The Slave Trade-Middle Passage
Death by asphyxiation was a fate by no means uncommon on slave-ships. When M. de Gennes in 1695 captured Fort James in the Gambia, he sent the English officers to Cayenne in one of the French "pinks," with one hundred and fifty slaves "shut up in the hold; but these poor wretches scarce having room to breathe, threw themselves one upon another, as it were in despair, so that thirty-four of them were found stifled."
Needless to say that the slaves now and again—though at rare intervals—rose, and murdered the crew of the ship whereon they were confined. To guard against this contingency, some Slavers carried fierce Brazilian bloodhounds, trained to keep watch over the hatchways and to tear to pieces any slave venturing on deck during the night.
But even supposing that no dogs were on board, what chance of success had the slaves? How did it advantage them if they did succeed in capturing the ship? The white crew were speedily made food for the sharks. So far, so good; but then, in their turn, the blacks probably died a lingering death from hunger and thirst, for of skill in handling a ship or knowledge of the science of navigation they were utterly destitute. A few weeks at most of spurious liberty, a few weeks of freedom from chains, a period during which all day the ship "boxed the compass," continually taken aback, continually with thunder of flapping sails going off on fresh tack, like man bereft of reason flying from mood to mood. Till the inevitable end came; either she capsized in sudden squall, so bringing merciful death, or she lay, dismasted and helpless, a tangle of wreck on the heaving waters, whilst human beings perished miserably. In his story, Tamango, Prosper Mérimée draws a ghastly picture of such a scene.
It was, however, not invariably the negroes who suffered in this way. In the year 1797, on the 10th of October, a boat containing two men and a boy drifted ashore on the north-east coast of Barbadoes. They were the sole survivors of the ship Thomas of Liverpool, which had been on her passage with a cargo of slaves from the Guinea Coast to Barbadoes. West Indian waters being at that time infested by French privateers, Captain M'Quay of the Thomas, who had been more than once attacked in the course of former voyages, had, as he thought for the better protection of the ship, during the voyage trained his male slaves to the use of arms, so that if the Thomas should be attacked they might help him at least to repel boarders. The exercise was no doubt extremely beneficial as regards the health of the slaves, but from the point of view of safety the expedient was of doubtful utility. It was like training tigers to act as watch-dogs; at any moment they might turn and rend their master.
And so it proved in this instance. Early in the morning of 2nd September two hundred of the slaves, overpowering the guard, seized the ammunition chest, and rushing on deck, fired on the crew. Some fell, some jumped overboard, others cut away the boat carried at the stern, into which twelve escaped through the quarter-gallery windows, leaving the captain and a few men who stood by him to the last vainly trying, with what arms were in the cabins, to quell the mutiny. Smitten with shame at their cowardly conduct, however, the twelve gave ear to Captain M'Quay's angry remonstrances, and put back to the ship, and all might yet have gone well. But panic once more seized them as they neared the cursing, swaying throng of fighting men; they hesitated, wavered, and again fled, leaving their ship-mates to perish.
Days passed, days of torment, for of food there was none, and of water little, on board the boat, and the heat was unbearable. A sleeping turtle, floating on the surface of the sea, was caught and ravenously devoured, his blood eagerly gulped down the parched throats. Now, driven to extremity, they soaked, and when soft, chewed their shoes and "two hairy caps which they had among them." At last—the last dread expedient of starving humanity—lots were cast. And he on whom the lot fell only bargained that he should be bled to death. Madness seized on most after this, and they died—all who had partaken of that dreadful Thing—leaving but the three to reach land; and of these, the boy fell in the surf from weakness as he tried to drag himself ashore, and he was drowned. History is silent as to the fate of the revolted slaves.
Mr. Atkins, a surgeon in the Royal Navy, who visited the Guinea Coast in 1721 on H.M.S. Swallow, tells the story of a rising on a Slaver. There was a noted negro chief "of a tall, strong Make, and bold, stern Aspect," who had for long been a thorn in the side of Slave dealers. At length, surprised in the night, this negro, "Captain "Tomba, had been taken, and when Atkins saw him a month later he was in the "Lodge," or barracoon, of a hoary villain named John Leadstone, commonly called "Old Cracker," a friend of Pirates, himself indeed a veteran of that brotherhood. Atkins particularly noticed this man Tomba because he "seemed to disdain the other Slaves for their Readiness to be examined, and scorned to look at the Buyers, refusing to rise or stretch out his Limbs as the Master commanded. This got him an unmerciful Whipping, with a cutting Manatea Strap, from Cracker's own Hand; who had certainly killed him, but for the Loss he must have sustained by it" Later, at Jacque-a-Jacques, Atkins' ship fell in with the Robert of Bristol, a Slaver whose Master had bought this "Captain" Tomba from Old Cracker. The tale told by the Master of this Slaver makes the flesh creep. Says the account given by Atkins: "He gave them the following melancholy Story: that this Tomba about a Week before, had combined with three or four of the stoutest of his Countrymen to mutiny, being assisted by a Woman-Slave, who telling him one Night that there were only five white Men on Deck, and they asleep, brought him a Hammer at the same time to execute his Treachery: He could only engage one more besides the Woman to follow him on Deck, where finding three sailors on the Forecastle, he presently dispatched two with single Strokes on the Temples: the other rousing with the Noise of his Companions [being] seized, Tomba murdered him in the same Manner. But the last two of the five taking the Alarm stood upon their Guard, and their Defence soon awaked the Master underneath, who running up took a Hand Spike and felling Tomba with it, secured them all in Irons." Here follows what was done by the Slaver's Master, a man named Harding, before whom even Captain Oiseau is as a healing angel. Harding, "weighing the Stoutness and Worth of the two Slaves, did, as in other Countries they do by Rogues of Dignity, whip and scarify them only; whilst three other Abettors (but not Actors, nor of Strength for it) he sentenced to cruel Deaths, making them first eat the Heart and Liver of one of them he killed. The woman he hoisted by the Thumbs, whipped and slashed her with Knives before the other Slaves till she died."
