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An estimated 15 million Africans were transported to the Americas between 1540 and 1850. To maximize their profits slave merchants carried as many slaves as was physically possible on their ships. By the 17th century slaves could be purchased in Africa for about $25 and sold in the Americas for about $150. After the slave-trade was declared illegal, prices went much higher. Even with a death-rate of 50 per cent, merchants could expect to make tremendous profits from the trade.
The journey from Africa to the West Indies or North America Usually took about two months. One study shows that the slave ship provided an average of about seven square feet per slave. Gad Heuman and James Walvin, the authors of The Atlantic Slave Trade (2003) have argued that: "About half of all deaths were from stomach complaints (notably dysentery) and fevers brought on board from Africa, and made worse by the ships' conditions. A substantial proportion of slave deaths took place on the African coast, in the period when the captain was trying to fill his ship's holds with other slaves. The white crews of the slave ships also suffered unusually high death rates (again, worst on the African coast), though that too declined with time. In addition, there were always the unpredictable attacks of diseases and ailments which could cause havoc at sea, in the filth of the slave quarters.... We know of rebellions on more than 300 voyages, and of violent incidents on the African coast."
Thomas Phillips, a slave-ship captain, wrote an account of his activities in A Journal of a Voyage (1746): "I have been informed that some commanders have cut off the legs or arms of the most willful slaves, to terrify the rest, for they believe that, if they lose a member, they cannot return home again: I was advised by some of my officers to do the same, but I could not be persuaded to entertain the least thought of it, much less to put in practice such barbarity and cruelty to poor creatures who, excepting their want of Christianity and true religion (their misfortune more than fault), are as much the works of God's hands, and no doubt as dear to him as ourselves."
John Newton was a slave-captain between 1747 and 1754. He wrote in Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787): "With our ships, the great object is, to be full. When the ship is there, it is thought desirable, she should take as many as possible. The cargo of a vessel of a hundred tons, or little more, is calculated to purchase from two hundred and twenty to two hundred and fifty slaves. Their lodging-rooms below the deck, which are three (for the men, the boys, and the women) besides a place for the sick, are sometimes more than five feet high, and sometimes less; and this height is divided towards the middle, for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close, that the shelf would not, easily, contain one more."
Working on a slave-ship could be very profitable. James Irving was a surgeon on the ship Vulture that sailed to Jamaica in November 1782. It has been argued by Suzanne Schwarz:, the author of Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (1995): "Assuming that Irving was paid £4 wages a month, together with the value of two privilege slaves and one shilling head money for each of the 592 slaves delivered alive to the West Indies, it is likely that Irving earned approximately £140 from this voyage. This is consistent with the average voyage earnings of slave-ship surgeons in the late eighteenth century, which were typically between £100 and £150."
In 1787 Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp formed the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Of the twelve members on the committee, nine were Quakers. Influential figures such as John Wesley and Josiah Wedgwood gave their support to the campaign. Later they persuaded William Wilberforce, the MP for Hull, to be their spokesman in the House of Commons. Clarkson was given the responsibility of collecting information to support the abolition of the slave trade. It is estimated that he was to ride some 35,000 miles in the next seven years. His work included interviewing 20,000 sailors and obtaining equipment used on the slave-ships such as iron handcuffs, leg-shackles, thumb screws, instruments for forcing open slave's jaws and branding irons. The misery which the slaves endure in consequence of too close a stowage is not easy to describe.
In 1787 Clarkson published his pamphlet, A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition. He argued: "I have heard them (slaves) frequently complaining of heat, and have seen them fainting, almost dying for want of water. Their situation is worse in rainy weather. We do everything for them in our power. In all the vessels in which I have sailed in the slave trade, we never covered the gratings with a tarpawling, but made a tarpawling awning over the booms, but some were still panting for breath."
Slaves also began to publish their accounts of being aboard slave-ships. Ottobah Cugoano was only a child when he was taken from Africa: "We were taken in the ship that came for us, to another that was ready to sail from Cape Coast. When we were put into the ship, we saw several black merchants coming on board, but we were all drove into our holes, and not suffered to speak to any of them. In this situation we continued several days in sight of our native land. And when we found ourselves at last taken away, death was more preferable than life; and a plan was concerted amongst us, that we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames: but we were betrayed by one of our own countrywomen, who slept with some of the headmen of the ship, for it was common for the dirty filthy sailors to take the African women and lie upon their bodies; but the men were chained and pent up in holes. It was the women and boys which were to burn the ship, with the approbation and groans of the rest; though that was prevented, the discovery was likewise a cruel bloody scene."
Olaudah Equiano was captured and sold as a slave in Benin. He wrote about his experiences in The Life of Olaudah Equiano the African (1789): "I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a greeting in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness 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. The white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. The wretched situation was again aggravated by the chains, now unsupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable."
A House of Commons committee in 1788 discovered that one slave-ship, The Brookes, was originally built to to carry a maximum of 451 people, but was carrying over 600 slaves from Africa to the Americas. "Chained together by their hands and feet, the slaves had little room to move." It has been estimated that only about half of the slaves taken from Africa became effective workers in the Americas. A large number of slaves died on the journey from diseases such as smallpox and dysentery. Others committed suicide by refusing to eat. Many of the slaves were crippled for life as a consequence of the way they were chained up on the ship.
Thomas Clarkson met Alexander Falcolnbridge, a former surgeon on board a slave ship. Falconbridge was willing to testify publicly about the way slaves were treated. He accompanied Clarkson to Liverpool where he acted as his bodyguard. Clarkson later called him "an athletic and resolute-looking man". In 1790 Falconbridge gave evidence to a privy council committee, and underwent four days of questions by a House of Commons committee. He explained how badly the slaves were treated on the ships: "The men, on being brought aboard the ship, are immediately fastened together, two and two, by handcuffs on their wrists and by irons rivetted on their legs. They are then sent down between the decks and placed in an apartment partitioned off for that purpose.... They are frequently stowed so close, as to admit of no other position than lying on their sides. Nor will the height between decks, unless directly under the grating, permit the indulgence of an erect posture; especially where there are platforms, which is generally the case. These platforms are a kind of shelf, about eight or nine feet in breadth, extending from the side of the ship toward the centre. They are placed nearly midway between the decks, at the distance of two or three feet from each deck, Upon these the Negroes are stowed in the same manner as they are on the deck underneath."
Thomas Trotter, a physician working on the slave-ship, Brookes, told the committee: "The slaves that are out of irons are locked spoonways and locked to one another. It is the duty of the first mate to see them stowed in this manner every morning; those which do not get quickly into their places are compelled by the cat and, such was the situation when stowed in this manner, and when the ship had much motion at sea, they were often miserably bruised against the deck or against each other. I have seen their breasts heaving and observed them draw their breath, with all those laborious and anxious efforts for life which we observe in expiring animals subjected by experiment to bad air of various kinds."
James Irving worked on slave-ships for nine years. It has been claimed by his biographer that "during his career he was involved in a number of voyages accounting for the delivery of some 3,000 slaves to the Americas". In May 1786 Irving sailed to Tobago. He wrote to his wife that "our black cattle are intolerably noisy and I'm almost melted in the midst of five or six hundred of them." David Richardson has argued: "Irving's insensitvity suggests that, even at a time when moral outrage in Britain at the enslavement of Africans was spreading, participation in the slave trade was still capable of promoting racism and blinding otherwise apparently quite caring individuals to the appalling suffering that they were helping to inflict on others."
Thomas Clarkson pointed out: "Men in their first voyages usually disliked the trade; and, if they were happy enough then to abandon it, they usually escaped the disease of a hardened heart. But if they want a second and a third time, their disposition became gradually changed... Now, if we consider that persons could not easily become captains (and to these the barbarities were generally chargeable by actual perpetration, or by consent) till they had been two or three voyages in this employ, we shall see the reason why it would be almost a miracle, if they, who were thus employed in it, were not rather to become monsters, than to continue to be men."
Some captains, like Hugh Crow, agreed with the regulation of the slave-trade. However, he rejected the criticism of William Wilberforce: "His proposition... that badges should be worn by African captains, who toiled at the risk of their lives for the accommodation of our colonies, and that he and others might enjoy their ease at home, was impertinent as well as ungracious; and his regulation that captains should land their cargoes without losing a certain number of black slaves, was absolutely ridiculous. Not a word was said about the white slaves, the poor sailors; these might die without regret.... And with respect to the insinuation thrown out, in this country, that African captains sometimes threw their slaves overboard, it is unworthy of notice, for it goes to impute an absolute disregard of self interest, as well as of all humanity. In the African trade, as in all others, there were individuals bad as well as good, and it is but justice to discriminate, and not condemn the whole for the delinquencies of a few."
