Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XIV. - Thomas Clarkson, The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1 
The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, 2 vols. (London: L. Taylor, 1808). Vol. 1.
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Author arrives at Bristol—Introduction to Quaker families there—Objects of his inquiry—Ill usage of seamen on board the ship Brothers—Obtains a knowledge of several articles of African produce—Dr. Camplin—Dean Tucher—Mr. Henry Sulgar—Procures an authenticated account of the treacherous massacre at Calebar—Ill usage of the seamen of the ship Alfred—Painful feelings of the author on this occasion.
Having made preparations for my journey, I took my leave of the different individuals of the committee. I called upon Mr. Wilberforce, also, with the same design. He was then very ill, and in bed. Sir Richard Hill and others were sitting by his bed-side. After conversing as much as he well could in his weak state, he held out his hand to me, and wished me success. When I left him, I felt much dejected. It appeared to me as if it would be in this case, as it is often in that of other earthly things, that we scarcely possess what we repute a treasure, when it is taken from us.
I determined to take this journey on horseback, not only on account of the relaxed state in which I found myself, after such close and constant application, but because I wished to have all my time to myself upon the road, in order the better to reflect upon the proper means of promoting this great cause. The first place I resolved to visit was Bristol. Accordingly I directed my course thither. On turning a corner, within about a mile of that city, at about eight in the evening, I came within sight of it. The weather was rather hazy, which occasioned it to look of unusual dimensions. The bells of some of the churches were then ringing; the sound of them did not strike me, till I had turned the corner before mentioned, when it came upon me at once. It filled me, almost directly, with a melancholy for which I could not account. I began now to tremble, for the first time, at the arduous task I had undertaken, of attempting to subvert one of the branches of the commerce of the great place which was then before me. I began to think of the host of people I should have to encounter in it. I anticipated much persecution in it also; and I questioned whether I should even get out of it alive. But in journeying on, I became more calm and composed. My spirits began to return. In these latter moments I considered my first feelings as useful, inasmuch as they impressed upon me the necessity of extraordinary courage, and activity, and perseverance, and of watchfulness, also, over my own conduct, that I might not throw any stain upon the cause I had undertaken. When, therefore, I entered the city, I entered it with an undaunted spirit, determining that no labour should make me shrink, nor danger, nor even persecution, deter me from my pursuit.
My first introduction was by means of a letter to Harry Gandy, who had then become one of the religious society of the Quakers. This introduction to him was particularly useful to me, for he had been a seafaring man. In his early youth he had been of a roving disposition; and, in order to see the world, had been two voyages in the Slave-trade, so that he had known the nature and practices of it. This enabled him to give me much useful information on the subject; and as he had frequently felt, as he grew up, deep affliction of mind for having been concerned in it, he was impelled to forward my views as much as possible, under an idea that he should be thus making some reparation for the indiscreet and profane occupations of his youth.
I was also introduced to the families of James Harford, John Lury, Matthew Wright, Philip Debell Tucket, Thomas Bonville, and John Waring; all of whom were of the same religious society. I gained an introduction, also, soon afterwards, to George Fisher. These were my first and only acquaintance at Bristol for some time. I derived assistance in the promotion of my object from all of them; and it is a matter of pleasing reflection, that the friendships then formed have been kept alive to the present time.
The objects I had marked down as those to be attended to, were—to ascertain what were the natural productions of Africa, and, if possible, to obtain specimens of them, with a view of forming a cabinet or collection—to procure as much information as I could, relative to the manner of obtaining slaves on the continent of Africa, of transporting them to the West Indies, and of treating them there—to prevail upon persons, having a knowledge of any or all of these circumstances, to come forward to be examined as evidences before parliament, if such an examination should take place—to make myself still better acquainted with the loss of seamen in the Slave-trade—also with the loss of those who were employed in the other trades from the same port—to know the nature, and quantity, and value of the imports and exports of goods in the former case:—there were some other objects, which I classed under the head of Miscellaneous.
