Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XV. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XV. - 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 confers with the inhabitants of Bridgewater relative to a petition to parliament in behalf of the abolition—returns to Bristol—discovers a scandalous mode of procuring seamen for the Slave-trade—and of paying them—makes a comparative view of their loss in this and in other trades—procures imports and exports—examines the construction and admeasurement of Slave-ships—of the Fly and Neptune—Difficulty of procuring evidence—Case of Gardiner of the Pilgrim—of Arnold of the Ruby—some particulars of the latter in his former voyages.
Having heard by accident, that the inhabitants of the town of Bridgewater had sent a petition to the House of Commons, in the year 1785, for the abolition of the Slave-trade, as has been related in a former part of the work, I determined, while my feelings were warm, to go there, and to try to find out those who had been concerned in it, and to confer with them as the tried friends of the cause. The time seemed to me to be approaching, when the public voice should be raised against this enormous evil. I was sure that it was only necessary for the inhabitants of this favoured island to know it, to feel a just indignation against it. Accordingly I set off. My friend George Fisher, who was before mentioned to have been of the religious society of the Quakers, gave me an introduction to the respectable family of Ball, which was of the same religious persuasion. I called upon Mr. Sealey, Anstice, Crandon, Chubb, and others. I laid open to those, whom I saw, the discoveries I had made relative to the loss and ill treatment of seamen; at which they seemed to be much moved; and it was agreed, that, if it should be thought a proper measure, (of which I would inform them when I had consulted the committee,) a second petition should be sent to Parliament from the inhabitants, praying for the abolition of the Slave-trade. With this view I left them several of my Summary Views, before mentioned, to distribute, that the inhabitants might know more particularly the nature of the evil, against which they were going to complain. On my return to Bristol, I determined to inquire into the truth of the reports that seamen had an aversion to enter, and that they were inveigled, if not often forced, into this hateful employment. For this purpose I was introduced to a landlord of the name of Thompson, who kept a public-house called the Seven Stars. He was a very intelligent man, was accustomed to receive sailors, when discharged at the end of their voyages, and to board them till their vessels went out again, or to find them births in others. He avoided however all connection with the Slave-trade, declaring that the credit of his house would be ruined, if he were known to send those, who put themselves under his care, into it.
From him I collected the truth of all that had been stated to me on this subject. But I told him I should not be satisfied until I had beheld those scenes myself, which he had described to me; and I entreated him to take me into them, saying that I would reward him for all his time and trouble, and that I would never forget him while I lived. To this he consented; and as three or four slave-vessels at this time were preparing for their voyages, it was time that we should begin our rounds. At about twelve at night we generally set out, and were employed till two and sometimes three in the morning. He led me from one of those public-houses to another, which the mates of the slave-vessels used to frequent to pick up their hands. These houses were in Marsh-street, and most of them were then kept by Irishmen. The scenes witnessed in these houses were truly distressing to me; and yet, if I wished to know practically what I had purposed, I could not avoid them. Music, dancing, rioting, drunkenness, and profane swearing, were kept up from night to night. The young mariner, if a stranger to the port, and unacquainted with the nature of the Slave-trade, was sure to be picked up. The novelty of the voyages, the superiority of the wages in this over any other trades, and the privileges of various kinds, were set before him. Gulled in this manner he was frequently enticed to the boat, which was waiting to carry him away. If these prospects did not attract him, he was plied with liquor till he became intoxicated, when a bargain was made over him between the landlord and the mate. After this his senses were kept in such a constant state of stupefaction by the liquor, that in time the former might do with him what he pleased. Seamen also were boarded in these houses, who, when the slave-ships were going out, but at no other time, were encouraged to spend more than they had money to pay for; and to these, when they had thus exceeded, but one alternative was given, namely, a slave-vessel, or a gaol. These distressing scenes I found myself obliged frequently to witness, for I was no less than nineteen times occupied in making these hateful rounds. And I can say from my own experience, and all the information I could collect from Thompson and others, that no such practices were in use to obtain seamen for other trades.