It is hard to believe that this tale can be true; harder still to realise that the perpetrator of inhumanity so awful was of our own blood and race. Yet if Phillips' tale be true of amputations of legs and arms to discourage attempts at escape, this also may well be so; it is no step downward from one to the other. It is instructive too to note how Tomba's attempt is styled "treachery." Had it been a case of white men rising against black, "heroism" would probably have been the term used!
Captain William Snelgrave, who was much on the West Coast of Africa in the early part of the Eighteenth Century, and who wrote an account of the Slave Trade in 1730, says that the women and children were never chained, and that after the vessels got to sea the men's chains were taken off, that all were fed twice a day, and that in fine weather they were brought on deck at seven in the morning, where they remained till sunset. Every Monday pipes and tobacco were served out, and each day the places where they slept were thoroughly cleansed under the inspection of white men.
It may have been so, doubtless it was so, in ships on which Snelgrave served—there were humane men even among Slavers—but this account does not tally with such evidence as one gets from other sources.
Even Snelgrave, however, though he says that "Negros are easily governed," has some grim tales of mutinies to record. In 1704, when under his father's command on the Eagle, of London, Snelgrave first knew what it was to cope with mutiny. It was at Old Calabar. They lay in the river, with a cargo of four hundred slaves, and of the white crew there were on board only eleven who were fit for duty, "for many were dead, and others sick," and part of the sound men were on shore cutting wood. Young Snelgrave, lying on a cot in the cuddy one afternoon, racked by fever and ague, heard sounds of a scuffle in the fore part of the ship, and a strangled cry for help.
Dragging himself painfully on deck with his pistols, he found on the poop his father and the mate, unarmed, to whom he gave each a pistol. In the waist of the ship a seething mob of negroes was struggling to overpower one of the crew who had been on sentry duty; they were trying to tear from him his cutlass, which was fastened by a string to his wrist. But their very numbers were against them, and having failed to snap the lanyard and so secure the cutlass, they were now attempting to throw the man overboard. In spite of blows and fierce violence, the sailor clung tenaciously to their naked bodies or to whatever his hands could clutch; and in the meantime old Snelgrave, followed by the mate, scrambling forward on the booms, in vain threatened the mutineers, who paid to his threats no attention whatever. Then old Snelgrave, thinking to frighten them, jumped down and fired his pistol over their heads, whereupon one of the ringleaders with a billet of wood hit him a fierce blow on the head which brought him to his knees and partially stunned him. As the blow was about to be repeated, probably this time with fatal force, a boy to whom the captain had been kind jumped between the two and received the full effect of the stroke on his arm, which it shattered. Then the mate, seeing that the time had come for strong measures, shot the negro dead. That ended the affair; the two other ringleaders jumped overboard and were drowned, and the remaining mutineers threw up the sponge. It was an attempt that nearly succeeded, and doubtless but for the fact that the slaves had been unable to get rid of their chains, in a few more minutes not a white man would have been left alive on board the Eagle.
Again, in 1721, when in command of the Henry of London, Snelgrave's ship was twice nearly being overpowered. It was in each case the Kormantine natives who rose, stubborn fellows and hard to deal with, in their greater determination and tenacity differing from all other tribes of those coasts; "desperate Fellows, who despised punishment and even Death itself," says Snelgrave as he describes how at Barbadoes and other of the West Indian islands, frequently "on their being in any ways hardly dealt with to break them from their Stubbornness in refusing to work," as many as twenty at a time on one plantation have been known deliberately to hang themselves.
It does not appear that on Snelgrave's ship the slaves had any specially harsh treatment to complain of, not even, indeed, in the measures taken to secure them after the risings were suppressed; but they were determined to get ashore again, poor wretches, by any means, even by cutting the ship's cable and letting her drive ashore during the night, as they had planned in the second of the two attempts.