John Newton wrote in Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1787): "Epidemical fevers and fluxes, which fill the ship with noisome and noxious effluvia, often break out, infect the seamen likewise, and the oppressors, and the oppressed, fall by the same stroke. I believe, nearly one half of the slaves on board, have, sometimes, died; and that the loss of a third part, in these circumstances, is not unusual. The ship, in which I was mate, left the coast with two hundred and eighteen slaves on board; and though we were not much affected by epidemical disorders, I find, by my journal of that voyage (now before me) that we buried sixty-two on our passage to South Carolina, exclusive of those which died before we left the coast, of which I have no account. I believe, upon an average between the more healthy, and the more sickly voyages, and including all contingencies, One fourth of the whole purchase may be allotted to the article of mortality. That is, if the English ships purchase sixty thousand slaves annually, upon the whole extent of the coast, the annual loss of lives cannot be much less than fifteen thousand."
In 1796 Mungo Park joined an American slave ship, Charlestown, bound for South Carolina. He later recalled the journal: "The number of slaves received on board this vessel... was one hundred and thirty; of whom about twenty-five had been, I suppose, of free condition in Africa, as most of them, being Bushreens, could write a little Arabic. Nine of them had become captives in the religious war between Abdulkader and Damel.... My conversation with them, in their native language, gave them great comfort; and as the surgeon was dead, I consented to act in a medical capacity in his room for the remainder of the voyage. They had in truth need of every consolation in my power to bestow; not that I observed any wanton acts of cruelty practised either by the master or the seamen towards them; but the mode of confining and securing Negroes in the American slave ships, owing chiefly to the weakness of their crews, being abundantly more rigid and severe than in British vessels employed in the same traffic, made these poor creatures to suffer greatly, and a general sickness prevailed amongst them. Besides the three who died on the Gambia, and six or eight while we remained at Goree, eleven perished at sea, and many of the survivors were reduced to a very weak and emaciated condition."
Stephen D. Behrendt, carried out a study of 1,709 muster rolls for Liverpool slave voyages between 1780 and 1807. He discovered that 17.8 per cent of original crew died (10,439 out of 58,778). The time spent on the African coast was particularly dangerous. Although large numbers of men died from drowning, Behrendt discovered that various types of fevers accounted for the majority of deaths. Gastrointestinal diseases including flux, dysentery and diarrhoea accounted for 11 per cent of the sample.
After William Wilberforce retired in 1825, Thomas Fowell Buxton became the leader of the campaign in the House of Commons. Buxton, with the help of Thomas Clarkson, set about collecting information about slavery and compiling demographic statistics. In a speech on 23rd May 1826 he described the conditions on board a slave-ship: "The voyage, the horrors of which are beyond description. For example, the mode of packing. The hold of a slave vessel is from two to four feet high. It is filled with as many human beings as it will contain. They are made to sit down with their heads between their knees: first, a line is placed close to the side of the vessel; then another line, and then the packer, armed with a heavy club, strikes at the feet of this last line in order to make them press as closely as possible against those behind... Thus it is suffocating for want of air, starving for want of food, parched with thirst for want of water, these poor creatures are compelled to perform a voyage of fourteen hundred miles. No wonder the mortality is dreadful!"
We were taken in the ship that came for us, to another that was ready to sail from Cape Coast. It was the women and boys which were to burn the ship, with the approbation and groans of the rest; though that was prevented, the discovery was likewise a cruel bloody scene.
But it would be needless to give a description of all the horrible scenes which we saw, and the base treatment which we met with in this dreadful captive situation, as the similar cases of thousands, which suffer by this infernal traffic, are well known. Let it suffice to say that I was thus lost to my dear indulgent parents and relations, and they to me. All my help was cries and tears, and these could not avail, nor suffered long, till one succeeding woe and dread swelled up another. Brought from a state of innocence and freedom, and, in a barbarous and cruel manner, conveyed to a state of horror and slavery, this abandoned situation may be easier conceived than described.
The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and 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.
I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a greeting in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness 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.
The white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.
The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.
Captain Winton told me in the course of our voyage, that, in the early part of his experience in the slave-trade, he had seen slaves where they were literally packed on the top of each other; and consequently, from ill air, confinement, and scanty or unwholesome provision, disease was generated to such an extent that in several cases he had known only one-half survive to the end of the voyage; and these, as he termed it, in a very unmarketable condition. He found, therefore, that, by allowing them what he called sufficient room and good provisions, with kind treatment, his speculations turned out much better in regard to the amount of dollars received; and that was all he cared for.
After being about 15 days out to sea a heavy squall struck the ship. The poor slaves below, altogether unprepared for such an occurrence, were mostly thrown to the side, where they lay heaped on the top of each other; their fetters rendered many of them helpless, and before they could be arranged in their proper places, and relived from their pressure on each other, it was found that 15 of them were smothered or crushed to death. The captain seemed considerably vexed; but the only grievance to him was the sudden loss of some five or six thousand dollars.
I have been informed that some commanders have cut off the legs or arms of the most willful slaves, to terrify the rest, for they believe that, if they lose a member, they cannot return home again: I was advised by some of my officers to do the same, but I could not be persuaded to entertain the least thought of it, much less to put in practice such barbarity and cruelty to poor creatures who, excepting their want of Christianity and true religion (their misfortune more than fault), are as much the works of God's hands, and no doubt as dear to him as ourselves.
The misery which the slaves endure in consequence of too close a stowage is not easy to describe. I have heard them frequently complaining of heat, and have seen them fainting, almost dying for want of water. In all the vessels in which I have sailed in the slave trade, we never covered the gratings with a tarpawling, but made a tarpawling awning over the booms, but some were still panting for breath.
I have, to the best, of my knowledge, pointed out the principal sources, of that immense supply of slaves, which furnishes so large an exportation every year. If all that are taken on board the ships, were to survive the voyage, and be landed in good order, possibly the English, French, and Dutch islands, and colonies, would be soon overstocked, and fewer ships would sail to the Coast. But a large abatement must be made for mortality. After what I have already said of their treatment, I shall now, that I am again to consider them on board the ships, confine myself to this point.
In the Portuguese ships, which trade from Brazil to the Gold Coast and Angola, I believe, a heavy mortality is not frequent. The slaves have room, they are not put in irons, (I speak from information only) and are humanely treated.
With our ships, the great object is, to be full. Their lodging-rooms below the
deck, which are three (for the men, the boys, and the women) besides a place for the sick, are sometimes more than five feet high, and sometimes less; and this height is divided towards the middle, for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close, that the shelf would not, easily, contain one more.
And I have known a white man sent down among the men, to lay them in these rows to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible might be lost. Let it be observed, that the poor creatures, thus cramped for want of room, are likewise in irons, for the most part both hands and feet, and two together, which makes it difficult for them to turn or move, to attempt either to rise or to lie down, without hurting themselves, or each other. Nor is the motion of the ship, especially her heeling, or stoop on one side, when under sail, to be admitted; for this, as they lie athwart, or across the ship, adds to the uncomfortableness of their lodging, especially to those who lie on the leeward, or leaning side of the vessel.
The heat and the smell of these rooms, when the weather will not admit of the slaves being brought upon deck, and of having their rooms cleaned every day, would be, almost, insupportable, to a person not accustomed to them. If the slaves and their rooms can be constantly aired, and they are not detained too long on board, perhaps there are not many die; but the contrary is often their lot. They are kept down, by the weather, to breathe a hot and corrupted air, sometimes for a week: this, added to the galling of their irons, and the despondency which seizes their spirits, when thus confined, soon becomes fatal. And every morning, perhaps, more instances than one are found, of the living and the dead, like the Captives of Mezentius, fastened together.
Epidemical fevers and fluxes, which fill the ship with noisome and noxious effluvia, often break out, infect the seamen likewise, and the oppressors, and the oppressed, fall by the same stroke. The ship, in which I was mate, left the coast with two hundred and eighteen slaves on board; and though we were not much affected by epidemical disorders, I find, by my journal of that voyage (now before me) that we buried sixty-two on our passage to South Carolina, exclusive of those which died before we left the coast, of which I have no account.
I believe, upon an average between the more healthy, and the more sickly voyages, and including all contingencies, One fourth of the whole purchase may be allotted to the article of mortality. That is, if the English ships purchase sixty thousand slaves annually, upon the whole extent of the coast, the annual loss of lives cannot be much less than fifteen thousand.
No. The slaves that are out of irons are locked spoonways and locked to one another. I have seen their breasts heaving and observed them draw their breath, with all those laborious and anxious efforts for life which we observe in expiring animals subjected by experiment to bad air of various kinds.