In my first movements about this city, I found that people talked very openly on the subject of the Slave-trade. They seemed to be well acquainted with the various circumstances belonging to it. There were facts, in short, in every body’s mouth, concerning it; and every body seemed to execrate it, though no one thought of its abolition. In this state of things I perceived that my course was obvious; for I had little else to do, in pursuing two or three of my objects, than to trace the foundation of those reports which were in circulation.
On the third of July I heard that the ship Brothers* , then lying in King-road for Africa, could not get her seamen, and that a party which had been put on board, becoming terrified by the prospect of their situation, had left her on Sunday morning. On inquiring further, I found that those who had navigated her on her last voyage, thirty-two of whom had died, had been so dreadfully used by the captain, that he could not get hands in the present. It was added, that the treatment of seamen was a crying evil in this trade, and that consequently few would enter into it, so that there was at all times a great difficulty in procuring them, though they were ready enough to enter into other trades.
The relation of these circumstances made me acquainted with two things, of which I had not before heard; namely, the aversion of seamen to engage, and the bad usage of them when engaged, in this cruel trade; into both which I determined immediately to inquire.
I conceived that it became me to be very cautious about giving ear too readily to reports; and therefore, as I could easily learn the truth of one of the assertions which had been made to me, I thought it prudent to ascertain this, and to judge, by the discovery I should make concerning it, what degree of credit might be due to the rest. Accordingly, by means of my late friend, Truman Harford, the eldest son of the respectable family of that name, to which I have already mentioned myself to have been introduced, I gained access to the muster-roll of the ship Brothers. On looking over the names of her last crew, I found the melancholy truth confirmed, that thirty-two of them had been placed among the dead.
Having ascertained this circumstance, I became eager to inquire into the truth of the others, but more particularly of the treatment of one of the seamen, which, as it was reported to me, exceeded all belief. His name was John Dean; he was a Black man, but free. The report was, that for a trifling circumstance, for which he was in no-wise to blame, the captain had fastened him with his belly to the deck, and that, in this situation, he had poured hot pitch upon his back, and made incisions in it with hot tongs.
Before, however, I attempted to learn the truth of this barbarous proceeding, I thought I would look into the ship’s muster-roll, to see if I could find the name of such a man. On examination I found it to be the last on the list. John Dean, it appeared, had been one of the original crew, having gone on board, from Bristol, on the twenty-second day of July, 1785.
On inquiring where Dean was to be found, my informant told me that he had lately left Bristol for London. I was shown, however, to the house where he had lodged. The name of his landlord was Donovan. On talking with him on the subject, he assured me that the report which I had heard was true; for that while he resided with him he had heard an account of his usage from some of his ship-mates, and that he had often looked at his scarred and mutilated back.
On inquiring of Donovan if any other person in Bristol could corroborate this account, he referred me to a reputable tradesman living in the Market-place. Having been introduced to him, he told me that he had long known John Dean to be a sober and industrious man; that he had seen the terrible indentures on his back; and that they were said to have been made by the captain, in the manner related, during his last voyage.
While I was investigating this matter further, I was introduced to Mr. Sydenham Teast, a respectable ship-builder in Bristol, and the owner of vessels trading to Africa in the natural productions of that country. I mentioned to him by accident what I had heard relative to the treatment of John Dean. He said it was true. An attorney* in London had then taken up his cause, in consequence of which the captain had been prevented from sailing, till he could find persons who would be answerable for the damages which might be awarded against him in a court of law. Mr. Teast further said, that, not knowing, at that time, the cruelty of the transaction to its full extent, he himself had been one of the securities for the captain at the request of the purser* of the ship. Finding, however, afterwards, that it was as the public had stated, he was sorry that he had ever interfered in such a barbarous case.
This transaction, which I now believed to be true, had the effect of preparing me for crediting whatever I might hear concerning the barbarities said to be practised in this trade. It kindled also a fire of indignation within me, and produced in me both anxiety and spirit to proceed. But that which excited these feelings the most, was the consideration, that the purser of this ship, knowing, as he did, of this act of cruelty, should have sent out this monster again. This, I own, made me think that there was a system of bad usage to be deliberately practised upon the seamen in this employment, for some purpose or other which I could then neither comprehend nor ascertain.