What Snelgrave describes as a "sad Accident," however, soon afterwards "brought the Slaves to a better Temper." On the coast the Henry fell in with the Elizabeth, another ship belonging to the some owner. The Captain of the Elizabeth and his chief mate were both dead of fever; she herself had fallen into the hands of Roberts, the notorious Pirate, who had, however, in an amiable mood (after inducing several of the Elizabeth's crew to serve under the Black Flag), handed the ship back to the second mate, saying that this was done "out of Respect to the generous Character his Owner bore, in doing good to poor Sailors." Respect not being a commodity in which pirates usually deal to any appreciable extent, we may perhaps conclude that the Elizabeth was too dull a sailer to be of use to Roberts and his crew of villains, and that she had no cargo on board that suited them. In any case, when the Henry fell in with her at Animabo, she had collected about one hundred and twenty slaves, all of which Snelgrave offered to take on his ship, leaving to the Elizabeth all of the Henry's trading goods that had not been disposed of. The mate was quite ready to follow this course, but the ship's company, and especially her cooper, would have none of it, saying that the slaves had now been with them a long time, and that, as a great friendship existed between them and the crew, they would not part with the blacks.
Snelgrave left for his own ship, but that very night about ten o'clock, "the Moon shining now very bright," two or three musket-shots were heard on board the Elizabeth. Snelgrave jumped at once into his pinnace and made for the Elizabeth, followed by other boats from the Henry. As they neared that vessel, two negroes were seen swimming shoreward, but before the boats could come up with them both were torn to pieces by sharks. Holding on by a rope trailing over the Elizabeth's&nbps; side were two more blacks, their heads just showing above water, trembling with fear at the awful sight they had witnessed, but unable, or unwilling, to regain the ship's deck. On board, Snelgrave found the slaves all quiet, but the ship's company in great confusion gathered in a bunch behind the quarter-deck barricade, where he was told that they feared the cooper, who had been on sentry duty over the fore hatch, must be killed. Snelgrave's scorn was unbounded when he found that, though there was no lack of arms amongst them, muskets, pistols, cutlasses, not one had had the courage to venture forward to ascertain what had been the cooper's fate. So with some of his own people Snelgrave went forward, where he found the cooper lying on his back quite dead, with skull split in two, and lying beside him the hatchet with which the murder had been committed.
This mutiny also, it turned out, was the work of Kormantines, a few of whom had been bought two or three days before. One of the two men found in the water by the ship's side quite coolly confessed that the murder had been committed by him. He and a few other slaves, it seemed, had succeeded in getting up on deck, where they found not only the whole watch, but the sentry as well, sound asleep,—a piece of reckless carelessness not uncharacteristic of the British seaman, one fancies.
Finding their way clear, the slaves were stealing quietly to the ship's side, when unfortunately the cooper moved in his sleep. Equally unfortunately the cook's axe was lying in the galley, conspicuous in the moonlight. Such temptation was too great; the slave snatched up the axe, brought it down with a crash on the sleeping man's skull, and jumped over-board after the others.
Snelgrave's first care was to remove all the slaves to under hatches in his own ship. The next day, in presence of the captains of eight other vessels lying in the roads,—rather a packed jury, one fears,—the murderer was tried and condemned to die in an hour's time. The condemned man argued that though it was "rash" of him to kill the cooper, yet if he were hanged they must remember that they would lose the money already paid for him. The white man would do anything for the sake of money, thought those poor blacks; but in this instance the argument did not prevail. Snelgrave deliberately and impressively turned the hour-glass. "As soon as that sand runs out, you die," said he.
Then each captain returned to his own ship, turned up and armed all hands, and brought every slave up on deck, that they might witness and take warning from the execution. By a rope under his arms the condemned man was run up to the fore yard-arm, and instantly shot by a firing party of ten whites, and the body being lowered, the head was cut off and thrown overboard, for the greater punishment, because many of the blacks believed that if they were killed and not dismembered, their spirits would certainly return to their own land. The early Eighteenth Century was not distinguished for its humanity!
As a finish to the scene Snelgrave harangued the slaves on his own ship, warning them that the fate of the murderer should be the fate of any of them who killed a white man. The warning had good effect, for though those blacks were on board for more than four months ere they were sold, never once in that time did the poor creatures give cause for the slightest uneasiness.
