Slave ship

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A plan of the British slave ship Brookes, showing how 454 slaves were accommodated on board after the Slave Trade Act 1788. This same ship had reportedly carried as many as 609 slaves and was 267 tons burden, making 2.3 slaves per ton. Published by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade Slaveshipposter.jpg
A plan of the British slave ship Brookes, showing how 454 slaves were accommodated on board after the Slave Trade Act 1788. This same ship had reportedly carried as many as 609 slaves and was 267 tons burden, making 2.3 slaves per ton. Published by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Slave ships were large cargo ships specially built or converted from the 17th to the 19th century for transporting slaves. Such ships were also known as "Guineamen" because the trade involved human trafficking to and from the Guinea coast in West Africa. [2]


Atlantic slave trade

In the early 1600s, more than a century after the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, [3] demand for unpaid labor to work plantations made slave-trading a profitable business. The peak time of slave ships to the Atlantic passage was between the 18th and early-19th centuries, when large plantations developed in the southern colonies of North America.[ citation needed ]

To ensure profitability, the owners of the ships divided their hulls into holds with little headroom, so they could transport as many slaves as possible. Unhygienic conditions, dehydration, dysentery and scurvy led to a high mortality rate, on average 15% [4] and up to a third of captives. Often the ships carried hundreds of slaves, who were chained tightly to plank beds. For example, the slave ship Henrietta Marie carried about 200 slaves on the long Middle Passage. They were confined to cargo holds with each slave chained with little room to move. [5]

The most significant routes of the slave ships led from the north-western and western coasts of Africa to South America and the south-east coast of what is today the United States, and the Caribbean. As many as 20 million Africans were transported by ship. [6] The transportation of slaves from Africa to America was known as the Middle Passage of the triangular trade.

Conditions on slave ships


A painting c.1830 by the German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas depicts a scene below deck of a slave ship headed to Brazil; Rugendas had been an eyewitness to the scene Navio negreiro - Rugendas 1830.jpg
A painting c.1830 by the German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas depicts a scene below deck of a slave ship headed to Brazil; Rugendas had been an eyewitness to the scene

The owners of slave ships held as many slaves as possible by cramming, chaining, and selectively grouping slaves to maximize space and make travel more profitable. Slaves on board were underfed and brutally treated, causing many to die before even arriving at their destination; dead or dying slaves were dumped overboard. These people were not treated as human, living like animals throughout their long voyage to the New World. It took an average of one to two months to complete the journey. The slaves were naked and shackled together with several different types of chains, stored on the floor beneath bunks with little to no room to move due to the cramped conditions. Some captains would assign Slave Guardians to watch over and keep the other slaves in check. They spent a large portion of time pinned to floorboards which would wear skin on their elbows down to the bone. Firsthand accounts from former slaves, such as Olaudah Equiano, describe the horrific conditions that slaves were forced to endure. [7]

The Slave Trade Act 1788, also known as Dolben's Act, regulated conditions on board British slave ships for the first time since the slave trade started. It was introduced to the United Kingdom parliament by Sir William Dolben, an advocate for the abolition of slavery. For the first time, limits were placed on the number of slaves that could be carried. Under the terms of the act, ships could transport 1.67 slaves per ton up to a maximum of 207 tons burthen, after which only one slave per ton could be carried. [8] The well-known slave ship Brookes was limited to carrying 454 people; it had previously transported as many as 609 enslaved. [1] Olaudah Equiano was among the supporters of the act but it was opposed by some abolitionists, such as William Wilberforce, who feared it would establish the idea that the slave trade simply needed reform and regulation, rather than complete abolition. [9] Slave counts can also be estimated by deck area rather than registered tonnage, which results in a lower number of errors and only 6% deviation from reported figures. [10]

This limited reduction in the overcrowding on slave ships may have reduced the on-board death rate, but this is disputed by some historians. [11]

Sailors and crew

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the sailors on slave ships were often poorly paid and subject to brutal discipline and treatment. [12] Furthermore, a crew mortality rate of around 20% was expected during a voyage, with sailors dying as a result of disease, flogging or slave uprisings. [13] [14] While conditions for the crew were far better than those of the slaves, they remained harsh and contributed to a high death rate. Sailors often had to live and sleep without shelter on the open deck for the entirety of the Atlantic voyage as the space below deck was occupied by slaves. [12]

