African Slave Ships Research Article from The Way People Live

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During the eighteenth century, trading slaves was a lucrative business. Generally, it promised substantial returns on money invested and therefore interested a wide variety of people wanting to make a profit. Some were members of the church or held important government positions. Others were involved in charitable activities, such as giving great sums of money to help the poor. Hat makers, pawnbrokers, even widows who wanted to increase a small inheritance, all invested in slave trading. Businessmen invested in slaves the way that people today buy and sell stocks in the stock market. "We sold Captain Wanton's cargo... at £36 and 35 sterling round [roughly $173 and $158]," reported one slave trader, "but they were prime, and such slaves will always meet a good and ready market. Slaves have been high at Carolina, but by the last accounts they were fallen."

The Captain

Investors wanted the assurance that their investment would be profitable. As a result, they sought captains who were familiar with slave ship life and would protect and manage their investments well. At sea, the captain's responsibilities were many. Navigating the ship across the Atlantic was just one. He had to be strong enough to withstand the storms at sea and to navigate when equipment broke during the crossing. He had to have the presence of mind to handle difficult crew members and be able to negotiate prices for slaves with African kings and slave merchants.

On board, the captain's authority stood unchallenged. Wrote John Newton, an eighteenth-century slave ship captain, in a letter to his wife, "I am as absolute in my small dominions as any potentate [great power] in Europe. If I say to one, come, he comes; if to another, go, he flies.... Not a man in the ship will eat his dinner till I please to give him leave."

However, the position of slave ship captain was not considered a career because slaving was a grueling experience. As Captain Newton remarked, "In general, I know of no method of getting money, not even that of robbing for it upon the highway, which has so direct a tendency... to rob the heart of every gentle and human disposition, and to harden it, like steel."

Professional maritime officers rarely journeyed to Africa more than once. Only the strongest signed on again to face once more the exhausting schedule, the poor living conditions, turbulent crews and slaves, as well as the devastating tropical diseases that often left permanent physical damage, such as blindness or deafness. Captain Thomas Phillips commented about his life as captain aboard the slaver the Hannibal: "No goldfinders can endure so much noisome slavery as they do who carry negroes.... We pine and fret ourself to death, and take so much pains to so little purpose."

Hiring the Crew

Once hired himself, the captain set about hiring a crew. "Nothing is more difficult than to procure a sufficient number of hands for a Guinea voyage," wrote James F. Stanfield, a veteran seamen who made several trips to Africa during the early 1700s. To outfit a slave ship, the captain often required as much as double the number of crew members normally needed to sail a ship trading in other goods; however, maintaining a large crew increased security on the African coast and during the Middle Passage. Some crews numbered as few as fifteen; others could contain as many as forty-five men.

Seamen regularly walked the waterfront in search of work. Sometimes a seamen would ask crew members on board if the captain needed sailors. For example, William Gittus, a young man hoping for a position on a slave ship, went down to Shadwell Dock on the River Thames in 1717, eyed a likely vessel, went aboard, and asked the mate "whither she [the ship] was bound and whether she wanted any hands and what Wages her master gave."

News of an upcoming expedition also spread by word of mouth. Although the ship's captain was hired for his expertise, the crew was generally a lower caliber of sailor. Frequently captains sat themselves at tables in harbor taverns or on decks of the ships and signed up their crews. Captain John Newton remarked: "We are for the most part supplied with the refuse and dregs of the nation. The prisons and glass houses [pubs] furnish us with large quotas of boys impatient of their parents or masters, or already ruined by some untimely vice and for the most part devoid of all good principles."

The portrait of the degenerate crew member aboard a slave ship does appear frequently in the records of slavers and mariners. However, some historians believe that the men and boys who staffed these vessels were, "in almost equal proportions, sailors down on their luck and young landsmen with romantic notions about the slave trade."

To become crew members, sailors signed their names—or, if they were illiterate, made their mark—on a contract detailing their position, rate of pay, and sometimes the destination and purpose of the voyage. Generally, the crew was divided into officers, seamen, and specialists.


Although no one aboard a slave ship held the degree of authority that matched the captain's, the officers were placed directly below the captain within the hierarchy of the ship's chain of command. Not all officers held the same degree of power or received the same rate of pay, though. Senior officers, a rank that included the sailing master and the first mate, had more authority and made more money than petty officers such as the second mate and the boatswain.