From the time of the arrival of the ships to their departure, which is usually near three months, scarce a day passes without some negroes being purchased, and carried on board; sometimes in small, and sometimes in larger numbers. The whole number taken on board, depends, in a great measure, on circumstances. In a voyage I once made, our stock of merchandize was exhausted in the purchase of about 380 negroes, which was expected to have procured 500. The number of English and French ships then at Bonny, had so far raised the price of negroes, as to occasion this difference.... I was once upon the coast of Angola, also, when there had not been a slave ship at the river Ambris for five years previous to our arrival, although a place to which many usually resort every year. The failure of the trade for that period, as far as we could learn, had no other effect than to restore peace and confidence among the natives, which, upon the arrival of ships, is immediately destroyed by the inducement then held forth in the purchase of slaves.....
Previous to my being in this employ I entertained a belief, as many others have done, that the kings and principal men bred Negroes for sale as we do cattle. During the different times I was in the country, I took no little pains to satisfy myself in this particular; but notwithstanding I made many inquires, I was not able to obtain the least intelligence of this being the case.... All the information I could procure confirms me in the belief that to kidnapping, and to crimes (and many of these fabricated as a pretext) the slave trade owes its chief support....
No European vessel had arrived at Gambia for many months previous to my return from the interior; and as the rainy season was now setting in, I persuaded Karfa to return to his people at Jindey. He parted with me on the 14th with great tenderness; but as I had little hopes of being able to quit Africa for the remainder of the year, I told him, as the fact was, that I expected to see him again before my departure. In this, however, I was luckily disappointed; and my narrative now hastens to its conclusion; for on the 15th, the ship Charlestown, an American vessel, commanded by Mr. Charles Harris, entered the river. She came for slaves, intending to touch at Goree to fill up; and to proceed from thence to South Carolina. As the European merchants on the Gambia had at this time a great many slaves on hand, they agreed with the captain to purchase the whole of his cargo, consisting chiefly of rum and tobacco, and deliver him slaves to the amount, in the course of two days. This afforded me such an opportunity of returning (though by a circuitous route) to my native country, as I thought was not to be neglected. I therefore immediately engaged my passage in this vessel for America; and having taken leave of Dr. Laidley, to whose kindness I was so largely indebted, and my other friends on the river, I embarked at Kaye on the 17th day of June.
The number of slaves received on board this vessel, both on the Gambia and at Goree, was one hundred and thirty; of whom about twenty-five had been, I suppose, of free condition in Africa, as most of them, being Bushreens, could write a little Arabic. Nine of them had become captives in the religious war between Abdulkader and Damel, mentioned in the latter part of the preceding chapter; two of the others had seen me as I passed through Bondou, and many of them had heard of me in the interior countries. Besides the three who died on the Gambia, and six or eight while we remained at Goree, eleven perished at sea, and many of the survivors were reduced to a very weak and emaciated condition.
In the midst of these distresses, the vessel, after having been three weeks at sea, became so extremely leaky, as to require constant exertion at the pumps. It was found necessary, therefore, to take some of the ablest of the Negro men out of irons, and employ them in this labour; in which they were often worked beyond their strength. This produced a complication, of miseries not easily to be described. We were, however, relieved much sooner than I expected; for the leak continuing to gain upon us, notwithstanding our utmost exertions to clear the vessel, the seamen insisted on bearing away for the West Indies, as affording the only chance of saving our lives. Accordingly, after some objections on the part of the master, we directed our course for Antigua, and fortunately made that island in about thirty-five days after our departure from Goree. Yet even at this juncture we narrowly escaped destruction; for on approaching the north-west side of the island, we struck on the Diamond Rock, and got into St John's harbour with great difficulty. The vessel was afterwards condemned as unfit for sea, and the slaves, as I have heard, were ordered to be sold for the benefit of the owners.
We have been in Tobago since the 25th November and have not yet disposed of any of our very disagreeable cargo... I'm nearly wearied of this unnatural accursed trade, and think... when convenience suits of adopting some other mode of life, although I'm fully sensible and aware of the difficulties attending any new undertaking, yet I will at least look around me.
The voyage, the horrors of which are beyond description. They are made to sit down with their heads between their knees: first, a line is placed close to the side of the vessel; then another line, and then the packer, armed with a heavy club, strikes at the feet of this last line in order to make them press as closely as possible against those behind. And so the packing goes on; until, to use the expression of an eyewitness, "they are wedged together in one mass of living corruption". No wonder the mortality is dreadful!
There had undoubtedly been a number of slave deaths before reaching the African coast - on the protracted movement of slaves within Africa - though the evidence for this is sparse. We also know that a considerable number of slaves died after landfall in the Americas, not surprising perhaps given the levels of sickness on board the Atlantic vessels. What is clear is that European and American slave traders generally sought to preserve the lives and health of their African slaves. They were, after all - and however crude it may seem - a valuable investment. Moreover, many slave traders tried to improve the shipboard conditions, with the result that slave mortality fell on all European and American ships over time. Yet there remains the unavoidable fact that slaves continued to die at a rate which would have horrified shippers of military or emigrant Europeans. And they died "not only from disease and accident, but from rebellion, suicide, and natural disasters". We know of rebellions on more than 300 voyages, and of violent incidents on the African coast. There were some 443 shipwrecks of slave ships, while more than 800 vessels were seized by privateers. In the nineteenth century 1,871 slave ships were impounded by anti-slave-trade patrols. Yet the great majority of slaves packed into the slave ships on the African coast arrived, whatever their condition, for sale to the slave owners of the Americas.
Landfall brought relief to the crew but almost certainly more fears and uncertainties among the Africans. They were sold as soon as was possible, having been prepared on board ship to look fit for sale and work. They were sold either on the ship or at a local market. Sicker slaves, of course, took longer to sell. The slave traders usually accepted a percentage of the agreed price, the rest to be paid later, normally in local produce. Contrary to popular belief, the slave ships returned to Europe not loaded with colonial produce but often in ballast (normal cargo vessels shipped colonial produce back to Europe), and with a greatly reduced crew, many of whom were shabbily treated and simply paid off in the Americas. On return to Britain (or elsewhere), the slave captain's main task was securing repayment on his outlay, and, over the next few years, selling goods arriving from the Americas from people who had bought his slave cargo. It was a protracted business that might last up to six years. And yet there seems to have been no reluctance among shippers and investors to involve themselves in the Atlantic slave trade. They clearly thought that it had profitable potential.
Despite some highly inflated estimates, the slave trade yielded profits averaging about 10 per cent. And there seem to have been important linkages between the African trade and early European industry. The slave trade made use of and expanded complex systems of international finance and credit, and became central to a genuinely global economy which linked the trades of Asia to those of Africa, Europe and the Americas. At the heart of this Atlantic slave system was a consumer revolution which saw Europeans consuming the crops from the slave colonies of the Americas in enormous volumes. All this was made possible by the imported Africans. In the words of Herbert Klein, "Until European immigrants replaced them in the late nineteenth century, it was African slaves who enabled this consumption revolution to occur. Without that labor most of America would never have developed at the pace it did."
A Digital Archive of Slave Voyages Details the Largest Forced Migration in History
Between 1500 and 1866, slave traders forced㺌.5 million Africans aboard transatlantic slave vessels. Before 1820, four enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic for every European, making Africa the demographic wellspring for the repopulation of the Americas after Columbus’ voyages. The slave trade pulled virtually every port that faced the Atlantic Ocean – from Copenhagen to Cape Town and Boston to Buenos Aires – into its orbit.
To document this enormous trade – the largest forced oceanic migration in human history – our team launched Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a freely available online resource that lets visitors search through and analyze information on nearly 36,000 slave voyages that occurred between 1514 and 1866.
Inspired by the remarkable public response, we recently developed an animation feature that helps bring into clearer focus the horrifying scale and duration of the trade. The site also recently implemented a system for visitors to contribute new data. In the last year alone we have added more than a thousand new voyages and revised details on many others.
The data have revolutionized scholarship on the slave trade and provided the foundation for new insights into how enslaved people experienced and resisted their captivity. They have also further underscored the distinctive transatlantic connections that the trade fostered.
Volume and direction of the transatlantic slave trade from all African to all American regions (David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New Haven, 2010), Author provided)
Records of unique slave voyages lie at the heart of the project. Clicking on individual voyages listed in the site opens their profiles, which comprise more than 70 distinct fields that collectively help tell that voyage’s story.
From which port did the voyage begin? To which places in Africa did it go? How many enslaved people perished during the Middle Passage? And where did those enslaved Africans end the oceanic portion of their enslavement and begin their lives as slaves in the Americas?
