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The slave ship captains’ unbelievable lies

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The slave ship captains’ unbelievable lies |

We began yesterday addressing the issue of the denials of kidnapping at the root of the African slave trade, and thus of American slavery. Shockingly, there are some today even who deny, or at least downplay, the reality. While this article is a bit longer than normal, I urge you to take the time to learn the full reality of the history from the original and scholarly sources provided.

We continued today by looking at the second quotation which was provided in support of this notion:

Marcus Rediker noted in “The Slave Ship” that the primary source was POWs, second was convicts convicted and sentenced to slavery and purchases at slave markets a long way from the coast. He noted that this was often linked to Islamic slave traders.

He noted that, “Slave ship captains assumed that the people they purchased had become slaves by war or judicial processes, but in truth they did not know-and did not care-how their cargo had been enslaved. That was not their business, testified one after another in parliamentary hearings between 1788 and 1791.”

It is true that slave ship captains said this, but was what they said actually true? One only has to read a little bit of the rest of Rediker’s book (a great book!) to see an overwhelming tide of evidence to the contrary.

Far from the situation the captains portrayed by playing dumb, they not only knew otherwise, but had a strong preference for dealing with the most prominent and powerful of the slave-trading chieftains because these could actually deliver a steady supply of slaves. The captains had direct knowledge of what was going on because the captains supplied the traders and chieftains with the firearms that empowered them to carry out their trade more successfully:

[S]lave-ship captains wanted to deal with ruling groups and strong leaders who could deliver the “goods,” . . . Larger groups who purchased guns and gunpowder often grew into stronger, centralized, militaristic states (Asante, Dahomey, Oyo, the Niger city-states, and Kongo, for example), using their firearms to subdue their neighbors, which of course produced the next coffle of slaves to be traded for the next crate of muskets. In the areas where slave trading was most extensive, a new division of labor grew up around slave catching, maintenance, and transport. Merchants became powerful as a class, controlling customs, taxes, prices, and the flow of captives. The number of slaves held and the importance of slavery as an institution in African societies expanded with the Atlantic slave trade.[1]

Rediker goes on to note the reality in multiple parts: in Lunda and Angola, for example, “Most of the enslaved were captured in wars of conquest, after formal battle and in quick-strike raids.”[2] This constituted the norm for most areas:

As the summaries of the six main slaving regions suggest, most people who found themselves on slave ships did so in the aftermath of war, especially during historic moments when one or another group, the Fon or the Asante, for example, was extending its political dominance over its neighbors. What one observer called the “eternal wars” among smaller groups were another major source of slaves. . . . Advocates of the slave trade agreed that war was a major source of slaves in West Africa.

The commenter does seem to acknowledge this by referencing “POWs,” but does not relate that the wars themselves were not just wars but dedicated slave raids fraudulently called “wars”:

Yet they disagreed vehemently about what constituted a war. Most advocates of the trade agreed that “war” was simply whatever African traders said it was. But they had to admit that the term covered a multitude of activities. “Depredations . . . are denominated wars!” exclaimed a Liverpool trader in 1784. John Matthews, a fierce defender of human commerce, noted that in Sierra Leon every “petty quarrel” was called a war. Sea surgeon John Atkins observed that war in West Africa was just another name for “robbery of inland, defenceless creatures.” Those opposed to the trade went even further, insisting that “wars” were nothing more than “pyratical expeditions,” and they even found a witness to prove it: British seaman Isaac Parker had participated in such marauding raids out of New Town in Old Calabar in the 1760s. Abolitionists contended that what was called “war” was for the most part simply kidnapping. Moreover, “wars” often commenced when a slave ship appeared on the coast, whereupon the local traders (with the help—and guns—of the slave-ship captain) would equip war parties (usually canoes) to head inland to wage war and gather slaves, who would then be sold to the captain who had helped to finance the expedition in the first place. Otherwise, as one African explained to a member of a slaving crew, “Suppose ship no come, massa, no takee slavee.” War was a euphemism for the organized theft of human beings.