While the captain studied the ship's course in his cabin, the rest of the crew ran the ship under the watchful eye of the first mate. Historian Marcus Rediker explains:

The [first] mate whose powers were vastly inferior to those of the [captain], was second in the chain of command. He commanded a watch and oversaw the daily functioning of the ship. He was charged with [managing] the vessel, setting the men to work, governing the crew, securing the cargo, and directing the ship's course. The mate needed a sure knowledge of navigation, since he was to take charge of the vessel in the event of the [captain's] death, no uncommon occurrence at any time during the age of sail.

Slave ships that carried a large crew might also include a second mate. In general, the crew had little respect for the second mate as an officer. He ate and slept on the quarterdeck cabin, along with the other officers, but he scraped his meals together from the officer leftovers. Sometimes called the sailor's waiter, the second mate had to furnish men with the materials and tools they needed to do their jobs. Richard H. Dana Jr., author of the autobiographical classic Two Years Before the Mast, referred to the position as "a dog's berth... neither officer or man."

The boatswain, another petty officer, also worked alongside the crew. According to historian Rediker, the boatswain "summoned the crew to [work], sometimes by piping the call... that brought the... groans and curses from the off-duty crew. His specific responsibilities centered on the upkeep of the rigging. He had to be sure that all lines and cables were sound and that sails and anchors were in good condition."


In addition to officers, the slave ship traveled with specialists. These crew members were experts in a particular skill that was vital in the efficient running of a slave ship.

Ship carpenters were particularly valued specialists. "The carpenter, an important specialist in a wooden world, was responsible for the soundness of the ship," remarks Rediker.

He repaired masts, yards, boats, machinery; he checked the hull regularly, placing oakum between the seams of planks, and used wooden plugs on leaks to keep the vessel tight. His search for a leak often required that he wade through stagnant bilge water with vapors strong enough "to poison the Devil." His was highly skilled work which he had learned through apprenticeship. Often he had a mate whom he in turn trained.

Another important specialist on board a slave ship was the doctor, sometimes called the surgeon. Keeping both crew and slaves alive and healthy benefited business, and, as a result, the doctor was involved in major decisions about the voyage. The medicines in his chest included gum, camphor, pulverized rhubarb, cinnamon, water, mustard, and bitters, a bitter liquid made with herbs or roots that was used as a tonic. Most of these substances had little or no power to cure some of the deadly diseases that afflicted those on board. However, the doctor did have some effective medicines. For instance, Peruvian bark, a substance later used to treat malaria, was a popular medicine for fever-ridden patients.

The gunner, along with his assistant, usually a boy called a powder monkey, manned the artillery to defend the ship against pirates and enemy warships. During a battle at sea, the gunner supervised the firing of cannons, diverting disastrous accidents such as a cannon bursting, overheating, or recoiling out of control.

Sometimes called the captain's servant, the steward managed the food supply during the voyage. He reported directly to the captain, overstepping the first mate. Dana points out that breaking the chain of command often caused conflict between the steward and the first mate. Furthermore, reports Dana, "the crew [did] not consider him as one of their number, so he [was] left to the mercy of the captain."

During the eighteenth century, many people, including some captains, were illiterate. To make sure that investors were aware of all business transactions, slave ships also employed an agent or accountant, who recorded the goods traded for slaves, their cost, and the number of slaves obtained through each business deal.


The success of the voyage relied on the abilities of the lowliest members of its workforce—the seamen. These sailors were divided into two groups: able-bodied seamen, who were experienced, and ordinary seamen, who, regardless of age, were assigned the most menial tasks because they had no training or experience. Historian W. Jeffrey Bolster explains that it was the sailors who categorized themselves: "Individual sailors rated themselves as able seaman, ordinary seaman, or 'boys' when they signed the ship's articles."

Likewise, the seamen themselves usually decided who performed which task. From helm rotation to lookouts, the officers rarely intervened. To do so might invite the men's disrespect because a seaman considered it an insult to assign him a job he thought was beneath his ability. Therefore, the able-bodied seamen, says Bolster, were given "the most challenging jobs... those that demand the neatest work. An able seaman could be ordered by the mate to sweep the decks or to pick oakum, but if there were boys around and true seamen's work was going on elsewhere, such a task would be considered punishment."

The Fear of Desertion

Once signed on, a sailor might live on the ship until it set sail. Historians Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley explain that "it was the custom for a [slave ship] to lie in the out harbor of a... port, sometimes for weeks, until it had assembled a crew." During that time, sailors helped with the numerous duties in preparing the ship for departure.