TARA ROBERTS: When you dive, it’s a completely different world.
AMY BRIGGS (HOST): The first time I ever saw National Geographic explorer and Storytelling Fellow Tara Roberts wasn’t at headquarters. It was on YouTube.
ROBERTS ( in a video recording underwater): And we can see the diameter, what size, and what type of ship this was.
BRIGGS: Last year, Tara was in a Nat Geo video about a group of Black scuba divers called Diving with a Purpose, also called DWP. In this scene, off the coast of the Florida Keys, Tara was getting underwater archaeology training.
Little yellow fish swim past Tara as she floats down toward the seafloor. So what is it she and the other divers looking for? They’re on a mission to help find and document shipwrecks that carried enslaved people across the Atlantic.
ROBERTS: There were approximately 35,000 ships that brought 12.5 million Africans to the Americas. Of those 35,000 ships, approximately 500 to a thousand wrecked. So far, it's a handful—have been found. And of the handful that have been found, even fewer have been properly documented.
BRIGGS: It might have been one of these sunken ships that Tara’s own ancestors sailed on years ago.
ROBERTS: I was talking to my mom, and she's the one in the family who's doing the family tree, and I actually remember seeing my great-grandfather's name and my great- grandmother's name listed on a ledger for a plantation in North Carolina. But that's as far as we can go back. I know nothing else.
BRIGGS: We all want to know where we come from. But people whose ancestors were forced to leave Africa and cross the ocean in slave ships face different challenges when delving into their family histories. Written records can be hard to find, and details are often scarce. But Tara thinks searching for these lost ships can be another way into the story.
What spoke to you about shipwrecks? Why did you choose to focus on that?
ROBERTS: My interest was really in the divers. I just think that there's something extraordinary about Black people saying, I am going to go out and find my own history, and I am going to shape the stories that are told about it.
Every time the divers jump in the water, they dream of finding something new: A new artifact, new information, new insight into the lives of the people on board the ships. But Tara also hopes for something even bigger: a new beginning for the story of Africans in the Americas.
ROBERTS: Like slavery is not the start of our story, but according to the history books, it is.
I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and this is Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. This week: the quest to find and document the shipwrecks that carried enslaved people from Africa to the Americas, and the Black scuba divers searching for their ancestors’ history at the bottom of the ocean. More after this.
BRIGGS: As a 2020 Nat Geo storytelling fellow, Tara has been following Black scuba divers around the world who are working to locate, identify, and record historical information about these slave ships.
She first learned about Diving with a Purpose during a trip to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.
ROBERTS: And I ended up on the second floor of the museum. And I saw this picture of Black women in wet suits. They were beautiful Black women, but it was an energy that was beautiful about that picture.
BRIGGS: In the photo, nine Black women in wet suits sit on the front of a dive boat. Some look like instructors, others like students. All look like divers, smiling and confident.
ROBERTS: And that picture really struck me. It made me want to be one of them. And it made me really curious about the work that they were doing.
BRIGGS: When Tara got home, she started looking into them.
ROBERTS: And that's when I discovered this group called Diving with a Purpose, a group of Black scuba divers searching for and helping to document slave shipwrecks.
BRIGGS: She wasn’t just intrigued—she felt drawn to their mission. As a storyteller, Tara didn’t just want to learn about her own ancestry. She saw an opportunity to tell untold stories that have been lost.
ROBERTS: The slave trade is a global story, like it is Europe. It is Africa. It is the Americas. There is like so much of the world that is in this story. And the world that we have today was created based on that trade. So it is definitely not a Black people's story or Black American story. This is a way of understanding the world and how we got where we are today.
BRIGGS: The scope of the transatlantic slave trade was staggering. The numbers are so big that it can be hard to wrap your mind around them. From the early 16th century through the 19th century, more than 12.5 million African people were forcibly taken across the Atlantic to the Americas, a horrific journey that historians call the Middle Passage.
An estimated 35,000 voyages departed from port cities along the coasts of Africa to bring enslaved labor to the European colonies. Of these, it’s estimated that at least a thousand ships were lost at sea.
And so, geographically, when they’re looking for wrecks, where are people looking? Where are they most likely to be found?
ROBERTS: A lot of these wrecks tend to happen near shore. We know that the ships went around the coast of South Africa to go to the Americas. And it was really the Portuguese and the French that were using Mozambique Island. And those ships for the Portuguese were headed to Brazil. A lot of the ships for the French were headed to the Caribbean. The U.S. Virgin Islands were a stopping point and a point where people disembarked and were shipped or taken elsewhere. But also Cuba, Brazil, like all of these, you know, sort of huge ports where enslaved Africans were brought are the places to look.
BRIGGS: DWP is exploring coastal areas around the world, hoping to find wrecks from the Middle Passage era, and Tara wanted to get involved. The first step? Get in touch with DWP’s founder, Ken Stewart.
KEN STEWART: So Tara contacts me. And the rest is history.
BRIGGS: Ken grew up in the Bronx, and now he lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Tara says he’s kind of a hometown hero.
ROBERTS: Like some people, as they get older, they begin to shut down and they begin to narrow, like the world becomes about sort of the small space that's around them. Ken is always broadening and opening. I want to be like him when I'm in my 70s.
BRIGGS: Ken is retired now, after a 40-year career working in IT. But his real passion has always been scuba diving, which he says is kind of unusual for a kid from the Bronx. In the early 2000s, Ken met an archaeologist in Florida while on a diving trip.
Right off the coast of Miami, in Biscayne National Park, the archaeologist was combing the seafloor—piecing together a high-speed chase from the 1820s. A Spanish ship called the Guerrero was carrying hundreds of enslaved people to Florida. But the British Navy wanted to stop the Guerrero.
STEWART: And the British, so they had, you know, several warships in the Caribbean thereabouts looking for slavers. There's a ship called the NimbleBritish warship called the Nimble spotted the Guerrero in the Caribbean. And the way the story goes approached her. And when they got close to her, she took off. And they chased all night. And they really believe that the Guerrero ran aground in Biscayne National Park after that night chase. Right. There were 561 Africans on board.
STEWART: Forty one of them died that night. The rest of the rest of them were either enslaved and sent to Cuba, or some of them were sent back to Liberia over the course of a year or so. We know a lot. We know everything about that ship, except where it is.
BRIGGS: So in 2003, Ken joined the search for the Guerrero. Ken had been on a lot of dives. But this one was different.
STEWART: First time I went, I had tears in my eyes underneath the water. You couldn't tell, but it was a truly emotional experience, because I'm thinking that, you know, my ancestors could be—this could be my great-great-great grandfather's or -grandmother's final resting place, or where they came aboard to the Americas.
BRIGGS: Ken knew that other Black divers would feel the same way. So that same year, he started a new group: Diving with a Purpose. DWP teaches students about conservation and heritage preservation. And it teaches divers how to spot shipwrecks. They aren’t professional archaeologists—but that doesn’t mean they can’t make their own discoveries.
STEWART: If you look at our mission statement, we are committed to telling the stories of the African diaspora and bringing that story alive. Again, a lot of people say, Well, you know, you need to leave it alone. No, no, no, we can't leave it alone. It's part of history. So we've got a long way to go.
BRIGGS: Telling those new stories takes a ton of work. Take the Guerrero. Ken says in order to confirm the identity of a wreck like the Guerrero, archaeologists would need to find certain kinds of artifacts—perhaps items listed in the ship’s manifest like cannon or cargo.
STEWART: For like, for the Guerrero, we'd be looking for a bell, right, that would say Guerrero on it. But we know the Guerrero was a slaver, so it might not have had a bell on it. We know the Guerrero had a little gold on it. And they know they had some ivory on it. Right. And or anything that would say Guerrero on it..
BRIGGS: DWP’s hoping to wrap up the search for the Guerrero once COVID-19 lifts, and divers can safely get back in the water. So far, the number of confirmed slave shipwrecks can be counted on one hand. Which makes sense because finding them isn’t easy.
STEWART: A lot of people, when they think about archaeology or maritime archaeology, they think of the Titanic, right—a ship that's intact. Right. Most of the ships in saltwater are not intact, especially if they're made out of wood. But when they're made out of wood after years and years and underneath the water, they are actually a scattered debris. What happens is the worms—there are worms that eat the wood over a period of time. And so, believe it or not, a whole ship can be eaten by worms. But what they don't eat are the artifacts, right. They don't eat the artifacts.
BRIGGS: Artifacts can help fill in the picture when historical details are scarce. One shipwreck—the Henrietta Marie—was found in the 1970s and is one of the few to be a confirmed slave ship. The artifacts found there gave archaeologists a kind of blueprint for the sorts of objects that could appear on other slave sites.
