Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XVI. - The History of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XVI. - 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 goes to Monmouth—confers relative to a petition from that place—returns to Bristol—is introduced to Alexander Falconbridge—takes one of the mates of the Africa out of that ship—visits disabled seamen from the ship Thomas—puts a chief mate into prison for the murder of William Lines—Ill-usage of seamen in various other slave-vessels—secures Crutwell’s Bath paper in favour of the abolition—lays the foundation of a committee at Bristol—and of a petition from thence also—takes his leave of that city.
By this time I began to feel the effect of my labours upon my constitution. It had been my practice to go home in the evening to my lodgings, about twelve o’clock, and then to put down the occurrences of the day. This usually kept me up till one, and sometimes till nearly two in the morning. When I went my rounds in Marsh-street, I seldom got home till two, and into bed till three. My clothes, also, were frequently wet through with the rains. The cruel accounts I was daily in the habit of hearing, both with respect to the slaves, and to the seamen employed in-this wicked trade, from which, indeed, my mind had no respite, often broke my sleep in the night, and occasioned me to awake in an agitated state. All these circumstances concurred in affecting my health. I looked thin; my countenance became yellow. I had also rheumatic feelings. My friends, seeing this, prevailed upon me to give myself two or three days’ relaxation. And as a gentleman, of whom I had some knowledge, was going into Carmarthenshire, I accompanied him as far as Monmouth.
After our parting at this place, I became restless and uneasy, and longed to get back to my work. I thought, however, that my journey ought not to be wholly useless to the cause; and hearing that Dr. Davis, a clergyman at Monmouth, was a man of considerable weight among the inhabitants, I took the liberty of writing him a letter, in which I stated who I was, and the way in which I had lately employed myself, and the great wish I had to be favoured with an interview with him; and I did not conceal that it would be very desirable, if the inhabitants of the place could have that information on the subject which would warrant them in so doing, that they should petition the legislature for the abolition of the Slave-trade. Dr. Davis returned me an answer, and received me. The questions which he put to me were judicious. He asked me, first, whether, if the slaves were emancipated, there would not be much confusion in the islands? I told him that the emancipation of them was no part of our plan. We solicited nothing but the stopping of all future importations of them into the islands. He then asked what the planters would do for labourers. I replied, they would find sufficient from an increase of the native population, if they were obliged to pay attention to the latter means. We discoursed a long time upon this last topic. I have not room to give the many other questions he proposed to me. No one was ever more judiciously questioned. In my turn, I put him into possession of all the discoveries I had made. He acknowledged the injustice of the trade. He confessed, also, that my conversation had enlightened him as to the impolicy of it; and, taking some of my Summary Views to distribute, he said, he hoped that the inhabitants would, after the perusal of them, accede to my request.
On my return to Bristol, my friends had procured for me an interview with Mr. Alexander Falconbridge, who had been to the coast of Africa, as a surgeon, for four voyages; one in the Tartar, another in the Alexander, and two in the Emilia slave-vessels.
On my introduction to him, I asked him if he had any objection to give me an account of the cruelties, which were said to be connected with the Slave-trade. He answered, without any reserve, that he had not; for that he had now done with it. Never were any words more welcome to my ears than these—“Yes—I have done with the trade”—and he said also, that he was free to give me information concerning it. Was he not then one of the very persons, whom I had so long been seeking, but in vain?
To detail the accounts which he gave me at this and at subsequent interviews, relative to the different branches of this trade, would fill no ordinary volume. Suffice it to say in general terms, as far as relates to the slaves, that he confirmed the various violent and treacherous methods of procuring them in their own country; their wretched condition, in consequence of being crowded together, in the passage; their attempts to rise in defence of their own freedom, and, when this was impracticable, to destroy themselves by the refusal of sustenance, by jumping overboard into the sea, and in other ways; the effect also of their situation upon their minds, by producing insanity and various diseases; and the cruel manner of disposing of them in the West Indies, and of separating relatives and friends.
