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Life on A Slave Ship

Life on A Slave Ship


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In today's video we are discussing a difficult topic, and we have to say it would be impossible to sum up the African slave trade in a few short minutes, and it would be disrespectful to try. We want to make it clear that is not our intention. Instead we're going to try and show you just a slice of how horrible the living conditions on a slave ship actually were.


Hell On Water: The Brutal Misery Of Life On Slave Ships

Melissa Sartore

The Atlantic Slave Trade saw millions of Africans removed from their homeland, shipped across an ocean, and forced to work in brutal conditions in the Americas. The trip itself, known as the Middle Passage, was a horrible, deadly, and inhumane experience. The conditions on slave ships were dirty, scary, and offered no amount of comfort to the enslaved passengers.

With little understanding of what was to come and even less hope of ever being free again, captives on slave ships would resort to tears, acts of defiance, and even suicide to try escaping their plight. To this day, we are still uncovering evidence that attests to the horrible realities of slavery - but no amount of scholarship and understanding will change the scarring experiences of slave ship conditions.

Photo : Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Ancient navies generally preferred to rely on free men to man their galleys. Slaves were usually not put at the oars except in times of pressing manpower demands or extreme emergency, [2] and in some of these cases they would earn their freedom by this. There is no evidence that ancient navies ever made use of condemned criminals as oarsmen, [3] despite the popular image from novels such as Ben-Hur. [ citation needed ]

Greek navies Edit

In Classical Athens, a leading naval power of Classical Greece, rowing was regarded as an honorable profession of which men should possess some practical knowledge, [4] and sailors were viewed as instrumental in safeguarding the state. [5] According to Aristotle, the common people on the rowing benches won the Battle of Salamis, thereby strengthening the Athenian democracy. [6]

The special characteristics of the trireme, with each of its 170 oars being handled by a single oarsman, demanded the commitment of skilled freemen rowing required coordination and training on which success in combat and the lives of all aboard depended. [7] Also, practical difficulties such as the prevention of desertion or revolt when bivouacking (triremes used to be hauled on land at night) made free labour more secure and more economical than slaves. [8]

In the 5th and 4th centuries BC, Athens generally followed a naval policy of enrolling citizens from the lower classes (thetes), metics (foreigners resident in Athens) and hired foreigners. [9] Although it has been argued that slaves formed part of the rowing crew in the Sicilian Expedition, [10] a typical Athenian trireme crew during the Peloponnesian War consisted of 80 citizens, 60 metics and 60 foreign hands. [11]

However, when put under military pressure by the Spartans in the final stages of the conflict, Athens, in an all-out effort, mobilized all men of military age, including all slaves. [12] After the victorious Battle of Arginusae, the freed slaves were even given Athenian citizenship, [13] in a move interpreted as an attempt to keep them motivated rowing for Athens. [14] On two other occasions during the war, captured enemy galley slaves were given freedom by the victors. [5]

In Sicily, the tyrant Dionysios (ca. 432–367 BC) once set all slaves of Syracuse free to man his galleys, employing thus freedmen, but otherwise relied on citizens and foreigners as oarsmen. [15]

Slaves accompanying officers and hoplite marines as personal attendants into war are assumed by modern scholars to have also assisted in the rowing when need arose, [16] but there is no definite proof on this point, [17] and they should not be regarded as regular members of the crew. [18] When travelling over the sea on personal matters, it was common that both master and slave pulled the oar. [17]

Roman and Carthaginian navies Edit

In Roman times, reliance on rowers of free status continued. Slaves were usually not put at the oars, except in times of pressing manpower demands or extreme emergency. [2]

Thus, in the drawn-out Second Punic War with Carthage, both navies are known to have resorted to slave labour. In the aftermath of Cannae, a levy of slaves was equipped and trained by private Roman individuals for Titus Otacilius’ squadron in Sicily (214 BC). [19] After the capture of New Carthage five years later, local slaves were impressed by Scipio in his fleet on the promise of freedom after the war to those who showed good will as rowers. [19] At the end of the war, Carthage, alarmed over the impending invasion by Scipio, bought five thousand slaves to row its fleet (205 BC). [20] It has been suggested that the introduction of polyremes at the time, particularly of the quinquereme, facilitated the use of little-trained labour, as these warships only needed a skilled man for the position nearest the loom (middle part of the oar), while the remaining rowers at the oar followed his lead. [21]

Nonetheless, the Romans seemed to avoid the use of slave rowers in their subsequent wars with the Hellenistic east. Livy records that naval levies in the War against Antiochos consisted of freedmen and colonists (191 BC), [22] while in the Third Macedonian War (171 BC–168 BC) Rome's fleet was manned by freedmen with Roman citizenship and allies. [23] In the final showdown of the civil war between Octavian and Sextus Pompey, the adversaries enlisted among others slaves, but set them free before putting them to the oars, [24] indicating that the prospect of freedom was judged instrumental in keeping the rowers motivated. In Imperial times, provincials who were free men became the mainstay of the Roman rowing force. [25]