STEWART: There was a lot of artifacts that came off the ship—cannons, shackles, a lot of shackles. Right. And a lot of them were small shackles. So we know there were shackles for children.
BRIGGS: In total, more than 7,000 artifacts were recovered—cauldrons for cooking crew meals, glass beads for bartering, and even anchors from the ship itself. But finding underwater artifacts takes an educated eye and a patient hand.
STEWART: When you first do it, you say, what the heck am I looking at? But after your eyes get trained to it, you’ll figure out what the artifacts are. In our code of ethics, we make it very plain that when we do a site, we cannot bring up any artifacts. You can't. In fact, they don’t even want you touching them, right? Everything has to stay in situ. An archaeologist, you know, they believe in obviously leaving any artifacts down. Now they'll bring up an artifact from any slave wreck or anything to be studied and conserved. But basically they believe in leaving everything down tolook at, right. They really wholeheartedly believe that.
RACHEL STEWART (DWP diver): I remember just seeing large pieces, none of which I could identify.
BRIGGS: This is Rachel Stewart—no relation to Ken Stewart. She started out as a DWP student. Now she teaches other students what she’s learned.
R. STEWART: We learn to look for objects or anything in the water that doesn't seem like it's been nature made. So straight lines or perfect circles would be obvious. They mentioned like a boiler being down there, large pieces of wood being there. It wasn’t intact, just large pieces scattered throughout the floor.
BRIGGS: So you’re not seeing some perfect wreck like you see in Scooby-Doo.
BRIGGS: As a DWP student, Rachel learned the proper techniques to dive on an underwater site and not disturb it. And then she learned how to work alongside maritime archaeologists and record data.
R. STEWART: When we first get to a site, we'll do a swim-through just to get familiar with the site and then we'll go down and place a baseline through the middle of where all the artifacts have been scattered throughout the ocean floor.
BRIGGS: Then Rachel will take measurements called trilaterations.
R. STEWART: And we essentially are just measuring the distance from that point to the baseline at two different spots essentially. So then we'll take the notes after doing the trilaterations, getting all of our distances measured. Then we go back down and draw the objects, and the idea is to get it to scale. We're not drawing to scale underwater. But we have to take every single measurement. So how long is that artifact? How wide is it?
BRIGGS: These measurements then go into creating what’s called a site map, which can then be used as a legal document by conservationists. But there are also the things that can’t be recorded in a data sheet.
R. STEWART: Every time I see it, like I picture what could have happened. I can only imagine the horror and terror that if there is, are enslaved people on the boat, what they may have felt. I just kind of think, what would I have felt if I was stuck on a boat? My ship's about to go. I don't see land in sight. Well, what would I have done?
BRIGGS: Rachel’s now getting her doctorate in environmental engineering. It’s this connection to the past and Ken’s devotion to the future that inspires Rachel and other divers like her.
R. STEWART: He's very inspirational, and you can tell that he really cares about the youth and what they think. And he understands that we are the future. And I think he puts a lot of effort into giving us experiences and carving out paths for us that—so that we can, you know, do better than prior generations.
K. STEWART: I'm going to dig in. You know, my tenure here on Earth is—I’m not gonna be here a lot longer. Right. And so I want to help. Right. I think our young people need us. Right. And we're getting ready to hand this planet off to them. And my generation has almost already thoroughly destroyed it. Right. It's on its way down. And if we don't teach the next generation how to save this planet, it will be no planet. So I think if young people knew more of the history, you know, would they be inclined to be a better person? I don't know. But, you know, I think the first step is to be taught.
BRIGGS: When we last checked in with Tara, she was hitting the road.
ROBERTS (in her car): All right, it is Monday morning around 5 a.m., and I just backed out of the garage and I am headed to Mobile, Alabama.
BRIGGS: Tara’s headed to see the Clotilda, the most recent confirmed slave shipwreck, that was discovered in 2019. It’s part of her yearlong Nat Geo storytelling fellowship.
She’s going to follow the divers, historians, and archaeologists around the world who are studying slave ships and document it as part of a narrative podcast series.
ROBERTS: So we're going to spend an entire season going deep and letting people hear from the divers themselves, hear from the archeologists themselves, and hear from the historians. Those communities include Mozambique, South Africa, Senegal, Costa Rica, St. Croix, and the U.S. And I think it’ll be very cool.
BRIGGS: Tara hopes to reveal more dimensions to the history of slavery and chart new beginnings to the story.
ROBERTS: I was thinking the other day about how many stories and how much work was done or devoted to documenting the Titanic. Like there's so many stories about the Titanic. And it is— it's a great story. Like it's a tragic story. It's a moving story. So how does this story get that kind of weight, where then resources are dedicated to it.
It feels, Amy, like there's this really interesting moment in time right now, where things that have been hidden in the shadows are coming out—like people are seeing things that they hadn't seen before.
BRIGGS: Tara says there has to be a will to find this history. And a will to look at the story differently. And maybe, at the end of it all, there will be a new beginning to the story of Africans in the Americas. More after the break.
Tara will be posting updates about her travels on Instagram and Facebook. You can find those @storiesfromthedepths.
If you’d like to see photos of DWP divers–including the one that Tara saw at the National Museum of African American History and Culture–you can find a link in our show notes.
You can also find out more about the African Americans who are excavating the stories of their ancestors, including Matilda McCrear, who is widely thought to be the last slave ship survivor. She was just two years old when she arrived in Mobile, Alabama, in 1860.
And for subscribers, check out National Geographic Magazine’s cover story about the Clotilda, the most recent slave ship to be discovered. It tells the story of how the ship illegally smuggled 110 West Africans into the United States on the eve of the Civil War.
We also have a National Geographic History magazine article about 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial North America.
That’s in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Laura Sim, Jacob Pinter, and Brian Gutierrez.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who also edited this episode.
Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.
Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. See you next time.
Lambert Lamont Vandergrift - 5/3/2010
All that history was nice but that was the beginning of a holicost that still exisist's to this day you people always try to justify & reason why your past lazy acestors to death so what africans played a part is that suppose to justifie 600years of slavery 1400's to 1900's what about the race roits of 1921in tulsa or the first coup in wilmington N.C. and all 31 one sided race routs in this country and the government drug influence in our nieghborhoods hoover, oliver north freed from slavery into poverty the same thing is happening today look at all the hate of a black pres every one's joining the klan yes turn the criminal into the victim you cowards african americans have the biggest case of crimes agianst humanities on th U.S. but as long as black entertainment,and lack of our history in this country from 1400 to 1900 is revealed we will stay blind
Rod Jones - 8/20/2008
As an educator, I tried to fine The African Trade video with no success. (I called the History Channel and e-mailed the BBC to request access to the video). I find it compelling that it was shown only once and that no organization, either here or in Britain wanted to acknowledge it or present it again. The agenda driven presentation of the slavery issue should be an embarrassment to any scholar or educational institution with integrity and, yet, so few seem to want to deal with it honestly. I am delighted to find your analysis which fills in the holes left by a hopelessly politically correct portrayal by our schools and the media. Please inform me how I can get a video or dvd of The African Trade.
Wojtek (Voytec) Z. Wacowski - 8/16/2007
I am the webmaster of Amistad America website referenced in your article. I wold like to contact Mr. Stern directly via email. Please contact with me:
Tim Matthewson - 8/16/2007
Following the abolition of the international slave trade, African state persisted in their desire to sell slaves to the slave trade. Trying to understand this phase is a key to understanding the earlier phase because it shows that West African states were trying to rid themselves of an unwanted part of the populations -- people who had been defeated in war, people who had fallen into debt bondage, criminals and the dregs of society, who could find no place in African societies. Europeans shipped such classes of persons off to Australia, New Zealand, Georgia and other distant spots far away from the homeland of England where they might produce (as indentured servants) products salable on the home market, rather than building prisons for them and housing them in penal institutions. From this perspective, the African slave trade seem a logical response to the troublesome question, face by most societies at some time, of what to do with troublesome and unproductive classes of masterless persons.
Sheldon M. Stern - 8/14/2007
The full article, cited in the footnotes, addresses all these issues (esp. the trans-Saharan slave trade).
Sudha Shenoy - 8/14/2007
1. The article, written by an American for fellow-Americans, naturally assumes that the Atlantic slave trade is the beginning & the end of it all. Therefore the trans-Saharan slave trade is, quite properly, not mentioned at all. The latter, however,began in Roman times, & contd long after the Atlantic slave trade ended. The Saharan trade was extended & amplified into the Atlantic trade, & then returned to its long-term level, after 1810 or so. The Anti-Slavery Society in London has much material on this.
