Rediscovering the Transatlantic Slave Trade Ships of the Eighteenth Century

Logbooks used on transatlantic slave trade ships that navigated hundreds of years ago can tell us parts of our history that may have been forgotten over time.

Transatlantic Slave Trade

The transatlantic slave trade reached its height during the middle of the eighteenth century. During that time, ships from the Americas sold more than 6 million Africans into slavery.

Photo courtesy Fotolia/Anterovium

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Over 6 million Africans were sold into slavery in the Americas during the eighteenth century. In The Logbooks, author Anne Farrow reveals the discoveries she made when uncovering the significance of the logbooks of three transatlantic slave trade ships who were involved in the trade between 1701 and 1800. Farrow explores the ideas of incomplete histories, and the effects they can have on the collective identity of American culture. This excerpt, which discusses the significance of the logbook and voyage of the slave ship Africa, is from Chapter 1, “Recovering the Story.”

Rediscovering History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Ships

In the pages of his atlas-shaped logbook, Dudley Saltonstall carefully ruled off spaces for the information he was to record every two hours. In a flowing and legible hand, he wrote the name of his ship, his commander, their home port, and their destination across the top of every set of facing pages. He noted the day, the hour, the speed at which the ship was traveling and its course, as well as the direction of the wind and the nautical miles traveled. Under “Transactions,” Saltonstall described the weather and made a few notes on what happened aboard the ship each day.

Later commissioned one of the first captains in the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War, the young ship’s officer kept track of how much food and water was brought aboard the ship and when the barrels of food and water were “broacht.” The men ate beef, pork, mackerel, and mutton, all salted, as well as a hard cracker called “ship’s bread,” and potatoes.

The crew would have been small, probably not more than eight men. Saltonstall noted in his log the tasks at which the men were employed throughout the day. Subject to the worst hardships of shipboard life as well as the dangers of the slave trade, these seamen were from the lowest ranks of colonial life, and they were driven hard. A neighbor of mine who was an expert on maritime history read the logbooks and said, “You wouldn’t have wanted to give these men too much time to think.” On the coast of Africa, a seaman named Denis Bryan would try to desert but was captured on shore and brought back to the ship in chains.

English commander John Newton, who served as master on three slaving voyages to the same stretch of African coastline and during the same decade as Easton and Saltonstall, wrote that the world of the slave ship was one governed by harsh practice, and that “a savageness of spirit, not easily conceived, infuses itself into those who exercise power on board an African slave-ship.” A slave ship was, in every sense and for nearly all on board, an oceangoing prison.

The ocean crossing could have been narrated by Captain Jack Aubrey, the hero of Patrick O’Brian’s maritime novels. The Africa weathered wild seas, blizzards, and gale winds. The heavy longboat, to be used for trading ashore, tipped over in its chocks and had to be righted; that same January day, a seaman named Waterman got his hand caught in the mainsail’s block and tackle, and his fingernails were torn off.

But by the second week of March, Saltonstall was recording visits to slaving outposts on islands near the African coast. He sent ashore 187 feet of New England white oak and eight casks of rum to the governor of St. Jago, the largest of the Cape Verde Islands and a major center for the slave trade. This gift was a gesture of generosity, one designed to open the way for trading. Like enslavement itself, the slave trade rested on a system of extreme violence, but it had its social conventions, and successful traders observed them.

Captain Easton went ashore with the gifts but returned, discouraged, and reported that trade was not to be had on terms he regarded as reasonable. An Irish trader who lived on the coast of Sierra Leone and knew Easton during the 1750s said the Middletown man grew impatient if a deal couldn’t be made quickly.

The Africa, a ten-year-old Connecticut-built ship of Dutch design called a snow, was a slaving ship at the very height of the international slave trade, which lasted from the late fifteenth century until the last decades of the nineteenth—nearly 400 years. Of the estimated 12.5 million Africans sold into slavery in the Americas, more than half were sold between 1701 and 1800, and of that 52.4 percent, tens of thousands more were sold during the second half of the eighteenth century than during the first.