But while I was in pursuit of this one object, I was not unmindful of the others which I had marked out for myself. I had already procured an interview, as I have mentioned, with Mr. Sydenham Teast. I had done this with a view of learning from him what were the different productions of the continent of Africa, as far as he had been able to ascertain from the imports by his own vessels. He was very open and communicative. He had imported ivory, red-wood, cam-wood, and gum copal. He purposed to import palm oil. He observed that bees-wax might be collected also upon the coast. Of his gum copal he gave me a specimen. He furnished me also with two different specimens of unknown woods, which had the appearance of being useful. One of his captains, he informed me, had been told by the natives, that cotton, pink in the pod, grew in their country. He was of opinion, that many valuable productions might be found upon this continent.
Mr. Biggs, to whom I gained an introduction also, was in a similar trade with Mr. Teast; that is, he had one or two vessels, which skimmed, as it were, the coast and rivers, for what they could get of the produce of Africa, without having any concern in the trade for slaves. Mr. Biggs gave me a specimen of gum Senegal, of yellow wood, and of Malaguetta and Cayenne pepper. He gave me also small pieces of cloth made and dyed by the natives, the colours of which they could only have obtained from materials in their own country. Mr. Biggs seemed to be assured, that if proper persons were sent to Africa on discovery, they would find a rich mine of wealth in the natural productions of it, and in none more advantageous to this as a manufacturing nation, than in the many beautiful dyes which it might furnish.
From Thomas Bonville I collected two specimens of cloth made by the natives, and from others a beautiful piece of tulip-wood, a small piece of wood similar to mahogany, and a sample of fine rice, all of which had been brought from the same continent.
Among the persons whom I found out at Bristol, and from whom I derived assistance, were Dr. Camplin, and the celebrated Dean Tucker. The former was my warm defender; for the West-Indian and African merchants, as soon as they discovered my orrand, began to calumniate me. The Dean though in a very advanced age, felt himself much interested in my pursuit. He had long moved in the political world himself, and was desirous of hearing of what was going forward that was new in it, but particularly about so desirable a measure as that of the abolition of the Slave-trade* . He introduced me to the Custom-house at Bristol. He used to call upon me at the Merchants’ Hall, while I was transcribing the muster-rolls of the seamen there. In short, he seemed to be interested in all my movements. He became also a warm supporter both of me and of my cause.
Among others, who wore useful to me in my pursuit, was Mr. Henry Sulgar, an amiable minister of the gospel belonging to the religious society of the Moravians in the same city. From him I first procured authentic documents relative to the treacherous massacre at Calabar. This cruel transaction had been frequently mentioned to me; but as it had taken place twenty years before, I could not find one person who had been engaged in it, nor could I come, in a satisfactory manner, at the various particulars belonging to it. My friend, however, put me in possession of copies of the real depositions which had been taken in the case of the King against Lippincott and others, relative to this event, namely, of captain Floyd, of the city of Bristol, who had been a witness to the scene, and of Ephraim Robin John, and of Ancona Robin Robin John, two African chiefs, who had been sufferers by it. These depositions had been taken before Jacob Kirby, and Thomas Symons, esquires, commissioners at Bristol for taking affidavits in the court of King’s Bench. The tragody, of which they gave a circumstantial account, I shall present to the reader in as concise a manner as I can.
In the year 1767, the ships Indian Queen, Duke of York, Nancy, and Concord, of Bristol, the Edgar, of Liverpool, and the Canterbury, of London, lay in old Calabar river.
