Slave Ships and Slaving

Slave Ships and Slaving

by George Francis Dow

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The long, grim story of the slave trade is a tragic historical narrative. This darkest and most heartless era in African-American history saw millions of Africans kidnapped and sold into bondage in the West Indies, the American colonies, and later, the United States.
This history is recalled firsthand in this extraordinary shocking collection of commentaries by ships' doctors and captains as well as written testimonies for a parliamentary committee investigating the slave trade. Accounts vary from sympathetic to indifferent as the narrators relate horrifying events and conditions of extreme cruelty. Detailed descriptions of suppressed mutinies on slave ships and life in "factories" — penned areas that held slaves until they were put aboard ships — are followed by vivid accounts of living conditions on the vessels (for both slaves and sailors), as well as commentary on the commercial structure of the slave trade. More than 50 period engravings and other illustrations depicting slave markets; handcuffs, shackles, and other restraints; and the stowing of slaves aboard ship accompany the staggering record.
A basic sourcebook for students of African-American history, this volume is also essential reading for anyone concerned with the genealogy of the social ills and inequities of modern life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486143538
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 12/20/2012
Series: African American
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
File size: 16 MB
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Read an Excerpt

Slave Ships and Slaving

By George Francis Dow

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14353-8



THE slave coast of West Africa lies between the river Senegal, just north of Cape Verde, and the Congo River country, six degrees south of the equator. It is a low-lying coast, with many sandy beaches, though much of it is bordered by delta-lands, covered with poisonous swamps, through which wind the uncounted channels of small rivers that penetrate the country. There are few harbors and the trader must find an anchorage inside the bar at the mouth of some river or lay offshore, at safe distance, while trade is carried on in canoes and boats that ride the long rollers pounding on the beach. A country well populated by negroes, it supplied for nearly four centuries the slave labor required by the West Indies and the two Americas,—a trade inseparable from cruelty, disease and death. Goree and Gambia,—the Gold Coast and the Tooth Coast,—Whidah, Old Calabar and Bonny, are some of the names that have a suggestive meaning in connection with the abhorrent trade in human flesh.

Not long after the gulf of Guinea was discovered by Portuguese navigators and at least two decades before Columbus sailed from Palos, a slave market was set up at Lisbon at which negroes from the Guinea coast were sold to any who would buy. It was the Moors who had told the Portuguese of the black-skinned people living in great numbers to the south of the great desert,—a race cursed of God and predestined as slaves.

By 1502, the first shipload of Africans had been landed at Hispaniola, to work in the mines, and the slave-bearing fleet plied to and from the Guinea coast very nearly up to the time of the abolition of slavery in Brazil, in 1888.

At first, the slave vessels bargained with the negroes in villages near the coast for such slaves, gold or wax as they might be able to supply. It usually followed that a ship must sail along the coast for some distance, picking up a few negroes at one place and a little ivory or gold at another. At some stops no slaves or ivory would be found and it required a long time to pick up a decent cargo. The coast was pestilential for the European and the trade with the treacherous negroes was exceedingly dangerous. Soon the plan was adopted of planting small settlements of Europeans at intervals along the slave coast, defended by forts, sometimes of considerable size and strength. These were called slave factories and it was the business of the factor or commander to negotiate with the negroes and stimulate them to activity in organizing slave-hunting expeditions. As the slaves were brought in from the back country, they would be purchased by barter and then housed and guarded in sheds or warehouses, known as barracoons, until the arrival of slave ships.

Factories of this kind were planted by the English, French, Dutch and Portuguese, all along the western coast, from Cape Verde to the Congo. The location usually chosen was near the mouth of some river, so as to tap easily the slave supply up country. Sometimes, however, a small island, offshore, was selected on which to build a factory, because it was cooler and a more healthful spot.

The walls of the larger forts enclosed a considerable space of ground, on which were built barracks, storehouses for merchandise and sheds for the slaves. The huts of the negroes employed in the service of the factory, would be outside the walls of the fort, but under the protection of its guns. The principal fort of the English was Cape Coast Castle, on the Gold Coast, and not far away was St. George del Mina, erected by the Portuguese, but later falling into the hands of the Dutch. The French built Fort Louis at the mouth of the Senegal and also a fort on Goree, an island near Cape Verde. Fort James was on the Gambia and there were important forts at Anamaboe, Accra and Whidah. Most of these forts mounted from fifty to sixty guns and were not only impregnable to the negroes, but capable of standing a regular siege by a European force.

