Modern history

33

Sharks Are the Invariable Outriders of All Slave Ships

“Sharks . . . are the invariable outriders of all slave ships crossing the Atlantic, systematically trotting alongside, to be handy in case a parcel is to be carried anywhere, or a dead slave to be decently buried . . .”

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“Next day we saw an English man-of-war [H.M.S. Maidstone] coming. When the Portuguese saw this, it put them to disquietness and confusion. They then told us that these were the people which will eat us, if we suffered them to prize us; and they also enticed us, if they should ask, how long since we sailed, we must say it was more than a month. And they also gave us long oars and set us to pull. About ten men were set on one oar, and we tried to pull as far as we are able, but it is of no avail. Next day, the English overtook us and they took charge of the slaves. . . .”

Joseph Wright, a slave, in Curtin, Africa Remembered

“Sailing rapidly on a strong land breeze, the vessel was soon out of sight of the coast of Africa.”

Prospère Mérimée, Tamoango

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BOTH ENEMIES AND FRIENDS of the “ebony merchants”—the phrase much used in France by the dealers in slaves—argued that conditions in the trade were worse during its illegal stage, since captains often packed many slaves into a smaller space than they would have in the past. The duke of Wellington told the Congress of Verona in 1822: “All attempts at prevention, imperfect as they have been found to be, have tended to increase the aggregate of human suffering. . . . The dread of detection suggests expedients of concealment productive of the most dreadful sufferings to the cargo.”1

Several witnesses at a long inquiry into the trade by a House of Commons committee in 1848 said the same. For example, J. B. Moore, chairman of the Brazilian Association of Liverpool, thought: “Year after year, I look upon it that the evils connected with the slave trade have been aggravated by our squadron being on the coast of Africa to prevent it . . . by increasing the sufferings of the slaves.” José Cliffe, a North American–Brazilian slave merchant, abandoned the trade because of the “loss of life and increase of human suffering” which he regarded as a direct consequence of British philanthropy.2

Yet, for the first twenty or thirty years after British and North American abolition in 1808, the size and character of slave ships probably remained much the same as in the past. But in the midcentury, some ships were used, including steamships, which were capable of taking a thousand slaves across the Atlantic. On such slave journeys “the suffering, though more intense, is of shorter duration,” Captain Denman reflected in 1848. Still, one does not have to accept as true every sentence of the terrible account of Drake’s life as a slave captain and surgeon to realize that confusion was frequent, and stowing of captives disgracefully done, so that there was often what he called “a frightful battle among the slaves for room and air.” The crossing was, just as much as it had always been, “a pestilence which stalketh the waters.”3

Vile conditions were as ever also encountered in Africa. Slave captains often genuinely supposed that they were doing slaves a real human service by carrying them off to Brazil or to Cuba, even if to slavery. Lord John Russell would tell the House of Commons in London in 1846 that a third of the captives intended as slaves for the Atlantic crossing died during the land journey on their way to the coast. But the time spent waiting in barracoons in Africa was probably longer in the 1800s than in the previous century for, as we have seen, the captains tried to pick up their cargoes in one sweep, rather than spend weeks negotiating: speed was necessary to avoid the interference of the British navy. Lord Palmerston commented: “The liability to interruption obliges these slave traders to make arrangements for a rapid embarkation.” Many children are said to have been carried on the illegal trade to Brazil, because their size permitted the loading of a greater number.4

The existence of these depots, however, to some extent made the control of the slave trade easier: most sites were well known, and they could be watched. These barracoons were flimsy constructions, usually of bamboo, maintained by Africans. “Suppose that there were 500 slaves waiting in a barracoon,” said the repentant slave merchant Cliffe. “A cruiser is in the neighborhood, and the slave vessel cannot come in. It is very difficult to get on the coast of Africa sufficient food to support them.” Thus 2,000 slaves were believed to have been murdered in 1846 in a barracoon at Lagos because, on the one hand, the slavers Styx and Hydra (ships with Sardinian flags) did not dare to brave the British patrol; and because, on the other hand, the king of the place had run out of food: the “inducement . . . was simply that the feeding of so large a number of idle people was burdensome to him.” It was sometimes suggested that, if the British navy (or anyone else) were to destroy all the barracoons, then the slave trade would have been fatally damaged. But the surgeon of the navy, who has been quoted before, Dr. Thomson, in evidence to the Hutt Committee, said, realistically, “Whether there are barracoons or no, the slaves will be forthcoming.”5

Another picture of slaves waiting in a barracoon was given by an American naval commodore, Henry Wise, who wrote from Cabinda, in July 1859, how, “in chained gangs, the unfortunate slaves are driven by the lash from the interior to the barracoons on the beach; there the sea-air, insufficient diet, and dread of their approaching fate, produce the most fatal diseases: dysentery and fever [often] release them from their sufferings; the neighboring soil grows rich in the decaying remains of so many of their fellow creatures, and the tracks are thick-strewn with their bones. . . . On a short march,” he continued, “of 600 slaves, a few weeks back, intended for the Emma Lincoln [of the United States], 125 expired on the road. The mortality on these rapid marches is seldom less than 20 percent. Such, sir, is the slave trade under the American flag.”6