The treatment of the seamen employed in the Slave-trade had so deeply interested me, and now the manner of procuring them, that I was determined to make myself acquainted with their whole history; for I found by report, that they were not only personally ill-treated, as I have already painfully described, but that they were robbed by artifice of those wages, which had been held up to them as so superior in this service. All persons were obliged to sign articles, that, in case they should die or be discharged during the voyage, the wages then due to them should be paid in the currency where the vessel carried her slaves, and that half of the wages due to them on their arrival there should be paid in the same manner, and that they were never permitted to read over the articles they had signed. By means of this iniquitous practice the wages in the Slave-trade, though nominally higher in order to induce seamen to engage in it, were actually lower than in other trades. All these usages I ascertained in such a manner, that no person could doubt the truth of them. I actually obtained possession of articles of agreement belonging to these vessels, which had been signed and executed in former voyages. I made the merchants themselves, by sending those seamen, who had claims upon them, to ask for their accounts current with their respective ships, furnish me with such documents as would have been evidence against them in any court of law. On whatever branch of the system I turned my eyes, I found it equally barbarous. The trade was, in short, one mass of iniquity from the beginning to the end.
I employed myself occasionally in the Merchants-hall, in making copies of the muster-rolls of ships sailing to different parts of the world, that I might make a comparative view of the loss of seamen in the Slave-trade, with that of those in the other trades from the same port. The result of this employment showed me the importance of it: for, when I considered how partial the inhabitants of this country were to their fellow-citizens, the seamen belonging to it, and in what estimation the members of the legislature held them, by enforcing the Navigation-Act, which they considered to be the bulwark of the nation, and by giving bounties to certain trades, that these might become so many nurseries for the marine, I thought it of great importance to be able to prove, as I was then capable of doing, that more persons would be found dead in three slave-vessels from Bristol, in a given time, than in all the other vessels put together, numerous as they were, belonging to the same port.
I procured also an account of the exports and imports for the year 1786, by means of which I was enabled to judge of the comparative value of this and the other trades.
In pursuing another object, which was that of going on board the slave-ships, and learning their construction and dimensions, I was greatly struck, and indeed affected, by the appearance of two little sloops, which were fitting out for Africa, the one of only twenty-five tons, which was said to be destined to carry seventy; and the other of only eleven, which was said to be destined to carry thirty slaves. I was told also that which was more affecting, namely, that these were not to act as tenders on the coast, by going up and down the rivers, and receiving three or four slaves at a time, and then carrying them to a large ship, which was to take them to the West Indies, but that it was actually intended, that they should transport their own slaves themselves; that one if not both of them were, on their arrival in the West Indies, to be sold as pleasure-vessels, and that the seamen belonging to them were to be permitted to come home by what is usually called the run.
This account of the destination of these little vessels, though it was distressing at first, appeared to me afterwards, on cool reasoning, to be incredible. I thought that my informants wished to impose upon me, in order that I might make statements which would carry their own refutation with them, and that thus I might injure the great cause which I had undertaken. And I was much inclined to be of this opinion, when I looked again at the least of the two; for any person, who was tall, standing upon dry ground by the side of her, might have overlooked every thing upon her deck. I knew also that she had been built as a pleasure-boat for the accommodation of only six persons upon the Severn. I determined, therefore, to suspend my belief till I could take the admeasurement of each vessel. This I did; but lest, in the agitation of my mind on this occasion, I should have made any mistake, I desired my friend George Fisher to apply to the builder for his admeasurement also. With this he kindly complied. When he obtained it he brought it me. This account, which nearly corresponded with my own, was as follows:—In the vessel of twenty-five tons, the length of the upper part of the hold, or roof, of the room, where the seventy slaves were to be stowed, was but little better than ten yards, or thirty-one feet. The greatest breadth of the bottom, or floor, was ten feet four inches, and the least five. Hence, a grown person must sit down all the voyage, and contract his limbs within the narrow limits of three square feet. In the vessel of eleven tons, the length of the room for the thirty slaves was twenty-two feet. The greatest breadth of the floor was eight, and the least four. The whole height from the keel to the beam was but five feet eight inches, three feet of which were occupied by ballast, cargo, and provisions, so that two feet eight inches remained only as the height between the decks. Hence, each slave would have only four square feet to sit in, and, when in this posture, his head, if he were a full-grown person, would touch the ceiling, or upper deck.
