Excerpt from "A Supplement to the Description of
the Coasts of North and South Guinea"
Published in A Collection of Voyages and Travels..., 1732
Compiled by Awnsham Churchill
One of the most frequently used terms in the vocabulary of slavery is "Middle Passage." This is a reference to the triangular route employed by most slave ships, the middle part of which was the voyage from Africa to the New World. Ships would sail from Europe to West Africa, where they would pick up slaves; then from Africa to the Americas, where they would sell the slaves for goods such as corn and tobacco; and then from the New World back to Europe, where they sold the products.
If one forgets for a moment that slavers were trafficking in human lives, and instead views this arrangement in pure business terms, it makes sense: rather than send empty ships on a transatlantic voyage, European merchants were able to make money on both the journey out and the journey back. The fact is that although slavery was an extraordinarily cruel business, it was a business nonetheless, and the people who engaged in it considered it as just another way to make a living. This was the perspective of James Barbot, a crew member aboard the English slave ship Don Carlos.
In the following passage, Barbot describes the same situations observed by Alexander Falconbridge (see entry), but with a very different attitude. Barbot's description begins with an account of a slave revolt, which the slavers brutally suppressed.
Sadly, Barbot was probably correct when he indicated that he and his shipmates treated slaves better than most other crews. Some slavers, as Barbot noted, took out their anger and frustration on the defenseless slaves. In Barbot's mind, however, this was unwise since hurting slaves was not good business.
Things to remember while reading
- As a crew member and not an officer, Barbot was not a particularly well-educated man, and in places his writing is awkward and labored. His unusual spellings, however, are more a product of his era than of his education. At that time, it was common, for instance, to write crouds instead of crowds. Another regular practice was the use of apostrophes: arm'd instead of armed, for example.
- Barbot clearly looked down on the Africans as "savage people" who, like children, would behave themselves if treated properly. At one point, he referred to them as smelling poorly, but it does not seem to have occurred to him that anyone would smell bad if forced to travel under such harsh conditions.
- Throughout his recollections, Barbot congratulated his shipmates for their kind treatment of the slaves. In a section removed from the following passage, he noted that they tried to allow the slaves as much headroom as possible in the cargo hold: "the greater height it has, the more airy and convenient it is for a considerable number of human creatures; and consequently far the more healthy for them, and fitter to look after them."
- On the other hand, Barbot seemed entirely ignorant regarding the cruelty of slavery. Particularly disturbing is his reference to the "abundance of recreation" he and other slavers had with female slaves. The implication here is that they raped the more attractive girls.
"A Supplement to the Description of the Coasts of North and South Guinea"
About one in the afternoon, after dinner, we, according to custom caused them [the slaves], one by one, to go down between decks, to have each his pint of water; most of them were yet above deck, many of them provided with knives, which we had indiscreetly given them two or three days before, as [we were] not suspecting the least attempt of this nature from them; others had pieces of iron they had torn off our forecastle door.... Thus arm'd, they fell in crouds and parcels on our men ... and stabb'd one of the stoutest of us all, who receiv'd fourteen or fifteen wounds of their knives, and so expir'd. Next they assaulted our boatswain, and cut one of his legs so round the bone, that he could not move, the nerves being cut through; others cut our cook's throat to the pipe, and others wounded three of the sailors, and threw one of them overboard in that condition, from the forecastle into the sea.... [W]e stood in arms, firing on the revolted slaves, of whom we kill'd some, and wounded many: which so terrif'd the rest, that they gave way, dispersing themselves .... and many of the most mutinous, leapt over board, and drown'd themselves in the ocean with much resolution, shewing no manner of concern for life. Thus we lost twenty seven or twenty eight slaves, either kill'd by us, or drown'd; and having master'd them, caused all to go betwixt decks, giving them good words. The next day we had them all again upon deck, where they unanimously declar'd, the Menbombe slaves had been the contrivers of the mutiny, and for an example we caused about thirty of the ringleaders to be very severely whipt by all our men that were capable of doing that office....
I have observ'd, that the great mortality, which so often happens in slave ships, proceeds as well from taking in too many, as from want of knowing how to manage them aboard....