2. As for the silly passage in the textbook: there _are_ no such things as 'Africans' there _are_ only 'Songhai', 'Krio', & all the various other groups found throughout the African continent. To end wars, an ideology which promoted peace was needed. This emerged to some extent in the late 19th century.
Similarly, with the refs to wars amongst the Spanish, Italians, French, English, etc. Lumping everyone together -- regardless of language, culture, etc. -- as 'Europeans', is how _Americans_ struggle to make sense of these non-Americans. Wars ended when an ideology of peace took over, after 1945.
Jason Blake Keuter - 8/13/2007
the above site is an article on mauritania's recent law criminalizing slaveholding. I can hear the comments now about there being a big difference between the more personalized slavery that was the historic norm and the uniquely barbaric, capitalist plantation slavery, but such criticism is ahistorical - even as regards American slavery, which is thought of almost exclusively in its antebellum phase. This phase (arguably the most socially disruptive phase, characterized by territorial expansion)is actually atypical of American slavery. The slave trade itself shares much in common with this phase, in terms of its impact on slaves (breaking up of families mainly) and the post- cotton gin phase of American SLavery in many ways is like a revival of the slave trade, only limited to within the continental U.S. Many of the distinctions made between the "upper South" which sold slaves and the "lower south" which bought slaves might better be thought of as old south and frontier south. slaves were being bought for new cotton plantations and sold from upper south societies that had recently given serious contemplation to manumission.
I appreciate this article and recommend Peter Kolchin's American Slavery for a more nuanced and detailed look at the institution of slavery in AMerica.
African American Slave Trade: Ships & Records for Genealogy
Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers and other online resources to learn more about the African slave trade in America. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “ From the Family Kitchen. ”
Throughout the course of the Atlantic Slave Trade, an estimated 12 million Africans were captured in their homeland and forcibly shipped across the Atlantic, on more than 35,000 voyages, starting in the 17th century* The African Diaspora scattered Africans throughout the Caribbean and Americas. The first slave ship to land in Colonial America went to Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619. The name of the first African slave ship out of the United States was Desire, which sailed out of Massachusetts eighteen years later. This forced migration caused the displacement, torture, enslavement and murder of many Africans.**
African slaves brought to the Americas were part of the “Middle Passage,” a voyage that began in Europe, stopped in Africa to unload supplies and pick up enslaved human cargo, and then traveled to American ports on the eastern coast to trade that human cargo for goods that were then shipped back to Europe.
History of the African Slave Trade in Early America and the United States Infographic (Note: the article continues after this infographic.)
This troubling part of American history—and important part of African American history—can be uncovered and explored with patient historical research, including searching in old newspapers such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.
Laws Slow—but Don’t Stop—the African Slave Trade
It would seem that the African slave trade to America would have been stopped by a law passed by the U.S. Congress in March 1807 that stated:
“That from and after the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and eight, it shall not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of colour, as a slave, or to be held to service or labour.”***
Read more about U.S. legislation in the 1800s regarding slavery in GenealogyBank’s Historical Documents section which contains The American State Papers and more.
However, the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves and a similar law passed in the United Kingdom didn’t end the practice of the slave trade. Slave ships illegally continued to bring their human cargo to U.S. ports, and American newspapers continued reporting on the occasional capture of a slave ship into the 1840s. (Two ships, the Wanderer and the Clotilde, are reported to have brought slaves to the United States well into the 1850s.) As with the passage of most laws, those who would break the law don’t end their criminal deeds instead a black market thrives.
Slave Advertisements in Newspapers
Eighteenth-century newspapers found in GenealogyBank’s archives report of the comings and goings of slave ships, when the African slave trade was still legal. From advertisements to shipping news articles, researchers can find mentions of slave ships names, their captains, and descriptions of the people on board.
In some cases, advertisements for the upcoming sale of slaves included information on the ship they would be arriving on. In this example from a 1785 South Carolina newspaper, Fisher & Edwards advertise that the ship Commerce, under Captain Thomas Morton, will be arriving from Africa’s Gold Coast with “upwards of 200 prime slaves” for sale.
An earlier South Carolina advertisement proclaims that the slaves aboard Captain Buncombe’s ship Venus are “mostly stout men.”
South-Carolina Weekly Gazette (Charleston, South Carolina), 17 July 1784, page 4
Slave Ship “Shipping News” in Newspapers
Articles under “Shipping News” or “Marine List” headlines are a good place to start searching for information about slave ships, crew, and cargo.
In this example from a 1799 New York newspaper, we see updates on various ships including information about deaths on ships. We also see that the Gurbridge and Mary were bringing slaves, and to whom they were being brought.
Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 31 July 1799, page 3
Where to Find African Slave Trade & Slave Ship Records
- After exhausting your research in newspapers, learn more about a particular slave ship by consulting the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database website, which houses information about slave ships from 1514 to 1866.
- In some cases digital collections may hold slave ship manifests, such as this example from the Metropolitan New York Library Council Digital Collections .
- Don’t forget to look for finding aids like this one from the New York Historical Society’s Guide to the Slavery Collection 1709-1899.
The National Archives (NARA) houses resources that can assist in your research:
- The Slave Manifests of Coastwise Vessels Filed at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1807-1860 website has “manifests filed with the collector of customs at New Orleans, Louisiana, of slaves transported in coastwise trade to or from New Orleans during the period 1807-1860.”
- The Slave Manifests for the Port of Philadelphia, 08/1800-04/1860 website is from the same Record Group as the above manifests, Record Group 36: Records of the U.S. Customs Service, 1745-1997.
These online websites can be helpful, but research on the name of a slave ship should begin with historical newspapers. It’s in their advertisements and news articles that you will find mentions of the slave ships’ cargo, crew, and destination.
You are free to share the History of the African Slave Trade in Early America and the United States Infographic on your blog or website using the embed code below.
The Slave Ship: A Human History
The author, who is professor of history at Pittsburgh University, admits that he found this “a painful book to write”. This does not surprise, for the slave trade has no redeeming features. Reading it has not been a comfortable task either. Unlike, for example, the story of the British Empire, over which one can argue for good as well as bad features (even in this anti-imperialist age), nothing can ever justify the enslaving of one person by another. For 400 hundred years rich Western countries &ndash particularly the English &ndash plundered the west coast of Africa for “black gold”: men, women and children from the indigenous tribes who were kidnapped, shackled and forced-marched to the slave ships that transported them to the plantations of America and the Caribbean. This helped to enrich the oppressors and to pauperise the countries of the oppressed &ndash a legacy which has left deep scars on both sides of the Atlantic.
It has been estimated that in these four centuries over 12 million people were loaded onto slave ships of these, over one million died in harrowing circumstances. The years between 1700 and 1809 are the author&rsquos particular focus, for two thirds of the total transportations belong to this era. His book coincides with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. In contrast to the drama and romanticism of a film such as Amazing Grace, it is a sober and detailed piece of research into every aspect of these infamous transports: the ships, the captains and the crews, as well as the institutionalised violence done to their captive cargo. Cruelty, the author comments, was intrinsic to the trade. As was observed by an abolitionist, “the captain bullies the men, the men torture the slaves [and] the slaves&rsquo hearts are breaking with despair.”
We learn sinister details such as that sharks always followed the slave ships, attracted by the offal, the dead bodies both of captives and sailors (who had their own mortality rate) and the living who accidentally fell overboard or who were thrown into the sea as a punishment and lesson to the others. There are dire accounts of the personal sadism of captains, who had total power over the lives of crew and slaves, who would select women slaves for sexual abuse and flog both sexes indiscriminately if they rebelled against their subservient status. Slaves who did not die of disease, suffocation or suicide often succumbed to “melancholy” — despair at their hopeless circumstances — and refused to eat. Sometimes their will to die was stronger than the whippings and force-feedings that the slave captains employed to keep them alive. Dead slaves were unprofitable.
Rediker rarely mentions humanity among the slave captains, though he singles out a Captain James Fraser who was noted for running an orderly ship: he would release the slaves from their leg-irons, and tried to provide them with clean quarters and decent food he would also try to ensure that friends and relations were not forcibly separated in the slave markets and plantations of the New World. Yet as the author observes, Fraser did this as much for the sake of a greater profit margin as for humane reasons and he chose not to enquire how his human cargo arrived on board. That they had not arrived of their own free will must have been obvious to him, for no African willingly entered a slave ship.
Even otherwise good men saw slavery as being part of the nature of things. John Newton, the slave captain who converted and subsequently wrote the hymn from which the film Amazing Grace takes its name, did not instantly repudiate his trade on becoming a Christian indeed, it took him 30 years and four slaver journeys. “Slaving,” he long believed, “was the appointment Providence had marked out for me.”
