe: first, in French terminology la petite route—that is, via the Cape Verde Islands—after which the captain would stay close to the coast. La grande route entailed the captain’s keeping well out into the Atlantic before striking east-southeast to Angola or the Congo. La petite route was customary in winter and was, of course, always used when the vessels were making for the Gulf of Guinea. Most of this journey was in sight of the coasts.La grande route was more prudent between March and August, when the southeast trade winds could cause many difficulties, and that itinerary was, of course, normal when the destination was primarily the Congo or Angola. Ships on their way to Mozambique, or other ports in East Africa, would also naturally follow this second route, but would try to avoid any wind or current which would make it hard to clear the Cape of Good Hope.

Portuguese ships bound for Angola would always take la grande route, or a variation of it, which meant that, after touching at the Cape Verde Islands, they would pick up the winds blowing down the coast of Brazil—much as Cabral had sailed on that first extraordinary journey in 1500. They might then touch at Pernambuco or Rio, but most did not; rather, they would head back into the open sea north of the Brazilian mainland, and make for Angola.

North American traders, of course, made quite different voyages, for a journey which would usually take from seven to twelve months, from home in New England to Africa and then to market, which might often be the West Indies, or perhaps Charleston, South Carolina, and rarely New England itself.

Ships leaving Europe were sometimes seized by pirates off the northwest coast of Africa, especially the terrifying ones of Salé. So, in the early eighteenth century, sensible slave captains would try to carry a “Turkish pass.” This was bought from pirates in Algeria to enable captains to pass without molestation. But there were often captures of slave ships. In 1687, for example, a large Dutch slave ship en route for Africa was sunk because the captain did not have a pass. It was because of those perils, as well as the dangers of disease and rebellion, not to speak of enemy action, that captains and crews usually forbore to think of the slaves themselves.


IYet Livingston Road in Brooklyn survives to point the modern traveler in the direction of the old manor.

IIThe firm of Gradis in Bordeaux was founded by Diego Gradis, a Portuguese immigrant, in 1695, and it was later run by his son David. In 1728, they had capital of 162,000 livres. David left four hundred thousand livres when he died in 1751, but his business, by then directed by his own son, Abraham, was worth four million livres in 1788. (Abraham gave sixty-one thousand livres to the Bordeaux synagogue in 1777.) The Gradises had about half their fortune invested in Saint-Domingue or in Martinique. By 1788, typically, since they were among the richest families of Bordeaux, their interests were moving towards viticulture instead of commerce.

IIIThe word almost certainly derives from the Portuguese barraca, meaning shed.

IVSee chapter 24.

VSee page 521.

VIAt least at the end of the eighteenth century, if he was on board a Liverpool ship, a ship’s surgeon might have been trained at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary: the medical school from which the University of Liverpool developed. The fact that so many Liverpool ships carried trained doctors led to the growth of tradition of tropical medicine there, which in turn led eventually to the Liverpool school of that science, and therefore, indirectly, in the late nineteenth century, to Sir Ronald Ross’s nomination of the mosquito as the agent of malaria.

VIIThat Hayley married Mary, a sister of the orator of constitutional liberty John Wilkes, another of whose sisters, Sarah, was the inspiration for Miss Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations.

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