The American Slave Trade (Spears)/Chapter 6

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3511475The American Slave Trade (Spears) — Chapter 61907John Randolph Spears



Stowing Slaves for the Voyage from Africa to a Market — The Galleries — Compelled to Lie “Spoon-fashion" to Save Deck Space — A Plan by which the 'Tween Decks Space was Packed Full — Effects of the Ship's Rolling on the Manacled Cargo — Living Slaves Jettisoned to Make a Claim on the Underwriters — Horrors of “The Blood-Stained Gloria" — Blinded Crews of the Rodeur and the Leon — Suicide Among the Tortured Slaves — Pitiful Tale of a Weanling's Death — Punishing Mutiny on the American Slaver Kentucky — Slave Ships Named for Two of Our Presidents.

The term Middle Passage arose from the fact that each slaving voyage was made up of three passages — the passage from the home port to the slave coast, the passage from the slave coast to the market, and the passage from that market back to the home port — say, Newport or Liverpool. It was during the middle of the three passages that the slaves were on board. This passage was invariably made, of course, from the east to the west, and the route lay, for the greater part of its length, in the torrid zone, even when the slaves were destined for the United States.

Most of the ships built for the trade in the eighteenth century had two decks. The space between the keel and the lower deck was called the lower hold, while the space between the two decks was sometimes called the upper hold, but was generally designated "'tween decks." The 'tween-deck space was reserved for the slaves. The newslaver built at "Warren in the county of Bristole, in the colony of Rhode Island," was to be "ten feet in the hold, with three feet ten inches betwixt decks." That is to say, the space between the decks where the slaves were to be kept during the time the cargo was accumulating (three to ten months) and while crossing the Atlantic (six to ten weeks) was a room as long and as wide as the ship, but only three feet ten inches high — the space of an average Newport slaver in the days when the traffic was lawful and respected.

The men were ironed together, two and two by the ankles, but women and children were left unironed. They were then taken to the slave-deck, the males forward of a bulkhead built abaft the main hatch, and the women aft. There all were compelled to lie down with their backs on the deck and feet outboard. In this position the irons on the men were usually secured to chains or iron rods that were rove through staples in the deck, or the ceiling of the ship. The entire deck was covered with them lying so. They were squeezed so tightly together, in fact, that the average space allowed to each one was but sixteen inches wide by five and a half feet long.

In the Liverpool ships in the latter part of the eighteenth century — ships that carried from three hundred to five hundred slaves at a load — the average height between the two decks was five feet two inches. This statement of the average distance between decks was proven by measuring many ships. But that is not to say that the slaves were more comfortable on the ships having greater space between decks. On the contrary, they were less so. Economy of space was studied with a sharp eye. It would never do to allow all that space between decks to remain unoccupied. So a shelf or gallery, usually six feet wide, was suspended midway between the two decks, and on this another layer of slaves was placed Of course the deck under the shelf or gallery was covered with slaves packed as closely together as possible. This shelf was made of unplaned lumber, and there was no effort to make tight the joints between the boards.

The smaller ships — the sloops and schooners that had no 'tween-decks — were arranged for stowing the slaves by building a temporary deck beneath the upper one. Having stowed the barrels of food and water in the hold so as to occupy as little space as possible, a row of stanchions, fore and aft on the keelson, and rising just above the barrels, was erected. These were connected by a ridge-pole, and from this ridgepole rafters were extended to the sides of the ship. On the rafters common unplaned boards were laid. Thus a deck was laid that could be easily removed on occasion.

The space between this deck and the upper one was rarely, if ever, more than three feet high, and cases are on record where it was considerably less than two feet — in this century even as little as eighteen inches.

Most of the vessels used after the trade was outlawed were of the small, single-decked class. Because the trade was unlawful these slavers had to be prepared to pass as palm-oil buyers when they were overhauled by a cruiser, and they could not do that if they had a slave-deck laid. Accordingly the slave-deck was not laid until the slaves were on the beach ready to embark. Being then in great haste the slaver did not usually go to the trouble of erecting stanchions and building his deck substantially. He merely laid his rafters or timbers on the barrels, as best he might; spread the boards over them, with a nail driven in here and there, perhaps, but sometimes with never a nail to hold them in place, and then the slaves were brought on board and jammed into the thin space with less regard for their comfort than is shown now for hogs shipped in a two-deck stock-car.

In fact, when the cruisers became at last somewhat vigilant, cargoes were shipped in vessels that had no slave-deck; the slaves were piled on the barrels of food and water until the barrels were blanketed out of sight.

