Emancipation Day 2021- Two Readings from the History of Slavery

By Professor Theodore Lewis

On August 1, 1838, enslaved African people across the Caribbean and the British Empire were freed. Freedom was an end-point, but we must not forget the beginning point. The British had been in the region since 1623, and African arrival is traceable to 1627 in Barbados. On August 20, 1619, 20 Africans from Angola were brought by the Portuguese to Virginia, then a British colony, and sold to colonists as slaves. This was African arrival in America. It is no coincidence that African slavery in the Caribbean and the United States took root at about the same time, and that there was symbiosis between slavery here and there. Black Stalin eloquently summarises this as De Same Ship.

In commemoration of Emancipation this year I would like to present to the public verbatim excerpts from two readings from history, that will aid public education.

The first reading is the work of the scholar Gregory O’ Malley, titled “Beyond the Middle Passage: Slave Migration from the Caribbean to North America, 1619-1807”. It is taken from the journal “The William and Mary Quarterly”, Volume 66, No. 1, published in 2009. This is an excerpt, an actual account of a slave ship arrival in Barbados in 1752.

“April 18, 1752, 160 Africans first glimpsed the New World, sailing into Bridgetown, Barbados, aboard the Liverpool ship Africa, captained by Thomas Hinde. Uncertain of their fate, the captives perhaps took comfort in sighting land after the traumatic Middle Passage, or possibly they simply feared what new hardships might await them. A boat from shore arrived with the first fresh food and water the captives had tasted in weeks. It was surely a welcome change for most, but some suffered too much from intestinal ailments to take comfort in the improved diet. Most likely, all were eager to escape the confines of a ship and to feel solid ground beneath their feet. For many these simple desires had to wait.”

“Shortly after the Africa dropped anchor, several men came aboard, including Captain Richard Watts of the Molly, also anchored in the bay. Watts walked among the Africans, poking, prodding, and fondling them. Those who were visibly ill he simply ignored. When inspecting the stronger and healthier, Watts spoke to Hinde, and crew members cajoled the selected slaves to one side of the deck. It was a stressful moment as friends, family members, or countrymen who had bonded during the voyage found themselves shuffled to
different groups. The meaning of the sorting was unclear, yet the captives feared its implications. All told, Watts selected one hundred slaves: forty-eight men, twenty women, twenty-four boys, and eight girls. His crew shuttled these weary travelers to another vessel where their journey continued. Within a few hours, the Molly raised its anchor and sails and glided out of the harbor. “

“Land often remained in sight during the following days, and treatment was somewhat better on the Molly with the food fresher and conditions less crowded. Some, however, received no comfort in the improvements. One man was seized by a malady that impaired his vision (or had Watts failed to notice the infirmity in his rush to buy slaves?).

Two other men fell  “sick & lame in their thighs.” A fourth man and a young woman suffered from “the Yaws,” a bacterial skin infection common aboard  slavers. Still, unlike the Middle Passage, no one died on this subsequent voyage, and two weeks after leaving Bridgetown the Molly entered  another harbor. The ship had reached Charleston and dropped anchor at Sullivan’s Island, a few miles from the city. South Carolina law required Watts to “Lye ten days under Sullivan’s Island to air his Negroes before he will be admitted to Town.” During this quarantine John Guerard – a Charleston  merchant who co-owned the Molly- traveled to the ship to survey the slaves at least once. He approved them as “a good sort,” though he regretted the presence of “too many small ones.”  (That means children). A doctor also visited to care for the sick slaves.”

“On May 13 the Africans cleared quarantine and disembarked in  Charleston, three weeks after first reaching the Americas in Barbados.  Most sold quickly. Within a week only the five ill slaves remained plus a  boy “left on Board w’th Capt. Watts who has a fancy to him.” Guerard  proposed to his partners giving the boy to Watts “as a Reward for his  care and troubles of the whole parcel.” During the following weeks, two  of the sick African men died. The other two ill men recovered enough  for sale two weeks later, but the sick young woman remained recovering  “under the Doctors hands” for more than a year.5 Her journey to plantation slavery finally ended when Guerard sold her the following June.”

Second Reading

The second reading is the work of the black scholar Vincent Brown, History professor at Harvard. It is titled “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery”, taken from the journal  “The American Historical Review” and published in December 2009.

“Aboard the HUDIBRAS in 1786, in the course of a harrowing journey from Africa to America, a popular woman died in slavery. Although she was “universally esteemed”among her fellow captives as an “oracle of literature,” an “orator,” and a “song-stress,” she is anonymous to historians because the sailor on the slave ship who described her death, the young William Butterworth, did not record her name. Yet he did note that her passing caused a minor political tumult when the crew herded the other enslaved women below decks before they could see the body of their fallen shipmate consigned to the water. This woman was no alienated isolate to be hurled over the side of the ship without ceremony. She had been, according to Butterworth, the “soul of sociality” when the women were on the quarterdeck. There she had knelt “nearly prostrate, with hands stretched forth and placed upon the deck, and her head resting on her hands.” Then, “In order to render more easy the hours of her sisters in exile,” the woman “would sing slow airs, of a pathetic nature, and recite such pieces as moved the passions; exciting joy or grief, pleasure or pain, as fancy or inclination led.” Around her the other women were arranged in concentric circles, with the innermost ring comprising the youngest girls, and the elderly on the perimeter—a fleeting, makeshift community amid the chaos of the slave trade.”

“The first to die on that particular voyage, the woman was laid out on the deck while the sailors awaited flood tide to heave her overboard. The other women commenced a “loud, deep, and impressive” rite of mourning, often speaking softly to the corpse in the belief that the woman’s spirit would hear and acknowledge their wish “to be remembered to their friends in the other country, when they should meet again.” Before the ceremonies could reach a conclusion, the women and girls were ordered below, with the body left on the deck. Convinced that whites were cannibals and that the sailors “might begin to eat their dead favourite,” the Africans began a vehement protest. Fearing a general insurrection, the captain let several of the women out of the hold and had the corpse lowered into the water in their presence,“with the observance of rather more decency in the manner of doing it, than generally appeared in the funeral of a slave.” The protest subsided, the slaver eventually delivered its captives on the American side of the Atlantic Ocean at Grenada, and it is likely that the remaining passengers lived and died as slaves.”

Theodore Lewis is emeritus professor of education, University of Minnesota. He chaired the recent Trinidad and Tobago Cabinet Committee on history.

Please join the conversation on Caribbean Empowerment’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2583126101949661/ Or, you can comment by emailing us at: caribbeanempowerment

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s