His vivid pamphlet, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788), which helped ignite the abolitionists, is one of Rediker&rsquos primary sources, with its descriptions of the many fights below decks between men bound together in close quarters for hours at a time, the reeking stench from the “necessary tubs”, the plagues of rats and the corpses shackled to living men. Yet another detailed account was written by a young Oxford graduate, John Riland, returning from England to the family plantation in Jamaica on a slave ship in 1801 and already influenced by the abolition movement. Riland notes that his ship carried 170 men and 70 women, incarcerated for 16 hours a day with no room to stand upright and poor ventilation. The ship was, ironically, called “The Liberty” the captain warned Riland that “the smell would be unpleasant for a few days”.
The book, primarily concerned with the slave trade itself, only lightly touches on the abolition movement and its key players, such as Olaudah Equiano, who had been captured in present-day Nigeria, aged 11, in 1754, and who was the first African ever to describe his experience of slavery. Wilberforce, who led the struggle in Parliament, relied on the research and support of many others, notably Thomas Clarkson, who visited Bristol in 1787 to gather evidence for the London abolition committee formed that year. His long labours to bring the facts of the Middle Passage before an ignorant public are here shown as heroic.
Probably his most brilliant piece of abolitionary propaganda was a broadsheet with scale diagrams of the slave ship “Brooks”. These pictures of hundreds of bodies lying chained together in an elaborate decking system, together with the engraving of a kneeling slave, his hands clasped together with the caption, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?”, did more than anything else to alert and disquiet ordinary people. The harsh facts of Clarkson&rsquos research spoke for itself.
Rediker explains that the idea of writing this book came to him in the late 1990s when he was visiting prisoners on death row in Pennsylvania. their plight and the cruelty of capital punishment invited comparison with the millions of lost and blighted lives of an earlier barbarism. He ends with a plea for “a social movement for justice” towards the descendants of the slaves. This strikes me as somewhat vague and impractical &ndash though the civil rights movement in the US still has work to do. Further, though the anniversary of abolition has brought some public apologies for the crimes of our forefathers, such statements seem hot air if not accompanied by practical work to remedy the ills of today, such as the increasing number of East European sex slaves in the UK as a result of illegal immigration. It is also estimated that more than 70,000 Africans have attempted to cross from the African coast into Europe on makeshift rafts in the last four years alone &ndash in desperate contrast to their ancestors&rsquo wish to remain where they were.
Those who fight for the rights of unborn children also draw a parallel with the 20-year battle of the abolition movement 200 hundred years ago for recognition of slaves as fellow humans, and draw comfort from the final victory. It is not an exact parallel, of course, for many well-meaning people see abortion not so much as desirable in itself but as the better option in hard cases. This struggle in the UK &ndash once a foremost slaving nation – has already lasted over 40 years and the end is nowhere in sight. It may be a long time before the unborn are also recognised as “a Man and a Brother” and the deliberate curtailment of their lives seen in the same light as the hapless prisoners of the slave ships.
What We Do
- Conduct groundbreaking research rooted in specific regions, but with a global reach that incorporates the disciplines of maritime and historical archaeology, history, museology and anthropology.
- Build a community of global scholars conducting local and regional research that spans the world created by the African slave trade.
- Create interpretive programming with its partnerships that manifests dialogues about the complex, enduring legacies of the slave trade.
- Foster an educational agenda that cultivates opportunities from the classroom to heritage tourism to empower local communities while developing international exchange and collaboration.
- Advance education and professional training in partner communities to encourage diversity within the fields of history, archaeology and anthropology, with a focus on the lasting legacies of the African slave trade.
- Work with descendant communities to connect local histories to the global slave trade and includes local communities in research.
- Promotes knowledge, fosters reconciliation and advances social justice.
Jaco Boshoff, Iziko Museums of South Africa, on the site of the São José wreck, Cape Town, South Africa.
On this day in 1638, a ship returned to Massachusetts Bay from the West Indies after a seven-month voyage. Its cargo included cotton, tobacco and, as far as we know, the first enslaved Africans to be imported into Massachusetts. When the Pequot Indians lost a war with the English in 1638, the fate of the vanquished was to be enslaved by the victors. The defiant Pequots made poor slaves, however, and many of them were shipped to Bermuda in exchange for African bondsmen. In 1641 the Massachusetts Bay Colony adopted a code of laws that made slavery legal. It would remain so for the next 140 years.
In 1752, black people made up 10% of Boston's population.
Men in Puritan-era Massachusetts bought, sold, and held enslaved Africans from the 1630s until slavery in the colony slowly dissolved in the aftermath of the American Revolution. In 1641 Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first of Britain's mainland colonies to make slavery legal.
The first mention of a black person in the colony dates from 1633. An English visitor published "a true and lively" description of New England for readers back at home. It includes an account of Indians who ". . . were worse scared than hurt" when they came upon a black man in the woods. They sought help from a local farmer who "finding him to be a poor wandering blackamore [black man], conducted him to his master." It is possible that this man was not enslaved but an indentured servant. In any case, it seems clear from the Indians' reaction that black men were a rare sight in Massachusetts during the first decade of English settlement.
Within a few years, the situation changed markedly. In 1636-1637 the Pequots fought and lost a war with the English, who enslaved Native people they took captive. The Pequots resisted enslavement, however, and frustrated that the Indians would "not endure the yoke," the Puritans sent them to Bermuda in exchange for African slaves.
On February 28, 1638, the governor of the Bay Colony noted in his journal that a ship arriving from Bermuda had enslaved Africans aboard. "Mr. Pierce, in the Salem ship, the Desire, returned from the West Indies after seven months. He . . . brought some cotton, and tobacco, and Negroes." Earlier ships may well have carried enslaved Africans to Massachusetts, but this is the first documented case.
"Mr. Pierce, in the Salem ship, the Desire, returned from the West Indies after seven months. He . . . brought some cotton, and tobacco, and Negroes."
The enslaved people on the Desire represented a public investment by the colony's leaders. In March of 1639, the General Court voted to reimburse the man who had purchased the Africans for his expenses he was to repay the colony from the proceeds when he sold the slaves.
The legal status of slavery in the Bay Colony was codified two years later when Massachusetts adopted the "Body of Liberties." While this document guaranteed civil rights to British colonists, paradoxically it also specified that slavery was allowed in cases where slaves were "taken in just wars, [or] as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us." A 1670 law made it legal for the children of enslaved women to be sold into bondage beginning in 1680, the colony had laws restricting the movement of black men and women.
Because the colony was not well suited to plantation agriculture, most Massachusetts families rarely held more than one or two people in bondage. Slave-owners tended to live in coastal towns their bondsmen were frequently used to assist in the family business. As a result, Massachusetts masters generally preferred younger enslaved men, who were less expensive than older ones but who could be easily trained for specialized tasks. It was not unheard of for a Massachusetts man to send a quantity of rum aboard a ship bound for the Indies with instructions for the captain to bring home an African child.
. . . Slavery was allowed in cases where slaves were "taken in just wars, [or] as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us."
The enslaved men and women brought to Massachusetts tended to be those "left over" after West Indian plantation owners had purchased the strongest or "likeliest" men and women for field work. The younger or weaker Africans were sent on to New England and sold individually or in small groups. In 1717 one New England trader advised his brother that, if he could not get a good price for all his slaves in the West Indies, to "bring some home I believe they will sell well." Indeed, the institution of slavery played a central role in the economy of colonial New England.
Ships left Boston, Salem, and Newburyport with fish to feed the enslaved Africans laboring on the sugar plantations of the West Indies and lumber to build barrels in which to ship sugar and molasses. Vessels returned from the Indies loaded with molasses and often carrying a number of enslaved men and women to be sold in the Bay Colony. The molasses was distilled into rum, some of which was sold locally the rest was shipped to Africa and traded for captured men and women.
Since masters rarely held enough enslaved people to justify building a separate residence, most slaves in colonial Massachusetts shared the living quarters and domestic routine of their master's family. Later apologists claimed this arrangement created bonds of affection and familiarity that eased the plight of the slaves, and while in some cases conditions were less harsh in New England than on southern plantations, in reality slavery in the North was no less brutal. The Puritan missionary John Eliot "lamented . . . with a bleeding and burning passion, that the English used their Negroes but as their Horses or the Oxen, and that so little care was taken about their immortal Souls.
Puritan missionary John Eliot "lamented . . . with a bleeding and burning passion, that the English used their Negroes but as their Horses or the Oxen, and that so little care was taken about their immortal Souls.