But the limit of devilish ingenuity in stowing slaves was not reached until the trade was outlawed. To increase the number of slaves on the deck they were then compelled to lie on their sides, breast to back, "spoon fashion," to use the term then common. Where the 'tween-deck space was two feet high or more the slaves were stowed sitting up in rows, one crowded into the lap of another, and with legs on legs, like riders on a crowded toboggan. In storms the sailors had to put on the hatches, and seal tight the openings into the infernal cesspool. It was asserted by the naval officers who were stationed on the coast to stop the traffic that in certain states of the weather they could detect the odor of a slaver further away than they could see her on a clear night. The odor was often unmistakable at a distance of five miles down wind.

Tt was possible for a humane ship-master, such as Captain Hugh Crow, the one-eyed slaver of Liverpool, by alleviating the sufferings of the slaves by means of good food, daily washings, and some effort to make them cheerful, such as playing musical instruments, etc., to keep the death rate down to one or two per centum. Captain John Newton, who became a famous preacher, says regarding his own experience:

"I had the pleasure to return thanks in the churches for an African voyage performed without any accident or the loss of a man; and it was much noticed and acknowledged in the town. I question if it is not the only instance of the kind . . . . It [the slave-trade] is, indeed, accounted a genteel employment, and is usually very profitable."

Other captains did carry a cargo each without the loss of a man, but such passages were rare. The ordinary slaver captain at the end of the eighteenth century was not so careful, while many a slaver was simply without any sympathy for the unfortunates.

The story of the Zong, Captain Luke Collingwood, illustrates this statement. The Zong sailed from the island of St. Thomas, off the coast of Africa, on September 6, 1781, bound for Jamaica, with four hundred and forty slaves. The water on board was insufficient in quantity, and the slaves began to die for want of it. On arriving off Jamaica, Collingwood made the mistake of supposing he was off Hayti, and the death-rate was now so great that he began to think the voyage would be unprofitable. On casting about for some way of saving the owners from the impending loss of profits, Captain Collingwood remembered that the underwriters were always obliged to pay for all cargo jettisoned — thrown overboard — either to lighten the

every soul on board was blind.
See page 76.
ship or to provide in any way for the safety of the cargo retained on board. In short, if the slaves died of disease or from lack of water while on board the ship, the loss would fall on the ship; but if he threw overboard some of them so that he would have enough food and water to abundantly nourish those remaining, he could collect the price of those thrown into the sea from the underwriters.

Accordingly, one hundred and thirty-two of the most wretched slaves were brought on deck. Of these one hundred and twenty-two were thrown to the sharks that swarmed about the ship; but ten, seeing that they were to be thrown over, and that most of the sufferers were writhing in abject terror — these ten struggled to their feet, and, in spite of cramps and weakness, staggered to the rail and plunged over, that they might show the others how to die.

The underwriters refused to pay, however; the case went to court,and the jury decided in favor of the ship. Solicitor-General J. Lee refused to carry the case to a higher court. He said the master had "an unquestionable right" to throw the slaves into the sea.

"This is a case of goods and chattels," said he. "It is really so; it is a case of throwing over goods; for to this purpose, and the purpose of insurance, they are goods and property."

The insurers appealed the case, and the court above, Lord Mansfield, presiding, in spite of the plain mandate of statute — disregarding the obvious meaning of the laws, with the making of which he had nothing to do — yielded to his sense of humanity, decided according to "the higher law," and said, "It is a very shocking case." He granted a new trial, at which the insurers escaped paying for theloss. So the laws, being unjust, were violated — disregarded even — by the courts before they were repealed. Such sacrifice of a part of a cargo of slaves to save the others was common enough in the history of the trade.

For a picture of a slaver of the lower class take that given by Drake in his "Revelations of a Slave-Smuggler." He says:

We had left the Verds, and were making southerly in ballast, when we overhauled a Portuguese schooner, and ran alongside. She had a full cargo of slaves, with a large quantity of gold-dust, and our captain, Ruiz, proposed to attack her. The crew were ready, and, inspired by rum, soon mastered the schooner's hands; our captain blowing out the brains of a passenger, who owned the gold. Some of the Portuguese leaped overboard, with spars; but Ruiz had a boat manned, and knocked the survivors on the head with axes. The gold-dust and negroes were then quickly transferred to the slaver, the schooner was scuttled, and we kept on our way to the land with 190 slaves.... We then ran for Accra, and landed at Papoe, a town belonging to a Dahoman chief, where we found 600 negroes, waiting for a Spanish slaver, soon expected. Ruiz bought 400 of these, paying in the Portuguese gold-dust, and hauled our course for the Atlantic voyage.