Snelgrave mentions, however, the case of another vessel where mutiny was not suppressed at so little cost of human life as in the instance already mentioned. About ten days after quitting the coast, the captain of the Ferrers of London, a slave ship, contrary to Snelgrave's repeated advice, had imprudently gone alone amongst the slaves while they were at dinner. It was as if he had gone unprotected into a cage of hungry wolves; they fell on him, beat out his brains with the little tubs out of which they ate, and tore him almost in pieces. Then they tried to rush the quarter-deck barricade, utterly fearless of the muskets and half-pikes presented at them through the loop-holes by the white crew. So furious was the mob, so menacing the situation, that the chief mate ordered one of the quarter-deck guns to be "loaden with Partridge shot "and fired into the mob. This ended the mutiny. Nearly eighty human beings were accounted for by that one discharge, either from the actual shot itself (which swept a lane through the dense crowd of blacks) or from the number of the frightened wretches who sprang overboard and were drowned when the gun was discharged. And afterwards, as we read in Astley's Voyages, "most of the rest, through sullenness, starved themselves to Death; and after the Ship arrived at Jamaica, they attempted twice to mutiny before the Sale began; which with their former Behaviour, coming to be publickly known, none of the Planters cared to buy them, though offer'd at a low Price: So that this proved a very unsuccessful Voyage; for the ship was detained many Months at Jamaica on that Account, and at last was lost there in a Hurricane." In reading those old pages of Astley, one is at a loss to decide whether the misfortunes of this ship are not considered to be directly attributable to the grievous wickedness and ingratitude of the blacks in objecting to capture and sale. It would almost seem that in the opinion of white men of the period, by expatriating them a direct benefit was being conferred on the negroes. It is, as a matter of fact, much what Boswell said.
Later than other nations England entered on the Slave Trade. Certainly once she did enter on it, she seems, like Satan "by merit rais'd," to have lost no time in attaining to bad eminence therein. Cruelty and treachery went hand in hand in the treatment of black by white; and treachery, especially, one grieves to read, on the part of English ships, appears to have been all too common an experience of the natives. Naturally it led to reprisals on their part; many an Englishman was kidnapped and long held to ransom because of this villainous practice, which prevailed particularly, one reads, amongst Liverpool and Bristol ships—"a great Detriment to the Slave Trade on the Windward Coast."
When, in the fall of the year 1726, Mr. Smith, Surveyor to the Royal African Company, visited the coast in the sloop Bonetta for the purpose of making "exact Plans, Draughts, and Prospects of all their Forts and Settlements; as also of all the principal Rivers, Harbours, and other Places of Trade on the Coast of Africa from the Gambia to Whidaw," he was shown by the Master of the Queen Elizabeth "a Letter from one Benjamin Cross who had been panyared [kidnapped] by the Natives of Cape Monte three Months before and detained there by way of Reprisal for some of their Men carried off by an English Trader." Deserted by his own ship, Cross wrote to the master of the Queen Elizabeth, and eventually was ransomed "at the Expense of about £50 sterling" by Smith's vessel. Smith noticed at Cape Monte "that the Natives who came off to trade with them were very cautious of coming on board for fear of being kidnapped; and even those who ventured on board, if they chanced to see any Arms about the Ship, immediately leaped into their canoes and got ashore." Elsewhere, too, we read that at the Rio St. Andre "the Men are robust and well made, and want neither Sense nor Courage. They are very jealous, since some of them have been carried off by the Europeans. For this Reason they will venture on board no Ship whatever, till the Captain performs the Ceremony of dropping Sea Water in the Eye: nor will they when they come on board ever be prevailed on to go under-Deck or into the Cabins." This dropping of sea-water into the eye was looked upon by the poor creatures as a binding oath, equivalent to praying to the white man's God that the eye might be blinded if faith were broken. One sickens to read that this was considered "the most effectual Way to allure them." Hideous comment on our national honour!
Yet bad as she was, and, in this, bankrupt of faith and honour, it was after England had set her face sternly against the Trade that the worst abuses crept into it.
Then came into use a class of vessel in which the conditions were infinitely worse than anything that had been known on the old transports, (bad as things then were), in the days when the trade was legal. "Instead of the large and commodious vessels which it would be the interest of the slave trader to employ, we have by our interference forced him to use a class of vessels, (well known to Naval men as American Clippers), of the very worst description that could have been imagined for the purpose, every quality being sacrificed for speed. In the holds of these vessels the unhappy victims of European cupidity are stowed literally in bulk."
These American clippers were built in the United States, sailed thence to the Havanah and on to the West Coast of Africa, under the American flag, and took in there a cargo of slaves, which they landed in Cuba under the flag of Portugal. From June to September 1888 no less than ten ships fitted for the Slave Trade sailed from Havanah for the coast of Africa under the flag of the United States, one of the most notorious of them being the Venus, said to be the "smartest clipper-built vessel ever constructed at Baltimore," that home of clippers.
In 1788 British vessels under one hundred and fifty tons were not allowed to carry more than five slaves to every three tons; vessels over one hundred and fifty tons might not carry more than three men to two tons; and the height between decks must in no case be less than five feet. The Spanish and Portuguese regulations fixed a standard somewhat lower. But insufficient as was even the British allowance, after the General Abolition Bill came into force, whereby all slave trade was made illegal for British subjects after 1st January 1808, conditions arose which infinitely increased the sufferings of negroes during the Middle Passage.