Even for those enslaved as “criminals,” fraud underlay the process:

Many Africans and (abolitionist) Europeans felt that judicial processes in West Africa had been corrupted and that thousands had been falsely accused and convicted in order to produce as many tradeworthy bodies as possible. Royal African Company official Francis Moore noted that for those found guilty of a crime around 1730 in the Gambia region, “All Punishments are chang’d into Slavery.” Walter Rodney observed that on the Upper Guinea coast local ruling groups made law “into the handmaid of the slave trade.”

Then we come to the third group: those derived from inland slave “fairs” and markets. This is directly where the slave ship captains appealed to ignorance:

A third major source was the purchase of slaves at markets and fairs located in the interior, some distance from the coast, often linked to the Islamic slave-trade circuits in the north, east, and west. The purchase of these people (the vast majority of whom had been free, but enslaved farther inland) was especially common in Senegambia, the Gold Coast, and the Bight of Benin. By the 1780s many of the slaves sold at New Calabar, Bonny, and Old Calabar had been bought a hundred miles or more inland, and for other ports the catchment area was even deeper. Slave-ship captains assumed that the people they purchased had become slaves by war or judicial process, but in truth they did not know—and did not care—how their “cargo” had been enslaved. That was not their business, testified one after another in parliamentary hearings between 1788 and 1791.[3]

Again, they said they did not know, but the facts speak otherwise. Rediker relates so much in this regard it would have been difficult for any reader to miss. The following includes just a small sampling:

One of the main ways of making slaves was what the French called “grand pillage”—a sudden, organized raid upon a village, usually in the middle of the night. The marauders burned homes and captured the terrified villagers as they fled, then marched them to the coast in coffles and sold them

Concerning one such slave who survived and later related his story, Louis Asa-Asa (1830s?), Rediker relates,

The happiness soon went up in flames, as “some thousands” of Adinyé warriors converged on Egie one morning before daybreak, setting fire to the huts, creating chaos, killing some, and over two days capturing many others. They bound the captives by the feet until it was time to tie them into coffles and march them toward the coast, whereupon “they let them loose; but if they offered to run away, they would shoot them”—with European guns. The Adinyés were expert, even professional marauders: “They burnt all the country wherever they found villages.” They took any and all, “brothers, and sisters, and husbands, and wives; they did not care about this.” Those taken in the initial raid included about a dozen people Asa-Asa counted as “friends and relations.” Everyone carried away was sold as a slave to the Europeans, some for “cloth or gunpowder,” others for “salt or guns.” Sometimes “they got four or five guns for a man.” Asa-Asa knew these to be “English guns.”[4]

Did the slave ship captains know of these realities? Again, they preferred dealing with these stronger tribes and themselves traded these “English guns” to them for the very purpose. If that were not enough, the enslaved told them directly: “As Africans repeatedly explained to one slave-ship sailor during his voyages in the 1760s, they were ‘all stolen,’ although in many ways.”

Were the captains really so unknowing? Rediker further relates one narrative from the Bight of Benin in 1763. The Bight of Benin was part of the “slave coast” which accounted for upwards of 2 million slave souls alone. It was one of the main source-areas for slaves. Rediker writes,

Three people in a small canoe had come from far away and did not know the danger they were in. They might have wondered at the big ship, a brigantine, that lay at anchor a distance out in the Gulf of Benin, surrounded by ten war canoes. The Briton had come from even farther away. It belonged to Messrs. John Welch (or Welsh) and Edward Parr, merchants of Liverpool, and was captained by William Bagshaw. The war canoes, some of them large enough to have mounted six to eight swivel guns (small cannon), had come from upriver and belonged to a man named Captain Lemma Lemma, “a kind of pirate admiral” who traded in slaves. The people who lived on the lower river considered Lemma Lemma to be “a robber or stealer of men”; everyone was “exceedingly afraid of venturing out whenever any of his war canoes were in sight.” He was an important supplier of slaves to European Guineamen, which is why Captain Bagshaw had been entertaining him for ten days with food, drink, hospitality, and dashee, gifts to encourage sales.