Under the command of the governor or commandant were soldiers employed in the service of the company, and a number of clerks, mechanics and junior factors, the latter in charge of the traffic with the interior towns. These men would ascend the rivers in small sailing vessels or armed boats and exchange European manufactures for slaves, gold dust and ivory furnished by the negroes. Sometimes they would open a sort of shop or trading post in a populous town and remain there for several months at the pleasure of the local king or chief. Many of these men were outcasts at home or destitute of means and therefore willing to engage to go to the coast of Africa where they knew they could lead a life of comparative indolence, with little or no restraint. There they might indulge nearly every human passion with utter freedom, whether it be confirmed drunkenness or unrestrained intercourse with negro girls. They knew that the deadly climate was likely to claim them eventually, so it was "a short life, and a merry one" for many an outcast free of home ties.


From the map in Churchill's Collection of Voyages, engraved by R. W. Seale

The soldiers in the forts seldom were called upon for active duty and spent their time in smoking, drinking palm wine and gaming. In fact, much of the time they were physically unfit for any service and within two years after their arrival on the Coast, they would be carried off by fever or dissipation. A stranger, on visiting one of these African forts, felt that there was something both horrible and ludicrous in the appearance of its garrison, for the soldiers appeared ghastly, debilitated and diseased, and their tattered and soiled uniforms, resembling each other only in meanness and not in color, suggested the thought that these men were a band of drunken deserters or starved and maltreated prisoners of war.

Sir John Hawkins was the first Englishman to transport slaves from the Guinea coast to America. This was in 1562, and his prosperous voyage which "brought great profit to the adventurers," led to other similar ventures. In 1618, King James granted a charter to a stock company to trade with Guinea, but private adventurers and interlopers broke in upon the preserves of the company and forced the trade open.

In 1662, another exclusive company was chartered with the king's brother, the Duke of York, at its head, and this company undertook to supply the English plantations with three thousand slaves annually. It was known as the "Company of Royal Adventurers of England for Carrying on a Trade to Africa," and for a year or two traded successfully and brought gold dust to England in such quantity that King Charles II ordered the minting of a new gold coin, of the value of twenty-one shillings, to be known as a guinea. These coins, made of the gold imported by the African Company, had, in its honor, a small elephant under the bust of the King, as a mark of distinction, done, it is said, to encourage the importation of gold. In 1664, the Dutch admiral, De Ruyter, captured the Guinea forts of the company, including Cormentyn Castle, and a number of ships, so that its losses amounted to over £200,000, which eventually forced the company to surrender its charter.

In 1672, the Royal African Company was chartered and for over a century conducted a more or less successful trade with the Guinea coast. It encouraged the English manufacture of several kinds of woolen and cotton goods and opened up a considerable market for Sheffield wares. The importations were elephant's teeth, dye woods, wax and gold dust, the latter reaching England in such quantity that forty or fifty thousand guineas would be minted at a time. But the dominating feature of the trading operations of the company was the advantageous purchase of negroes in Guinea, to be carried to the American colonies and there sold into slavery, the return cargo being muscovado sugar to supply the expanding English market.

In 1790, the number of forts and factories established on the coast was about forty; fourteen belonging to the English, fifteen to the Dutch, three to the French, four to the Portuguese and four to the Danes; and it has been estimated that the number of negroes sold or kidnapped into slavery, annually, about that time, could not fall far short of one hundred thousand, while an estimate of the total number carried away into slavery, previous to the year 1800, shows that African mothers provided about thirty million victims for the slave ships.

The ship trading on the slave coast discovered that the manner of trade varied with the locality. On coming to anchor in the river Gambia, opposite James Fort, a boat was sent ashore to announce the arrival to the alkaide or chief of the town, who at once came aboard to receive the anchorage money. This was ten gallons of liquor for the king, two iron bars for the alkaide and perhaps a few bottles of wine, beer or cider for presents. After a detention of four to seven days, the king would send his people to receive his custom, amounting to the value of 140 iron bars in merchandise. Later, the ship was supplied with a first and second linguist, two messengers and six or more butlers. The first linguist served as interpreter between the broker, who sold the slaves for the owner, and the factor, trader or master of the ship. The second linguist acted as interpreter for an officer of the ship, either in the tender, long-boat or factory on shore. The messengers were employed in looking out for trade on shore,—slaves, ivory, gold, provisions, etc. and for carrying letters to and from vessels, factories, etc. The butlers were employed to row in boats, cut wood, water the ship, in fact, were hired to preserve the health of the ship's crew, by saving them from exposure to the sun on board and the damps on shore.

Thus provided, the ship proceeded up river for about one hundred leagues to Yanamaroo, in the kingdom of Yancy, where more liquor was supplied for an anchorage and then the messengers were sent out to the principal people, for twenty or thirty miles around, soliciting slaves and trade. The tender or long-boat would also be dispatched farther up the river with merchandise for trade. It was at this port that ships generally began and finished their trading.