Having now received this admeasurement from the builder, which was rather more favourable than my own, I looked upon the destination of these little vessels as yet more incredible than before. Still the different persons, whom I occasionally saw on board them, persisted in it that they were going to Africa for slaves, and also for the numbers mentioned, which they were afterwards to carry to the West Indies themselves. I desired, however, my friends, George Fisher, Truman Harford, Harry Gandy, Walter Chandler, and others, each to make a separate inquiry for me on this subject; and they all agreed that, improbable as the account both of their destination, and of the number they were to take, might appear, they had found it to be too true. I had soon afterwards the sorrow to learn from official documents from the Custom-house, that these little vessels actually cleared out for Africa, and that now nothing could be related so barbarous of this traffic, which might not instantly be believed.
In pursuing my different objects there was one, which, to my great vexation, I found it extremely difficult to attain. This was the procuring of any assurance from those, who had been personally acquainted with the horrors of this trade, that they would appear, if called upon, as evidence against it. My friend Harry Gandy, to whom I had been first introduced, had been two voyages, as I before mentioned; and he was willing, though at an advanced age, to go to London, to state publicly all he knew concerning them. But with respect to the many others in Bristol, who had been to the coast of Africa, I had not yet found one, who would come forward for this purpose. There were several old Slave-Captains living there, who had a great knowledge of the subject. I thought it not unreasonable, that I might gain one or two good evidences out of these, as they had probably long ago left the concern, and were not now interested in the continuance of it. But all my endeavours were fruitless. I sent messages to them by different persons. I met them in all ways. I stated to them, that if there was nothing objectionable in the trade, seeing it laboured under such a stigma, they had an opportunity of coming forward and of wiping away the stain. If, on the other hand, it was as bad as represented, then they had it in their power, by detailing the crimes which attached to it, of making some reparation, or atonement, for the part they had taken in it. But no representations would do. All intercourse was positively forbidden between us; and whenever they met me in the street, they shunned me as if I had been a mad dog. I could not for some time account for the strange disposition which they thus manifested towards me; but my friends helped me to unravel it, for I was assured that one or two of them, though they went no longer to Africa as captains, were in part owners of vessels trading there; and, with respect to all of them, it might be generally said, that they had been guilty of such enormities, that they would be afraid of coming forward in the way I proposed, lest any thing should come out by which they might criminate themselves. I was obliged then to give up all hope of getting any evidence from this quarter, and I saw but little prospect of getting it from those, who were then actually deriving their livelihood from the trade. And yet I was determined to persevere. For I thought that some might be found in it, who were not yet so hardened as to be incapable of being awakened on this subject. I thought that others might be found in it, who wished to leave it upon principle, and that these would unbosom themselves to me. And I thought it not improbable that I might fall in with others, who had come unexpectedly into a state of independence, and that these might be induced, as their livelihood would be no longer affected by giving me information, to speak the truth.
I persevered for weeks together under this hope, but could find no one of all those, who had been applied to, who would have any thing to say to me. At length Walter Chandler had prevailed upon a young gentleman, of the name of Gardiner, who was going out as surgeon of the Pilgrim, to meet me. The condition was, that we were to meet at the house of the former, but that we were to enter in and go out at different times, that is, we were not to be seen together.
Gardiner, on being introduced to me, said at once, that he had often wished to see me on the subject of my errand, but that the owner of the Pilgrim had pointed me out to him as a person, whom he would wish him to avoid. He then laid open to me the different methods of obtaining slaves in Africa, as he had learned from those on board his own vessel in his first, or former, voyage. He unfolded also the manner of their treatment in the Middle Passage, with the various distressing scenes which had occurred in it. He stated the barbarous usage of the seamen as he had witnessed it, and concluded by saying, that there never was a subject, which demanded so loudly the interference of the legislature as that of the Slave-trade.
When he had finished his narrative, and answered the different questions which I had proposed to him concerning it, I asked him in as delicate a manner as I could, How it happened, that, seeing the trade in this horrible light, he had consented to follow it again? He told me frankly, that he had received a regular medical education, but that his relations, being poor, had not been able to set him up in his profession. He had saved a little money in his last voyage. In that, which he was now to perform, he hoped to save a little more. With the profits of both voyages together, he expected he should be able to furnish a shop in the line of his profession, when he would wipe his hands of this detestable trade.
