One of the important purposes served by Black History Month, which is marked in February of each year, is to remind us of the unspeakable horrors of the slave ships, wherein the various European nations transported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to work in those lands which the various Europeans had violently seized from Indigenous Americans and could not work themselves.
“The stark realities of the Atlantic world, and the basic economic and demographic facts that had initially inspired the Atlantic slave system in the sixteenth century, remained largely unchanged. Labour existed but not on the continent on which it was needed and where it could be deployed to generate maximum profits. Land in the Americas that had been violent wrenched from the hands of tis indigenous population centuries earlier produced highly desirable tropical products for the markets of Europe, but those millions of acres were most profitably brought into production using labour from Africa.”
( – pg. 286, BLACK AND BRITISH: A FORGOTTEN HISTORY, by David Olusoga, Macmillan, 2016)
The following passages are also taken from David Olusoga’s monumental BLACK AND BRITISH, and they describe the insanity of slave ships seized by Britain’s West Africa Squadron after the British abolished the slave trade in 1807. The descriptions reproduced here are of the human cargo of slave ships which were forced back to West Africa before they could continue on their journeys to Brazil and Cuba, Portugal and Spain not having outlawed the slave trade when the British did.
From the accounts below, you can imagine how indescribably horrific were the nightmares of those shackled, nameless Africans who made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean which took months under conditions even animals would not have survived.
“Captives who survived their journey to Freetown (Sierra Leone) were kept on board the slave ships until the courts adjudicated on their legality or illegality. As ship’s captains and the agents of the slave-traders were prone to string proceedings out and argue for time, conditions worsened and death tolls increased. It was for this reason that the sufferings of the victims of the Brazilian schooner Umbelina did not end in March 1830, when the ship was anchored in Freetown harbor. They were kept on board awaiting the adjudication of the Mixed Commission Court, which took until May 13 to determine her ‘good and lawful prize to Great Britain and Brazil, and as taken in the illicit traffick in slaves.’ During those two months twenty of her captives died, and only after the verdict had been read out were the remaining 163 finally brought ashore.”
( – pg. 302, ibid.)
“We have a first-hand account of the workings of the West Africa Squadron and the King’s Yard from the English writer F. Harrison Rankin, who visited Freetown in the mid-1830s. He described his experiences and his observations in his book, The White Man’s Grave: A Visit to Sierra Leone.”
“His most powerful account was written in the summer of 1833 when the Spanish slave ship La Pantica was brought into Freetown harbor. The ship originally sailed from Havana and was intercepted by the Royal Navy with 317 slaves on board off the Old Calabar River, in modern Nigeria. When the ship was transported to Freetown the case was brought before a British and a Spanish judge of the Mixed Commission Court and La Pantica was quickly adjudicated as having been engaged in ‘illicit slave trading.’ Rankin was permitted to go on board. He described the scene he encountered in his African memoir.
We easily leaped on board as she lay low in the water. The first hasty glance around caused a sudden sickness and faintness, followed by an indignation more intense than discreet. Before us, lying in a heap, huddled together at the foot of the foremast, on the bare and filthy deck, lay several human beings in the last stage of emaciation – dying. The ship fore and aft was thronged with men, women, and children, all entirely naked, and disgusting with disease. The stench was nearly insupportable, cleanliness being impossible. I stepped to the hatchway; it was secured by iron bars and cross bars, and pressed against them were the heads of slaves below. It appeared that the crowd on deck formed one-third only of the cargo, two-thirds being stowed in a sitting posture below between decks; the men forward, the women aft. Two hundred and seventy four were at this moment in the little schooner. When captured, three hundred and fifteen had been found on board; forty had died during the voyage from the Old Calabar, where she had been captured by (the Royal Navy ship) H. M. Fair Rosamond, and one had drowned himself on arrival … It was not, however, until the second visit, on the following day, that the misery which reigns in a slave ship was fully understood. The rainy season had commenced, and during the night rain had poured heavily down. Nearly a hundred slaves had been exposed to the weather on deck, and amongst them the heap of dying skeletons at the fore-mast. After making my way through the clustered mass of women on the quarter-deck, I discovered the slave-captain, who had also been part-owner, comfortably asleep in his cot, undisturbed by the horrors around him.
“On his second visit to the captured ship the author observed how, even while they were at anchor in harbour at Freetown, the sufferings of the enslaved did not come to an end. He described how, having been registered on board the La Pantica, the slaves were forced back into the slave deck, which was only twenty two inches from floor to ceiling.