It happened at this time, that a quarrel subsisted between the principal inhabitants of Old Town and those of New Town, Old Calabar, which had originated in a jealousy respecting slaves. The captains of the vessels now mentioned joined in sending several letters to the inhabitants of Old Town, but particularly to Ephraim Robin John, who was at that time a grandee or principal inhabitant of the place. The tenor of these letters was, that they were sorry that any jealousy or quarrel should subsist between the two parties; that if the inhabitants of Old Town would come on board, they would afford them security and protection; adding at the same time, that their intention in inviting them was, that they might become mediators, and thus heal their disputes.
The inhabitants of Old Town, happy to find that their differences were likely to be accommodated, joyfully accepted the invitation. The three brothers of the grandee just mentioned, the eldest of whom was Amboe Robin John, first entered their canoe, attended by twenty-seven others, and, being followed by nine canoes, directed their course to the Indian Queen. They were dispatched from thence the next morning to the Edgar, and afterwards to the Duke of York, on board of which they went, leaving their canoe and attendants by the side of the same vessel. In the mean time the people on board the other canoes were either distributed on board, or lying close to, the other ships.
This being the situation of the three brothers, and of the principal inhabitants of the place, the treachery now began to appear. The crew of the Duke of York, aided by the captain and mates, and armed with pistols and cutlasses, rushed into the cabin, with an intent to seize the persons of their three innocent and unsuspicious guests. The unhappy men, alarmed at this violation of the rights of hospitality, and struck with astonishment at the behaviour of their supposed friends, attempted to escape through the cabin windows, but being wounded were obliged to desist, and to submit to be put in irons.
In the same moment, in which this atrocious attempt had been made, an order had been given to fire upon the canoe, which was then lying by the side of the Duke of York. The canoe soon filled and sunk, and the wretched attendants were either seized, killed, or drowned. Most of the other ships followed the example. Great numbers were additionally killed and drowned on the occasion, and others were swimming to the shore.
At this juncture the inhabitants of New Town, who had concealed themselves in the bushes by the water-side, and between whom and the commanders of the vessels the plan had been previously concerted, came out from their hiding-places, and, embarking in their canoes, made for such as were swimming from the fire of the ships. The ships’ boats also were manned, and joined in the pursuit. They butchered the greatest part of those whom they caught. Many dead bodies were soon seen upon the sands, and others were floating upon the water; and including those who were seized and carried off, and those who were drowned and killed, either by the firing of the ships or by the people of New Town, three hundred were lost to the inhabitants of Old Town on that day.
The carnage, which I have been now describing, was scarcely over, when a canoe, full of the principal people of New Town, who had been the promoters of the scheme, dropped along-side of the Duke of York. They demanded the person of Amboe Robin John, the brother of the grandee of Old Town, and the eldest of the three on board. The unfortunate man put the palms of his hands together, and beseeched the commander of the vessel, that he would not violate the rights of hospitality by giving up an unoffending stranger to his enemies. But no entreaties could avail. The commander received from the New Town people a slave, of the name of Econg, in his stead, and then forced him into the canoe, where his head was immediately struck off in the sight of the crew, and of his afflicted and disconsolate brothers. As for them, they escaped his fate; but they were carried off with their attendants to the West Indies, and sold for slaves.
The knowledge of this tragical event now fully confirmed me in the sentiment, that the hearts of those, who were concerned in this traffic, became unusually hardened, and that I might readily believe any atrocities, however great, which might be related of them. It made also my blood boil as it were within me. It gave a new spring to my exertions. And I rejoiced, sorrowful as I otherwise was, that I had visited Bristol, if it had been only to gain an accurate statement of this one fact.
In pursuing my objects, I found that reports were current, that the crew of the Alfred slave-vessel, which had just returned, had been barbarously used, but particularly a young man of the name of Thomas, who had served as the surgeon’s mate on board her. The report was, that he had been repeatedly knocked down by the captain; that he had become in consequence of his ill usage so weary of his life, that he had three times jumped over board to destroy it; that on being taken up the last time he had been chained to the deck of the ship, in which situation he had remained night and day for some time; that in consequence of this his health had been greatly impaired; and that it was supposed he could not long survive this treatment.