I then asked him, Whether upon the whole he thought he had judged prudently, or whether the prospect of thus enabling himself to become independent, would counterbalance the uneasiness which might arise in future? He replied, that he had not so much to fear upon this account. The trade, while it continued, must have surgeons. But it made a great difference both to the crew and to the slaves, whether these discharged their duty towards them in a feeling manner, or not. With respect to himself, he was sure that he should pay every attention to the wants of each. This thought made his continuance in the trade for one voyage longer more reconcileable. But he added, as if not quite satisfied, “Cruel necessity!” and he fetched a deep sigh.
We took our leave, and departed, the one a few minutes after the other. The conversation of this young man was very interesting. I was much impressed both by the nature and the manner of it. I wished to secure him, if possible, as an evidence for Parliament, and thus save him from his approaching voyage: but I know not what to do. At first, I thought it would be easy to raise a subscription to set him up. But then, I was aware that this might be considered as bribery, and make his testimony worth nothing. I then thought that the committee might detain him as an evidence, and pay him, in a reasonable manner, for his sustenance, till his testimony should be called for. But I did not know how long it would be before his examination might take place. It might be a year or two. I foresaw other difficulties also; and I was obliged to relinquish what otherwise I should have deemed a prize.
On reviewing the conversation which had passed between us after my return home, I thought, considering the friendly disposition of Gardiner towards us, I had not done all I could for the cause; and, communicating my feelings to Walter Chandler, he procured me another interview. At this, I asked him, if he would become an evidence, if he lived to return. He replied, very heartily, that he would. I then asked him, if he would keep a journal of facts during his voyage, as it would enable him to speak more correctly, in case he should be called upon for his testimony. He assured me, he would, and that he would make up a little book for that purpose. I asked him, lastly, When he meant to sail. He said, As soon as the ship could get all her hands. It was their intention to sail to-morrow, but that seven men, whom the mates had brought drunk out of Marsh-street the evening before, were so terrified when they found they were going to Africa, that they had seized the boat that morning, and had put themselves on shore. I took my leave of him, entreating him to follow his resolutions of kindness both to the sailors and the slaves, and wished him a speedy and a safe return.
On going one day by the Exchange, after this interview with Gardiner, I overheard a young gentleman say to another, “that it happened on the Coast, last year, and that he saw it.” I wished to know who he was, and to get at him if I could. I watched him at a distance for more than half an hour, when I saw him leave his companion. I followed him till he entered a house. I then considered whether it would be proper, and in what manner, to address him when he should come out of it. But I waited three hours, and I never saw him. I then concluded that he either lodged where I saw him enter, or that he had gone to dine with some friend. I therefore took notice of the house, and, showing it afterwards to several of my friends, desired them to make him out for me. In a day or two I had an interview with him. His name was James Arnold. He had been two voyages to the coast of Africa for slaves; one as surgeon’s mate in the Alexander, in the year 1785, and the other as surgeon in the Little Pearl, in the year 1786, from which he had not then very long returned.
I asked him if he was willing to give me any account of these voyages, for that I was making an inquiry into the nature of the Slave-trade. He replied, he knew that I was. He had been cautioned about falling-in with me. He had, however, taken no pains to avoid me. It was a bad trade, and ought to be exposed.
I went over the same ground as I had gone with Gardiner relative to the first of these voyages, or that in the Alexander. It is not necessary to detail the particulars. It is impossible, however, not to mention, that the treatment of the seamen on board this vessel was worse than I had ever before heard of. No less than eleven of them, unable to bear their lives, had deserted at Bonny on the coast of Africa,—which is a most unusual thing,—choosing all that could be endured, though in a most inhospitable climate, and in the power of the natives, rather than to continue in their own ship. Nine others also, in addition to the loss of these, had died in the same voyage. As to the rest, he believed, without any exception, that they had been badly used.
In examining him with respect to his second voyage, or that in the Little Pearl, two circumstances came out with respect to the slaves, which I shall relate in few words.