Europe Edit

Only in the Late Middle Ages did slaves begin to be increasingly employed as rowers. It also became the custom among the Mediterranean powers to sentence condemned criminals to row in the war-galleys of the state (initially only in time of war). Traces of this practice appear in France as early as 1532, but the first legislative enactment comes in the Ordonnance d'Orléans of 1561. In 1564 Charles IX of France forbade the sentencing of prisoners to the galleys for fewer than ten years. A brand of the letters GAL identified the condemned galley-slaves. [ citation needed ]

Naval forces from both Christian and Muslim countries often turned prisoners of war into galley-slaves. Thus, at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, 12,000 Christian galley slaves were freed from the Ottoman Turks. [26]

The Knights Hospitaller made use of galley slaves and debtors (Italian: buonavoglie) to row their galleys during their rule over the Maltese Islands. [27]

In 1622, Saint Vincent de Paul, as a former slave himself (in Tunis), became chaplain to the galleys and ministered to the galley slaves. [ citation needed ]

In 1687 the governor of New France, Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville, seized, chained, and shipped 50 Iroquois chiefs from Fort Frontenac to Marseille, France, to be used as galley slaves. [ citation needed ]

King Louis XIV of France, who wanted a bigger fleet, ordered that the courts should sentence men to the galleys as often as possible, even in times of peace he even sought to transform the death penalty to sentencing to the galleys for life (and unofficially did so—a letter exists to all French judges, that they should, if possible, sentence men to life in the galleys instead of death). [ citation needed ]

By the end of the reign of Louis XIV in 1715 the use of the galley for war purposes had practically ceased, but the French Navy did not incorporate the corps of the galleys until 1748. From the reign of Henry IV, Toulon functioned as a naval military port, Marseille having become a merchant port, and served as the headquarters of the galleys and of the convict rowers (galériens). After the incorporation of the galleys, the system sent the majority of these latter to Toulon, the others to Rochefort and to Brest, where they worked in the arsenal. [ citation needed ]

Convict rowers also went to a large number of other French and non-French cities: Nice, Le Havre, Nîmes, Lorient, Cherbourg, Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, La Spezia, Antwerp and Civitavecchia but Toulon, Brest and Rochefort predominated. At Toulon the convicts remained (in chains) on the galleys, which were moored as hulks in the harbour. Their shore prisons had the name bagnes ("baths"), a name given to such penal establishments first by the Italians (bagno), and allegedly deriving from the prison at Constantinople situated close by or attached to the great baths there. [ citation needed ]

All French convicts continued to use the name galérien even after galleys went out of use only after the French Revolution did the new authorities officially change the hated name—with all it signified—to forçat ("forced"). The use of the term galérien nevertheless continued until 1873, when the last bagne in France (as opposed to the bagnes relocated to French Guiana), the bagne of Toulon, closed definitively. In Spain, the word galeote continued in use as late as the early 19th century for a criminal condemned to penal servitude. In Italian the word galera is still in use for a prison. [ citation needed ]

A vivid account of the life of galley-slaves in France appears in Jean Marteilhes's Memoirs of a Protestant, translated by Oliver Goldsmith, which describes the experiences of one of the Huguenots who suffered after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. [ citation needed ]

Madame de Sevigne, a revered French author, wrote from Paris on April 10, 1671 (Letter VII): "I went to walk at Vincennes, en Troche* and by the way met with a string of galley-slaves they were going to Marseilles, and will be there in about a month. Nothing could have been surer than this mode of conveyance, but another thought came into my head, which was to go with them myself. There was one Duval among them, who appeared to be a convertible man. You will see them when they come in, and I suppose you would have been agreeably surprised to have seen me in the midst of the crowd of women that accompany them."

Galley-slaves lived in unsavoury conditions, so even though some sentences prescribed a restricted number of years, most rowers would eventually die, even if they survived the conditions, shipwreck and slaughter or torture at the hands of enemies or of pirates. Additionally, nobody ensured that prisoners were freed after completing their sentences. As a result, imprisonment for 10 years could in reality mean imprisonment for life because nobody except the prisoner would either notice or care. [ citation needed ]

Notable galley slaves in Europe Edit

Africa Edit

The Barbary pirates of the 16th to 19th centuries used galley slaves, often captured Europeans from Italy or Spain. The Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul used galley slaves also. [28]

Notable galley slaves in North Africa Edit

Asia Edit

In Southeast Asia, from the mid-18th to the late-19th centuries, the lanong and garay warships of the Iranun and Banguingui pirates were crewed entirely with male galley slaves captured from previous raids. Conditions were brutal and it was not uncommon for galley slaves to die on voyages from exhaustion. Slaves were kept bound to their stations and were fed poorly. Slaves who mistimed their strokes were caned by overseers. Most of the slaves were Tagalogs, Visayans, and "Malays" (including Bugis, Mandarese, Iban, and Makassar). There were also occasional European and Chinese captives. [29]

A short account of his 10 years as a galley-slave is given by the character Farrabesche in "The Village Rector" by Honoré de Balzac. He is sentenced to the galleys as a result of his life as a "chauffeur" (in this case the word refers to a brigand who threatened landowners by roasting them).