In 1700 there were approximately 90,000 people living in New England. The black population numbered about 1,000, roughly half of whom lived in Massachusetts. Within the colony, black residents were clustered in Boston and other coastal towns. Enslaved people were a small enough minority that Massachusetts slave owners had little reason to fear an uprising. Even so, in 1723 Boston passed a law forbidding enslaved men and women to be on the streets at night or to be found "idling or lurking together."
By the mid-1700s African slavery was well established in Massachusetts. Newspapers in coastal towns regularly carried advertisements for "likely" young Africans, just arrived or, "seasoned" for several months or a year in the West Indies. Tax collectors recorded the value of slaves owned, and wills show that enslaved men and women were distributed along with other property.
In 1752, black people made up 10% of Boston's population. On the eve of the Revolution, Massachusetts had over 5,200 black residents, more than any other New England colony but still a small number compared to colonies in other regions.
Massachusetts was among first states in the new nation to address the institution of slavery. As a result of lawsuits brought by African Americans, in 1783 Massachusetts courts declared that "the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and [the Commonwealth's] Constitution." Although some have interpreted this statement as abolition of slavery, it is more likely that the institution simply faded away in the aftermath of the Revolution.
If You Go
The Boston African American National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service, interprets the history of blacks in Massachusetts.
The Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford has the only extant slave quarters in New England.
This Mass Moment occurred in the Greater Boston region of Massachusetts.
"Historical Notes on Slavery in the Northern Colonies and States," by Charles B. Richardson, The Historical Magazine, 1863.
Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts, by George H. Moore (D. Appleton & Co., 1866).
Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America, by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (Rutgers University Press, 2001).
From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th ed., by John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. (Alfred A Knopf, 2000).
Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England, by William D. Piersen (University of Massachusetts, 1988).
Margot Minardi, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Transatlantic slave trade
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Transatlantic slave trade, segment of the global slave trade that transported between 10 million and 12 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th century. It was the second of three stages of the so-called triangular trade, in which arms, textiles, and wine were shipped from Europe to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Americas, and sugar and coffee from the Americas to Europe.
By the 1480s, Portuguese ships were already transporting Africans for use as slaves on the sugar plantations in the Cape Verde and Madeira islands in the eastern Atlantic. Spanish conquistadors took African slaves to the Caribbean after 1502, but Portuguese merchants continued to dominate the transatlantic slave trade for another century and a half, operating from their bases in the Congo-Angola area along the west coast of Africa. The Dutch became the foremost slave traders during parts of the 1600s, and in the following century English and French merchants controlled about half of the transatlantic slave trade, taking a large percentage of their human cargo from the region of West Africa between the Sénégal and Niger rivers.
Probably no more than a few hundred thousand Africans were taken to the Americas before 1600. In the 17th century, however, demand for slave labour rose sharply with the growth of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and tobacco plantations in the Chesapeake region in North America. The largest numbers of slaves were taken to the Americas during the 18th century, when, according to historians’ estimates, nearly three-fifths of the total volume of the transatlantic slave trade took place.
The slave trade had devastating effects in Africa. Economic incentives for warlords and tribes to engage in the slave trade promoted an atmosphere of lawlessness and violence. Depopulation and a continuing fear of captivity made economic and agricultural development almost impossible throughout much of western Africa. A large percentage of the people taken captive were women in their childbearing years and young men who normally would have been starting families. The European slavers usually left behind persons who were elderly, disabled, or otherwise dependent—groups who were least able to contribute to the economic health of their societies.
Historians have debated the nature and extent of European and African agency in the actual capture of those who were enslaved. During the early years of the transatlantic slave trade, the Portuguese generally purchased Africans who had been taken as slaves during tribal wars. As the demand for slaves grew, the Portuguese began to enter the interior of Africa to forcibly take captives as other Europeans became involved in the slave trade, generally they remained on the coast and purchased captives from Africans who had transported them from the interior. Following capture, the Africans were marched to the coast, a journey that could be as many as 300 miles (485 km). Typically, two captives were chained together at the ankle, and columns of captives were tied together by ropes around their necks. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the captives died on their way to the coast.
The Atlantic passage (or Middle Passage) was notorious for its brutality and for the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions on slave ships, in which hundreds of Africans were packed tightly into tiers below decks for a voyage of about 5,000 miles (8,000 km). They were typically chained together, and usually the low ceilings did not permit them to sit upright. The heat was intolerable, and the oxygen levels became so low that candles would not burn. Because crews feared insurrection, the Africans were allowed to go outside on the upper decks for only a few hours each day. Historians estimate that between 15 and 25 percent of the African slaves bound for the Americas died aboard slave ships. The autobiographical account of the West African Olaudah Equiano, published in 1789, is particularly well known for its graphic descriptions of the suffering endured on the transatlantic voyages.
Atrocities and sexual abuse of the enslaved captives were widespread, although their monetary value as slaves perhaps mitigated such treatment. In an infamous incident of the slave ship Zong in 1781, when both Africans and crew members were dying of an infectious disease, Capt. Luke Collingwood, hoping to stop the disease, ordered that more than 130 Africans be thrown overboard. He then filed an insurance claim on the value of the murdered slaves. Occasionally, the African captives successfully revolted and took over the ships. The most-famous such incident occurred when in 1839 a slave named Joseph Cinqué led a mutiny of 53 illegally purchased slaves on the Spanish slave ship Amistad, killing the captain and two members of the crew. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ordered the Africans to be returned to their homes.
At the time of the American Revolution (1775–83), there was widespread support in the northern American colonies for prohibiting the importation of more slaves. However, after the revolution, at the insistence of Southern states, Congress waited more than two decades before making the importation of slaves illegal. When Congress did so, in 1808, the law was enacted with little dissent, but Caribbean smugglers frequently violated the law until it was enforced by the Northern blockade of the South in 1861 during the American Civil War.
After Great Britain outlawed slavery throughout its empire in 1833, the British navy diligently opposed the slave trade in the Atlantic and used its ships to try to prevent slave-trading operations. Brazil outlawed the slave trade in 1850, but the smuggling of new slaves into Brazil did not end entirely until the country finally enacted emancipation in 1888.
Finding a Slave Ship, Uncovering History
The trans-Atlantic slave trade that sent 12.5 million human beings in chains from Africa to the Americas — killing about two million along the way — has been described by the historian David Brion Davis as “one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity.” It was driven not by hatred, but by greed. The colonizers — including Spaniards, Portuguese, Dutch, British, French, Danes, Swedes, Brazilians, and North Americans — wanted cheap labor for sugar, tobacco, coffee, indigo and other goods demanded by the aristocracy.
This era is often reduced to an abstraction in contemporary conversation. But the news that a team of researchers discovered the wreckage of a Portuguese slaving ship off the coast of South Africa puts the modern world in touch with the depravity of the enterprise. It also brings forth the images of captives lying shackled together on their sides, like spoons in a silverware drawer, in the filth-ridden holds of the ships that ferried human cargo across the Atlantic for more than three centuries.
On Tuesday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, along with other partners, will announce the discovery of the wreckage of such a slave ship, the São José Paquete Africa, which went down off the coast of southern Africa in 1794. Objects from the vessel, which researchers say is the first discovery of a ship that went down with slaves on board, will be placed on long-term loan to the museum. It is scheduled to open on the National Mall in Washington next year.
As Helene Cooper explained in The Times on Monday, Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the new museum, has long been searching for artifacts from slave ships to illustrate the bondage and movement of millions of people across the seas. Though there had been tens of thousands of slave-ship voyages out of Africa, the search was long and difficult.
Finally, in 2011, a maritime archaeologist doing archival research in South Africa came across the record, written in Portuguese, of an inquest involving the captain of the São José. The document makes the clear distinction between crew members, who are regarded as “men,” and the Africans, who are not.
The ship, carrying between 400 and 500 enslaved people left the East African country of Mozambique, on Dec. 3, 1794, on what was to be a four-month, 7,000 mile voyage to for Brazil, which lay at the very center of slave trade and where the Africans would be sent to work on sugar plantations. Twenty-four days later, the ship encountered violent winds and broke up on reefs not far from Cape Town and 100 yards from shore. The crew survived, but half the Africans died. Those who survived were sold again within days.
The captain’s testimony led researchers to Portugal, which with Spain, had dominated the slave trade between the late-16th and mid-17th centuries. There they learned that the ship had left Lisbon carrying a cargo of 1,500 iron blocks, which were used as ballasts to balance ships carrying human cargo. The discovery of the iron blocks at the wreckage confirmed that the ship had once carried human cargo.
The story of the São José and the enslaved Africans in its hold reminds the modern world that the trade in human beings was carried out with the most sophisticated tools of commerce at the time. But it provides only the smallest glimpse of the horror endured by the millions who were stolen and sold into bondage.