The captives were now counted; their numbers, sex, and age written down, for the information of the Court of Mixed Commission. The task was repulsive. As the hold had been divided for the separation of the men and the women, those on deck were first counted; they were then driven forward, crowded as much as possible, and the women were drawn up through the small hatchway from their hot, dark confinement. A black boatswain seized them one by one, dragging them before us for a moment, when the proper officer in a glance decided the age, whether above or under fourteen; and they were instantly swung again by the arm into their loathsome cell, where another negro boatswain, with a whip or stick, forced them to resume the bent and painful attitude necessary for the storage of so large a number. The unfortunate women and girls, in general, submitted with quiet resignation … A month had made their condition familiar to them. One or two were less philosophical, or suffered more acutely than the rest. Their shrieks rose faintly from the hidden prison, as violent compulsion alone squeezed them into their nook against the curve of the ship’s side … The agony of the position of the crouching slaves may be imagined, especially that of the men, whose heads and necks are bent down by the boarding above them. Once so fixed, relief by motion or change of posture is unattainable. The body frequently stiffens into a permanent curve; and in the streets of Freetown I have seen liberated slaves in every conceivable state of distortion … Many can never resume the upright posture.”
( – pgs. 302-304, ibid.)
“Rankin was there when the 270 slaves who had survived the journey from Calabar to Freetown were landed.
Fifty were conveyed in each canoe; one expired during the transit, and another, a few minutes after landing, died before my eyes … The men and children were first brought into the Liberated Yard, and, being ranged in a line, a piece of cotton was given each. Several had no idea of the purpose for which it was intended. Few of the children seemed to approve of the new uncomfortable fashion. Decency had suggested the distribution of the scanty checked chemises to the women, previous to their landing. When clothed, and again counted, the whole were marched across the street, from the Liberated Yard to the King’s Yard, to await their final distribution as soldiers, wives, apprentices and country gentlemen.
The young children soon recovered from their sufferings, and their elastic spirits seemed little injured. The men next rallied; but several died in the shed devoted to the most sickly, chiefly from dysentery; they were wrapped in a coarse grass mat, carried away, and buried without ceremony. Of the women many were dispatched to the hospital at Kissey, victims to raging fever; others had become insane. I was informed that insanity is the frequent fate of the women captives … The women sustain their bodily sufferings with more silent fortitude than the men, and seldom destroy themselves, but they brood more over their misfortunes, until the sense of them is lost in madness.”
( – pgs. 310, 311, ibid.)
“The most horrific account of the failure of the squadron to protect the lives of the Africans in its care comes from the Reverend Pascoe Hill, who was the chaplain on board HMS Cleopatra. In 1834 the Cleopatra captured a Spanish slave ship and Hill was witness to an incident that is shocking even by the bleak standards of the Atlantic slave trade. His description of what took place, which he published under the title Fifty Days on Board a Slave-Vessel in the Mozambique Channel, tells of how the four hundred and forty-seven captives liberated from the Spanish ship were brought out on deck to regain their strength. The suggestion that a hundred of them should be transferred to the Cleopatra, in order to reduce the overcrowding, was rejected as some of the enslaved were thought to have smallpox, but later, when the British sailors ‘having to shorten sail suddenly … found the poor helpless creatures lying about the deck an obstruction to getting at the ropes and doing what was required,’ the calamitous decision was made ‘to send them all below,’ into a slave hold that was just twelve yards in length and seven in breadth, and only three and a half feet high. The results were horrific yet predictable.
Being thrust back, and striving the more to get out, the after-hatch was forced down on them. Over the other hatchway, in the fore-part of the vessel, a wooden grating was fastened. To this, the sole inlet for the air, the suffocating heat of the hold, and, perhaps, panic from the strangeness of their situation, made them press; and thus great part of the space below was rendered useless. They crowded to the grating, and, clinging to it for air, completely barred its entrance. They strove to force their way through apertures, in length fourteen inches, and barely six inches in breadth, and, in some instances, succeeded. The cries, the heat, – I may say, without exaggeration, ‘the smoke of their torment,’ which ascended, can be compared to nothing earthly. One of the Spaniards gave warning that the consequence would be ‘many deaths.’
“The following day, Holy Thursday, the slave decks were opened.
The Spaniard’s prediction of last night, this morning was fearfully verified. Fifty-four crushed and mangled corpses lifted up from the slave-deck have been brought to the gang-way and thrown overboard. Some were emaciated from disease; many, bruised and bloody … some were found strangled, their hands still grasping each other’s throats, and tongues protruding from their mouths. The bowels of one were crushed out. They had been trampled to death for the most part, the weaker under the feet of the stronger, in the madness and torment of suffocation from crowd and heat. It was a horrid sight, as they passed one by one, – the stiff distorted limbs smeared with blood and filth, – to be cast into the sea. Some, still quivering, were laid on the deck to die; salt water thrown on them to revive them, and a little fresh water poured into their mouths.”
( – pgs. 304, 305, ibid.)