In one of his ill-fated adventures, Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote [30] frees a row of prisoners sent to the galleys, including Ginés de Pasamonte. The prisoners, however, beat him. [31] (Cervantes himself had been captured in 1575 and served as a galley slave in Algiers for five years before he was ransomed). [32]

In The Sea Hawk, [33] a 1919 historical fiction novel by Rafael Sabatini, as well as the 1924 film based on the novel, the protagonist, Sir Oliver Tressilian, is sold into galley slavery by a relative.

The Sea Hawk (1940) was originally intended to be a new version of the Sabatini novel, but the studio switched to a story whose protagonist, Geoffrey Thorpe, was loosely based on Sir Francis Drake, although Drake was never a galley slave. Howard Koch was working on the script when war broke out in Europe, and the final story deliberately draws vivid parallels between Spain and the Nazi Reich. The existence of galley slaves and the misery they endure is set up as a metaphor for life under the Reich. When Thorpe (Errol Flynn) liberates a Spanish vessel full of English captives, the freed men row willingly for home to “Strike for the Shores of Dover”, [34] the stirring music of score composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold and lyrics by Howard Koch and Jack Scholl. The first verse “Pull on the oars! Freedom is yours! Strike for the shores of Dover!” evoked the recent evacuation from Dunkirk. [35] The sets in the 1940 film appear historically accurate.

In Lew Wallace's novel, Judah Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, Judah is sent to the galleys as a murderer but manages to survive a shipwreck and save the fleet leader, who frees and adopts him. Both films based on the novel— Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and Ben-Hur (1959) —perpetuate the historically inaccurate image of Roman galley slaves.

In the 1943 epic novel The Long Ships, the protagonist, Orm Tostesson, is captured while raiding in Andalusia and serves as a galley slave for a number of years.

The 1947 French film Monsieur Vincent shows Saint Vincent de Paul taking the place of a weakened slave at his oar.

Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series (covering a period from 92 B.C. to 44 B.C ) includes a novel Arms of Nemesis, which contains an appalling description of the conditions under which galley slaves lived and worked—assuming that they did exist in Rome at that time. (See above.)

C. S. Forester wrote of an encounter with Spanish galleys in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower when the becalmed British fleet is attacked off Gibraltar by galleys. The author writes of the stench emanating from these galleys due to each carrying two hundred condemned prisoners chained permanently to the rowing benches.

Patrick O'Brian wrote of encounters with galleys in the Mediterranean in Master and Commander emphasising the galley's speed and manoeuvrability compared to sailing ships when there was little wind.

In Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Jean Valjean was a galley prisoner, and was in danger of returning to the galleys. Police inspector Javert's father was also a galley prisoner.

Robert E. Howard transplanted the Institute of galley slavery to his mythical Hyborian Age, depicting Conan the Barbarian as organizing a rebellion of galley slaves who kill the crew, take over the ship and make him their captain in one novel (Conan the Conqueror).

In Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series, multiple references are made to galley slaves in The Farthest Shore specifically, Prince Arren is rescued from captivity, and notes the galley slaves imprioned with him on the ship.


On November 29, 1781, the crew of the slave ship Zong realised their supplies of drinking water were running perilously low. The ship, owned by a syndicate based in Liverpool, was taking around 400 slaves from Africa across the Atlantic. By the time it reached the coast of Jamaica, the situation was desperate. However, an easy solution was reached: the crew simply unchained 140 slaves and threw them overboard. The dead included 54 women and children. After all, if the slaves &ndash their property &ndash died at sea rather than on land or from ‘natural causes&rsquo, the ship&rsquos owners could claim them on their insurance policy.

The company duly filed its insurance claim for the value of around 140 slaves. The court case caused outrage, and indeed it was instrumental in winning support for what became the Slave Trade Act of 1788, the first British legislation aimed at regulating the cruel trade. And, while, the insurers refused to pay out and the judge backed their stance, he still noted that there were circumstances in which it was acceptable for slave ship captains to order slaves be thrown overboard to their certain deaths.

For reasons of simple economics rather than humanity, captains were reluctant to throw slaves overboard during the ‘middle passage&rsquo. Of course, slaves who died during the journey were thrown over the side almost as soon as they were found. However, only in extreme cases did living slaves meet the same fate. Captains were under pressure to arrive with as many ‘heads&rsquo as possible and so would usually resort to other measures, including torture and other extreme punishments, if they caught a slave trying to escape or incite a rebellion.

