Mutiny Aboard the Slave Ships in the 18th century: Implications for the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Original Research Paper written by rootsnwingz 3 years ago on the historical significance of mutiny during the slave trade.  Many thanks to my professor, classmates and the librarians who helped me with my research. 

Mutiny Aboard the Slave Ships in the 18th century: 
Implications for the Transatlantic Slave Trade

mutinyMural painted by Hale Woodruff.

“The trade of slaves is in a more peculiar manner the business of kings, rich men, and prime merchants, exclusive of the inferior sort of Blacks.”
– John Barbot, European Slave Trader (1682)

The present research paper primarily deals with the phenomenon of resistance onboard ships by Africans against their enslavement during what is commonly referred to as the “Middle Passage”, i.e. the voyage across the Atlantic from the West Coast of Africa to the Americas. Insurrections of this kind flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries and had an undeniable impact on numerous aspects of the slave trade, including the slave traders themselves, who were forced to adapt to these new conditions of the transatlantic slave trade.

Therefore, I will make use of primary accounts of mutiny aboard the slave ships from the 18th century with the hopes of gaining a better understanding of its impact on the slave trade. In short, I intend to argue that the slave traders generally considered mutiny as merely a financial setback and thus the adoption of measures to prevent or restrain insurrections became a priority for the management and organization of slave ships. The ultimate point this paper hopes to make is that mutiny had a real effect on the slave trade, in the sense that it made the business of trading slaves more costly and risky for the European traders, which consequently reduced shipments to the New World.

Before immersing into the primary source analysis, I shall provide a brief historical background. The first questions that arose in my mind during research were: a) how common were revolts aboard the ships and b) how effective or successful were they? Currently, there is evidence of 388 cases of violent insurrections in the 17th and 18th centuries by Africans against their ships and crew, including 22-30 cases in which the mutiny was premeditated. (Diouf, 201) Regardless of the revolts’ occasional successful results, it is hard to ignore the mortality rates due to mutiny. According to David Richardson: “Perhaps no more than one percent of slaves entering the Atlantic slave trade in between 1500 and 1867 – or one hundred thousand Africans – died in revolts at the African coast or in the Atlantic crossing. This was one-fifteenth of all those who died in the middle passage between Africa and the Americas.” (Diouf, 202) Furthermore, the existing data seems to suggest that circa ten per cent of ships during this time period experienced a revolt. (Diouf, 201)

Thus, it is evident that slave traders had to accept mutiny as a very real and serious threat to their business and responded accordingly. In other words, they invested in measures to inhibit resistance, which means that the voyages’ expenditures rose due to the higher likelihood of slaves escaping or dying in the process. As insurrections became more commonplace and preventive measures more necessary, European slave traders faced steeper costs and thus slave-trading activities were inevitably limited. According to recent findings, resistance was responsible for nearly 2% of an expedition’s cost on average. (Behrendt, Eltis & Richardson 2001, 468)

Moreover, this limitation in the slave trade can be expressed in human terms as well. The following excerpt from Behrendt’s, Eltis’s and Richardson’s insightful study clearly reveals that resistance ultimately saved many Africans from the enslavement and the “Middle Passage”.

“Between 1680 and 1800, nearly 6.6 million slaves left Africa for the New World. The model predicts that without shipboard or coastal resistance the number of people moving across the Atlantic from Africa would have been nearly 9 per cent greater. Put another way, in the long eighteenth century alone, resistance resulted in nearly 600,000 fewer slaves crossing the Atlantic and forced European consumers to pay higher prices for plantation produce. In effect, African who died resisting the slave traders as well as those who resisted unsuccessfully, but survived to work on the plantations of the Americas, saved others from forced migration to the Americas.” (Behrendt, Eltis & Richardson 2001, 473)

Whether or not mutiny resulted directly in freedom for those involved, it indubitably reduced the numbers of Africans sold into slavery. In this sense, the destructive impact of the slave trade on Africans was somewhat diminished thanks to onboard resistance.

Besides their statistical findings, Behrendt, Eltis and Richardson neatly presented the patterns of resistance through time in the following graphs, which can be of great visual assistance in conceptualizing the nature of resistance and its impact on the slave trade in general. These graphs effectively demonstrate how resistance deterred slave trading in some geographical areas particularly. They also show how the influence was not one sided; augmented slave trading in certain areas in turn led to more resistance.

graph1                                                      (Behrendt, Eltis &Richardson 2001, 457)

graph2                                                      (Behrendt, Eltis &Richardson 2001, 467)

As mentioned in my introductory paragraph, this paper intends to come to terms with primary accounts of mutiny onboard slave ships in order to reveal the various limiting effects it had on the slave trade, some of which already discussed above. The first primary source I shall draw from is James Barbot Jr.’s description of a shipboard revolt in 1700.