However unpleasant the barracoon, slaves would no doubt have preferred to remain there than go to the “finer country” talked about by the slave captains. An ex-slave, John Frazer, for example, described how, in the nineteenth century, as in the eighteenth, the slaves often “cried, they did not want to go.” “Would they have preferred to have stayed in the barracoons?” Mr. Richard Monckton Milnes, the aesthetic member of Parliament for Pontefract, asked him. “Yes,” said Frazer. (All ex-slaves who were questioned on the matter also said that they would prefer to remain in Sierra Leone than to return to their own birthplace, because, John Frazer insisted, Sierra Leone “is a free country.”7

Often in the 1840s, the presence of the naval patrols made it difficult to embark slaves at the barracoons and so, as has been seen, the captives were forced to walk several miles, sometimes as many as forty or more, along the coast, to a secret rendezvous with a slave ship’s canoes.

As in the past, slaves were obtained in Africa by the local dealers in diverse ways and nobody agreed exactly how. Captain Matson, for example, thought that the practice of obtaining slaves by war and the destruction of villages had almost ceased; and that, on the contrary, “one half of the slaves now supplied to the markets of Cuba and Brazil are obtained by purchases from their parents.” On the other hand, the Reverend Henry Townsend, of the Church Missionary Society, who lived for many years in Abbeokuta, a city of 50,000 people near Lagos, thought, about 1850, that war was a key to understanding the origins of slaves in that territory. For example, a quarrel might arise, and some fighting take place “and, ultimately, one of the towns was destroyed and the people carried into slavery, as many as they could take, and those who escaped joined those who had besieged them, and made an attack upon the others. And so they went from town to town, an army of the worst class of society attacked the towns, each town in succession, until the whole country was in a state of disorder. . . . The war first took place through revenge, and was then carried on through the slave trade giving them the means of carrying on that war, because they found then the profit of selling slaves which before they did not so well understand.”8

Several survivors of the trade of the nineteenth century gave evidence to the committee of the House of Commons, previously mentioned, in 1848. One of these was William Henry Platt, then a prosperous merchant in Sierra Leone. He came originally from the region of Benin, and was kidnapped when so small that he “could hardly give an account of myself. . . . I and a friend went into a field to set traps for rice birds . . . and then I was kidnapped. I think we took about three weeks to travel towards the sea, when I was embarked in one of the vessels for Brazil.” He waited for three nights on the coast and (presumably, for his account did not embrace that part of his life) was liberated by a British cruiser and taken to Sierra Leone. Platt had no desire to return to Benin, whose language he scarcely spoke by the time he gave evidence.9

One valuable piece of evidence derives from a slave later known as Joseph Wright who, in the 1820s, was loaded onto a ship at Lagos. Wright had been captured in the far interior and had been taken down to Lagos by canoe. “Early in the morning,” he wrote, “we were brought to a white Portuguese for sale. After strict examination, the white man put me and some others aside. After that, they then made a bargain, how much he would take for each of us. After they were all agreed, the white man sent us into the slave fold[sic] . . . [where] I was . . . for about two months, with a rope around my neck. All the young boys had ropes round their necks in a row, and all the men with chains in a long row, for about fifty persons in a row, so that no one could escape without the other. At one time, the town took fire and about fifty slaves were consumed because the entry was crowded. . . . [Then] we were all brought down close to [the] salt water . . . to be put in canoes. We were all very sorrowful in heart, because we were going to leave our land for another . . . [and] we had heard that the Portuguese were going to eat us when they got to their country. . . . They began to put us in canoes to bring us to the Brig, one of the canoes drowned [sic] and half the slaves died. . . . They stowed all the men under the deck; the boys and women were left on the deck. . . .”10

Slaves were as always branded before their departure for the Americas. In this respect there was no difference between what happened in the legal, eighteenth century and the illegal, nineteenth: an iron with letters cut into it “is put into fire on the beach, and a small pot containing palm oil is always at hand; the iron is heated, and dipped into this palm oil, and dabbed on the hip [men] or [just above] the breast [women] or wherever the slave dealer may choose to have his slaves marked. The palm oil is to prevent the flesh adhering to the iron.”11

Slaves bound for Brazil were still baptized before the crossing; and all continued as a rule to be examined by a doctor (“the doctor rubs them down to see if they are sound and picks out the best”), though many ships sailed without such officers: “A respectable man would not go and a bad one would not be worth having.”12 Sometimes, as occurred in the case of Mongo John, slaves were carefully inspected even before entering the barracoon.