That&rsquos not to say that hardly any slaves ended up in the cold waters of the Atlantic. Tragically, many did indeed drown. However, in many cases, this was an act of desperation and defiance, with both slave men and women preferring to kill themselves than await their fate in the Americas. Slave ship captain John Newton recalled: &ldquoWhen we were putting the slaves down in the evening, one that was sick jumped overboard. Got him in again but he died immediately, between his weakness and the salt water he swallowed.&rdquo

Most large slave ships had their crew on stand-by to ‘rescue&rsquo slaves who threw themselves overboard and some even fitted special ‘suicide nets&rsquo to prevent jumpers &ndash again, motivated by greed rather than any sense of humanity. To get around this, some slaves even asked their fellow captives to strange them. In cases of suicide, some crews would decapitate the corpses of slaves, telling the remaining captives that they too would go to the afterlife with no head if they chose the ‘easy way out&rsquo.


Details of Brutal First Slave Voyages Discovered

In August 1518, King Charles I authorized Spain to ship enslaved people directly from Africa to the Americas. The edict marked a new phase in the transatlantic slave trade in which the numbers of enslaved people brought directly to the Americas—without going through a European port first—rose dramatically.

Researchers have uncovered new details about those first direct voyages.

King of Spain Charles as he grants a license to sell Africans as slaves in Spain&aposs American colonies, 1518.

Interim Archives/Getty Images

Historians David Wheat and Marc Eagle have identified about 18 direct voyages from Africa to the Americas in the first several years after Charles I authorized these trips—the earliest such voyages we know about.

The transatlantic slave trade didn’t start in 1518, but it did increase after King Charles authorized direct Africa-to-Caribbean trips that year. In the 1510s and �s, ships sailing from Spain to the Caribbean settlements of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola might contain as few as one or two enslaved people, or as many as 30 or 40.

𠇋y the mid 1520s, we’re seeing 200—sometimes as many as almost 300�ptives being brought on the same slave ship [from Africa],” says Wheat, a history professor at Michigan State University. It’s difficult to trace what parts of Africa the captives on board came from, since many were captured on the mainland and shipped to island ports off the coast before Spanish boats took them to the Americas.

“This is also some of our earliest examples of enslaved people throwing themselves overboard, people dying of malnutrition,” Wheat adds. “Some of the same really horrible and violent and brutal aspects of the slave trade that was seen much later on, we’re seeing them already in these voyages from São Tomé in the 1520s.”

São Tomé was a colonial island port off the west coast of Africa that Portugal established in the mid-1400s. Before 1518, Portugal forced enslaved Africans to work on islands in the eastern Atlantic. In addition, Spanish ships brought captive Africans to the Iberian Peninsula, from which they sent some to the Caribbean.

The crowded deck of a slave ship.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Spain may have increased the number of enslaved Africans it brought to the Caribbean after 1518 because the Native people it had previously enslaved there were dying from European disease and colonial violence. Though it’s not clear how many captive Africans arrived through the 1520s, Wheat estimates the number is in the thousands.

We don’t have many firsthand accounts of Africans in the Americas during this period, but one exception is Rodrigo Lopez, a former enslaved man in Africa’s Cape Verde islands freed in a slaveholder’s will. After he became a free man, he was captured and sent to the Americas, where he was re-enslaved in the late 1520s. Lopez, who could read and write Latin, protested his re-enslavement and won back his freedom in the early �s.

“It’s an unusual case because we have not only a person who was of very high status among enslaved people in the Cape Verde islands,” Wheat says, but also because “he sues for his freedom and he writes about it, and that document still survives.” Lopez explained that one of his master’s former employees kidnapped him in the night and sold him into slavery. This was illegal, Lopez argued, because he was free man now.

Most of the enslaved men, women and children in the Caribbean didn’t have the option of suing for their freedom. Still, there were some free people of color in Spanish-American colonies, because race wasn’t yet as closely tied to slave status as it would be during American chattel slavery.

A cocoa plantation in the West Indies.

“It was considered normal for enslaved people to be black, even though there were enslaved people of other origins,” Wheat says. 𠇋ut at the same time, it was also normal for there to be small numbers of free people of color in Iberian societies around the Atlantic.”

Wheat and Eagle will publish an essay on their research in a forthcoming book, From the Galleons to the Highlands: Slave Trade Routes in the Spanish Americas in 2019For the project, they spent a lot of time studying Spanish shipping records and lawsuits from the Caribbean that mentioned slave voyages.

“Most of [the lawsuits] involve either one of two things𠉬orruption or disgruntled investors,” Wheat says. Corruption often involved “officials who had permitted unlicensed slave trading voyages to take place.” Crown officials pursued these types of corruption lawsuits, whereas investors usually sued after losing money on a slave voyage.

Dealing with the �sual brutality” in these records is often difficult, says Eagle, a history professor at Western Kentucky University. Even in a report about a slave revolt, “the whole report is about a captain who’s trying to justify the fact that he’s lost some goods to his investors, and it really is just like he’s talking about merchandise,” he observes.