The slaving fortresses south and east of Sierra Leone, in what today is Ghana, have become more famous than the stretch of coastline where Easton and Saltonstall began their trading voyage aboard the Africa, but the Windward Coast was the one that slave ships would encounter first in their voyage, so it appears often in narratives of mariners and other visitors.

Research on the demographics of slavery—how many people were taken from which region, in what time period, and where they were sent—has made significant advances in the past few decades, and a database of the transatlantic slave trade has been built by scholars from England and the United States. Constantly updated with information from museums, university scholars, and period documents that come to light, the database contained in mid-2013 approximately 35,000 voyages, which its creators estimate may be 80 percent of all voyages made. From the Sierra Leone region, which in Easton and Saltonstall’s day included parts of what are now Liberia, Senegal, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 captives were taken.

Between 1751 and 1775—almost precisely the span of John Easton’s career as a slave ship captain—more Africans were sold into slavery than during any other period of the entire transatlantic slave trade. The accepted estimate is that during those twenty-four years, 63,000 people were sold out of Africa every year, or, to use the slavers’ expression, “sent off from the coast.”

The competition to buy healthy men, women, and children was fierce, and the literature of the slave trade is full of the bitter complaints of captains who felt they were being cheated by the black traders and English agents, although the captains also were trying to get the most for the least. On this first voyage in the logbooks, John Easton was assembling a human cargo destined for sugar plantations on St. Kitts, a Caribbean island with rich soil, heavy rainfalls, and cool temperatures. Sugar had been, at that point, cultivated on the island for more than a century.

As was customary for many slave ship captains of that time, Easton “slaved” his ship in a very deliberate way, but not from any single source. Saltonstall noted slaves being rowed out to the Africa for inspection and possible purchase, and the captain going ashore at the beachfront outposts of black traders where groups of potential slaves had been brought for sale and were held in filthy pens.

Easton also pursued the more dangerous slave-gathering method of going ashore in the longboat and navigating the crocodile-filled African rivers that were lined with independent traders who were black, white, and mulatto. “Boating,” as it was called, exposed the captain and the seamen who accompanied him to being cut off from the ship, killed, and having their trade goods stolen. English muskets were a prime article of trade, and at this point in the commerce of slavery, both the traders from ships and the traders onshore were armed.

Lethal Aspects of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

More than thirty years earlier, in 1726, British cartographer William Smith was commissioned to make a full report of the slaving operations, people, wildlife, and trade on the Sierra Leone coast, and he saw an armed Africa up close. “No sooner had [the chief mate] left me, and got out of Sight, and Call, but I was quickly surrounded by the savage Natives, who were all arm’d, either with Javelins, Bows, or Poison’d Arrows, or European Guns.”

Easton had acquired twelve captives, five of them children, but trade was still slow when Saltonstall noted on the sixth day of April that they were “under Sail bound for Serrelone.”

Sierra Leone, a country on the upper western coast of Africa, had been known as a center friendly to ships and trade since the mid-sixteenth century, when Englishman John Hawkins, a dashing adventurer and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, stopped there to trade for captives—also taking them by force from foreign vessels where they were already held—and to fill his casks with the fresh water that flowed out of the mountainsides.

By the mid-1750s, Europeans had been trading in Sierra Leone steadily for a century, and since the 1670s, there had been a slaving fortress on a small island situated near the mouth of the Sierra Leone River. The island had different names at different times, but was always a slaving enterprise. On old French maps, it sometimes appears as a tiny dot with the words “Fort Anglais,” or English fort. Because I first saw the name as Bence Island, that is what I call it, though it was called Bance Island during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and today is called Bunce Island.

In 1726 cartographer Smith described the beautiful bay that Easton and Saltonstall saw before making their way upriver to Bence Island in 1757. “The next Morning, we found ourselves in a small pleasant Bay, surrounded with exceeding high Hills, all cover’d with tall beautiful Trees, swarming with various Kinds of Birds, which, as soon as Day broke, made the Woods ring. . . . In this Bay is extraordinary good fresh Water, which, gushing out of the Rocks on the Side of the Hill, comes down like a Spout, so that we could fill all our casks.”