As in the past, different peoples were preferred by different slavers. But in the nineteenth century, all agreed that a Kru, from the Windward Coast, made a bad slave, “because they know that if he is enslaved he will commit suicide immediately.”13

As for the crossing itself, routes to and from Africa from Brazil or Cuba were more direct than they had been in the days of the triangular trade. But sometimes even Cuban shippers would stop at Bahia en route for the Bight of Benin in order to pick up that molasses-soaked tobacco which was still popular in the latter harbor. The haste with which packing was often done on the return journey sometimes caused ships to leave with inadequate water, resulting in several instances comparable to the Zong, with the slaves being thrown overboard.

It is improbable that, before 1800, ships of only twenty-one tons burden would have been expected to carry ninety-seven human beings across the Atlantic, as was the case with the Conceiçao which reached Pernambuco in 1844. That ship’s captain gave the slaves a mere fifteenth of the space thought right for a British soldier when engaged in crossing an ocean. James Bandinel, who directed the efforts of the Foreign Office in London against the slave trade for many years, agreed that the British methods of suppression did result in increased suffering by the Africans: “In addition to the general horrible treatment, the slave traders have an additional motive, the fear of being taken, which induces them to start when their ships are half-provisioned; and . . . care is not taken of their health which was taken when the trade was allowed. . . .”14 Commodore Sir George Collier, on H.M.S. Tartar in 1821, found the slaves on the Cuban ship Ana María (captured in the Bonny) “clinging to the gratings to inhale a mouthful of fresh air, and fighting with each other for a taste of water, showing their parched tongues, and pointing to their reduced stomachs, as if overcome by famine for, although the living cargo had only been completed the day before, yet many who had been longer on the boats were reduced to such a state as skeletons that I was obliged to order twelve to be immediately placed under the care of the surgeon. . . .” Four hundred and fifty slaves were discovered “linked in shackles by the leg in pairs, some of them bound with cords; and several had their arms so lacerated by the tightness that the flesh was completely eaten through.”15

Very often in the nineteenth century, there were no special slave decks. But men and women were always separated, the former in the hold, the latter in the cabin; the children as often as not were left on the top deck. Most slaves seem to have traveled naked.

Many other details of these voyages were the same as in the eighteenth century: the distribution of the slaves in tens at the two daily mealtimes, the washing of hands in saltwater after eating, the punishment of slaves who refused to eat, the occasional distribution of brandy or tobacco, the rinsing of mouths with vinegar, the weekly shaving (without soap), the obligatory cutting of fingernails to limit damage in fights, and the daily cleaning of the decks. Then there was the systematic stowing of the slaves at night, “those on the right side of the vessel facing forward and lying in each other’s laps, while those on the left are similarly stowed with their faces towards the stern. . . . Each negro lies on his right side, which is considered preferable for the action of the heart.”16 “Constables” were as before chosen from “superior slaves,” and henceforth marked with a small rope or a row of beads round the neck. Sometimes billets of wood were available as pillows, the hatches and bulkheads were grated, and openings were made to give more ample circulation. Full-grown slaves seem normally to have been shackled to one another by the ankles.

Slave voyages in the nineteenth century usually took about twenty-five to thirty days between Angola and Brazil, or forty-five from the Bight of Benin or Biafra to the Caribbean; as earlier noticed, the voyage from East Africa could be far longer.

On these overcrowded ships, such food and water as were available were often passed round in calabashes in the slave areas, avoiding thereby the necessity of taking the slaves up to the open decks, as had usually happened in the past. The slave merchant José Cliffe thought that, on many voyages to Brazil, slaves never left the hold at all.

•  •  •

Diseases continued to turn one out of every ten slave ships into a condition comparable to one of the most unpleasant circles in Dante’s Inferno. Thus Captain Matson described finding a slave ship, the Josefina, after a chase of a few hours and discovering that “many of the slaves had confluent smallpox: the sick had been thrown into the hold in one particular spot, and they appeared on looking down to be one living mass; you could hardly tell arms from legs, or one person from another, or what they were; there were men, women, and children; it was the most horrible and disgusting heap that could be conceived.”17

One passenger, J. B. Romaigne, described a most surreal journey in 1819 on the two-hundred-ton Rôdeur of Le Havre, a vessel owned by a merchant named Chedel, which was sailing from the river Bonny to Guadeloupe with 200 slaves. A virulent if apparently ephemeral form of ophthalmia broke out, causing most of the slaves and crew to become blind. The ship, without a helmsman, rolled about the ocean without a course and, after surviving a storm, encountered the San León of Spain, from whose crew they expected to gain help; but those sailors turned out also to be blind. “At the announcement of this horrible coincidence, there was a silence among us for some moments, like that of death. It was broken by a fit of laughter, in which I joined myself and, before our awful merriment was over, we could hear, by the sound of curses which the Spaniards shouted at us, that the San León had drifted away. . . . She never reached any port.” Most of the crew of the Rôdeur, on the other hand, eventually recovered and made their way to Guadeloupe, though not before Captain Boucher threw overboard thirty-nine blind slaves.18, I