The acquisition by Great Britain of the Dutch West Indian islands had naturally led to enormous increase of British Slaving. When in 1805 an Order in Council prohibited that traffic in the conquered Colonies, when in the following year British subjects were forbidden to take part in this trade either for the supply of the newly-acquired Dutch islands or for that of foreign parts, and when to these regulations was added the measure of 1st January 1808, great numbers of British seamen,—men for the most part of loose moral character, and demoralised by familiarity with every sort of cruelty, where at least black men were concerned,—were thrown out of employment. To them the obvious solution of the difficulty was then to sail under cover of the flag of some other nation, preferably that of Spain or of Portugal. A new class of vessel was utilised, longer and narrower, with less height between decks, and built specially for fast sailing, so as to avoid capture by the British cruisers. These slave ships now were even more hideously overcrowded than before, and little or no attention was paid to the earlier Spanish and Portuguese regulation of five men to two tons. Provided they could evade the cruisers, what mattered the torments endured by a few slaves! It was worth risking, they thought, for even if chased and in danger of being captured, it was easy to throw a few slaves overboard and so bring the numbers down to regulation before the cruiser could overhaul them.
A hideously common practice was this of throwing slaves overboard. The Spanish brig Carlos, captured in 1814, was seen to jettison eighty before she was taken. The Paris Petition of 1825 states that "it is established by authentic documents that the slave captains throw into the sea every year about three thousand negroes, men, women, and children; of whom more than half are thus sacrificed, whilst yet alive, either to escape from the visits of cruisers, or because, worn down by their sufferings, they could not be sold to advantage."
Not that this hideous practice of wholesale murder arose after the Slave Trade was made illegal. Unhappily it seems never to have been quite absent from the Trade if occasion arose. In 1783, the master of a ship on passage from the island of San Thomé to Jamaica threw overboard one hundred and thirty-two slaves, and his owners in England claimed on the underwriters for the full value of the slaves, on the ground that in order to save ship and crew and remainder of cargo there was absolute necessity to sacrifice these hundred and thirty-two, because the supply of drinking water had run dangerously short, and there was not sufficient on board to preserve the lives of all. The underwriters denied the necessity, and refused payment of the claim, whereupon an action was brought to compel payment.
The trial brought to light a dreadful tale. Evidence proved that "the ship Zong, Luke Collingwood, master, sailed from the island of St. Thomas on the coast of Africa, September 6, 1781, with four hundred and forty slaves and fourteen whites on board, for Jamaica, and that in the November following she fell in with that island; but instead of proceeding to some port, the master, mistaking, as he alleges, Jamaica for Hispaniola, ran her to leeward. Sickness and mortality had by this time taken place on board the crowded vessel, so that between the time of leaving the coast of Africa and the 29th of November, sixty slaves and seven white people had died, and a great number of the surviving slaves were then sick and not likely to live. On that day the master of the ship called together a few of the officers, and stated to them that, if the sick slaves died a natural death, the loss would fall on the owners of the ship; but if they were thrown alive into the sea on any sufficient pretext of necessity for the safety of the ship, it would be the loss of the underwriters, alleging, at the same time, that it would be less cruel to throw sick wretches into the sea than to suffer them to linger out a few days under the disorder with which they were afflicted. To this inhuman proposal the mate, James Kelsal, at first objected; but Collingwood at length prevailed on the crew to listen to it. He then chose out from the cargo one hundred and thirty-two slaves, and brought them on deck, all or most of whom were sickly and not likely to recover, and he ordered the crew to throw them into the sea. A parcel' of them were accordingly thrown overboard, and on counting over the remainder next morning, it appeared that the number so drowned had been fifty-four. He then ordered another 'parcel' to be thrown over, which, on a second counting on the succeeding day, was proved to have amounted to forty-two. On the third day the remaining thirty-six were brought on deck, and as these now resisted the cruel purpose of their masters, the arms of twenty-six were fettered with irons, and the savage crew proceeded with the diabolical work, casting them down to join their comrades of the former days." The remaining ten jumped into the sea.
Unhappily this is not a solitary instance of such brutality; there are many cases as bad to be found in the evidence given before Parliamentary Committees in 1790. And as a further example, there is the instance when Admiral Collier, in 1820, captured the French schooner La Jeune Estelle after a chase which lasted many hours. As the frigate began to close on the slaver, but before she got within gun range, it was noticed that from the latter a good many casks were being thrown into the sea. To lay the frigate to for the purpose of picking up or examining these casks would, of course, have rendered the escape of the slaver a certainty, so the frigate under heavy press of sail continued the chase.
On the schooner being boarded, her master strenuously denied that he carried any slaves whatever, and expressed great indignation at the insult offered to him and to the French flag in compelling him to heave to. He did, however, protest too much; and there were, besides, certain suspicious circumstances which caused the officer in charge of the frigate's boat to order close search to be made through every part of the suspected slaver. The result was nil; no trace of a slave was found; and, lashed by the foul tongue of the schooner's master, the British boat's crew were about to return crest-fallen to the ship.