“When a slaves dies they’ll send somebody to [record] what the brand was on the slave and what they died of and keep a record, and that’s all again for commercial purposes—they can claim that as loss later on,” Eagle continues. “So it is really kind of horrifying to read things like this and realize they’re talking about human beings.”


Children and Youth in History

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, an estimated 20 million Africans crossed the Atlantic to the Americas in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Until recently, slave studies rarely discussed children's experiences, but it has been estimated that one quarter of the slaves who crossed the Atlantic were children. Olaudah Equiano, kidnapped at age 11, became one of the most prominent English abolitionists of the 18th century. His narrative is extremely valuable not only for the wealth of information it presents on children's experiences in the slave trade, but also for those examining the abolitionist movement in England during this period of time.

Many Africans who survived the coffles and made their way to the coast had never seen a white man, let alone the ocean or a slave ship. For Equiano, a child of 11, this experience was one he could not understand. What is particularly important about this source, however, is Equiano's placement into the hold of the slave ship. As a child, he should have traveled the Middle Passage on deck, unfettered with the slave women and children. Yet, Equiano was put in the hold with the adults, giving him a different experience entirely.

Source

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself. Edited by Robert J. Allison. New York: W. Durell, 1791. Reprint, Boston: Bedford Books, 1995, 53-54. Annotated by Colleen A. Vasconcellos.

Primary Source Text

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. . . indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country. When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believe were some of those who had brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair. They told me I was not, and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine glass but being afraid of him, I would not take it out of his hand. One of the blacks therefore took it from him and gave it to me, and I took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me, as they thought it would, threw me into the greatest consternation at the strange feeling it produced. . .

I was not long suffered to indulge my grief I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomness [sic] of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced anything of this kind before, and, although not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it, yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not and besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut, for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This was often the case with myself.

I inquired of these what was to be done with us. They gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them. I then was a little revived, and thought if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate. But still I feared that I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted in so savage a manner. I have never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty, and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves.

One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died in consequence of it, and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more, and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner. . ..

One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea. Immediately another quite dejected fellow, who on account of his illness was suffered to be out of irons, followed their example. I believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been prevented by the ship's crew, who were instantly alarmed. Those of us that were the most active were in a moment put down under the deck, and there was such a noise and confusion among the people of the ship as I never heard before to stop her and get the boat out to go after the slaves. However, two of the wretches were drowned, but they got the other and afterwards flogged him unmercifully for thus attempting to prefer death to slavery.


Annotation

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, an estimated 20 million Africans crossed the Atlantic to the Americas in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Until recently, slave studies rarely discussed children's experiences, but it has been estimated that one quarter of the slaves who crossed the Atlantic were children. Olaudah Equiano, kidnapped at age 11, became one of the most prominent English abolitionists of the 18th century. His narrative is extremely valuable not only for the wealth of information it presents on children's experiences in the slave trade, but also for those examining the abolitionist movement in England during this period of time.

Many Africans who survived the coffles and made their way to the coast had never seen a white man, let alone the ocean or a slave ship. For Equiano, a child of 11, this experience was one he could not understand. What is particularly important about this source, however, is Equiano's placement into the hold of the slave ship. As a child, he should have traveled the Middle Passage on deck, unfettered with the slave women and children. Yet, Equiano was put in the hold with the adults, giving him a different experience entirely.

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself, 1791.

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. . . indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country. When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believe were some of those who had brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain. I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair. They told me I was not, and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine glass but being afraid of him, I would not take it out of his hand. One of the blacks therefore took it from him and gave it to me, and I took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me, as they thought it would, threw me into the greatest consternation at the strange feeling it produced. . .

I was not long suffered to indulge my grief I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life: so that, with the loathsomness [sic] of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely. I had never experienced anything of this kind before, and, although not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it, yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not and besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut, for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating. This was often the case with myself.

I inquired of these what was to be done with us. They gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them. I then was a little revived, and thought if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate. But still I feared that I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted in so savage a manner. I have never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty, and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves.

One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died in consequence of it, and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more, and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner. . ..

One day, when we had a smooth sea and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings and jumped into the sea. Immediately another quite dejected fellow, who on account of his illness was suffered to be out of irons, followed their example. I believe many more would very soon have done the same if they had not been prevented by the ship's crew, who were instantly alarmed. Those of us that were the most active were in a moment put down under the deck, and there was such a noise and confusion among the people of the ship as I never heard before to stop her and get the boat out to go after the slaves. However, two of the wretches were drowned, but they got the other and afterwards flogged him unmercifully for thus attempting to prefer death to slavery.

Credits

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself. Edited by Robert J. Allison. New York: W. Durell, 1791. Reprint, Boston: Bedford Books, 1995, 53-54. Annotated by Colleen A. Vasconcellos.


Slave Ship Captains of the Atlantic Slave Trade

A painting c.1830 by the German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas depicts a scene below deck of a slave ship headed to Brazil Rugendas had been an eyewitness to the scene

Who were the men who commanded the slave ships on the Middle Passage and what exactly did they do?

