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.


| November 2014



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

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.