The Estelle's master had better have held his tongue, better have been content to get rid of his unwelcome visitors without attempting to express in too strong terms his triumph and his scorn for perfidious Albion. The delay occasioned by his indulgence in the luxury of abusing the British Navy was fatal to him and to his schooner. It enabled an A.B. to give an extra blow on the head of a cask in the Estelle's hold. That blow was answered by a feeble cry from within, and on the head of the cask being knocked out, two girl children, from twelve to fourteen years of age, were found packed inside. They were, it seemed, two remaining out of fourteen carried off from a village on the coast by this virtuous and humane mariner. The fate of the others was only too apparent, but they were never found. The chase had led the frigate far to leeward of the spot where the casks had been seen floating, and they were never picked up.
It was a practice not uncommon to head up negroes in casks for purposes of concealment: no less than five young men were found in one water-butt on board a Brazilian slaver by Captain Hamilton, R.N., in the year 1831.
It would be easy indeed to go on multiplying indefinitely the number of those cases of atrocity, but many of the stories, especially some told by Falconbridge, who was at one time that rara avis, a surgeon on a slaver, are quite unfit for reproduction. Those "good old days," about which the most of us love to talk, were not so very good after all, it would seem.
In 1811 the British Parliament unanimously passed a Bill which made the Slave Trade felony, punishable with fourteen years' transportation, or with three to five years' imprisonment with hard labour. In 1824 the Trade was declared to be Piracy, a capital offence if committed within Admiralty jurisdiction; and though in 1837 the death penalty was abolished, it was still left punishable by transportation for life. At various later dates most of the countries of the world fell more or less—generally less—into line with Great Britain in their treatment of the Slave Trade; even Brazil in 1826 declared that after the year 1830 it should be piracy for her subjects to engage in it.
But for many years prior to 1830 a custom had prevailed whereby masters of slaving vessels when overhauled attempted to deceive officers boarding them from ships of war. In taking out their license to trade, it was an easy thing to overestimate the tonnage of their vessels;—a little "palm oil "would ensure the document being signed without inconvenient questions being asked, or scrutiny demanded, by the official whose duty it might be to issue ships' papers. In a letter written by Lord Palmerston to the British Ambassador at Lisbon, bearing date 80th April 1838, was enclosed a document which stated that the Governor of Angola had "established an impost or fee of seven hundred thousand reis, to be paid to him for every vessel which embarks slaves from thence, it being understood that upon payment of the above-mentioned sum no impediment to the illicit trade shall be interposed by the Governor, nor any further risk be incurred by the persons engaged in the trade." In this way (as reported in the Sierra Leone Advertiser of 20th November 1824) the Portuguese slaver Diana,—one of three vessels captured about that date and sent into port by British cruisers,—held a royal license as a ship of one hundred and twenty tons to carry three hundred slaves. But she was found to be of little more than sixty tons, which gives a rate of nearly five slaves to the ton. Another of these vessels, of ninety-five tons, masqueraded as being of one hundred and forty-six tons, and held a license to carry three hundred and sixty-five slaves; whilst the third, which was stated to be of two hundred and thirty-one tons, measured only one hundred and sixty-five,—all this, of course, after making due allowance for the difference between a Spanish or Portuguese and an English ton. Two others, the Deux Sœurs of forty-one tons, and the Eleanor of sixty, had crammed, the first one hundred and thirty-two, and the last one hundred and thirty-five slaves, into a space barely capable of holding thirty under reasonable, or what were then thought to be reasonable, conditions.
In the year 1819 Captain Kelly of H.M.S. Pheasant sent in the Portuguese schooner Novo Felicidade with seventy-one slaves and a crew of eleven, including the master. The schooner measured only eleven tons. Captain Kelly in his judicial declaration said that "the state in which these unfortunate creatures were found is shocking to every principle of humanity; seventeen men shackled together in pairs by the legs, and twenty boys, one on the other, in the main hold—a space measuring 18 feet in length, 7 feet 8 inches main breadth, and 1 foot 8 inches in height, and under them the yams for their support."
It is no matter for wonder that the mortality on the Middle Passage was so excessive; the wonder almost is that it was not greater,—though in respect of deaths it would be hard to beat the record of the brig Adamastor, on which vessel, out of eight hundred slaves, three hundred and four died during the voyage; or of the Aquila Vengadora, which arrived at the Havanah in June 1838, having lost three hundred and sixty out of five hundred and sixty negroes. Heavy weather had made it necessary to close the hatches for two days, at the end of which time, when the weather had moderated and the hatches been removed, nearly three hundred were found to have perished. We lament yet the sufferings of our fellow-countrymen in the Black Hole of Calcutta in the year 1757, and shudder at the cruelty for which Surajah Dowlah was responsible. How does it compare with the white man's treatment of the black on West Africa's coasts, about the same date and later?