The poor treatment of sailors aboard slave ships was notorious, but while the ship was in the harbor, the captain and officers made sure to give seamen ample food, drink, and leisure time. It was all too easy for sailors to jump ship and swim ashore if conditions became as intolerable as they often were once at sea. As crew member James F. Stanfield describes it,

Til the vessel gets clear of the channel—till there is no probability that contrary winds or inclemency of weather will drive her back into an English port, the usage of the seamen is moderate, and their allowance of provisions sufficient; in short, the conduct of the captain and officers appears like that which is the continual practice in every other employ. But as soon as they are fairly out at sea... their rations of provisions is shorted to the very verge of famine.

Slave Ship Design

A typical slave ship was made of wooden planks fastened together by long iron spikes. Compared with modern ships, slavers were surprisingly small. Usually they were seventy-five feet long with a cargo capacity of under three hundred tons, the size of a modern fishing schooner, and had three masts. Each mast held two square-shaped canvas sails. The sails were tied to the masts by ropes, or rigs, as they were called. The middle and tallest mast was called the mainmast; the mast in the front, or bow, of the boat was called the foremast. The back, or stern, of the boat had a mast called the mizzenmast, from which flew a small triangular sail.

There were two decks, one above and one below, which were used to store slaves and other goods. The one above, known as the main deck, was also called the weather deck because it was exposed to wind and weather. On the bow of the ship there was a small enclosed structure called a forecastle, often abbreviated as foc's'le . The crew slept in the forecastle and the officers slept in cabins located in the back, or aft.

Finally, most slave ships were armed with between eight to twelve guns and a chest of small arms such as muskets and pistols. Seamen used these arms to defend themselves against pirates who tried or actually managed to climb aboard. Sometimes officers used weapons to subdue a mutinous crew or rebellious group of African captives.

Preparing the Ship

Slave ships were kept docked in the ports of Europe and the Americas, waiting for the next voyage. During the mid- and late-1700s, the height of the slave trade, a walk along the wharves in Providence, Rhode Island, or London revealed just how popular the industry was. As one writer describes it, "the muddy brown waters [of the harbor] would become so choked with slave ships, seamen could cross it by stepping from ship deck to ship deck."

Preparing a ship sometimes took as long as six months. Dockworkers and sailors scraped, sanded, and oiled the planks on the ship's deck and hull. On board, sailors packed planking with a mixture of tar and a type of caulk called oakum to keep the ship watertight. Carpenters rebuilt decks and made storage space for goods to be traded. Sail makers mended torn sails, and riggers replaced old ropes, cables, and pulleys.

Barnacles and shipworms continually ate away at the wood of the vessel. Dockyard workers, including children hoping to earn a few pennies, scraped barnacles from the hull of the ship and scrubbed old ship ropes. Work crews hammered down loose wood with iron spikes and renovated the galley to accommodate the copper stove, a large shallow bowl surrounded by bricks to keep the fire underneath from spreading throughout the ship.

As some crew members repaired the ship, others loaded the goods for the expedition. Heavy wooden carts pulled by oxen drove along the waterfront's cobblestone streets carrying barrels, crates, and casks of goods for the voyage. Provisions were divided into three categories: goods for trading, food and drink for crew and captive consumption, and equipment.

Large barrels used for storage and transport were called hogsheads and could hold roughly 63 to 140 gallons. On the slave ship Cleopatra, captain James Bourk sailed with 234 hogsheads of New England rum and one thousand hogsheads of hops, a grain used to make ale, which he hoped to trade for slaves. In addition, the ships were stocked with iron bars, glass beads, pewter ware, linen and calico cloth, indigo cloth dye, paint, and guns. The seamen turned hoisting devices on board the ship, called windlasses, which helped lift the big hogsheads of goods. The windlasses creaked and groaned as sailors swung the heavy containers of provisions aboard and lowered them into the hold—the lowest part of the ship, for storage.

To feed the crew and slaves, the Cleopatra carried eleven hogsheads and one small cask of chickpeas, two barrels of wine, sixty-four kegs of water biscuits, six casks of Indian corn, a large cask of a special type of ham known as gammon, two hogsheads of black-eyed peas, six tierce [casks] and two hogsheads of rice, twenty barrels of common flour, ten barrels of superfine flour, and eight casks of bread.

Some ships sailed with live turkeys, chickens, and even cattle on board to be used for food during the journey. In addition to fresh drinking water and wine, the latter of which each man received a quart and a half per day, rum, tobacco, and brandy were staples in the ship's store.

Captain Bourk brought great lengths of rope; a variety of anchors; six barrels each of tar, pitch, and turpentine; two half barrels of gunpowder; and 670 feet of white oak boards and 330 feet of red oak to make shelves, or ledges, for the slaves. His provisions also included heavy chains, iron collars, at least one hundred pairs of iron shackles for wrists and ankles, and sharp tools used to force-feed African captives who refused to eat.