James Barbot, Jr., was a sailor aboard “Don Carlos”, a British slave ship. His detailed and honest account exposes the means by which the crew would try to suppress the uprising. He begins by explaining how the slaves, being fully aware of the crew’s general sickness and weakness, had carefully planned and prepared for the revolt. “Others had pieces of iron they had torn off our forecastle door, as having premeditated a revolt, and seeing all the ship’s company, at best but weak and many quite sick, they had also broken off the shackles from several of their companions feet…Thus arm’d, they fell in crouds and parcels on our men, upon the deck unawares, and stabb’d one of the stoutest of us all, who received 14 or 15 wounds of their knives, and so expir’d…others cut our cook’s throat to the pipe” (Mintz 2009, 59)

The description of how the crew retaliated is a lot briefer and less graphic. “We stood in arms, firing on the revolted slaves, of whom we kill’d some, and wounded many… Thus, we lost twenty seven or twenty eight slaves, either kill’d by us, or drown’d. “ (Mintz 2009, 59)

Next, Barbot discusses the various punitive and restrictive measures adopted. Not only were the ringleaders whipped, but also living conditions were considerably aggravated for the slaves.   “We built a sort of half-deck along the sides with deals and spars provided for that purpose in Europe, that half-deck extending no further than the sides of our scuttles and so the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, and as close together as they can be crouded.” (Mintz 2009, 60) This is an especially good example of how slave ships were specifically designed and suited for carrying a human cargo that was prone to rebel.

He then describes how the crew constantly watched over the slaves and was always prepared to suppress the mutiny. However, he concludes by warning that the measures must not be too oppressive for that could have the opposite effect of provoking a mutiny. “Some commanders of a morose peevish temper are perpetually beating and curbing them, even without the least offence, and will not suffer any upon deck but when unavoidable to ease themselves does require; under pretence it hinders the work of the ship and sailors and that they are troublesome by their nasty nauseous stench, or the noise; which makes these poor wretches desperate, and besides their falling into distempers thro’ melancholy, often is the occasion of their destroying themselves.” (Mintz 2009, 61)

What is most shocking is his closing remark that officers of the slave trade (i.e. captains) need to consider the slaves as equals and “that they ought to do to others as they would be done by in like circumstances.” (Mintz 2009, 61) In my view, this remark seems ironic at best, considering that it came from someone complicit in the enslavement of his fellow human beings. The significance of Barbot’s account should, nevertheless, not be dismissed for it testifies to the fact that slave traders at the turn of the 18th century recognized mutiny as a real and consequential obstacle to the profitability of their business.

Although most primary accounts concerning onboard revolts are drawn from European ship logs and crewmembers’ descriptions, a notable portion comes from the press of the time, i.e. newspaper articles and so on. For instance, in 1729 the Boston News Letter read: “We have an account from Guinea, by Way of Antigua, that the Clare Galley, Capt. Murrell, having compleated her Number of Negroes had taken her Departure From the Coast of Guinea for South Carolina; but was not got 10 Leagues on her Way, before the Negroes rose and making themselves Masters of the Gunpowder and Fire Arms, the Captain and Ships Crew took to their Long Boat, and got shore near Cape Coast Castle. The Negroes run the Ship on Shore within a few Leagues of the said Castle, and made their Escape.” (Wax 1966, 6-7)

Other publications such as Lloyd’s List did not focus as much on the detail of the mutiny as they did on the cost of the mutiny in financial terms. For one must not forget that the slave trade was first and foremost a profit maximizing business. The Europeans most interested in this type of news story were obviously those who had money invested in the slave trade. Thus, these stories were specifically written for this specific audience, which was solely concerned with what the mutiny meant to their “pockets”. Before the birth of the abolition movement, the majority read those news pieces without a feeling of repulsion at the horrific violence, but rather with fear of losing money.

The financial aspect of the slave trade became even more prominent the more I read on the subject. This is of definite importance to my project because traders regarded mutiny as a financial issue in itself, i.e. at the end of the day, they tended to perceive and handle it as a mere cost. This particular attitude shared by traders to think in purely financial terms about mutiny is exemplified in the two manuscripts I examined as part of my research. Both of these original handwritten documents reveal the slave trade’s nature as a business and expose the slave trader for putting a price on human life and thus essentially dehumanizing the slaves.

The first of these accounts is the “Ascention’s” ship log. The “Ascention” was a British vessel travelling in 1793 from Madagascar and Zanzibar on the South Coast of Africa to the West Indies and Newport. This ship log comprises quite simply of a bunch of financial calculations. First, the ship’s value according to the “Policy of Insurance” is noted as 1,600 British pounds. Then, the cargo’s value is estimated at 4,294.15 pounds, whereas the value of the captain’s and crewmembers’ property is shown to be 226.4 pounds. Therefore, the ship’s total value amounts to 6,120.19 pounds. The most shocking, dehumanizing and repulsive element in this document is the final calculation, which reads: “52 slaves lost by insurrection valued by the Policy of Insurance at 2,040 pounds.” The loss of slaves due to the insurrection is estimated at 33.6% of the value of the ship, i.e. it is expressed in purely financial terms. Evidently, this document was intended for collecting insurance as part of a total loss claim. Personally, seeing a document like that, first hand, woke up feelings of anger inside me. Such primary accounts blatantly and clearly prove that all the tragic deaths –let alone the forced migration and enslavement – due to the slave trade were all because of money and greed. They show that all slave traders cared about was getting as much insurance money as possible in order to cover the financial cost of the mutiny. They are, therefore, naturally infuriating and serve as useful reminders that bureaucracy has the potential to conceal even the greatest crimes against humanity.