On the slave ship, the captain was King. He held absolute power over every individual on his ship. His responsibilities were extensive and his friendships few. He could not afford to appear vulnerable to his officers, crew, or the enslaved Africans his ship carried.

How to Become a Slave-Ship Captain

Most slave-ship captains were “bred to the sea”. This meant they were apprenticed out at around 11 years of age to be taught necessary sailing skills and often came from a lineage of sailors. It was their connection to financiers that provided their opportunities, however. Their commands came from a group of investors who needed someone to captain their ships, and they obviously looked for captains they could trust.

The payment for commanding a slaver provided plenty of incentive for experienced captains to try their hand at it. Negotiated contracts outlined not just wages, but also commissions and bonuses. A common form of payment was in the slaves themselves, allowing the captain the “privilege” to select a certain number of slaves for himself — for example, four slaves for him to every 100 slaves that arrived alive at their destination. This gave the captain incentive to transport as many as possible, but also to work hard to keep them alive.

Duties of the Slave Ship Captain

The duties of a slave-ship captain began upon his appointment. He first had to select his officers and find a crew. This was, perhaps, his most important task as the skill and loyalty of the men aboard would be tantamount to its success. Captains obviously preferred to work with men who had proven these requirements on previous voyages.

Supervising the loading of the ship also fell under the captain’s duties. In fact, supervising every aspect of the ship’s functioning, both in port and on the seas, was his primary function. His knowledge of all aspects of ship life is what qualified him as captain. He managed supplies, crew members, bookkeeping, navigation, and more and he documented it all in his log. He was the representative of the merchants who backed him, and once upon the seas became the sole decision-maker for the ship and all aboard.

Aside from the sailing-related duties, he took on the role of negotiator in purchasing enslaved Africans. Most merchants provided explicit instructions on what to look for when making the purchases. For example, most were instructed to purchase more males than females and to ensure that females were not “long-breasted”. They were instructed to avoid “smooth negroes”, those who were not used to hard physical labor.

On a slave ship, a captain also served as warden of a floating prison. He had to maintain the discipline of his crew and follow strict protocols when loading and moving slaves to avoid escape attempts. The majority of slave captains never personally entered the hold where the slaves were housed as this would give them the opportunity to kill him. However, he was still responsible for their care during the voyage and gave the orders for how they would be treated. The real and constant fear of insurrections, led most to be aloof, cruel, and arbitrary in their treatment of both sailors and slaves.

Famous Slave Ship Captains

By far the most well-known slave-ship captain is John Newton, but his fame is derived more from his famous hymn “Amazing Grace” than from his time as a slave-ship captain. Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake made their first voyages to the New World on slave ships, but are better known for their privateer days. The famous pirate “Black Bart” Roberts started his pirating days after being kidnapped from a slave ship by pirates in 1719.

According to The Slave Ship: A Human History, the average slave-ship captain made 2.2 slaving voyages, but more than 50 captains documented five or more runs. These captains created a network, sharing information on African traders, slaving methods, crew members, and more. Although they were competing with each other, they also shared a common interest in improving their methods and increasing their profits.


Cargo of the living dead: The unspeakable horror of life on a slave ship

Louis Asa-Asa was 13 when his happiness ended. One day, warriors converged on his home far from the sea. They set fire to the huts, killing and capturing villagers.

He escaped into the forest, the only child to survive.

A few days later the warriors found Louis.

They manacled him into a slave train which slowly made its way to the coast.

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"I was sold six times over, sometimes for money, sometimes for cloth, sometimes for a gun," he recalled.

"We were taken from place to place and sold at every place we stopped at."

It took Louis six months to reach the "white people" and their "very large ship".

Ukawsaw, about the same age, lived in northern Nigeria, up near Lake Chad.

The grandson of the local king, he was mesmerised by the magical tales told by a visiting merchant.

Vividly, the man described white people who lived in houses on the water which had wings upon them.

His family let Ukawsaw go with the merchant, who told no more tales but dragged the boy to the Gold Coast where Ukawsaw was enslaved.

A Dutch captain sold him in Barbados for 50 dollars.

Olaudah, also Nigerian, was only 11 when slave traders carried him aboard a slave ship.

He was grabbed by members of the crew, "white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair", who tossed him about to see if his limbs were sound.

He thought they were bad spirits, not human beings.

As he recorded 35 years later, when they put him down on the deck the first thing he saw was a huge copper boiling pot, and nearby a crowd of black people, "chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow".

Struck by the thought that he had fallen into the hands of cannibals, Olaudah fainted.

These are just three slaves among the 12.4 million Africans who were captured by raiders and kidnappers and transported across the Atlantic in slave ships between the late 15th and the late 19th centuries.

As Marcus Rediker recalls in a new book on the slave trade, 1.8 million slaves died during that journey known as the Middle Passage, their bodies thrown to the sharks.