Safely stowed in the captain's quarters were the ship's documents. The packet of documents included a manifest, which listed the cargo and crew members on board; a certificate of clearance papers, which certified that the ship's equipment and cargo had been inspected and gave the captain permission to leave the harbor; a bill of health for crew members; and trading instructions from the investors, to be used upon arrival in Africa.

As the captain and officers stood on the weather deck barking orders, the crew scurried about following their commands. Some sailors turned the windlass to pull up, or weigh, anchor. Others worked the rigging. Block and tackle (a pulley of ropes and cables for hoisting heavy objects) squeaked as the seamen angled the sails to catch the wind.

When to Set Sail

Once loaded with provisions, fully repaired, and made watertight, with captain and crew hired, the slave ship was read to set sail. Planning the best time to embark on the journey across the Atlantic depended on a number of factors, including weather and crop harvest. It also depended on the point of departure. Sailing from Charleston, South Carolina, to Africa required one schedule, sailing from London another.

According to James Barbot, an English slave ship captain, the last two weeks in September were ideal to begin the voyage from London to Guinea, a slave trading country on Africa's west coast. Barbot advised,

I Am of opinion that the properest season to render the Guinea voyages most prosperous and safe, is to depart from Europe about the latter end of September, to enjoy ... the good season on that coast; and to have a sufficient time to carry on the trade there, so as to reach the Leeward islands of America by the latter end of April following, which is the time when they make the sugar there; so ships may have their full lading [load], and sail thence for Europe again before the season of hurricanes there; and arrive here, before the boisterous weather, which usually reigns on our coasts about the beginning of October.

Making the first leg of the Triangle of Trade demanded a great deal from captain and crew. The unpredictability of the weather and the often violent temper of the captain made seamen feel constantly on edge. Courageous and dependable yet rowdy and difficult to discipline, the sailors themselves were a varied group. Yet, their seafaring skills played a vital role in the slave trade, specifically, and transatlantic trade as a whole.

With a Nation Behind the Trip

Preparing the slave ship for a voyage involved many areas of a nation's economy. It was not just the slave trader, himself, or the captain of the ship who played a part. Several people contributed, and a great many never sailed a boat or lived close to the ocean.

Farmers, who lived miles inland, grew wheat for the ship's bread and flour supply. They also raised the livestock that fed the crew and captives during the voyage. Owners of ironworks, whose foundries were far away from any slave ship port, supplied iron for the spikes that held the ship together, the chains that bound the captives and the hoops for the storage barrels. From the judge or government official who invested in a slave voyage to the cloth merchant who wove material to be traded for slaves, national involvement in the slave trade was far-reaching.

The extent of these links is especially well illustrated by the numbers of businessmen who protested the legal end of the slave trade. Bakers, who made tons of biscuits for slave ships, asserted that ending the slave trade would bankrupt them. Ironworkers, barrel makers, carpenters, and farmers all claimed that ending the slave trade would hurt them, too.

In Documents Illustrative of the Slave Trade, Elizabeth Donnan includes several pieces of evidence to support this idea. For example, a petition signed by the various manufacturers of goods for trade with Africa, presented before the House of Commons in England on May 20, 1789, maintained that, "should the said Trade be abolished, the Petitioners will be injured in their Fortunes and Property, to a very alarming Extent, and many Thousands, who depend on them for Employment and Subsistence, be brought into Poverty and Distress." Shipbuilders; shipowners; sail makers; merchants; dealers in iron, copper, brass, and lead; bakers; rope makers; gun makers; coopers; and block makers were among the other industries that presented petitions on that date to demand that slave trading continue. Even the mayor of Liverpool, a large English slave trading port, presented a petition in favor of slave trading.

This deep involvement in the slave trade might easily apply to other cities throughout Europe and the Americas. The success of a slaving voyage meant profit or loss for people who had never bought a slave, sailed a ship, or even seen the ocean. Yet the outcome of the trip often had a powerful effect on both their livelihoods as well as the economic well-being of their nations.

Seamen James F. Stanfield on Crimping

James F. Stanfield was a seaman who spent many years aboard slave vessels. At the request of the English antislave trade advocate Thomas Clarkson, Stanfield wrote a series of letters describing a sailor's life in the slave trade. The following excerpt is from Black Voyage, edited by Thomas Howard. In it, Stanfield depicts how sailors were often tricked into serving aboard a slave ship.