Mortality on these slave journeys in the nineteenth century was, usually, lower than a hundred years before. José Cliffe thought that the average number of deaths on ships to Brazil in the 1840s might be 35 percent. But Dr. Thomas Thomson, who spent years in Brazil, thought that figure exaggerated, and that 9 percent was more likely—a figure which was lowered by Admiral Sir Charles Hotham to 5 percent. In the 1840s, the House of Commons published similar, though more detailed, figures for shipments to Rio, Bahia, and Havana between the 1810s and the 1840s. Their estimate was 9.1 percent. Most vessels in the nineteenth century certainly traveled faster than their eighteenth-century equivalents, partly because of their coppersheathed hulls, but also because they were designed both to carry more water than their predecessors, and to catch more rainwater.

Slave captains were still ruthless if a case of smallpox was discovered and Canot described how a slave found suffering from that infirmity might be murdered at night, if it was thought that thereby the whole ship could be saved from contagion. But vaccination was already known, and seems to have been performed in Angola on most slaves after 1820.

The death rate among crews was, on the other hand, in the nineteenth century about the same as in the eighteenth: perhaps 17 percent (malaria and yellow fever being the usual killers). But there seems to have been an improvement in the 1840s.

There were also fewer rebellions or mutinies in the nineteenth century than in the past: first, because perhaps there were more children carried; second, because the journeys were shorter. But one of the most remarkable of all slave rebellions occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. A slave cargo was being carried west along the north coast of Cuba, from Havana to the small port of Guanajay, in a Baltimore-built vessel, “a matchless model for speed of about 120 tons,” the Amistad. The captain was Ramón Ferrer. The fifty-three slaves were mostly Mendes, originally from about sixty miles inland on the river Gallinas, where they had been embarked, perhaps by Pedro Blanco. The owners of the slaves, Pedro Mantes and José Ruiz, were on board. The ship was owned by a syndicate which was sending the slaves to be “refreshed,” apparently before marketing them, on one of the Bay Islands, off the coast of Honduras.II

A mulatto chef unwisely joked to the slaves, a little before they reached Guanajay, that, on arrival, they would all be killed and salted as meat. The wit was not appreciated. A certain Cinqué led a revolt, broke the slaves’ irons, and threw captain and crew overboard. Cinqué then ordered the owners, Mantes and Ruiz, to sail the ship back to Africa, towards the rising sun. These two Cubans arranged between them to sail their ship off course at night so that, after two months, with water and food very short, they were able to anchor off Long Island, at Culloden Point, New York. The vessel was first held as a smuggler. The slaves were sent to jail at New Haven, and the ship was seized. The Spanish minister in Washington demanded that both ship and merchandise be handed over to him, as provided by a treaty of 1795 between his country and the United States. But abolitionists, led by Joshua Levitt and Lewis Tappan, became apprised of the case, and a lawsuit followed. The central issue was whether the blacks had lawfully been made slaves. John Quincy Adams, the ex-president, now the serving congressman for Massachusetts and the leading abolitionist in the House of Representatives, was persuaded to represent Cinqué and his friends, and he successfully argued before the Supreme Court that they had not lawfully been made slaves; so they were released into freedom—or, rather, to Sierra Leone. Some senators tried to have the owners indemnified, but they failed.19

The suppression of the mutiny on board the Kentucky, under Captain Fonseca in 1844, must have been the worst of many such occurrences of the century. After a rising of slaves had been suppressed, forty-six men and a woman were hanged, shot, and thrown overboard; before they were killed, “they were . . . chained two together and, when they were hanged, a rope was put round their necks and they were drawn up to the yardarm, clear of the sail. This did not kill them, but only choked or strangled them; they were then shot in the breast, and the bodies thrown overboard. If only one of two who were ironed together was to be hung, a rope was put round his neck, and he was drawn up clear of the decks, beside of the bulwark, and his leg laid across the rail, and chopped off, to save the irons. . . . The bleeding negro was then drawn up, shot in the breast and thrown overboard. The legs of about one dozen were chopped off in this way. . . . All kinds of sport were made of the business.”20

There were also sometimes rebellions of the crews. For example, the vessel Céron, owned by Gervais Rives, left Bordeaux in December 1824, under Captain Jean-Baptiste Métayer. In March 1825, the Céron entered the river Bonny and began to buy slaves. But the negotiation was protracted (“s’éternisa” was the graphic expression of a French historian), many seamen died, and it was not till September that the ships left Africa, with 380 slaves for Santiago de Cuba. About three-quarters of the way across the Atlantic, the crew, led by a chef who had come on board at Paimboeuf, near Nantes, attacked the officers. The captain, the second captain, the supercargo, the lieutenant, the maître d’équipage, the master carpenter, and one other were murdered. The ship then anchored at San Juan, Puerto Rico. Half the crew denounced the mutineers, who were arrested, but the ship then left for Danish Saint Thomas, where it was intercepted by a French cruiser. All the same the slaves were sold—bought, it seems, by a trader from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.