Most of the ten million who survived the journey were condemned to a plantation system so brutal, many more perished.

Two-thirds of the total were transported between 1700 and 1808, a period which includes the Age of Enlightenment and manuscripts by Jane Austen.

He came from a pastoral background in which villagers worked collectively to build homes and cultivate the fields, raising foodstuffs, mostly yams and fruit, but also tobacco, and cotton which they wove into clothes.

Blacksmiths made weapons other craftsmen made jewellery.

His Igbo people believed that the spirits of the dead would wander aimlessly unless given proper burial.

As in last century's death camps, perhaps only the very young, like him, could survive the journey without lifelong mental damage.

The humiliation of the slave train - men, women and children strapped in a neck yolk as they stumbled towards the coast - was usually followed by imprisonment for as much as eight months until a slave ship arrived and collected a full cargo - whereupon they were marched out, stripped, examined, haggled over and finally given a number by which they would be known throughout the voyage.

When Olaudah came round on the ship after fainting and was offered food, he refused it.

He was tied to the windlass and flogged.

In his despair, Olaudah went to throw himself over the side, even though he couldn't swim.

Then he saw that the slave-ship was equipped with netting on the sides to prevent its valuable commodities from committing suicide.

He was told that he was being carried to white people's country to work for them.

Many of the slaves believed until the end of the voyage that they were being shipped away to be eaten.

Olaudah was taken down into the darkness of the lower deck, where the slaves were manacled and shackled.

He was made to lie wedged in such close quarters that he "had scarcely room to turn himself".

His living space was about three square feet, hardly more than that of a corpse in its coffin.

The air was noxious the constant rubbing of his chains raised sores on his wrists and ankles.

As the ship set sail, the full enormity of what was happening to him struck home, as it must have done to millions of other Africans.

Because of bad weather, the slaves stayed locked below in their chains for days at a time.

The heat was suffocating, the stench unbearable.

Covered in sweat, vomit, and blood, the packed slaves created a miasma which rose through the gratings of the upper deck in a loathsome mist.

The "necessary tubs" full of excrement "almost suffocated us", recalled Olaudah.

The shrieks of terrified slaves, conscious of the troubled spirits of the dead, mingled with the groans of the dying.

It was rare for a slave transport across the Atlantic not to give plenty of sustenance to the sharks swimming nearby.

Olaudah became sick and "hoped to put an end to my miseries".

He envied the dead who were thrown overboard, believing that their spirits lived on, liberated from their shackles.

His own spirits improved with the weather.

The slaves were usually allowed on deck twice a day, in chains.

Olaudah, being a child, went unfettered, and because he was sickly he spent more time on deck, where women slaves washed him and looked after him.

He saw three slaves elude the netting and jump overboard.

A boat was lowered, and to the anger of the captain, two of them succeeded in drowning.

The third was brought back on deck and flogged viciously.

When at last they sighted landfall the crew were overjoyed.

The captives were sullen and silent.

Like Ukawsaw, they had docked in Barbados which, as they would shortly find out, was one of the most brutal slave societies to be found anywhere in the world.

Olaudah was luckier than some.

His forcible separation from his beloved sister had occurred on the quay before he was taken to the slave ship.

But many families were now separated in the Barbados dockyard, and the air was filled with their shrieks and bitter lamentations.

They were lined up in rows, and at the sound of a drum-roll, buyers scrambled to pick out the slaves they wanted to purchase, throwing cords around them which tightened as they were pulled away.

Husbands were separated from wives, brothers from sisters, parents from children.

Olaudah, too young and small for the slave-masters, was transferred to another ship.

"I now totally lost the small remains of comfort I had enjoyed in conversing with my countrymen," he wrote (or dictated) many years later.

"The women who used to wash and take care of me were all gone different ways, and I never saw one of them again."

Nothing more would have been heard of Olaudah, had not the ship's crew, attracted by the boy's bright curiosity, taught him a lot about sailors' work.

He was eventually bought by a ship's captain as a gift for someone in England.

During the 13-week voyage he learned enough English to become a sailor himself and, by the age of 24, had earned enough money to purchase his freedom.

Slave ships could be of almost any size, from great galleons such as the 566-ton Parr, built in 1797, which carried 100 crew and could stow 700 slaves, to the Hesketh, a 10-ton vessel which sailed to Sierra Leone and took 30 slaves on to St Kitts in 1761, thus demonstrating that anybody with a bit of money could become a slave trader.

A typical medium-sized slaver would carry about 140 slaves, 70 male and 70 female, shackled two-by-two at the wrists and ankles.

The beams above the lower deck left only about four-and-a-half feet, so most slaves would spend 16 hours a day without being able to stand.

Many traders lowered the height still further by building out 6ft platforms in the lower deck from the edge of the ship to pack more bodies in.

A grating provided ventilation.

Male slaves were stowed forward and women aft - the women generally not in irons, giving them more freedom of movement.

