The Capture of a Slaver by John Taylor Wood

slave shThe Capture of a Slaver is a personal historical non-fictional account by midshipman John Taylor Wood (1830 – 1904) of the time he was charged with transporting and releasing the slaves aboard a captured Spanish slave-ship. He served aboard the USS Purpoise at that time and was only 21 years of age.

Essentially this a like a high speed car chase on the open seas with ships. If you like nautical reads and understand the terminology this might be of interest to you. This is also a troubling, sad and painful portrayal of the slavery trade.

ROM 1830 to 1850 both Great Britain and the United States, by joint convention, kept on the coast of Africa at least eighty guns afloat for the suppression of the slave trade

The story or the event takes place during a time when the author was a midshipman on the United States ten gun brig Porpoise. A bulky vessel laden down with armoury and an eighty man strong crew.

At this time the traffic in slaves was very brisk, the demand in the Brazils, in Cuba, and in other Spanish West Indies was urgent, and the profit of the business so great that two or three successful ventures would enrich any one.

The slavers (this is what the slave ships transporting the slaves were nicknamed) were generally small, very fast, schooner rigged vessels, hence harder to catch.

The slave depots, or barracoons, were generally located some miles up a river. Here the slaver was secure from capture and could embark his live cargo at his leisure.

The dealers would keep a close watch on the coast to evade capture. These slavers always had the necessary papers and documents to show that they were engaged in legitimate and legal commerce. They could only be stopped and held if they were caught in flagrante delicto.

The Porpoise’s consort was the H.M. Bright, an captured slaver adapted to be used in an attempt to catch other slavers. It was at least three miles faster than the Porpoise. Through the use of informants they received news that two vessels were hiding and waiting to depart with their so-called living cargo.

The Porpoise follows the slaver, which sounds easy, but turns out to be more of game of patience when it comes to relying on the weather to actually catch the ship in question. They fire a weather gun upon the Spanish slaver as a warning.

The first lieutenant was ordered to open fire with the eighteen-pounder. Carefully the gun was laid, and as the order “fire” was given, down came our English flag, and the stop of the Stars and Stripes was broken at the gaff.

The Porpoise managed to get the vessel to stop. The captain of the vessel, a Spaniard, was vehement in his denial of any wrong doing.

He spoke fairly good English, and was violently denouncing the outrage done to his flag; his government would demand instant satisfaction for firing upon a legitimate trader on the high seas.

The Spaniard tried to talk his way out of a search and then tried to throw the boarding officer overboard in an attempt to escape. Not quite sure where he thought he was going to run or swim to in the middle of the high seas.

The captain asked him what his cargo consisted of. He replied, “About four hundred blacks bound to the Brazils.”

Not exactly something you can hide very well. A ship full of slaves. The sound, the smell and the

sense of despair must have floated in the air on these ships.

From the time we first got on board we had heard moans, cries, and rumblings coming from below, the hatches had been taken off, when there arose a hot blast as from a charnel house, sickening and overpowering.

Indeed hard words to read. I will always find certain levels of human atrocity hard to fathom. Treating fellow humans like cattle, animal and mere objects of financial gain or gratification.

In the hold were three or four hundred human beings, gasping, struggling for breath, dying; their bodies, limbs, faces, all expressing terrible suffering. In their agonizing fight for life, some had torn or wounded themselves or their neighbors dreadfully; some were stiffened in the most unnatural positions.

The slaves were brought on deck, so the crew of the Porpoise could wash out and fumigate the hold of the slaver to get it ready for its cargo again. Some of them were dead or far too gone to be resuscitated.

we made a count of the captives as they were sent below; 188 men and boys, and 166 women and girls. the captain returned to the brig, giving me final orders to proceed with all possible dispatch to Monrovia, Liberia, land the negroes, then sail for Porto Praya,

The young midshipman was now in charge of the slaver with a cargo of three hundred and fifty people. He suddenly realised this great responsibility that had landed in his hands. He had his crew guard the live cargo.

my chief reliance was in my knowledge of the negro, — of his patient, docile disposition. Born and bred a slave he never thought of any other condition, and he accepted the situation without a murmur. I had never heard of blacks rising or attempting to gain their freedom on board a slaver.

The above is obviously written by a young white male filled with the misinformation of the era he was living in. A young man raised and taught the stereotypical propaganda of slaves and those of a darker skin colour than himself. Hard to read, but this was the reality of those times.

My charges were all of a deep black; from fifteen to twenty-five years of age, and, with a few exceptions, nude, unless copper or brass rings on their ankles or necklaces of cowries can be described as articles of dress. All were slashed, or had the scars of branding on their foreheads and cheeks; these marks were the distinguishing features of different tribes or families.

Taylor goes on to describe the physical attributes of the slaves. How very much like gods they looked with their fine physiques and hands not used to physical labour. I can only shake my head at some of these misconceptions, racist and stereotypical comments.

The women, on the contrary, wore their hair “a la pompadour;” the coarse kinky locks were sometimes a foot or more above their heads, and trained square or round like a boxwood bush. Their features were of the pronounced African type, but, notwithstanding this disfigurement, were not unpleasing in appearance.