The slaves sold by these blacks were for the most part prisoners of war. But not infrequently men would sell their own children or the children of neighbors, that they had kidnapped,—stolen is perhaps a better word. Some slaves were also brought from a distance but usually when offered were in poor and weak condition.

The linguist would bring the slave broker on board or to the factory, who would inquire what price the master of the ship was willing to pay for a slave and the commission he was to receive and this was never settled until the broker had visited all the factories and every ship in port. Having no better offer, the broker would then bring on board the owner of the slaves, who examined the merchandise offered, agreed upon the articles and then sent for the slaves, who would be examined by the ship's surgeon. If approved, the owner would then be paid the merchandise he had selected, less one bar of iron, duty for the king. Men slaves would then be put in irons on the main deck; boys on the main deck, not ironed; and women and girls, not ironed, on the quarter deck. The broker was then given his commission, which completed the transaction.

Much of the ivory obtained there had been picked up in the woods and having laid out in the rain and wind for some time was for the most part scurfy and hollow.

The northern coast of the gulf of Guinea is divided into particular sections which, in order, have been named the "Grain Coast," extending from Cape Mount to Cape Palmas, a country producing much rice and maize (Indian corn); the "Ivory or Tooth Coast," extending from Cape Palmas to the river Lagos, and formerly having a considerable trade in elephant ivory; the "Gold Coast," between Assinee and the river Volta, so named for the large amounts of gold dust obtained there, which came from the mountains and streams at the north; and lastly, the "Bight of Benin," lying between Cape St. Paul's and Cape Formosa, which clasps within its curve, the "Slave Coast" and the coast of Whidah and Lagos, in former times much resorted to by slavers and pirates.

Cape Coast Castle, the principal English fort in slaving days, guarded a part of the Gold Coast and behind it was the Fantee and Ashantee country, which supplied great numbers of slaves for the American market. The castle was built near the sea and not only was dominated by three hills, not far behind it, but its location was only nine miles from the Castle of St. George at Mina, belonging to the Dutch, and only a short mile distant was Fredericksburg, a Danish fort. The only landing place was a small sandy flat just under the castle, on which the blacks could run their canoes without danger of splitting. The agent general of the "Royal Company of Africa," who spent much time at Cape Coast Castle, remarked upon the unhealthfulness of the place notwithstanding the rocky shore and the surrounding high land. He wrote:

"Their fondness for their beloved liquor punch, is so great, even among the officers and factors, that, whatever comes of it, there must be a bowl upon all occasions, which causes the death of many of them.... I have often represented to some of the principal men how to live more regularly, viz., to abstain from the black women, whose natural hot and lewd temper soon wastes their bodies, to drink moderately, especially of brandy, rum, and punch; and to avoid sleeping in the open air at night, as many, when heated with debauchery, do, having nothing on but a shirt, thinking thus to keep cool, but, on the contrary, they murder themselves; for nothing is more pernicious to the constitution of Europeans, than to lie in the open air, as I have been sufficiently convinced by experience. I always kept to my bed, as well as I could well bear it, and both night and day wore a dressed hare's skin next to my bare stomach, for above two years together, which kept it in good disposition and helped digestion very much; though I must say it was sometimes, and especially in the excessive hot nights, very troublesome and occasioned much sweating. The air, though not so cold, is much thinner and more piercing than in England, and corrodes iron much faster.

"The Castle has a lofty wall around it and had no fresh water except what is saved in a very large cistern, during the rains, which supplies both the garrison and shipping. In order to destroy Guinea worms, ship masters are accustomed to put two or three spoonsful of quick lime into each water cask filled from the cistern."

The inland negroes supplied the market with fruit, corn and palm wine, the maize or Indian wheat being produced in such quantity that much was sold to shipping and to blacks from other parts. The country was also very rich in gold and slaves, many of the latter coming from a considerable distance in the interior. The Fantees and Ashantees were esteemed most highly and were more hardy than the inland blacks.

Anamaboe, an important roadstead, lies a few leagues to the east of Cape Coast Castle. It was formerly a point at which slaves were to be had in considerable number and the road was generally full of shipping. The blacks were a clever and villainous people and frequently adulterated their gold so the trader must narrowly watch all transactions. The town was located on a sandy beach, strewn with rocks, close to the sea, the surf being so heavy that ships' boats could not land and all trade was carried on in the canoes of the natives.

At Accra, further to the eastward, the coast is bolder, with a good landing and plentiful supplies of provisions, and gold of the purest refinement. This country usually was at war with neighboring nations and accordingly had many prisoners to sell into slavery, so that sometimes a ship happening on the coast at just the right time, could obtain a lading of slaves in a fortnight and at a very low cost.

The use made by the natives of European manufactures obtained in trade is interestingly described by John Barbot, in his account of Guinea.


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