From the main deck of the slaver, Lemma Lemma spied the strangers paddling by and ordered a group of his canoemen to capture them. They deftly took to the water, seized the three—an old man, and a young man, and a young woman—and brought them aboard, offering them for sale to Captain Bagshaw, who bought the younger two but refused the older one. Lemma Lemma sent the old man back to one of his canoes and gave an order: “his head was laid on one of the thwarts of the boat, and chopped off,” head and body then thrown overboard. Captain Bagshaw carried his children to Rappahannock, Virginia.[5]

These captains knew very well what was going on. They knew the main chieftains and major players in the trade, and they knew how to get what they wanted in terms of gifts and guns. These were intimate relationships with war criminals, and for personal profit. Before the House of Commons 1788–1791, they may have had a veneer of plausible deniability in the absence of anything like video evidence, but the evidence was there. There was also the angle of corporate and personal interest at stake as well. Their testimony and character should be judged also in this light.

The lies of a slave ship captain

Toward this end, Rediker includes an account of one of the more prominent captains and open defender of the slave trade as a whole. Rediker writes,

Robert Norris was a man of many talents. He was an experienced and successful Liverpool slave-ship captain who made enough money to retire from the sea and carry on as a successful merchant in the slave trade. He was also a writer, a polemicist on behalf of the slave trade, and something of an historian. In 1788 he wrote and published anonymously A Short Account of the African Slave Trade, Collected from Local Knowledge. The following year he produced a history of a region of West Africa based on his personal knowledge: Memoirs of the Reign of Bossa Ahádee, King of Dahomy, an Inland Country of Guiney. . . . Norris represented the Liverpool interest in parliamentary hearings held between 1788 and 1791. He was one of the slave trade’s very best public defenders.

Norris’s account of the slave ships and trade in general are so rosy they are almost unbelievable to modern ears.

As the first to testify before the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons in June 1788, Norris described the Middle Passage in detail. The slaves had good living quarters belowdecks, he explained, which sailors cleaned thoroughly and regularly. Air ports and windsails ventilated their apartments and admitted “a free Circulation of fresh Air.” The enslaved had more than enough room. They slept on “clean boards,” which were more wholesome than “Beds or Hammacks.” They ate plentiful, high-quality food. The men and boys played musical instruments, danced, and sang, while the women and girls “amuse[d] themselves with arranging fanciful Ornaments for their Persons with Beads, which they are plentifully supplied with.” The slaves were given the “Luxuries of Pipes and Tobacco” and occasionally even a dram of brandy, especially when the weather was cold. Such good treatment, explained Norris, was in the Captain’s self-interest, as he stood to make a 6 percent commission over and above his salary on the slaves delivered healthy and alive on the western side of the Atlantic. Morris explained to the members of Parliament that “Interest” and “Humanity” were perfectly united in the slave trade.

Imagine, slaves on the Middle Passage, enslaved, chained, and during one of the most frightening periods of their enslavement, yet singing and dancing on deck, sipping brandy and playing music! And after a good evening of feasting and making merry on their merry way (!), these happy souls bedded down in spacious, freshly-cleaned quarters with plenty of room and pleasant dreams.

In an industry that lost routinely between 15 and 20 percent of its human cargo and tossed them overboard along the way, Norris had to have virtually no conscience whatsoever to tell lies so utterly astounding. Yet he referred to the Middle Passage as “one of the happiest periods of the Negro’s life.”