But this was to be my last trip in the blood-stained Gloria. Hardly were we out a fortnight before it was discovered that our roystering crew had neglected to change the sea-water which had served as our ballast, in the lower casks, and which ought to have been replaced with fresh water in Africa. We were drawing from the last casks before this discovery was made; and the horror of our situation sobered Captain Ruiz. He gave orders to hoist the precious remnant abaft the main grating, and made me calculate how long it would sustain the crew and cargo. I found that half a gill a day would hold out to the Spanish main; and it was decided that, in order to save our cargo, we should allow the slaves a half gill, and the crew a gill, each day. Then began a torture worse than death to the blacks. Pent in their close dungeons, to the number of nearly five hundred, they suffered continual torment. Our crew and drivers were unwilling to allow even the half gill per diem, and quarrelled fiercely over their own stinted rations. Our cargo had been stowed on the platforms closer than I ever saw slaves stowed before or since. Instead of lowering buckets of water to them, as was customary, it became necessary to pour the water into halfpint measures. Those furthest from the gratings never got a drop.... Death followed so fast that in a short time at least a hundred men and women were shackled to dead partners. Our captain and crew, as well as myself, drank hard.... The dead were not thrown overboard. At last Captain Ruiz ordered the hatches down, and swore he would make the run on our regular water rations, and take the chances of his stock.

That night we caroused, and satisfied our thirst, whilst the negroes suffocated below. Next morning came a storm, which drove us on our course a hundred knots. Two days afterward, Ruiz and four of the men were taken suddenly ill with a disease that baffled my medical knowledge. Their tongues swelled, and grew black; their flesh turned yellow, and in six hours they were dead. The first mate went next, and then three others of the crew, and a black driver, whose body became leprous with yellow spots. I began to notice a strange, fetid smell pervading the vessel, and a low, heavy fog on deck, almost like steam. Then the horrid truth became apparent. Our rotting negroes under hatches had generated the plague, and it was a malaria or death-mist that I saw rising. At this time all our men but three and myself had been attacked; and we abandoned the Gloria, in her long boat, taking the remnant of water, a sack of biscuit, and a rum beaker, with what gold-dust and other valuables we could hastily gather up. We left nine of our late comrades dead and five dying on the Gloria's deck. After running for two days we struck a current, and in three more were drifted to the island of Tortola.

People familiar with Whittier's poems will recall ‘The Slave Ships," founded on the experience of the French slaver Rodeur. In 1819 while she was on her way to Guadeloupe with but one hundred and sixty-two slaves on board, a disease of the eyes appeared in the hold and spread rapidly. To save the unaffected and to ground a claim on the underwriters, the captain threw thirty-six of the negroes alive into the sea. The disease continued its ravages, however, and soon attacked the crew with such malignancy that in a short time all but one of them became blind.

In this terrorful condition a sail was seen, and the one man who had the use of his eyes steered the Rodeur toward her. In a short time she was seen to be drifting derelict with all sail set, though men were wandering about her deck. The man on the Rodeur hailed her, and then her crew swarmed to her rail and begged for help, saying that she was the Spanish slaver Leon, and that every soul on board was blind through the ophthalmia generated among the slaves.

The Rodeur reached port steered by the one man, but he went blind on reaching shore. The Leon was never seen again.

To the stories of the ills of the Middle Passage so far given must be added those which relate to the mental sufferings of the slaves and those that grew out of the deliberate cruelty of the crews. Indeed it is not to much to say that the saddest result of the slave trade now visible is the mental attitude of the white race of America toward the colored.

"The ships," said Dr. Alexander Falconbridge, of the slaver Tartar, "were fitted up with a view of preventing slaves jumping overboard," but an opening was left in the netting set above the rail in order that refuse might be dumped overboard, and through this many a negro leaped to his death. Others managed to secrete rope-yarn or strong twine, by which a noose was made and secured to a cleat overhead, and so the slave strangled himself to death. One tore his throat open with his finger-nails. Many others, to kill themselves, refused to eat. They were flogged to compel them to eat, but this failed so often that it was the custom for all slavers to carry a tube-like instrument used by surgeons to force food into the mouths of patients suffering from lockjaw. This was driven into the mouths of obstinate negroes, smashing lips and teeth, until food could be forced down the throat. Instances were described where the lips were burned with coals and hot irons to compel the negroes to open their mouths and swallow the food.

How men and women were flogged to death; how they died smiling under the blows, saying, ‘‘Soon we shall be free"'; how they leaped overboard and exultingly bade farewell to friends who rejoiced in their escape — all that has been told over and again by the slaver captains themselves.

One of the most pitiful stories known to these annals is told in connection with the slaver habit of compelling his slaves to eat. There was a child, less than a year old, that could not eat the boiled rice prepared for it, and the captain decided that it was stubborn, rather than sick. Getting angry as the little one repeatedly turned its head from the food, he grabbed it from its mother's arms. He tied a twelve-pound stick of wood to its neck as a punishment, and thereafter flogged it with the cat at each meal-time until the fourth day, when, after the whipping, it died. To make complete his work, the captain, whip in hand, then called the child's mother to pick up the little body and throw it over the rail. She refused at first, but, tortured by the cat, she took up the child, walked to the ship's side, and turning her head away dropped the body into the sea.