According to Stanfield, one common scheme involved recruiters, otherwise known as crimps, who lured unsuspecting people into debt. Taverns were set up for the purpose of providing crimps with a place to supply boys and young men with food and liquor, pretending to befriend them, get them drunk, and loan them money. More often than not, though, these people were unable to pay back the money, and the crimps had them thrown in jail. The only way immediately available to gain their freedom was to serve on a slave ship.

"These [taverns] are kept in continual operation. But, at the immediate time of an outfit, every exertion and contrivance is used. Merchants, clerks, captains and others prowl about without intermission. They lay hold of every sailor they meet, and without ceremony, hurry him into some scene of intoxication. I have been dragged into houses three times, in the course of one street myself. Nay, I have known many seamen who fancied themselves cunning enough to evade these practices, go with the crimps to some of their houses, boasting that they would cheat the merchant out of a night's merriment, and firmly resolved to oppose every article that could be offered, yet have they, in their state of drunkenness signed articles with the very men whose purposes they were aware of, and have been plunged into a situation, of which they had known the horrors."

Making Sea Voyages More Accurate

Today, charting a course across the ocean is far less challenging than it was in the eighteenth century when slave traders navigated the seas. Technology such as radios and radar helps modern sailors determine their location, but three hundred years ago, sailors had to rely on less accurate instruments to guide them.

Two inventions during the eighteenth century, however, vastly improved sea travel. In the mid-1700s, English clockmaker John Harrison invented the chronometer, which carried true time on voyages around the world. Knowing the true time aboard ship and at the home port helped determine a ship's location and prevented sailors from getting lost at sea.

Fifty years later American seaman, Nathaniel Bowditch developed an accurate way to determine a ship's position on the ocean. For centuries, sailors had relied on a nautical instrument called a sextant for that purpose. The sextant, however, based its information on the position of the moon and other planets and as a result, was not very accurate. Searching for more dependable methods, Bowditch began to update the sailing industry's nautical guides. In the process, he uncovered so many mistakes in the original book that, in 1802, he published his own manual, The New Practical Navigator . The updated guide made sailing across the sea less hazardous because it made it easier for sailors to stay on course. A revised version of Bowditch's guide is still being used today.

Captain John Newton and Captain Hugh Crow

Different people viewed the slave trade in different ways. Some who made their living as slave traders had mixed feelings about what they were doing. The English captain John Newton gave up slaving in 1754, after nearly ten years at sea, and devoted the rest of his life to ending the slave trade. He became an Anglican clergyman, and he used his pulpit to preach against slavery. He also wrote a condemning memoir of the slave trade, gave forceful testimony before the House of Commons to support the abolition of slavery, and composed several popular hymns, including "Amazing Grace."

In one 1797 sermon, excerpted in Thomas Howard's Black Voyage, Newton says, "If the trade is at present carried on to the same extent and nearly in the same manner, while we are delaying to put a stop to our part in it, the blood of many thousands of our helpless, much injured fellow creatures is crying against us."

Not everyone agreed with Newton, however. As historian Hugh Thomas observes in The Slave Trade, slave ship captain Hugh Crow believed "the abstractions of slaves to our colonies [was] a necessary evil," and "seem[ed] sincerely convinced that the African slaves in the West Indies were happier than when they lived as slaves in their own country, 'subject to the caprices [impulsive actions] of their native princes.'"

A native of the Isle of Man, located in the Irish Sea off the coast of Great Britain, Crow earned an excellent reputation in the industry because of his sailing and navigating skill and his ability to keep losses of sailors and slaves down. He was also known as a scrappy fighter when challenged. Apparently he had lost an eye in a fight when he was twelve years old, and his name came from the one-eyed crowlike squint he gave people.

As a captain, Crow prided himself on his treatment of his slave cargoes. He was reportedly one of the few who taught slaves to shoot and used them in times of attack to help repel the enemy. Crow said he never regretted the practice; the entrusted slaves were always loyal to him despite the loaded guns in their hands.

In 1807 Hugh Crow sailed the last legal slave trading voyage out of Liverpool, England. Although Parliament had outlawed the trade on May 1, the owner of the ship, the Kitty Amelia, had cleared the ship's articles before that time. On July 27 the ship set sail, and by the time it docked in St. Thomas, fifty slaves and thirty seamen had died. "Crow was dejected," reports Thomas Howard in Black Voyage. "He had a reputation of running a clean ship and the deaths depressed him. The despondent Crow retired on the savings made during his seafaring days to his native Isle of Man, where he wrote his autobiography."

This section contains 4,720 words
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African Slave Ships from Lucent. ©2002-2006 by Lucent Books, an imprint of The Gale Group. All rights reserved.
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