It was with great difficulty, notwithstanding all my inquiries, that I could trace this person. I discovered him, however, at last. He was confined to his bed when I saw him, and appeared to me to be delirious. I could collect nothing from himself relative to the particulars of his treatment. In his intervals of sense, he exclaimed against the cruelty both of the captain and of the chief mate, and pointing to his legs, thighs and body, which were all wrapped up in flannel, he endeavoured to convince me how much he had suffered there. At one time he said he forgave them. At another he asked, if I came to befriend him. At another he looked wildly, and asked if I meant to take the captain’s part and to kill him.
I was greatly affected by the situation of this poor man, whose image haunted me both night and day, and I was meditating how most effectually to assist him, when I heard that he was dead.
I was very desirous of tracing something further on this subject, when Walter Chandler, of the society of the Quakers, who had been daily looking out for intelligence for me, brought a young man to me of the name of Dixon. He had been one of the crew of the same ship. He told me the particulars of the treatment of Thomas, with very little variation from those contained in the public report. After cross-examining him in the best manner I was able, I could find no inconsistency in his account.
I asked Dixon, how the captain came to treat the surgeon’s mate in particular so ill. He said he had treated them all much alike. A person of the name of Bulpin, he believed, was the only one who had escaped bad usage in the ship. With respect to himself, he had been cruelly used so early as in the outward bound passage, which had occasioned him to jump overboard. When taken up he was put into irons, and kept in these for a considerable time. He was afterwards ill used at different times, and even so late as within three or four days of his return to port. For just before the Alfred made the island of Lundy, he was struck by the captain, who cut his under lip into two. He said that it had bled so much, that the captain expressed himself as if much alarmed; and having the expectation of arriving soon at Bristol, he had promised to make him amends, if he would hold his peace. This he said he had hitherto done, but he had received no recompense. In confirmation of his own usage, he desired me to examine his lip, which I had no occasion to do, having already perceived it, for the wound was apparently almost fresh.
I asked Dixon, if there was any person in Bristol, besides himself, who could confirm to me this his own treatment, as well as that of the other unfortunate man who was now dead. He referred me to a seaman of the name of Matthew Pyke. This person, when brought to me, not only related readily the particulars of the usage in both cases, as I have now stated them, but that which he received himself. He said that his own arm had been broken by the chief mate in Black River, Jamaica, and that he had also by the captain’s orders, though contrary to the practice in merchant vessels, been severely flogged. His arm appeared to be then in pain. And I had a proof of the punishment by an inspection of his back.
I asked Matthew Pyke, if the crew in general had been treated in a cruel manner. He replied, they had, except James Bulpin. I then asked where James Bulpin was to be found. He told me where he had lodged, but feared he had gone home to his friends in Somersetshire, I think, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Bridgewater.
I thought it prudent to institute an inquiry into the characters of Thomas, Dixon, and Matthew Pyke, before I went further. The two former I found were strangers in Bristol, and I could collect nothing about them. The latter was a native of the place, had served his time as a seaman from the port, and was reputed of fair character.
My next business was to see James Bulpin. I found him just setting off for the country. He stopped, however, to converse with me. He was a young man of very respectable appearance and of mild manners. His appearance, pearance, indeed, gave me reason to hope that I might depend upon his statements; but I was most of all influenced by the consideration, that, never having been ill-used himself, he could have no inducement to go beyond the bounds of truth on this occasion. He gave me a melancholy confirmation of all the three cases. He told me also that one Joseph Cunningham had been a severe sufferer, and that there was reason to fear that Charles Horseler, another of the crew, had been so severely beaten over the breast with a knotted end of a rope (which end was of the size of a large ball, and had been made on purpose) that he died of it. To this he added, that it was now a notorious fact, that the captain of the Alfred, when mate of a slave-ship, had been tried at Barbadoes for the murder of one of the crew, with whom he had sailed, but that he escaped by bribing the principal witness to disappear* .