With respect to the seamen employed in this trade, he commended captain Frazer for his kind usage to them, under whom he had so long served. The handsome way in which he spoke of the latter pleased me much, because I was willing to deduce from it his own impartiality, and because I thought I might infer from it also his regard to truth as to other parts of his narrative. Indeed I had been before acquainted with this circumstance. Thompson, of the Seven Stars, had informed me that Frazer was the only man sailing out of that port for slaves, who had not been guilty of cruelty to his seamen: and Mr. Burges alluded to it, when he gave me advice not to proceed against the captain of the Alfred; for he then said, as I mentioned in a former chapter, “that he knew but one captain in the trade, who did not deserve long ago to be hanged.” Mr. Falconbridge, however, stated, that though he had been thus fortunate in the Tartar and Emilia, he had been as unfortunate in the Alexander; for he believed there were no instances upon naval record, taken altogether, of greater barbarity, than of that which had been exercised towards the seamen in this voyage. In running over these, it struck me that I had heard of the same from some other quarter, or at least that these were so like the others, that I was surprised at their coincidence. On taking out my notes, I looked for the names of those whom I recollected to have been used in this manner; and on desiring Mr. Falconbridge to mention the names of those also to whom he alluded, they turned out to be the same. The mystery, however, was soon cleared up, when I told him from whom I had received my intelligence: for Mr. Arnold, the last-mentioned person in the last chapter, had been surgeon’s mate under Mr. Falconbridge in the same vessel.
There was one circumstance of peculiar importance, but quite new to me, which I collected from the information which Mr. Falconbridge had given me. This was, that many of the seamen, who left the slave-ships in the West Indies, were in such a weak, ulcerated, and otherwise discased state, that they perished there. Several also of those who came home with the vessels, were in the same deplorable condition. This was the case, Mr. Falconbridge said, with some who returned in the Alexander. It was the case also with many others; for he had been a pupil, for twelve months, in the Bristol Infirmary, and had had ample means of knowing the fact. The greatest number of seamen, at almost all times, who were there, were from the slave-vessels. These, too, were usually there on account of disease, whereas those from other ships were usually there on account of accidents. The health of some of the former was so far destroyed, that they were never wholly to be restored. This information was of great importance; for it showed that they who were reported dead upon the muster-rolls, were not all that were lost to the country by the prosecution of this wicked trade. Indeed, it was of so much importance, that in all my future interviews with others, which were for the purpose of collecting evidence, I never forgot to make it a subject of inquiry.
I can hardly say how precious I considered the facts with which Mr. Falconbridge had furnished me from his own experience, relative to the different branches of this commerce. They were so precious, that I began now to be troubled lest I should lose them. For, though he had thus privately unbosomed himself to me, it did not follow that he would come forward as a public evidence. I was not a little uneasy on this account. I was fearful lest, when I should put this question to him, his future plan of life, or some little narrow consideration of future interest, would prevent him from giving his testimony, and I delayed asking him for many days. During this time, however, I frequently visited him; and at length, when I thought I was better acquainted, and probably in some little estimation, with him, I ventured to open my wishes on this subject. He answered me boldly, and at once, that he had left the trade upon principle, and that he would state all he knew concerning it, either publicly or privately, and at any time when he should be called upon to do it. This answer produced such an effect upon me, after all my former disappointments, that I felt it all over my frame. It operated like a sudden shock, which often disables the impressed person for a time. So the joy I felt rendered me quite useless, as to business, for the remainder of the day.