Not only could we surmise that Norris was lying by the utter absurdity of the tale, and by modern evidences, but he himself told a very different story when not on the stand:

And yet the surviving document Norris wrote that was not intended for publication tells a different, rather less idyllic story. Norris kept a Captain’s log for his voyage in the Unity from Liverpool to Wydah, to Jamaica, and back to Liverpool between 1769 and 1771. A week after weighing anchor at Wydah and setting sail to cross the Atlantic, Norris noted that “the Slaves made an Insurrection, which was soon quelled with ye Loss [of] two Women.” Two weeks later the enslaved rose again, the women once more in the lead and therefore singled out for special punishment: Norris “gave ye women concerned 24 lashes each.” Three days later they made a third effort after several “got off their Handcuffs,” but Norris and crew soon managed to get them back into their irons. And the following morning they tried for a fourth time: “the Slaves attempted to force up ye Gratings in the Night, with a design to murder ye whites or drown themselves.” He added that they “confessed their intentions and that ye women as well as ye men were determin’d if disapointed of cutting off ye whites, to jump over board but in case of being prevented by their Irons were resolved as their last attempt to burn the ship.” So great was their determination that in the event of failure they planned a mass suicide by drowning or self-incineration. “Their obstinacy,” wrote Norris, “put me under ye Necessity of shooting ye Ringleader.” But even this did not end the matter. A man Norris called “No. 3” and a woman he called “No. 4,” both of whom had been on the ship a long time, continued to resist and died in fits of madness. “They had frequently attempted to drown themselves, since their Views were disapointed in ye Insurrection.”[6]

If Norris’s own words are not enough to condemn Norris, it is a good time to return to the man we discussed yesterday, Alexander Falconbridge, who will complete the more general picture of what life on a slave ship was really like.

What the slave ships were really like

Norris’s account of slave discontent, rebellion, and willingness to commit suicide describe only one aspect of the horror. There were many others, and every single aspect only adds to the discredit of the men who played dumb and overtly lied before Parliament.

Falconbridge indeed took up the medic position on a slave ship, but it only took a few voyages before the abolitionists’ arguments had a full grip on him. He converted and in 1788 penned the booklet An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa, in which he described the horrors of the passage. A wave of dysentery made one typical case: “the floor of their rooms, was so covered with blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughterhouse. It was not in the power of the human imagination, to picture to itself a situation more dreadful or disgusting.” The doctor continued:

Numbers of the slaves having fainted, they were carried upon deck, where several of them died, and the rest were, with great difficulty, restored. It had nearly proved fatal to me also. . . . By only continuing among them for about a quarter of an hour, I was so overcome with the heat, stench, and foul air, that I had nearly fainted; and it was not without assistance, that I could get upon deck. The consequence was, that I soon after fell sick of the fame disorder, from which I did not recover for several months.[7]

He noted that such conditions occurred upon a ship carrying nowhere near the capacity it actually could—more than a hundred slaves below its design.

Should one of these captives have the fortune not of dying but merely of growing sick, his lot was perhaps worse than death. Falconbridge chronicled:

The place allotted for the sick negroes is under the half deck, where they lie on the bare planks. By this means, those who are emaciated, frequently have their skin, and even their flesh, entirely rubbed off, by the motion of the ship, from the prominent parts of the shoulders, elbows, and hips, so as to render the bones in those parts quite bare. And some of them, by constantly lying in the blood and mucus, that had flowed from those afflicted with the flux, and which, as before observed, is generally so violent as to prevent their being kept clean, have their flesh much sooner rubbed off, than those who have only to contend with the mere friction of the ship. The excruciating pain which the poor sufferers feel from being obliged to continue in such a dreadful situation, frequently for several weeks, in case they happen to live so long, is not to be conceived or described. Few, indeed, are ever able to withstand the fatal effects of it. . . .