Taylor was anxious to learn their story. Fortunately one of the crew found a prisoner who was a native of a tribe living near the coast, and was able to use him as an interpreter.The captives told their stories of travelling for many months from places far away.

most of them were from a long distance in the interior, some having been one and some two moons on the way, travelling partly by land and partly by river until they reached the coast. They had been sold by their kings or by their parents to the Arab trader for firearms or for rum.

This is actually a mistake often when made when slavery is discussed. It was the Arabs who started


the trade of Africans from their native countries. Often sold by fellow and rival tribe members. At the depots the Arab traders then sold them to slave traders for twenty-five to fifty dollars per head. In

Brazil and the West Indies they were worth tow to five hundred dollars each.

For half an hour after the meal they had the liberty of the deck, except the poop, for exercise, to wash and to sun themselves; for sunshine to a negro is meat and drink.

The slaves were brought up in groups each day to eat, drink, wash and exercise. They and the deck would be hosed off every day.This wouldn’t have been the case during a real cargo trip. The slaves would be left in the hold in the dark for the duration of the journey.

I do wonder if the midshipman has written his version of events in a way that makes himself and the crew look like saviours and the friendly party, as opposed to just a new kind of captor.

Two finally died of mere inanition. Their death did not in the least affect their fellows, who appeared perfectly indifferent and callous to all their surroundings, showing not the least sympathy or desire to help or wait on one another.

Again this is his perspective, I find it hard to believe that there wouldn’t have been some kind of reaction, but then their plight would have made them wary and cautious of anyone around them. He then tells of a terrible storm that causes great distress and injury to the people in the hold. Tossed around below deck like rag dolls.

Gradually I allowed a larger number of the blacks to remain on deck, a privilege which they greatly enjoyed. To lie basking in the sun like saurians, half sleeping, half waking.. appeared to satisfy all their wishes. They were perfectly docile and obedient, Physically they were men and women, but otherwise as far removed from the Anglo-Saxon as the oyster from the baboon, or the mole from the horse.

There isn’t much you can say after a clear literary degradation like that. This is what people were taught and the majority believed. Again it is difficult to comprehend the elitist attitude of the Anglo-Saxon. Not being able to understand or rather wanting to acknowledge that we are all made of the same cloth, albeit it in different shapes, sizes and colour.

This part of the African coast had been selected by the United States government as the home of emancipated slaves; for prior to the abolition excitement which culminated in the war, numbers of slaves in the South had been manumitted by their masters with the understanding that they should be deported to Liberia,

Taylor was told he couldn’t disembark the slaves at Monrovia, but might be able to land them at Grand Bassa, about 150 miles eastward. He finds the request peculiar, but goes along with the American governor’s wishes.In Bassa the native king also refuses to let them land.

I told the interpreter to say they would be landed at once and put under the protection of the governor; that if the king or his people hurt them or ran them off  I would report it to our commodore, who would certainly punish him severely.

The slaves had understood enough of the discussions to realise they were not welcome in Bassa. They also knew they were exchanging one type of slavery for another.They refused to leave the vessel.

They could only understand that they were changing masters, and they preferred the present ones. Sending three or four men down, I told them to pass up the negroes one at a time. He gave me a receipt for the number of blacks landed, but said it would be impossible for him to prevent the natives from taking and enslaving them.

Taylor Wood returned to his ship feeling as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

At the same time I wondered whether the fate of these people would have been any worse if the captain of the slaver had succeeded in landing them in the Brazils or the West Indies.

‘Liberated’ slaves sent to Liberia

Taylor Wood rejoined his original crew and the Porpoise soon after. The slaves and their subsequent fate already a distant memory. I suppose it is easy to forget when you perceive live cargo as a sub-human. Trick yourself into thinking that you have done them a greater favour by giving them to another master. Not setting them free, as they deserve, but dumping them in a place that also views them as cargo instead of equal to every other person.

Aside from the obvious difficult subject of slavery, this book also features strong nautical elements. I will warn you that some of the blasé comments by Taylor Wood may be upsetting to readers and will probably anger some of you.

It is one thing knowing history it is quite another to read an accurate historical account, even if it is the subjective account from an involuntary captor’s point of view. Unfortunately this is the way history is pieced together, with written accounts and stories passed on through generations. It would be nice to counter this account with a voice from the hold. The view of the captive instead of the person in a position of power. However as we all know, history is nearly always written by the winners.

Read The Capture of a Slaver, Poems on Slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Captain Blood at Feedbooks  or Slavery, Negro slavery unjustifiable, American slavery and colour, The Anti-slavery record, Lectures on Slavery, Anti-slavery catechism at the Internet Archive. Alternatively you can listen to Up from Slavery, My Escape from Slavery, Memories of Childhood Slavery Days at Librivox.

Read Poems of SlaveryWhat Katy DidThe Ghost Train, How it feels to Die by one who has tried it, Mysticism and Logic by Betrand Russell, The Dragon Tamers, Cats Go Wild Again, Party Girl – Before it all got Hays-ee, The Wendigo, Masterpieces of Mystery – Riddle Stories, Poor Pauline – A Damsel in Distress, The Club of Queer Trades, The Scarecrow of Oz, The Magic Fishbone, Little Women or The Prince of Paradox right here on the blog.

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