A new dimension to the slave trade in the nineteenth century was created by the role of the British navy as a self-appointed world policeman; and to a lesser extent by the navies of the United States, France, and, in the end, even of Spain and Portugal.

The work of the naval officers responsible, as has been mentioned, was often tedious. Captain Eardley Wilmot pointed to this in a statement before a parliamentary committee in 1865: “The incessant rolling, which is most trying, the constant rumbling of the heavy surf upon the beach which becomes tedious from its monotony, the low and uninteresting appearance of the land, all have an effect upon the best organised mind which is sometimes distressing and we have, I grieve to say, examples of the effect of these trials in the invaliding of officers and others from mental disorganisation.”21

But there were also moments of excitement—a pleasure fully shared, it would seem, by the African traders. A British surgeon who knew both Brazil and Africa said that he thought the presence of the navy even stimulated the slave trade: “The blacks, like other people, are fond of excitement. [The slave trade] . . . is now more a gambling transaction than it has ever been. It requires great activity and a great combination of means to effect the escape of the slaves, and of the slavers, from the coast. . . . The excitement is one of the great inducements of the natives to keep it up. . . . It is the sort of wild excitement which is most palatable to the African character. . . . All parties are kept in excitement while there is a cargo waiting. . . . The prohibition lends not only a charm to it with theAfricans, but a direct stimulus”—and, he might have added, to the British navy, too.22

Till 1835, as has been shown, the British had no standing with respect to the activities of the citizens of Spain (with Cuba), Portugal, and Brazil, unless slaves were actually found on board the ships. If the slaves were loaded at night, the captain of a slaver could hope to escape the attention of the British navy, whose captains, learning the technique of their prey, would accordingly stand out offshore about thirty-five or forty miles when day dawned. The navy came to know too that “one bright light from the shore indicated that a slaver could safely come into port; two bright lights meant not to come in”; and three such were the “signal to run away as fast as you can.” The lookout on the masthead of such a naval ship would be promised a reward of, say, $8, if a sail were sighted which proved to be that of a genuine slaver.

A specially exciting chase, in 1841, was that of the Josephine, “the fastest slaver out of Havana,” though Portuguese owned. At dawn on April 30, the British naval vessel H.M.S. Fantôme (a ship designed by the naval surveyor Sir William Symonds), Captain Butterfield, sighted—off Ambriz—a strange brigantine. Butterfield gave chase and “immediately shook out all reefs set fore and maintop, with scudding sails and main royal flying jib, and went eleven knots.” By the afternoon, the mate of the Fantôme could see theJosephine cutting away her anchors, and throwing a gun overboard, to lighten the ship. By nightfall, the distance between the ships was reduced to six miles. The Fantôme was now trimmed so that every ounce of speed could be obtained: “At 1 a.m., I took in scudding sails and main royal, and carried through a tremendous squall of wind and rain—a thing I should never have attempted in any other . . . vessel; and gallantly she went through with it. [Though] the slaver was very nearly lost, . . . the Fantôme kept gaining on her prey by moonlight.” At dawn on May 1, when off the island of Ana Bona [Annobon], Butterfield “fired two shells . . . to bring the stranger to. I slackened sail as requisite. We hove to and boarded and detained the Portuguese brigantine Josephine, with two hundred slaves. Sent Mr. W. S. Cooper, senior lieut., and eight men to navigate the prize into Sierra Leone. . . .” The two vessels had covered 240 miles in twenty-four hours.23

The chase by the Rifleman in 1849 (under Commander S. S. L. Crofton) off Brazil raised a different issue. Crofton sighted a suspicious-looking sail fifty miles south of Rio. He entered Brazilian territorial waters to give chase. The quarry was thereupon run ashore, with all sails set, as darkness fell. When the Rifleman reached the stranded ship, heavy seas were breaking over her. The slaver’s crew had abandoned ship and left the cargo of slaves to die; some were washed overboard, others died because they had been manacled to the deck. Two midshipmen from the Rifleman’s boat crew remained on board the wreck and, at daybreak, a hawser was brought. Hutchings, the second master of the Rifleman, lashed himself to the slaver’s stern and, as each successive wave broke over him, passed the remaining slaves one by one from the slaver to the deck of the Rifleman by swinging them along the hawser in a cradle. “This tedious and dangerous service occupied the entire day. . . . [Thus] Commander Crofton rescued 127 Africans from death and slavery. . . .”24, III