The surgeon, upon going between decks, in the morning, to examine the situation of the slaves, frequently finds several dead; and among the men, sometimes a dead and living negroe fastened by their irons together. When this is the case, they are brought upon the deck, and being laid on the grating, the living negroe is disengaged, and the dead one thrown overboard.[8]

While these examples suffice to show the depravity and degradation of the common features of the Atlantic slave trade, a couple of records illustrate the further extremities of the possible. A September 1804 issue of Britain’s Christian Observer related a case from the court of the King’s Bench in which a particular master of a slave voyage overshot his port in Jamaica and feared not having enough potable water on board to last the remainder of his extended journey, especially after he himself fell ill. The facts of the case, entered into evidence via the testimony of the captain’s mate, included the captain’s orders to throw 46 slaves overboard, handcuffed and alive. Two days later, 36 more suffered the same fate, then 40 more another two days later. The orders were all obeyed.

The Observer rightfully decried the inhumanity of both the captain’s orders and the crew’s obedience to those orders, yet did not address the full depth of the inhumanity. At the root of the captain’s murderous orders lay not only the desire to preserve water for himself and his crew, but to cash in on the insurance policy that covered his cargo. Slave cargo insurance generally did not cover slaves that died on board, but would cover slaves that departed the ship alive. The captain’s remedy intended to be able to cash in on the latter provision. The latter provision perhaps was not intended to cover cases in which the slaves were forced overboard, especially when handcuffed—thus, the lawsuit between the trading company and the insurers who had refused to pay. In what has become known as the Zong Massacre (named after the ship), the jury ruled that the action was no different than throwing a cargo of cattle overboard, and decided in favor of the trading company.

Only after abolitionist activists made the issue public did the judges order a retrial, alleging new evidences. After two further trials, the court reversed the decision, exonerating the insurers. The captain and crew, however, never did face justice, or any judicial consequences whatsoever.[9]

A second instance occurred in America. Two successive issues of the South Carolina Gazette in 1769 relate a tragedy at Charleston port, first conveyed by one anonymous reporter: “the marsh opposite to the town, from the number of dead bodies there, had the appearance of a field of battle where they had not had time to bury their dead.” These bodies were all of Africans. A week later the Gazette addressed the source of the problem in the form of a proclamation from Governor Montagu:

Whereas . . . a large number of dead negroes, whose bodies have been thrown into the river, are drove upon the marsh opposite to Charles-Town, and the noisome smell arising from their putrefaction may become dangerous to the health of the inhabitants of this province . . . I do hereby offer a reward . . . to any person that will inform against anyone . . . guilty of such practice.[10]

In short, slavers in the port of Charlestown disburdened themselves of the cargo that did not survive the voyage by dumping the bodies right there in harbor, or perhaps close offshore.


In short, the captains were lying. They lied about virtually every aspect of the trade they ran and profited from. The facts make clear that they were hardly the most virtuous or trustworthy of characters. They were more often savage and cutthroat businessmen—largely unaccountable due to the vast degree of power they had and the vast degree of insulation they had by virtue of the nature of their trade.

Given all of these facts, however, which were widely published at the time, of course a slave ship captain would say what they did—especially when testifying before Parliament. Not only did these characters have a financial interest in the trade, but had they said anything different, they would have been indicting themselves as criminals on the spot.

Imagine Cecile Richards testifying before Congress, denying the trafficking of baby body parts, and you have something that gets closer to what these slave ship captains were doing. Then when you realize the comparison, you need to ask yourself why our commenter would most likely hold the abortionist today in utter revulsion and contempt, yet receive the report of the slave ship captains as Gospel truth and an exoneration of the slave trade. Folks, don’t let your own desires and allegiances allow you to fall for nonsense in this way.


[1] Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking, 2007), 77.

[2] Rediker, 95, 97.

[3] Rediker, 99.

[4] Rediker, 102.

[5] Rediker, 88, 90.

[6] Rediker, 31–32.

[7] Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (London: J. Phillips, 1788), 25; partially quoted in Weir, 176.

[8] Falconbridge, 27–28.

[9] The Christian Observer, 1804, vol. 3, 547. See generally James Walvin, The Zong: The Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011).

[10] South Carolina Gazette, June 8, 1769; quoted in Robert Olwell, Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998), 223; see also Weir, 176.

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 if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.


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