It is true, we allow'd them much more liberty, and us'd them with more tenderness than most other Europeans would think prudent to do; [such] as, to have them all upon deck every day in good weather; to take their meals twice a-day, at fix'd hours, that is, at ten in the morning, and at five at night; which being ended, we made the men go down again between the decks; for the women
were almost entirely at their own discretion, to be upon deck as long as they pleas 'd, nay even many of the males had the same liberty by turns, successively; few or none being fetter'd or kept in shackles, and that only on account of some disturbances, or injuries, offer'd to their fellow captives, as will unavoidably happen among a numerous croud of such savage people. Besides, we allow'd each of them ... now and then short pipes and tobacco to smoak upon deck by turns, and some coconuts; and to the women a piece of coarse cloth to cover them, and the same to many of the men, which we took care they did wash from time to time, to prevent vermin, which they are very subject to; and because it look'd sweeter and more agreeable. Toward the evening they diverted themselves on the deck, as they thought fit, some conversing together, others dancing, singing, and sporting after their manner, which pleased them highly, and often made us pastime; especially the female sex, who being apart from the males, on the quarterdeck, and many of them young sprightly maidens, full of jollity and good-humour, afforded us abundance of recreation; as did several little fine boys, which we mostly kept to attend on us about the ship....
Much more might be said relating to the preservation and maintenance of slaves in such voyages, which I leave to the prudence of the officers that govern aboard... and shall only add these few particulars, that tho' we ought to be circumspect in watching the slaves narrowly, to prevent or disappoint their ill designs for our own conservation, yet must we not be too severe and haughty with them, but on the contrary, caress and humor them in every reasonable thing. Some commanders ... are perpetually beating and curbing them, even without the least offence, and will not suffer any upon deck ... under pretence it hinders the work of the ship and sailors and that they are troublesome by their nasty nauseous stench, or their noise; which makes those poor wretches desperate, and besides their falling into distempers thro' melancholy, often is the occasion of their destroying themselves.
Such officers should consider, those unfortunate creatures are men as well as themselves, tho' of a different colour, and pagans; and that they ought to do to others as they would be done by in like circumstances....
What happened next...
It is hard to know what to think of Barbot's final paragraph, with its reference to Christianity's Golden Rule. ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.") Perhaps this is evidence that Barbot felt a degree of compassion for the slaves. Or perhaps he was merely being a hypocrite—someone who pretends they are doing the right thing when they know they are not.
On the other hand, Barbot may have believed in the popular justification of slavery on religious grounds. Some religions taught that by enslaving Africans (who were considered heathens), Europeans and their descendants in the Americas were providing them with an opportunity to save themselves from hell by becoming Christians. In this way, many slave traders and owners justified their participation in the practice of slavery.
Certainly supporters of slavery could find passages in the Bible to justify the institution, but many other Christians maintained that slavery went against Christian principles. Together with non-Christians who likewise opposed slavery on moral grounds (i.e., as an offense to the basic dignity of humankind) they began putting pressure on the American and British governments to end the slave trade.
Did you know...
- The European trade in African slaves began in 1441, when fourteen slaves were brought to Lisbon, Portugal, as a "gift" to Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460).
- The first slaves to cross the Atlantic Ocean on European ships were not Africans bound for the New World, but Native Americans taken from the New World to Europe. In 1495, Christopher Columbus returned to Spain with several hundred Indian slaves. Most of these men and women died soon after their arrival in Spain.
- Between 1451 and 1870, some eleven million African slaves were brought to the Americas.
For more information
Churchill, Awnsham, compiler. A Collection of Voyages and Travels, Some Now First Printed pom Original Manuscripts, Others Now First Published in English.... With a General Preface, Giving an Account of the Progress of Navigation, from its First Beginning. London: J. Walthoe, 1732.
Frank, Andrew. The Birth of Black America: The Age of Discovery and the Slave Trade. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.
OfosuAppiah, L. H. People in Bondage: African Slavery Since the 15th Century. Minneapolis, Minn.: Runestone Press, 1993.
White, Anne Terry. Human Cargo: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Champaign, Ill.: Garrard Publishing Company, 1972.
Africans in America, (accessed on January 20, 2000).
"The Impact of Slavery." African History Sourcebook. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/africa/africasbook.html#The Impact of Slavery (accessed on January 20, 2000).
"The Middle Passage." Juneteenth. http://www.juneteenth.com/middlep.htm (accessed on January 20, 2000).