Then there was the chase in 1852 of the Venus off Havana. It appears to have belonged to Antonio Parejo. It was thought to be the fastest ship in the slave trade at this time. But Captain Baillie Hamilton, in the Vestal a twenty-six-gun British fast frigate, was in Havana Bay. The captain of the Venus determined to slip away while the Vestal was undergoing repairs. One night, before dawn, Hamilton was onshore and told that, during the night, the Venus had sailed from Havana. Within minutes, the captain was back on board his ship. He sailed off in pursuit, the men on a nearby United States warship cheering as if a race had been engaged. Hamilton saw several ships on the horizon. He identified the Venus by her white colors and the spread of her canvas. The Vestal gained on her prey, but a tornado sprang up. The two vessels were parted. When the sky was clear again, there was no sign of the Venus. Hamilton assumed that her captain had sought refuge in one of the Bahama channels, perhaps hoping that those dangerous waters would deter pursuit. As Hamilton neared the shoals, he caught sight of the Venus, with two other vessels which he presumed were also slavers. They were trapped, but the Vestal could not go close, since she had a deep draft. Hamilton steered as near as he could, and fired a shot at an extreme range. He scored a hit. The master of the Venus hove to, and allowed a boat crew from the Vestal to board. Hamilton in person accompanied this boat and, putting a revolver to the head of the Spanish captain, said that he would shoot him if he did not make a course in the direction of the two other ships. He obeyed, and all three were captured, each with slave equipment. Hamilton brought all three of them back to Havana.25

There were also some outright naval battles. For example, the Pickle (with Lieutenant J. Hardy as captain), cruising in 1829 off northern Cuba, saw a heavily laden ship. He nearly reached this stranger by nightfall. No colors were hoisted even after a warning shot. As she came alongside, the Pickle was raked by musketry and cannon. The British crew had only one long eighteen-pounder and two eighteen-pound carronades (that is, short pieces of ordnance), whereas the Spanish ship had 65 guns. Three British seamen were killed, eight wounded. All the same, a close battle ensued, at pistol range. After half an hour, the Spaniard’s mainmast fell and she surrendered, her captain and most of her crew being wounded. A prize crew was put on board. They put the Spanish crew in irons and released 350 slaves.26

The British sometimes suffered. For example, in 1826, H.M.S. Redwing captured a Spanish schooner, the Invencible, with slaves in the hold. A prize crew was put on board, and the ship set off for Freetown. Soon this vessel captured another slaver, a Brazilian schooner, the Disunion, carrying slaves from the Cameroons. But both were shortly met by a Spanish pirate and themselves seized and taken to Havana. There the slaves were sold, but the ships set adrift. The Disunion, with five Brazilians, eventually reached Rio. Of the Invencible, with her British prize crew, no more was ever heard.27

The case of the Felicidade in 1845 had a different conclusion. This Portuguese ship was captured by H.M.S. Wasp, en route for Luanda, empty but equipped for slaves. The Wasp put a prize crew on board. Two days later, another Brazilian vessel was sighted and, when chased and captured, was identified as the Echo, with 400 slaves on board. The Wasp had been left behind, so the prize crew on the Felicidade sent a detachment to take over the Echo. The two prizes separated. The remaining British sailors on theFelicidade were attacked by the original Portuguese crew, who killed some and threw the rest overboard. After the Felicidade briefly chased the Echo (and her prize crew), the ships again separated. But soon H.M.S. Star came up, with the Felicidade. The latter ship was searched, and bloodstains were found on the deck. The crew confessed what had happened; Lieutenant Wilson and six men were put on the Felicidade to go to Saint Helena, recently established as the seat of a prize court. But a storm caused Wilson to abandon ship. He and his men took to a raft and were eventually rescued, after many hardships, by Commander Layton, on the Cygnet. Meantime, the prisoners had reached England. The judges had to decide about the “pirates.” Did an English court of law have jurisdiction over a vessel owned by a Brazilian who had murdered an English prize crew? The assize judge found the pirates guilty of murder. There was an appeal. In the event, the men were freed and sent back to Brazil, at British cost. There was uproar in the Times.“Remember the Felicidade” was a cry heard for many years in British naval circles.28

The seizure of a slaver was, of course, the occasion for a celebration: “When you take a slaver,” Captain Broadhead explained in 1843, “you will find lashed on deck puncheons of rum and puncheons of wine, and great quantities of ham and cheeses; and you cannot expect that those men [sailors from an English naval ship] who have been cooped up for such a length of time will not break out when they get on board that vessel. . . .” (Broadhead’s crew, on one voyage, included eleven men who had “never put their foot out of the vessel in three years and a half.”)29