The chief mate used to beat the men-slaves on very trifling occasions. About eleven one evening, the ship then lying off the coast, he heard a noise in their room. He jumped down among them with a lanthorn in his hand. Two of those, who had been ill-used by him, forced themselves out of their irons, and, seizing him, struck him with the bolt of them, and it was with some difficulty that he was extricated from them by the crew.
The men-slaves, unable now to punish him, and finding they had created an alarm, began to proceed to extremities. They endeavoured to force themselves up the gratings, and to pull down a partition which had been made for a sick-birth; when they were fired upon and repressed. The next morning they were brought up one by one; when it appeared that a boy had been killed, who was afterwards thrown into the sea.
The two men, however, who had forced themselves out of irons, did not come up with the rest, but found their way into the hold, and armed themselves with knives from a cask, which had been opened for trade. One of them being called to in the African tongue by a Black trader, who was then on board, came up, but with a knife in each hand; when one of the crew, supposing him yet hostile, shot him in the right side and killed him on the spot.
The other remained in the hold for twelve hours. Scalding water mixed with fat was poured down upon him, to make him come up. Though his flesh was painfully blistered by these means, he kept below. A promise was then made to him in the African tongue by the same trader, that no injury should be done him, if he would come among them. To this at length he consented. But on observing, when he was about half way up, that a sailor was armed between decks, he flew to him, and clasped him, and threw him down. The sailor fired his pistol in the scuffle, but without effect. He contrived however to fracture his skull with the butt end of it, so that the slave died on the third day.
The second circumstance took place after the arrival of the same vessel at St. Vincens’s. There was a boy-slave on board, who was very ill and emaciated. The mate, who, by his cruelty, had been the author of the former mischief, did not choose to expose him to sale with the rest, lest the small sum he would fetch in that situation should lower the average price, and thus bring down* the value of the privileges of the officers of the ship. This boy was kept on board, and no provisions allowed him. The mate had suggested the propriety of throwing him overboard, but no one would do it. On the ninth day he expired, having never been allowed any sustenance during that time.
I asked Mr. Arnold if he was willing to give evidence of these facts in both cases. He said he had only one objection, which was, that in two or three days he was to go in the Ruby, on his third voyage: but on leaving me, he said, that he would take an affidavit before the mayor of the truth of any of those things which he had related to me, if that would do; but, from motives of safety, he should not choose to do this till within a few hours before he sailed.
In two or three days after this, he sent for me. He said the Ruby would leave King-road the next day, and that he was ready to do as he had promised. Depositions were accordingly made out from his own words. I went with him to the residence of George Daubeny, esquire, who was then chief magistrate of the city, and they were sworn to in his presence, and witnessed as the law requires.
On taking my leave of him, I asked him how he could go a third time in such a barbarous employ. He said he had been distressed. In his voyage in the Alexander he had made nothing; for he had been so ill-used, that he had solicited his discharge in Grenada, where, being paid in currency, he had but little to receive. When he arrived in Bristol from that island, he was quite pennyless; and finding the Little Pearl going out, he was glad to get on board her as her surgeon, which he then did entirely for the sake of bread. He said, moreover, that she was but a small vessel, and that his savings had been but small in her. This occasioned him to apply for the Ruby, his present ship; but if he survived this voyage he would never go another. I then put the same question to him as to Gardiner, and he promised to keep a journal of facts, and to give his evidence, if called upon, on his return.
The reader will see, from this account, the difficulty I had in procuring evidence from this port. The owners of vessels employed in the trade there, forbad all intercourse with me. The old captains, who had made their fortunes in it, would not see me. The young, who were making them, could not be supposed to espouse my cause, to the detriment of their own interest. Of those whose necessities made them go into it for a livelihood, I could not get one to come forward, without doing so much for him as would have amounted to bribery. Thus, when I got one of these into my possession, I was obliged to let him go again. I was, however, greatly consoled by the consideration, that I had procured two sentinels to be stationed in the enemy’s camp, who keeping a journal of different facts, would bring me some important intelligence at a future period.
[* ]Officers are said to be allowed the privilege of one or more slaves, according to their rank. When the cargo is sold, the sum total fetched is put down, and this being divided by the number of slaves sold, gives the average price of each. Such officers, then, receive this average price for one or more slaves, according to their privileges, but never the slaves themselves.