Slave Ship Captains and Crews

The captain’s responsibilities were manifold. As an employee of a merchant or company in Europe or the Americas, he hired and managed the crew; outfitted the ship; sold its cargo for humans on the coast of Africa; enforced harsh discipline on crew members and Africans alike on the Middle Passage; worked to prevent a mutiny, insurrection, and sickness; aided other captains when in need; and sold the slaves in America for the best possible price. The “crux of the whole enterprise,” however, was discipline, according to the historian Marcus Rediker. Maintaining order was critical in keeping an often-desperate crew in line, and the routine violence employed by the captain and his officers trickled down the ranks, as the author of Liverpool and Slavery pointed out: “The captain bullies the men, the men torture the slaves, the slaves‘ hearts are breaking with despair.”

An Arab slave ship in the Red Sea, with a British cruiser in sight.

Rebellion or mutiny could spread like a virus, and many captains attempted to snuff out resistance by terrorizing the accused (either crew members or Africans) in full view of their fellows. This most often involved either cat-o’-nine-tails (a whip of nine knotted cords attached to a handle) and full horsewhips or, for Africans exclusively, thumbscrews. Still, too much violence, employed routinely, might spark mutiny, insurrection, or suicide, making it the captain’s job to somehow strike the right balance. Merchants often put in writing that their captains should refrain from mistreating the African cargo, but few held their employees to account. Fewer still were captains who, like John Newton, experienced a humane—in his case religious—awakening and attempted to treat their slaves well. More common was the sort of captain described by James Field Stanfield: as his ship approached Africa, Stanfield wrote, “the Demon cruelty seems to fix his residence within him.”

Crew members were often the direct recipients of the cruelty. Frequently forced into shipboard service because of debts or run-ins with the law, sailors performed the backbreaking and often violent work of the slave ship, which included building the “house” and barricado, cooking and dispensing food, scrubbing the decks and the often feces-covered hold where the slaves were kept, and policing the captive Africans. They also were the victims of their officers’ whips and suffered from the same diseases that ravaged the Africans, so the mortality rate among sailors, according to one survey taken between 1784 and 1790, reached higher than 21 percent. In fact, according to Rediker, “Half of all Europeans who journeyed to West Africa in the eighteenth century, most of the seamen, died within a year.”‘

Slave ship with deck for extra cargo

Crews still managed to inflict more than their share of suffering on Africans. Typical violence might include the punishment of slaves for some infraction, real or perceived, while an extreme example occurred aboard the slave ship Zong in 1781. Over several days, the crew—at the urging of the captain—bound and threw overboard 122 living Africans. Ten more committed suicide and sixty succumbed to disease, reducing the ship’s human cargo from 470 to 278. This was done apparently because the captain feared an outbreak of disease and his ship’s owners were liable for all disease-related deaths; the ship’s insurance company, however, would cover unnatural deaths—presumably from punishment, insurrection, or, in this instance, being thrown alive into the sea.

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