So packed were the vessels that some captains slept in a hammock over a huddle of little African girls, while the first mate and surgeon slept over the boys.

In the middle of the main deck a "barricado" or barricade, ten feet high and extending two feet over the water either side, separated the men from the women.

If there was a slave revolt on board - and the crews accepted that these desperate men might try to kill them at the cost of their own lives - the barricado served as a defensive wall, allowing the crew to retreat to the women's side.

When the male slaves were on deck, the crew had them covered with blunderbusses and cannons loaded with smallshot.

The slave ship towed a lifeboat behind it in which sick slaves were isolated.

According to Louis Asa-Asa, many sick slaves on his ship got no medical attention.

Even on a comparatively healthy voyage the mortality rate would be five to seven per cent, and each death enraged and terrified the slaves, especially the ones who woke in the morning to find themselves shackled to a corpse.

Seamen took away the dead, along with tubs of excrement and urine.

They also scrubbed the deck and the beams, using sand and other scourers to remove dried filth, vomit and mucus.

Once or twice a fortnight, the crew would fumigate the lower deck with vinegar and tobacco smoke.

During the afternoon, bread and perhaps a pipe of tobacco and a dram of brandy would be offered to the slaves.

Around 4pm the slaves would be fed the afternoon meal: horsebeans and peas with salt meat or fish, before being taken down for the long night.

Dysentery, known as the bloody flux, was the biggest killer, followed by malignant fevers, including malaria, and dehydration, especially in the tropics.

The slave ship crews were almost as liable to disease, and many of them were not treated much better than the slaves themselves.

Although slave trade merchants always insisted that "good order" aboard their ships meant no abuse of the female slaves by the crew, it all depended on the attitude of the captain, who had the power to protect the women if he chose to do so.

Alexander Falconbridge, a doctor who campaigned against the slave trade, wrote that "on board some ships, the common sailors are allowed to have intercourse with such of the black women whose consent they can procure".

The officers on the other hand, "are permitted to indulge their passions among them at pleasure, and sometimes are guilty of such brutal excesses as disgrace human nature".

The crew were always more dispensable than the slaves: officers knocked to the deck any sailor who was disrespectful to them.

The smallest error saw the crewman bound to the rigging and flogged.

Literally adding salt to the wounds, the officers applied a briny solution called pickle to the deep red and purple furrows made by the cat o'nine tails, its knotted tails - sometimes interwoven with wire - serving to maximise the pain.

It was used to make people move on or to obey orders more quickly, even to make the slaves dance and sing, since exercise was good for them.

Mostly, the cat was used to make slaves eat the food they often refused.

If that did not work, a long, thin mechanical contraption called a speculum oris was used to force open their mouths and throats.

Slaves who rebelled were tortured, often by turning thumbscrews or by applying a white-hot cook's fork to their flesh.

Both caused excruciating pain.

However, most captains knew that his mission was to deliver slaves in good condition.

About ten days before the end of the journey and estimated landfall, the fetters were taken off the male slaves so that marks of chafing disappeared.

Their beards and sometimes their hair were shaved, and a silver nitrate caustic applied to hide sores.

Grey hairs were picked out or dyed black.

Finally sailors would rub down the naked Africans with palm oil to make their skin smooth and gleaming.

We know all this because the slave trade, at least in Britain, accumulated logs and diaries as assiduously as any Nazi book-keeper in the early 1940s.

This precision would be of great help when it came to educating the British public on what was being done in their name.

Men like Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce spoke with blazing moral conviction, and their single most powerful propaganda weapon was the reproduction of an image of a slave ship.

First published in 1788 and redrawn and republished many times throughout the Western world, it illustrated a coffin-shaped cross-section of a 297-tonner with 294 tiny, meticulously drawn Africans wearing loincloths and chained at the ankles, packed like herrings in a barrel.

Beneath the image were eight paragraphs of explanatory text, together with a picture of a supplicant slave in chains, hands raised and asking, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

Louis and Ukawsaw were brothers.

They were bound together by a common experience of Hell.

• The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker, £30, John Murray Publishing.


Sailors in the Atlantic World

As maritime trade expanded after 1500, hundreds of thousands of men found work as sailors. These new seamen came from across Europe, Africa, and the Americas and brought a mixture of languages, customs, and beliefs to their ships.

Conditions at sea were often dreadful, marked by hard labor, harsh discipline, poor provisions, low wages, violence, and disease. Desertion was common, and sailors from faraway places jumped ship in port cities and towns throughout the Atlantic world.

Engraving by William Hogarth

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

. . . Turn’d away and Sent to Sea, 1747

In this 18 th -century print, a young man is shown the brutality of seafaring by three unsavory sailors. While one rows, another taunts him with the lash, used for discipline on ships. The third points to the body of a pirate hanging from the gallows. His mother weeps, perhaps at the prospect of losing her son to the sea.


Watch the video: The Slave Auctions (June 2022).