The crews of captured slave ships suffered diverse fates. They were rarely treated as fellow seamen by British naval officers, though there were some instances of their officers being admitted to mess with those who captured them. If the seizure was close to the American coast, whether Cuba or Brazil, the seamen would be handed over to the authorities there, and their punishment would be at worst a token spell—of days, not months—in a local prison: “In the case of one prize which we took in the Racer,” reported Dr. Thomson in 1848, “I saw the crew after they were supposed to have been put in prison; I saw several of them walking about [in Rio] and conversed with them.”30 In 1836, Lieutenant Mercer, on the Charybdis, on the other hand told a legitimate United States merchant that his orders were to “put all [such] crews on shore and starve them.” Sometimes the crews were left for months in Sierra Leone, where they exercised “a decidedly bad influence,” it was generally agreed. On one such occasion, a group of such men—eleven slave captains and seventy-six crew—bought a vessel, the Augusta, which the governor of Sierra Leone supplied with six weeks’ worth of provisions, to take them to Havana. But their intention surely was to buy slaves, as another captain in a similar plight, Francisco Campo, had done, obtaining 357 slaves on the river Gallinas only nine days after leaving Sierra Leone with the Dulcinea, which he had bought for only £150.31

Sometimes these crews were left in disagreeable circumstances in the Bight of Benin or Lagos, where they had difficulty in surviving; but “most of them no doubt very soon find a passage . . . to a place where slave trading exists.” A Liverpool merchant, Robert Dawson—a kinsman of John Dawson, of Baker and Dawson, the shipbuilding firm of the 1790s—wrote with respect to this practice in May 1842: “The natives laugh at our philanthropy, when they allude to the system of our cruisers of landing poor Spaniards on the beach without food or clothing to a certain but lingering death.”32 Captain Bosanquet recalled that, when he captured the Marineto in 1831, he put the crew onshore: “Nine of them attempted to escape in three small canoes; two of the canoes were never heard of again; one of them was picked up by us after it had been fourteen days at sea; one of the men had died and, almost in a dying state, they were [all] landed at Fernando Po.” Asked whether, if captains were hanged by the yardarm for trading in slaves, it would be one of the “modes of suppressing slavery,” another naval officer, Captain Thompson, replied that would indeed have this effect. Most British officers thought that to treat Spanish or Portuguese crews as if they had been pirates would bring the trade to an end very soon.33

In 1850, Captain Denman captured his first slaver off the coast of South America. He took her to Rio, but the Court of Mixed Commission there declared itself incapable of judging her, and Denman was ordered to take his prize back across the ocean to Sierra Leone. That he did, though every rope was rotten on board this “mere wreck upon the waters,” every mast was sprung, and the 500 slaves on board had already once made the middle passage. At Sierra Leone, Denman again failed to get the ship judged, because she was a Portuguese vessel captured south of the Equator. The slaves were caused to make a third voyage across the Atlantic, back to Brazil, where the survivors were disposed of as usual.

Arrival in Brazil or Cuba was often painful. José Cliffe described how many slaves who reached Rio or Bahia were so emaciated that they could hardly walk, and had to be lifted off the ship.

Usually in the Americas the slaves were kept after their arrival in barracoons similar to those whence they had been shipped, and there fed, fattened, and treated well prior to sale. Sometimes, they were held up to six months in these encampments before being sold. In Brazil, these places might be remote. But in Havana, the most important camps were in the city, next to the captain-general’s residence.

It was frequently necessary, off both Cuba and Brazil, for slave captains to try to confuse the British navy about where slaves would be landed. Thus catamarans might take the slaves from their ship and deliver them in small harbors along the coast. Canot reported that, so far as Cuba was concerned, “a wild, uninhabited portion of the coast, where some little bay or sheltering nook exists, is commonly selected by the captain and his confederates. As soon as the vessel is driven close to the beach and anchored, her boats are packed with slaves, while the craft is quickly dismantled to avoid detection from sea or land. The busy skiffs are hurried to and fro incessantly till the cargo is entirely ashore, when the secured gang [of slaves], led by the captain, and escorted by armed sailors, is rapidly marched to the nearest plantation. There it is safe from the rapacity of local magistrates who, if they have a chance, imitate their superiors by exacting gratifications.”34

A messenger would be sent to Havana or Matanzas or Santiago, where the owners would send clothes for the slaves and money for the crew. Preparations would be made through the brokers for the sale. The ship, if small, would be sent under a coasting flag to a port of clearance. If the craft was large, she might well be sunk or burned where she lay at anchor. But sometimes no concealment was necessary.

Then began the new life for the slaves, and it is fair to say that there is not much evidence that slaves wanted thereafter, in Brazil or in Cuba, to return to Africa “and again to be made slaves and sold to someone else.” Perhaps, as William Ewart Gladstone suggested to José Cliffe in 1848, at one of the meetings of the Hutt Committee, that was “from fear of another middle passage.”35

Theodore Canot argued that, after the rigors of the journey, the reception of the slave at the plantation in Cuba must have seemed as if it was an arrival at paradise. The slave was often “amazed,” he thought, “by the generosity with which he is fed with fruit and fresh provisions. His new clothes, red cap, and roasting blanket . . . strike him dumb with delight. . . . The climax of wonder is reached when that paragon of oddities, a Cuban postillion [a slave, of course], dressed in his sky-blue coat, silverlaced hat, white breeches, polished jackboots and ringing spurs, leaps from his prancing quadruped and bids them welcome in their mother tongue.”36 All the same, the expectation of life of a slave as a picker of coffee or a cutter of sugar cane in Brazil in the 1840s would not have been more than eight years.