Suicide also of course largely added to the long death-roll on board Slaving ships. Numberless instances are on record where men chained together deliberately jumped overboard rather than return to the hell which awaited them below hatches, and a necessary adjunct to the outfit of a slave ship was a high and very strong net fixed above the bulwarks all round that part of the ship where the slaves were allowed to come on deck. As to the fate of slaves on a vessel which by evil fortune ran ashore, or which for any cause had to be abandoned at sea, it is well not to speak.
The excessive mortality of course did not end with the landing; numbers were put on shore in a state of weakness and disease so miserable that a large proportion never recovered. It was reckoned that of the hundred and fifty thousand, or thereabout, landed in Brazil and Cuba, thirty thousand died in the "seasoning."
Yet in spite of the appalling mortality, so great were the profits of the hideous trade that the slavers were not greatly concerned, considered indeed that they had made not altogether an unfavourable voyage, if they landed anything much over one-third of the number originally embarked.
The price paid for slaves on the African Coast, like that of every other commodity, varied according to circumstances. A native raid more than ordinarily successful, or it might be, a dearth of shipping on the coast, would cause a glut in the market, and send values down; whilst, on the other hand, a long continuance of favourable winds might fill the chief ports with more ships than there were cargoes ready for, when holders of course stood out for a higher figure.
The greatest recorded boom in slaves occurred in 1698, after the destruction of Fort James, Gambia River, by M. de Gennes. So that the fort might be rebuilt without an expenditure so great that it would have crippled the Company, Parliament threw open the West African trade on condition that each ship visiting the coast should pay to the African Company's Directors ten per cent value on her outward cargo, or twenty per cent after her return to England.
"It is scarcely possible to conceive," bitterly writes a contemporary French writer, "what a number of English vessels this permission brought to the Gambia, and what confusion it occasioned in the Trade. Each captain outbidding the other to get the sooner loaded, the price of negroes at Jilfray rose to forty Bars a head; so that the Mercadores or Mandingo Merchants would no longer sell their slaves either at Barraconda or Guisches to the French or English Companies for the usual price of fifteen to seventeen Bars, but chose to come down the River, tempted by the great Profits made . . . By this means the Servants of the French and English Companies were forced to sit idle and wait patiently to see the issue of this ruinous Commerce. Between January and June 1698 these separate Traders exported no fewer than three thousand six hundred Slaves, by which means they overstocked the Country with more Goods than they could consume in some Years. Nothing could be more imprudent than the Conduct of the English Company, who had better have received nothing from the Parliament for the reparation of their Fort than have accepted this Benevolence of ten per cent on conditions wholly destructive to their Trade, as appears from the extravagant Rate to which the Price of Slaves has risen. It was easy to see their Intention was to ruin the French Company, without reflecting that, while they hurt them but a little, they ruined themselves entirely."
The French, however, seem to have attempted to retaliate on the English. According to Moore, the African Company's Superintendent on the Gambia, French trade was greatly hampered by the English "not allowing them to give above forty Bars a head for Slaves. But in the year 1735, there being a great demand for them at the Mississippi, the French broke through that Agreement and gave fifty Bars a head for Slaves, with six or seven of each of the Heads of Goods, which amounted to more than £10 sterling: And though there were no fewer than three Liverpool ships trading at Jillefray, a mile above the French, who gave eighty Bars a head, yet they could not get near so many Slaves that year as the French did, their Goods being generally better than the English."
A "Bar," it is necessary to explain, is a "Denomination given to a certain quantity of Goods of any kind; which quantity was of equal Value, among the Natives, to a Bar of Iron when this River was first traded to. Thus a Pound of Fringe is a Bar; as are two Pound of Gun Powder, an Ounce of Silver, two hundred Gun Flints: So their Way of reckoning is by Bars or Crowns, one of which sometimes does not amount to above one shilling sterling, being dear or cheap according to the Goods they want. These five Articles, viz. Spread Eagle Dollars, Crystal Beads, Iron Bars, Brass Pans, and Arrangoes, are called the Heads of Goods, because they are dearest." According to Park, a "bar" in current value should be equal to two shillings sterling. Even eighty bars, therefore, was no very extravagant price for a slave.
Atkins mentions that at Sierra Leone in 1721 the price of a good slave was about £15, "allowing the Buyer forty or fifty per cent Advance on his Goods." In later days, however, when the Trade had been declared contraband, prices were lower and profits vastly greater. Then, as was stated by the Governor of Cape Coast Castle in 1838, "a prime slave on that part of the coast with which I have most knowledge, costs about $50 in goods, or about from $25 to $30 in money, including prime cost and charges; the same slave will sell in Cuba for $350 readily, but from this large profit must be deducted freight, insurance, commission, cost of feeding during the middle passage, and incidental charges, which will reduce the profit to, I should say, $200 on each prime slave; and this must be still further reduced, to make up for Casualties, to perhaps $150 per head."