Of the truth of the story there is no doubt. It was told under oath before a committee of Parliament, and of all the tales of inhuman deeds perpetrated by the slavers, none had more effect in ridding the earth of the traffic than this.

From one point of view the picture of a gang of slaves when on deck for an airing was one of the most shocking known to the trade. For the slaver captain knew how much brooding over their wrongs tended to promote disease, and his chief object in bringing them on deck was to cheer them. He wanted them to sing and dance, and he saw that they did it too — he applied the lash not only to make them eat, but to make them sing. There they stood in rows and as the brawny slaver, whip in hand, paced to and fro, they sang their home-songs, and danced, each with his free foot slapping the deck.

When the slaves tried to kill themselves because they believed in the resurrection and a life in their old homes after death, some of the slaver captains mutilated the bodies of the dead by cutting off and carrying along the heads or other portions of the bodies, and telling the slaves that thus the dead would be wholly unable to exist, or, at any rate, to enjoy the life they hoped for after death. But the slaves smiled in contempt when they heard that. They were of a heathen race. ‘They had never learned the Christian's hope of heaven, but something had told them (who shall say how?) that the body, though it be "sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption" — that though it be "sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." And they — those heathen — trusted implicitly the light they had.

It is a most interesting fact that while the slave trade developed vikings when it was a legal and reputable traffic, it developed a race devoid of every manly instinct when 1t became unlawful. As illustrating this fact, it may be said that in the nineteenth century the slavers dealt in children as far as possible. Children did not bring as large a price as field hands, of course, but they cowered under torture, and there was no fear of their rising against the crew.

But many adult cargoes were shipped, and the American slaver Kentucky, Captain George H. Douglass, master, and Thomas H. Boyle, mate, was one that carried adults. On September 9, 1844, she sailed from Inhambane with five hundred and thirty slaves in her hold. On the voyage there was an insurrection. It was quickly subdued by force, but, through fear of more trouble of the kind, the captain determined to punish the ringleaders. In all, forty-six men and one woman were hanged and shot to death.

"They were ironed or chained, two together, and when they were hung, a rope was put round their necks and they drawn up to the yard-arm clear of the sail," said one of the crew when testifying under oath. "This did not kill them, but only choked or strangled them. They were then shot in the breast and the bodies thrown overboard. If only one of two that were ironed together was to be hung, the rope was put around his neck and he was drawn up clear of the deck, and his leg laid across the rail and chopped off to save the irons and release him from his companion, who at the same time lifted up his leg till the other was chopped off as aforesaid, and he released.

"The bleeding negro was then drawn up, shot in the breast, and thrown overboard as aforesaid. The legs of about one dozen were chopped off in this way.

"When the feet fell on deck they were picked up by the crew and thrown overboard, and sometimes they shot at the body while it still hung living, and all kinds of sport was made of the business.

"When the woman was hung up and shot, the ball did not take effect, and she was thrown overboard living, and was seen to struggle some time in the water before she sunk; and deponent further says, that after this was over they brought up and flogged about twenty men and six women. The flesh of some of them where they were flogged putrefied and came off in some cases six or eight inches in diameter, and in places half an inch thick."

This story, sworn to before United States Consul George William Gordon, was repeated by Consul Henry A. Wise (of Virginia) in an official communication to Secretary of State James Buchanan, under date of May 1, 1845. James K. Polk was then President of the United States, and this story and other stories of like character were sent to the Congress of the United States in House Ex. Doc. 61, 30th Congress second session, and Senate Ex. Doc. 28 of the same session.

Said Consul Wise in an official letter dated February 18, 1845:

"I beseech, I implore, the President of the United States to take a decided stand on this subject. You have no conception of the bold effrontery and the flagrant outrages of the African slave-trade, and of the shameless manner in which its worst crimes are licensed here. And every patriot in our land would blush for our country did he know and see, as I do, how our own citizens sail and sell our flag to the uses and abuses of that accursed traffic. We are a ‘by-word among nations' — the only people who can now fetch and carry any and everything for the slave-trade... and, because we are the only people who can, are we to allow our proudest privilege to be perverted, and to pervert our own glorious flag into the pirate's flag?"

Neither James Buchanan nor James K. Polk, nor any other member of any administration from and including that of Andrew Jackson down to the Civil War, did anything that could in justice be called an effort to stop the use of the American flag for covering such atrocities.

It is a significant fact that there was one slave-ship named Martin Van Buren and another named James Buchanan. It is a pity that these two slavers could not have been preserved in the navy yard of the American metropolis as monuments to the officials whose names they bore, and to remind the shuddering spectator that along with our days of magnificent glory we have had our age of infinite shame.