•  •  •

Profits in the nineteenth century were greater than they had been in the eighteenth. Rossel and Boudet’s Le Cultivateur of Nantes in 1815 cost just under 600,000 francs to fit out, and the sale of about 500 slaves brought 1,236,200 colonial livres: say, 1,100,000 francs, a profit of 83 percent. José Cliffe, a North American who had a long experience of the Brazilian trade, told a committee in London that his transactions in the slave trade in the 1830s or 1840s, “were very profitable.” It was, he said, “the most lucrative trade now under the sun.” Lord John Russell, prime minister in London in the late 1840s, looking at the figures presented to a House of Commons select committee, said that a cargo of slaves which cost $5,000 on the coast of Africa might sell in Brazil for $25,000: a profit of 400 percent. Canot gave a figure of costs which showed that his vessel, La Fortuna, carrying to Matanzas 217 slaves which he bought for 200,000 cigars and 50 ounces of Mexican gold (costing about $11,000), made a profit in 1827 of over $40,000.

To consider the matter in greater detail: In 1848, a United States-built slave ship of, say, 180 to 200 tons, a reasonable average, plying between Brazil and Africa and bringing back slaves, might cost £1,500. The owner would have to pay about twenty seamen one hundred Spanish dollars a trip—say, £416. Food for those men for 90 days would cost £90. The captain would be paid 400 Spanish dollars: another £83. Food (and medicine) for 450 slaves might cost three pence a day per slave if the food were “flour,” which it usually was: another £169. Luxuries for the captain and other contingencies (water casks, wood for the slave deck, etc.) might cost another £300. Slaves would cost about an average of £4-10s in Africa—whether paid for in specie or in trade goods—£2,025 in all. The outlay, therefore, might be a little more than £4,500. Perhaps fifty slaves would die en route. But the sale of 410 slaves at £45 each would bring the merchant £18,450, or a profit for the voyage, therefore, of just under £14,000. Even if every other ship were captured by the British, there would still be a 100-percent profit. These figures were, of course, considerably higher than those in the era of legitimate trade.37

Another estimate was worked out by Edward Cardwell, the future reformer of the English army (himself the son of a merchant of Liverpool), in conversation with Admiral Hotham in 1849: “An adventure of this kind” would yield “upon the average profit of £45-10s upon an outlay of £14-10s.”38 Captain Drake said that, on one voyage—on the Napoleon, a Baltimore clipper of ninety tons, carrying 350 slaves in 1835—the profits were about $100,000 (the price of the slaves being $16 a head, the costs totaling $20,000, and the sales in Havana yielding $360 a head).39 Consul Crawford in Havana thought that one successful slave voyage would pay the costs of the loss of ten empty or five laden slavers. He thought that a ship whose costs were $150,000 could expect to make nearly $400,000 if the slaves could be sold for $1,200 each. Another estimate, using Crawford’s figures but reducing the average price of slaves in Havana to $500, would have, all the same, produced a profit of 53 percent.40

Still, many of the biggest merchants carrying slaves in the illegal era, either to Cuba or to Brazil, seem, unless they invested in sugar or coffee plantations, to have gone bankrupt. The British commissary judge in Havana commented in 1849: “The profits of the trade are much overstated. All persons are apt to boast much of their gains, but the slave traders more especially, as a triumph over the cruisers, and even the Government of England, as well as to console themselves for the discredit they could not but feel attached to their trade. Thus we hear of a few fortunate individuals who . . . formerly amassed fortunes in it, but of the many who have lost fortunes and life in it we hear but little. . . . the trade has not recently been a productive one. One proof of this is that the insurance offices lost so much on the policies of slave trade vessels that it is nearly ten years since they resolved to take none of them on any terms . . .”41

The profits above-mentioned might have to be abbreviated a little, because they do not take into account the necessary bribes to local police and other officials at the point of landing: even to the governor of the province and, in Cuba, the captain-general.

The benefits to the seamen explain their interest. Most seamen in those days were able to buy a slave of their own. The sailor would have to contribute to that slave’s cost while crossing the Atlantic. But, assuming that the slave lived, every seaman might be able in, say, 1848 to make a clear profit of £30 or £35: a good sum for a Brazilian sailor.


I Dr. Grillé, the duchess of Angoulême’s optician, wrote a thesis on the epidemic, and the affair became public knowledge. The abolitionist Morenas pointed out that, in the second edition of this work the “jet en mer” was omitted.

II See page 615 for the Bay Islands trade.

III Neither Crofton nor Hutchings appears in the British Dictionary of National Biography, unlike many less valiant officers.

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