By the time Easton and Saltonstall anchored the Africa in Frenchman’s Bay, an inlet in what is now Freetown Harbor near a point of land called Cape Sierra Leone, a clock began to tick. This invisible but very real clock had begun ticking when the ship reached Sierra Leone, and it had a death’s head painted on its face.

In a trade rife with lethal aspects, the slave trade also faced a natural deadline. The rainy season, which began each May and lasted until late October, made that part of the African coast almost unnavigable because of the high waters. A ship that stayed more than six months on the coast of Upper Guinea faced increasing losses. Crewmen and officers fell to malaria and yellow fever, the suffering of the captives already in the hold increased and their health worsened—rendering them a loss to the owners—and supplies of trade goods were exhausted. A crew decimated by disease and desertion was less able to maintain control over the ship’s human cargo, who frequently fought back against their captivity.

Easton and Saltonstall appear to have moored the Africa near a tiny island called Plantain and set out for the fortress at Bence in the longboat they had christened the Pompy. The shifting sandbars of the Sierra Leone River are famously treacherous, and Bence, situated about eighteen miles upriver, is at the limit of navigation for even small ships. It was safer to navigate the archipelago of slaving islands in a small vessel, with a black pilot hired at Cape Sierra Leone. It was also at this point on April 11 that a seaman named Denis Bryan appears to have had enough of the slaving trade. He was probably one of the men rowing the longboat to and from the fortress, because he attempted to desert from the Pompy at 11:00 that morning, but Saltonstall reports that “[we] catcht him & Put him in Irons & Sent him in the Pompy to the Plantins [Plantain Island] where the Africa lay.”

With Easton’s permission, Saltonstall boarded a smaller vessel, a sloop called the Good Hope, which was anchored at Bence. For the next week, Saltonstall wrote in his log that the ship was lying at Bence Island “Taking in Slaves Wood & Water.” He was to sail with the Good Hope’s commander, Alexander Urqhart, to the Caribbean island of St. Croix via St. Christopher’s with a cargo of 169 slaves. Saltonstall may have changed ships because of his health. He mentions having a “fitt” aboard the Africa and dislocating the right side of his jaw. Medical attention would have been readily available on St. Christopher’s, which was a popular port of call for New London mariners, second only to Barbados. Saltonstall also mentions having fits during the last of the three voyages in the logbooks, one so severe that he lost consciousness.

Easton’s destination was also St. Christopher’s, or St. Kitt’s as it is called today, but the commander evidently thought the prices for captives at Bence Island too high, and he headed south and east to Cape Coast Castle, an English trading fort on what was then called the Gold Coast and today is Ghana. Cape Coast Castle—which figures largely in the last slaving voyage in Saltonstall’s narrative—was, in effect, Great Britain’s home office for its slave trade in Africa for nearly a century and a half. A large fortress perched on rocks above the South Atlantic, Cape Coast would have been perfectly familiar to a captain with Easton’s experience, and he would have sailed its waters like a road. Indeed, the navigational pathway in front of this and other trading centers was often called, simply, “the Rhode.”

The information that survives about the rest of the Africa’s voyage is that the ship reached St. Kitts the following December with 100 slaves to disembark. John Easton had been at sea for nearly eleven months. British custom at the time was for a vessel to carry several slaves for each ton of the ship’s capacity, though this practice was not law and was frequently disregarded in favor of “close packing” of slaves. The length of Easton’s time on the African coast and the low per-ton ratio—100 captives in a 110-ton vessel—suggest that this was not a profitable voyage, but one that he drew to a close to preserve the lives already on board. (According to an earlier record, Easton landed his 100 captives in Jamaica.)

Dudley Saltonstall, who would later serve as master of the Africa and later still be held responsible for the greatest maritime disaster of the American Revolution and one of the sorriest episodes in American naval history, took his logbook with him and left the Africa. As the pages in the logbooks show, he was about to sail into a nightmare.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory by Anne Farrow and published by Wesleyan University Press, 2014.