About the year 1835, too, Commissioner Macleay says: "Of the enormous profits of the Slave Trade, the most correct idea will be formed by taking an example. The last vessel condemned by the Mixed Commission" [the Court of the Mixed Commission for the adjudication of captured slave vessels] "was the Firm." As stated by Mr. Macleay, the price paid for the cargo of this ship was $28,000; cost of provisions and ammunition, and allowance for wear and tear, $10,600; wages paid, $13,400; making a total outlay of $52,000. The slaves on board fetched $145,000; making a clear profit of $93,000 (roughly £19,000), a gain of just about one hundred and eighty per cent.
Is there room for wonder that when profits such as this could be made (and made with comparatively little danger, for over all that wide stretch of coast necessarily the percentage of captures was small), an inexhaustible supply of scoundrels should have been found, willing to peril body and soul, to run any risk, capable of committing any atrocity, for the sake of gains so easily come by, and that all Great Britain's efforts to cleanse this Augean Stable should for so many years have been of no avail?
The average minimum number of slaves estimated to have been yearly landed in Brazil alone from the Guinea Coast, after the beginning of strong efforts to put an end to the trade, was seventy-eight thousand three hundred and thirty-one; but as more than half the vessels arriving on the Brazilian coast from Africa reported themselves as in ballast, it is safe to conclude that very large numbers of slaves were smuggled ashore by them at places other than Bahia, Pernambuco, Maranham, Rio, etc., so that it is probable the seventy-eight thousand might without risk of exaggeration have been put down as close on one hundred thousand. In the thirty-eight degrees of latitude over which the Brazilian coast-line extends, there are spots in abundance where whole cargoes might have been set ashore without exciting remark.
A number certainly not smaller must be set down as entering Cuba; (the Governor of Cape Coast Castle, who was assuredly in a position to judge, in 1838 set down the number of slave ships for Cuba, as compared with Brazil, as in the proportion of three to two).
If, therefore, to the huge total of human beings annually enslaved in those two countries we add the totals consigned to Porto Rico, Uruguay, Buenos Ayres, Rio de la Plata, and probably Texas, it will be realised how almost incredibly large was the annual drain of human life from African coasts as a whole, for east as well as west groaned under the awful rod of the white tyrant. From the Bight of Biafra and Benin alone, Captain M'Lean in 1838 stated that "in the year 1834 I have every reason to believe that the number of slaves carried off . . . amounted to one hundred and forty thousand."
That this is no exaggeration, the following extract from a letter written from our Mission Station at Old Calabar in 1874 goes far to prove: "The country here is thinly populated. I do not think it is possible to arrive at any approximation of the real numbers. It is certain that early statements (this I suppose refers to statistics sent home in connection with the Mission) made upon native authority are much exaggerated. The Slave Trade decimated this part of Africa. Dr. Robb has a book in his possession written by a Calabar Chief over eighty years ago, in which are entered the names of all the Slave ships that came to the river during that time (sic), with the names of their captains and mates, and also the number of slaves which they took away each time, with the various districts from which batches of slaves were taken. And during those three years not less than seventy thousand were sent out of the Calabar River alone. Now the Slave Trade was continued through many years, and if seventy thousand were taken away in three years, how great the number that must have been taken altogether."
In 1662, the third African Company undertook to supply the British West Indian and American Colonies with three thousand slaves annually. Making every allowance for the fact that in the "seasoning" something like fifty per cent died, and that the wretched survivors were probably, most of them, permanently unfit, after the horrors and sufferings of their voyage, to produce healthy offspring, how rapidly this annual import must have increased may be gathered from the fact that eighty years later the number of slaves in the British West Indian islands and in Virginia totalled three hundred and forty thousand.
But those evil days are ended, thanks chiefly to the tireless efforts of Great Britain. Yet for many a year she fought on, not only apparently without good resulting from her efforts, but almost, it would seem, as if from them arose fresh evil. The only changes at first effected were a change in the flag under which the trade was carried on, and a change for the worse in the treatment endured by the slaves during the voyage. At first it was the French flag that gave protection. (Mr. Fowell Buxton, writing in 1839, says that our Ambassador at Paris in 1824 stated to the French Minister that that flag "covered the villains of all nations.") Later, it was under the flag of Spain that those villains took refuge; and, finally, they sheltered under that of Portugal.
So far as in her lay, Great Britain wiped from off her shield the foul stain that participation in the Slave Trade had left upon it, and by every means in her power she made atonement for the evil which in earlier days her sons had committed. Seventy-five years have passed since Britain gave to the world a lead in emancipation, and one would fain believe that now over all the Globe Slavery is but a terrible memory. Yet who shall say that in that vast continent of Africa the evil thing does not even now lift its head in remoter parts, and in islands little visited by the greater nations does not even yet live, perhaps under a name at least of fairer sound?