The final document I came across in my research at the Rare Book, Manuscript, And Special Collections Library at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, was a primary handwritten account of a series of incidents of mutiny aboard the “Mermaid”, including the ship’s log book. This slave ship travelled from Bristol to Gambia and from Gambia to St. Georges, where the surviving slaves were sold. What distinguishes this case is that the insurrections took place over a period of nearly a month, from the end of August to the end of September 1792. In addition, this case is different because the ship was not declared a total loss and some of the slaves who participated in the mutiny were eventually sold. The mutiny began on August 28th and as captain James Mulling notes, firearms had to be used to contain the insurrection. The detailed log book lists how many slaves died on each day of conflict:

August 28th: 4 slaves dead
August 29th: 4 slaves dead
August 30th: 2 dead
August 31st: 2 dead
September 1st: 1 dead
September 2nd: 1 dead
September 9th: 2 dead
September 19th: 1 dead
September 22nd: 1 dead
September 24th: 1 dead

Total number of slaves perished: 19

In the remainder of the document, this loss of life was once again translated into monetary terms, in a similar fashion to the “Ascention’s” log book. However, the financial logistics of this expedition and mutiny were far lengthier and thoroughly calculated. This time I got even dizzier as I looked at all those numbers, while trying to understand what kind of system allowed for the death of the revolting African captives to be exclusively recorded as an unexpected rise in costs.

In the blame game of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, every party involved has been blamed: the European traders, the investors, the Africans themselves and so on and so forth. But how often is the blame placed on the system, i.e. on money and the blind commitment to profit maximization? How often do we rightfully recognize money as the cause of greed? Hardly ever. When one examines primary sources on mutiny aboard the slave ships, particularly those written by the European slave traders, it becomes apparent that because of money and the greed it instigates, a whole people was enslaved and sent away from home, while those responsible for the enslavement justified their actions by convincing themselves and western societies that Africans were an inferior, barely human, race.

To sum up, the loss of life during mutiny was generally perceived as a mere financial loss. This nonetheless reflects the fact that resistance extracted a toll from the traders, who now had to spend more in order to prevent and deal with insurrections. In turn, the actuality of higher costs faced by slave traders limited their activity and therefore less Africans were captured to be sold into slavery. The figures provided by Behrendt et al. and referred to above testify as to this.

What my primary source based research essentially revealed is the exclusively financial dimension of the slave trade. There is no doubt in my mind that no matter how charitable, liberal or humane the slave ships’ captains considered themselves, they were pawns in the monetary game, selfishly concerned only with profit. When a reasonable, moral individual, who respects life, looks back today at the slave trade, he or she will most likely identify the loss of human life as the gravest aspect of the slave trade. He or she will arrive to that conclusion because human life is priceless and the value of the millions that died during the Middle Passage cannot sensibly be compared to any financial loss or, put otherwise, should never be contrasted to the amount of money (profit) made as a result of the slave trade. For these reasons, history once again exposes humanity for being capable of the most self-destructive, insane and racist behavior because of its blind commitment to the greedy quest for more money and power, as is exemplified in the slave trade.

In conclusion, anyone who argues that one cannot fully blame Europeans or the Western monetary system for the emergence of the slave trade because it had the positive effect of making some Africans rich and establishing economies is, simply put, wrong. Such arguments fail to recognize the priceless human toll of this type of trade as well as the horrific sociopolitical consequences to Africa and the new American plantation societies. In short, analyzing the slave trade from a purely financial lens is insufficient and can lead to invalid conclusions about the effects of the trade because it neglects the critical human nature of the cargo.

Nevertheless, some financial analysis can be useful. For instance, it is essential to recognize that insurrections aboard the slave ships delivered a financial blow to the traders. Since money and profits were all the traders cared about, hurting them financially proved to be a notably effective weapon, which ultimately saved numerous Africans from captivity. Resistance to the slave trade by the Africans rendered the whole business more risky, costly and thus less profitable. In this light, mutiny indeed had a positive and powerful impact. Not only did it prove that the traders were not invincible and that escape was possible, but also thanks to these heroic insurrections, the captivity of hundreds of thousands more Africans was significantly evaded.

Works cited:

  • Shipboard Revolts, African Authority, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. David Richardson. Drawn from: Fighting the Slave Trade, by Sylviane A. Diouf. Ohio University Press. 2003
  • The Costs of Coercion: African Agency in the Pre-Modern World. Stephen D. Behrendt, David Eltis, David Richardson. Drawn from: The Economic History Review, Vol. 54, No. 3, 2001
  • African American Voices: A Documentary Reader 1619-1877. Edited by Steven Mintz. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009
  • Negro Resistance to the Early American Slave Trade. Darold D. Wax. The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 51, No.1, 1966
  • Ascention (Ship) Account, 1793 (Manuscript)
  • Mermaid (Ship) Account, 1792 (Manuscript)

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