I began to perceive in a little time the advantage of having cultivated an acquaintance with Thompson of the Seven Stars. For nothing could now pass in Bristol, relative to the seamen employed in this trade, but it was soon brought to me. If there was any thing amiss, I had so arranged matters that I was sure to hear of it. He sent for me one day to inform me that several of the seamen, who had been sent out of Marshstreet into the Prince, which was then at Kingroad, and on the point of sailing to Africa for slaves, had, through fear of illusage on the voyage, taken the boat and put themselves on shore. He informed me at the same time that the seamen of the Africa, which was lying there also and ready to sail on a like voyage, were not satisfied, for that they had been made to sign their articles of agreement, without being permitted to see them. To this he added that Mr. Sheriff, one of the mates of the latter vessel, was unhappy also on this account. Sheriff had been a mate in the West India trade, and was a respectable man in his line. He had been enticed by the captain of the Africa, under the promise of peculiar advantages, to change his voyage. Having a wife and family at Bristol, he was willing to make a sacrifice on their account. But when he himself was not permitted to read the articles, he began to suspect bad work, and that there would be nothing but misery in the approaching voyage. Thompson entreated me to extricate him, if I could. He was sure, he said, if he went to the Coast with that man, meaning the captain, that he would never return alive.
I was very unwilling to refuse any thing to Thompson. I was deeply bound to him in gratitude for the many services he had rendered me, but I scarcely saw how I could serve him on this occasion. I promised, however, to speak to him in an hour’s time. I consulted my friend Truman Harford in the interim; and the result was, that he and I should proceed to Kingroad in a boat, go on board the Africa, and charge the captain in person with what he had done, and desire him to discharge Sheriff, as no agreement, where fraud or force was used in the signatures, could be deemed valid. If we were not able to extricate Sheriff by these means, we thought that at least we should know, by inquiring of those whom we should see on board, whether the measure of hindering the men from seeing their articles on signing them had been adopted. It would be useful to ascertain this, because such a measure had been long reported to be usual in this, but was said to be unknown in any other trade.
Having passed the river’s mouth and rowed towards the sea, we came near the Prince first, but pursued our destination to the Africa. Mr. Sheriff was the person who received us on board. I did not know him till I asked his name. I then told him my errand, with which he seemed to be much pleased. On asking him to tell the captain that I wished to speak with him, he replied that he was on shore. This put me to great difficulty, as I did not know then what to do. I consulted with Truman Harford, and it was our opinion, that we should inquire of the seamen, but in a very quiet manner, by going individually to each, if they had ever demanded to see the articles on signing them, and if they had been refused. We proposed this question to them. They replied, that the captain had refused them in a savage manner, making use of threats and oaths. There was not one contradictory voice on this occasion. We then asked Mr. Sheriff what we were to do. He entreated us by all means to take him on shore. He was sure that under such a man as the captain, and particularly after the circumstance of our coming on board should be made known to him, he would never come from the coast of Africa alive. Upon this, Truman Harford called me aside, and told me the danger of taking an officer from the ship; for that, if any accident should happen to her, the damage might all fall upon me. I then inquired of Mr. Sheriff if there was any officer on board, who could manage the ship. He pointed one out to me, and I spoke to him in the cabin. This person told me I need be under no apprehension about the vessel, but that every one would be sorry to lose Mr. Sheriff. Upon this ground, Truman Harford, who had felt more for me than for himself, became now easy. We had before concluded, that the obtaining any signature by fraud or force would render the agreement illegal. We therefore joined in opinion, that we might take away the man. His chest was accordingly put into our boat. We jumped into it with our rowers, and he followed us, surrounded by the seamen, all of whom took an affectionate leave of him, and expressed their regret at parting. Soon after this there was a general cry of “Will you take me too?” from the deck; and such a sudden movement appeared there, that we were obliged to push off directly from the side, fearing that many would jump into our boat and go with us.
After having left the ship, Sheriff corroborated the desertion of the seamen from the Prince, as before related to me by Thompson. He spoke also of the savage disposition of his late captain, which he had even dared to manifest though lying in an English port. I was impressed by this account of his rough manners; and the wind having risen before and the surf now rolling heavily, I began to think what an escape I might have had; how easy it would have been for the savage captain, if he had been on board, or for any one at his instigation, to have pushed me over the ship’s side. This was the first time I had ever considered the peril of the undertaking. But we arrived safe; and though on the same evening I left my name at the captain’s house, as that of the person who had taken away his mate, I never heard more about it.