Disease, specifically malaria and yellow fever, was the most common cause of death among sailors. A high crew mortality rate on the return voyage was in the captain's interests as it reduced the number of sailors who had to be paid on reaching the home port. [14] Crew members who survived were frequently cheated out of their wages on their return. [12] These aspects of the slave trade were widely known; the notoriety of slave ships amongst sailors meant those joining slave ship crews did so through coercion or because they could find no other employment. This was often the case for sailors who had spent time in prison. [15]

It is known that black sailors were among the crews of British slave ships. These men came from Africa or the Caribbean, or were British-born. Dozens of individuals have been identified by researchers from surviving records. However knowledge of this is incomplete as many captains did not record the ethnicity of crew members in their ship's muster roll. [16] African men (and occasionally African women) also served as translators. [17]

Abolition of the slave trade

The former slave ship HMS Black Joke (left) fires on the Spanish ship El Almirante before capturing her, January 1829 (painting by Nicholas Matthews Condy) HMS Black Joke (1827).jpg
The former slave ship HMS Black Joke (left) fires on the Spanish ship El Almirante before capturing her, January 1829 (painting by Nicholas Matthews Condy)

The African slave trade was outlawed by the United States and the United Kingdom in 1807. The 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade throughout the British Empire. The US law took effect on 1 January 1808. [18] After that date, all US and British slave ships leaving Africa were seen by the law as pirate vessels subject to capture by the United States Navy or Royal Navy. [19] In 1815, [20] at the Council of Vienna, Spain, Portugal, France, and the Netherlands also agreed to abolish their slave trade. The trade did not end on legal abolition; between 1807 and 1860 British vessels captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 160,000 slaves. [21]

After abolition, slave ships adopted quicker, more maneuverable forms to evade capture by naval warships, one favorite form being the Baltimore Clipper. Some had hulls fitted with copper sheathing, which significantly increased speed by preventing the growth of marine weed on the hull, which would otherwise cause drag. [22] This was very expensive, and at the time was only commonly fitted to Royal Navy vessels. The speed of slave ships made them attractive ships to repurpose for piracy, [23] and also made them attractive for naval use after capture; USS Nightingale and HMS Black Joke were examples of such vessels. HMS Black Joke had a notable career in Royal Navy service and was responsible for capturing a number of slave ships and freeing many hundreds of slaves.

There have been attempts by descendants of African slaves to sue Lloyd's of London for playing a key role in underwriting insurance policies taken out on slave ships bringing slaves from Africa to the Americas. [24]

La Rochelle slave ship Le Saphir ex-voto, 1741 La Rochelle slave ship Le Saphir 1741.jpg
La Rochelle slave ship Le Saphir ex-voto , 1741
Images showing how the slaves were transported on the ships NavioNegreiro.gif
Images showing how the slaves were transported on the ships
Diagram of a four-deck large slave ship. Thomas Clarkson: The cries of Africa to the inhabitants of Europe, 1822? Thomas-Clarkson-De-kreet-der-Afrikanen MG 1315.tif
Diagram of a four-deck large slave ship. Thomas Clarkson: The cries of Africa to the inhabitants of Europe, 1822?
Turner's The Slave Ship Slave-ship.jpg
Turner's The Slave Ship
The slave-ship Veloz, illustrated in 1830. It held over 550 slaves. Walsh-cross-section-of-slave-ship-1830.jpg
The slave-ship Veloz, illustrated in 1830. It held over 550 slaves.