The reader will see, the further I went into the history of this voyage, the more dismal it became. One miserable account, when examined, only brought up another. I saw no end to inquiry. The great question was, what was I to do? I thought the best thing would be to get the captain apprehended, and make him stand his trial either for the murder of Thomas or of Charles Horseler. I communicated with the late Mr. Burges, an eminent attorney and the deputy town-clerk, on this occasion. He had shown an attachment to me on account of the cause I had undertaken, and had given me privately assistance in it. I say privately; because, knowing the sentiments of many of the corporate body at Bristol, under whom he acted, he was fearful of coming forward in an open manner. His advice to me was, to take notes of the case for my own private conviction, but to take no public cognizance of it. He said that seamen, as soon as their wages were expended, must be off to sea again. They could not generally, as landsmen do, maintain themselves on shore. Hence I should be obliged to keep the whole crew at my own expense till the day of trial, which might not be for months to come. He doubted not that, in the interim, the merchants and others would inveigle many of them away by making them boatswains and other inferior officers in some of their ships; so that, when the day of trial should come, I should find my witnesses dispersed and gone. He observed moreover, that, if any of the officers of the ship had any notion of going out again under the same owners* , I should have all these against me. To which he added that, if I were to make a point of taking up the cause of those whom I found complaining of hard usage in this trade, I must take up that of nearly all who sailed in it; for that he only knew of one captain from the port in the Slave-trade, who did not deserve long ago to be hanged. Hence I should get into a labyrinth of expense, and difficulty, and uneasiness of mind, from whence I should not easily find a clew to guide me.
This advice, though it was judicious, and founded on a knowledge of Law-proceedings, I found it very difficult to adopt. My own disposition was naturally such, that whatever I engaged in I followed with more than ordinary warmth. I could not be supposed therefore, affected and interested as I then was, to be cool and tranquil on this occasion. And yet what would my worthy friend have said, if in this first instance I had opposed him? I had a very severe struggle in my own feelings on this account. At length, though reluctantly, I obeyed. But as the passions, which agitate the human mind, when it is greatly inflamed, must have a vent somewhere, or must work off as it were, or in working together must produce some new passion or effect; so I found the rage, which had been kindling within me, subsiding into the most determined resolutions of future increased activity and perseverance. I began now to think that the day was not long enough for me to labour in. I regretted often the approach of night, which suspended my work, and I often welcomed that of the morning, which restored me to it. When I felt myself weary, I became refreshed by the thought of what I was doing; when disconsolate, I was comforted by it. I lived in hope that every day’s labour would furnish me with that knowledge, which would bring this evil nearer to its end; and I worked on, under these feelings, regarding neither trouble nor danger in the pursuit.
[* ]I abstain from mentioning the names of the captain of this or of other vessels, lest the recording of them should give pain to relatives who can have had no share in their guilt.
[* ]I afterwards found out this attorney. He described the transaction to me, as, by report, it had taken place, and informed me that he had made the captain of the Brothers pay for his barbarity.
[* ]The purser of a ship, at Bristol, is the person who manages the out-fit, as well as the trade, and who is often in part owner of her.
[* ]Dean Tucker, in his Reflections on the Disputes between Great Britain and Ireland, published in 1785, had passed a severe censure on the British planters for the inhuman treatment of their slaves.
[* ]Mr. Sampson, who was surgeon’s mate of the ship, in which the captain had thus served as a mate, confirmed to me afterwards this assertion, having often heard him boast in the cabin, “how he had tricked the law on that occasion.”
[* ]The seamen of the Alfred informed the purser of their ill usage. Matthew Pyke not only showed him his arm and his back, but acquainted him with the murder of Charles Horseler, stating that he had the instrument of his death in his possession. The purser seemed more alive to this than to any other circumstance, and wished to get it from him. Pyke, however, had given it to me. Now what will the reader think, when he is informed that the purser, after all this knowledge of the captain’s cruelty, sent him out again, and that he was the same person, who was purser of the Brothers, and who had also sent out the captain of that ship a second time, as has been related, notwithstanding his barbarities in former voyages!!