In pursuing my inquiries into the new topic suggested by Mr. Falconbridge, I learnt that two or three of the seamen of the ship Thomas, which had been arrived now nearly a year from the Coast, were in a very crippled and deplorable state. I accordingly went to see them. One of them had been attacked by a fever, arising from circumstances connected with these voyages. The inflammation, which had proceeded from it, had reached his eyes. It could not be dispersed; and the consequence was, that he was then blind. The second was lame. He had badly ulcerated legs, and appeared to be very weak. The third was a mere spectre. I think he was the most pitiable object I ever saw. I considered him as irrecoverably gone. They all complained to me of their bad usage on board the Thomas. They said they had heard of my being in Bristol, and they hoped I would not leave it, without inquiring into the murder of William Lines.
On inquiring who William Lines was, they informed me that he had been one of the crew of the same ship, and that all on board believed that he had been killed by the chief mate; but they themselves had not been present when the blows were given him. They had not seen him till afterwards; but their shipmates had told them of his cruel treatment, and they knew that soon afterwards he had died.
In the course of the next day, the mother of Lines, who lived in Bristol, came to me and related the case. I told her there was no evidence as to the fact, for that I had seen three seamen, who could not speak to it from their own knowledge. She said, there were four others then in Bristol who could. I desired her to fetch them. When they arrived I examined each separately, and cross-examined them in the best manner I was able. I could find no variation in their account, and I was quite convinced that the murder had taken place. The mother was then importunate that I should take up the case. I was too much affected by the narration I had heard to refuse her wholly, and yet I did not promise that I would. I begged a little time to consider of it. During this I thought of consulting my friend Burges. But I feared he would throw cold water upon it, as he had done in the case of the captain of the Alfred. I remembered well what he had then said to me, and yet I felt a strong disposition to proceed. For the trade was still going on. Every day, perhaps, some new act of barbarity was taking place. And one example, if made, might counteract the evil for a time. I seemed therefore to incline to stir in this matter, and thought, if I should get into any difficulty about it, it would be better to do it without consulting Mr. Burges, than, after having done it, to fly as it were in his face. I then sent for the woman, and told her, that she might appear with the witnesses at the Common Hall, where the magistrates usually sat on a certain day.
We all met at the time appointed, and I determined to sit as near to the mayor as I could get. The hall was unusually crowded. One or two slave-merchants, and two or three others, who were largely concerned in the West India trade, were upon the bench. For I had informed the mayor the day before of my intention, and he, it appeared, had informed them. I shall never forget the savage looks which these people gave me; which indeed were so remarkable, as to occasion the eyes of the whole court to be turned upon me. They looked as if they were going to speak to me, and the people looked as if they expected me to say something in return. They then got round the mayor, and began to whisper to him, as I supposed, on the business before it should come on. One of them, however, said aloud to the former, but fixing his eyes upon me, and wishing me to overhear him, “Scandalous reports had lately been spread, but sailors were not used worse in Guineamen than in other vessels.” This brought the people’s eyes upon me again. I was very much irritated, but I thought it improper to say any thing. Another, looking savagely at me, said to the mayor, “that he had known captain Vicars a long sime; that he was an honourable man* , and would not allow such usage in his ship. There were always vagabonds to hatch up things:” and he made a dead point at me, by putting himself into a posture which attracted the notice of those present, and by staring me in the face. I could now no longer restrain myself, and I said aloud in as modest a manner as I could, “You, sir, may know many things which I do not. But this I know, that if you do not do your duty, you are amenable to a higher court.” The mayor upon this looked at me, and directly my friend Mr. Burges, who was sitting as the clerk to the magistrates, went to him and whispered something in his ear; after which all private conversation between the mayor and others ceased, and the hearing was ordered to come on.