Notable slave ships

See also

Related Research Articles

Atlantic slave trade Slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean from the 16th to the 19th centuries

The Atlantic slave trade, transatlantic slave trade, or Euro-American slave trade involved the transportation by slave traders of various enslaved African people, mainly to the Americas. The slave trade regularly used the triangular trade route and its Middle Passage, and existed from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The vast majority of those who were enslaved and transported in the transatlantic slave trade were people from Central and West Africa, who had been sold by other West Africans, or by half-European "merchant princes" to Western European slave traders ; Europeans gathered and imprisoned the enslaved at forts on the African coast and then brought them to the Americas. Except for the Portuguese, European slave traders generally did not participate in the raids because life expectancy for Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa was less than one year during the period of the slave trade. The South Atlantic and Caribbean economies were particularly dependent on labour for the production of sugarcane and other commodities. This was viewed as crucial by those Western European states that, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, were vying with each other to create overseas empires.

United States v. Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (1841), was a United States Supreme Court case resulting from the rebellion of Africans on board the Spanish schooner La Amistad in 1839. It was an unusual freedom suit that involved international issues and parties, as well as United States law. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison described it in 1969 as the most important court case involving slavery before being eclipsed by that of Dred Scott in 1857.

Middle Passage Transoceanic segment of the Atlantic slave trade

The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade in which millions of West Africans were forcibly transported to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Ships departed Europe for West African markets with manufactured goods, which were traded for humans, as African warlords and kings were willing to capture and sell members of other tribes.

<i>Amistad</i> (film) 1997 historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg

Amistad is a 1997 American historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the events in 1839 aboard the spanish slave ship La Amistad, during which Mende tribesmen abducted for the slave trade managed to gain control of their captors' ship off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by the Washington, a U.S. revenue cutter. The case was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841.

Slave Trade Act 1807 UK parliament act of 1807

The Slave Trade Act 1807, officially An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom prohibiting the slave trade in the British Empire. Although it did not abolish the practice of slavery, it did encourage British action to press other nation states to abolish their own slave trades.

<i>Zong</i> massacre Deliberate drowning of Africans by the crew of the slave ship Zong in 1781

The Zong massacre was a mass killing of more than 130 enslaved Africans by the crew of the British slave ship Zong on and in the days following 29 November 1781. The William Gregson slave-trading syndicate, based in Liverpool, owned the ship and sailed her in the Atlantic slave trade. As was common business practice, they had taken out insurance on the lives of the enslaved people as cargo. According to the crew, when the ship ran low on drinking water following navigational mistakes, the crew threw enslaved people overboard into the sea.

Blockade of Africa

The Blockade of Africa began in 1808 after the United Kingdom outlawed the Atlantic slave trade, making it illegal for British ships to transport slaves. The Royal Navy immediately established a presence off Africa to enforce the ban, called the West Africa Squadron. Although the ban initially applied only to British ships, Britain negotiated treaties with other countries to give the Royal Navy the right to intercept and search their ships for slaves. The 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves abolished the intercontinental slave trade in the United States but the ban was not widely enforced.

The Creole case was a slave revolt aboard the American slave ship Creole in November 1841, when the brig was seized by the enslaved persons onboard the ship, freeing 128 slaves who were aboard the ship when it reached Nassau in the British colony of the Bahamas where slavery was abolished. The brig was transporting enslaved people as part of the coastwise slave trade in the American South. It has been described as the "most successful slave revolt in US history". Two died in the revolt, an enslaved person and a member of the crew.

West Africa Squadron

The British Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron at substantial expense in 1808 after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807, an Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The squadron's task was to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa. With a home base at Portsmouth, England, it began with two small ships, the 32-gun fifth-rate frigate HMS Solebay and the Cruizer-class brig-sloop HMS Derwent. At the height of its operations, the squadron employed a sixth of the Royal Navy fleet and marines. In 1819 the Royal Navy established a West Coast of Africa Station and the West Africa Squadron became known as the Preventative Squadron. It remained an independent command until 1856 and then again 1866 to 1867.

Tecora was a Portuguese slave ship of the early 19th century. The brig was built especially for the slave trade although the transport across the Atlantic of human beings as slaves had already been outlawed by several nations in international treaties in the first decade of the 19th century. She was fast and maneuverable in order to evade British patrols that attempted to stop such illegal slave ships off the coast of Africa.

<i>La Amistad</i> Slave ship

La Amistad was a 19th-century two-masted schooner, owned by a Spaniard colonizing Cuba. It became renowned in July 1839 for a slave revolt by Mende captives, who had been captured by Portuguese slave hunters in Sierra Leone in violation of all extant treaties and brought to Cuba. Two Spanish plantation owners, Don José Ruiz and Don Pedro Montes, bought 53 captives, including four children, in Havana, Cuba and were transporting them on the ship to their plantations near Puerto Príncipe. The revolt began after the schooner's cook jokingly told the slaves that they were to be "killed, salted, and cooked". Sengbe Pieh, a Mende man, also known as Joseph Cinqué, unshackled himself and the others on the third day and started the revolt. They took control of the ship, killing the captain and the cook. In the melee, three Africans were also killed.

James Covey

James Benjamin Covey was a sailor, remembered today chiefly for his role as interpreter during the legal proceedings in the United States federal courts that followed the 1839 revolt aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad. Covey, who spoke Mende and possibly other African languages as well as English, was instrumental for enabling the Mende passengers of the Amistad to communicate with the court and to defend themselves successfully against charges of mutiny and murder.

Trouvadore was a Spanish slave ship that was shipwrecked in 1841 near East Caicos in the course of a run transporting Africans to be illegally sold to the sugarcane plantations in Cuba. As the United Kingdom had a treaty with Spain prohibiting the international slave trade and had abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833, it freed the 192 slaves who survived the wreck. Individuals and families, a total of 168 Africans, were placed with salt proprietors for apprenticeships in the Turks and Caicos Islands; the remaining 24 Africans were settled in Nassau.

<i>Clotilda</i> (slave ship) Last known U.S. slave ship, used in 1860

The schooner Clotilda was the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States, arriving at Mobile Bay, in autumn 1859 or July 9, 1860, with 110–160 slaves. The ship was a two-masted schooner, 86 feet (26 m) long with a beam of 23 ft (7.0 m).

HMS Nimble was a Royal Navy 5-gun schooner-of-war. She was employed in anti-slave trade patrol from 1826 until 1834, when she was wrecked on a reef with the loss of 70 Africans who had been rescued from a slave ship.

Guerrero was a Spanish slave ship that wrecked in 1827 on a reef near the Florida Keys with 561 Africans aboard. Forty-one of the Africans drowned in the wreck. Guerrero had been engaged in a battle with a British anti-slavery patrol ship, HMS Nimble, stationed on the northern approaches to Cuba. Nimble also ran onto the reef, but was refloated and returned to service. The two ships were attended by wreckers, who rescued the Spanish crew and surviving Africans from their ship and helped refloat Nimble. Spanish crew members hijacked two of the wrecking vessels and took almost 400 Africans to Cuba, where they were sold as slaves. Most of the remaining Africans were eventually returned to Africa.

<i>Sunny South</i> (clipper)

Sunny South, an extreme clipper, was the only full-sized sailing ship built by George Steers, and resembled his famous sailing yacht America, with long sharp entrance lines and a slightly concave bow. Initially, she sailed in the California and Brazil trades. Sold in 1859 and renamed Emanuela, she was considered to be the fastest slaver sailing out of Havana. The British Royal Navy captured Emanuela off the coast of Africa in 1860 with over 800 slaves aboard. The Royal Navy purchased her as a prize and converted her into a Royal Navy store ship, Enchantress. She was wrecked in the Mozambique Channel in 1861.

Capture of the <i>Veloz Passagera</i>

The Capture of Veloz Passagera was a single ship action that occurred during the British Royal Navy's anti-slavery blockade of Africa in the early and mid 19th century. The sloop-of-war HMS Primrose, of 18 guns, under Captain William Broughton, captured the 20-gun Cuban slave ship Veloz Passagera, Jozé Antonio de la Vega, master.

Piracy in the Atlantic World

Piracy was a phenomenon that was not limited to the Caribbean region. Golden Age pirates roamed off the coast of North America, Africa and the Caribbean.

Slave Trade Act 1788 United Kingdom legislation

The Slave Trade Act 1788, also known as Dolben's Act, was an Act of Parliament that placed limitations of the number of people that British slave ships could transport, related to tonnage. It was the first British legislation passed to regulate slave shipping.


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Further reading