I shall not detain the reader by giving an account of the evidence which then transpired. The four witnesses were examined, and the case was so far clear. Captain Vicars, however, was sent for. On being questioned, he did not deny that there had been bad usage, but said that the young man had died of the flux. But this assertion went for nothing when balanced against the facts which had come out; and this was so evident, that an order was made out for the apprehension of the chief mate. He was accordingly taken up. The next day, however, there was a rehearing of the case, when he was returned to the gaol, where he was to lie till the Lords of the Admiralty should order a sessions to be held for the trial of offences committed on the high seas.
This public examination of the case of William Lines, and the way in which it ended, produced an extraordinary result; for after this time the slave-captains and mates, who used to meet me suddenly, used as suddenly to start from me, indeed to the other side of the pavement, as if I had been a wolf, or tiger, or some dangerous beast of prey. Such of them as saw me before hand, used to run up the cross streets or lanes, which were nearest to them, to get away. Seamen, too, came from various quarters to apply to me for redress. One came to me, who had been treated ill in the Alexander, when Mr. Falconbridge had been the surgeon of her. Three came to me, who had been ill-used in the voyage which followed, though she had then sailed under a new captain. Two applied to me from the Africa, who had been of her crew in the last voyage. Two from the Fly. Two from the Wasp. One from the Little Pearl, and three from the Pilgrim or Princess, when she was last upon the coast.
The different scenes of barbarity, which these represented to me, greatly added to the affliction of my mind. My feelings became now almost insupportable. I was agonized to think that this trade should last another day. I was in a state of agitation from morning till night. I determined I would soon leave Bristol. I saw nothing but misery in the place. I had collected now, I believed, all the evidence it would afford; and to stay in it a day longer than was necessary, would be only an interruption for so much time both of my happiness and of my health. I determined therefore to do only two or three things, which I thought to be proper, and to depart in a few days.
And first I went to Bath, where I endeavoured to secure the respectable paper belonging to that city in favour of the abolition of the Slave-trade. This I did entirely to my satisfaction, by relating to the worthy editor all the discoveries I had made, and by impressing his mind in a forcible manner on the subject. And it is highly to the honour of Mr. Crutwell, that from that day he never ceased to defend our cause; that he never made a charge for insertions of any kind; but that he considered all he did upon this occasion in the light of a duty, or as his mite given in charity to a poor and oppressed people.
The next attempt was to lay the foundation of a committee in Bristol, and of a petition to Parliament from it for the abolition of the Slave-trade. I had now made many friends. A gentleman of the name of Paynter had felt himself much interested in my labours. Mr. Joseph Harford, a man of fortune, of great respectability of character, and of considerable influence, had attached himself to the cause. Dr. Fox had assisted me in it. Mr. Hughes, a clergyman of the Baptist church, was anxious and ready to serve it. Dr. Camplin, of the Establishment, with several of his friends, continued steady. Matthew Wright, James Harford, Truman Harford, and all the Quakers to a man, were strenuous, and this on the best of principles, in its support. To all these I spoke, and I had the pleasure of seeing that my wishes were likely in a short time to be gratified in both these cases.
It was now necessary that I should write to the committee in London. I had written to them only two letters, during my absence; for I had devoted myself so much to the great object I had undertaken, that I could think of little else. Hence some of my friends among them were obliged to write to different persons at Bristol, to inquire if I was alive. I gave up a day or two, therefore, to this purpose. I informed the committee of all my discoveries in the various branches to which my attention had been directed, and desired them in return to procure me various official documents for the port of London, which I then specified. Having done this, I conferred with Mr. Falconbridge, relative to being with me at Liverpool. I thought it right to make him no other offer than that his expenses should be paid. He acceded to my request on these disinterested terms; and I took my departure from Bristol, leaving him to follow me in a few days.
[* ]We may well imagine what this person’s notion of another man’s honour was; for he was the purser of the Brothers and of the Alfred, who, as before mentioned, sent the captains of those ships out a second voyage, after knowing their barbarities in the former. And he was also the purser of this very ship Thomas, where the murder had been committed. I by no means, however, wish by these observations to detract from the châracter of captain Vicars, as he had no concern in the cruel deed.