Archive for November, 2012

“Think for instance of the poor fishermen, during the winter season – some of the greatest slaves in existence. Think of the miserable beings employed in our coal-pits, and in our iron, lead and copper mines – toiling underground in unwholesome air, which is constantly liable to fatal explosions! Think of all the men, women, and children, confined by hundreds, in heated factories, their health rapidly wasting, and their earnings scarce sufficient to keep soul and body together! Think of other slavish employments – often under masters quite as arbitrary and unfeeling as the planters!  Think of the thousands who are rotting in jails for petty offences, to which many of them are driven by want and starvation! Think of the thousands that have been imprisoned – ruined for killing a paltry hare or a partridge! Think of the wretched Irish peasantry! Think of the crowded workhouses – and do not forget to think of poor Jack, who after devoting himself to a life of toil and danger in a vocation to which his country owes much of her prosperity, is dragged by the hair of his head to shed the blood of his fellow creatures at the hazard of his own life; or, perhaps, to wear out an embittered existence in foreign stations, far from those who are nearest and dearest to his affections!”

Captain Hugh Crow

Who could have written these lines? Was it a nineteenth century Chartist? William Cobbett? Even Karl Marx or Frederick Engels? In fact, not.  Surprisingly perhaps these are the words of a late eighteenth century English slave ship captain called Hugh Crow.

Hugh was born in the Isle of Man in 1765 and served a ship-building apprenticeship in the then great Cumberland port of Whitehaven, before going to sea. Over a sea-faring and trading career that spanned almost thirty years he tried to evade the British navy’s press-gangs, fought French privateers, was captured and imprisoned by the French and eventually managed to amass enough money to buy an estate on his retirement in 1808. But despite an initial reluctance, Hugh spent most of his career as a mate and later captain of slave trading ships.

We know a lot about Crow’s life and exploits thanks to the fact that he was one of the few English slave ship captains to write and (posthumously) publish his memoirs. These appeared in 1830, one year after his death, under the title Memoirs of the late Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool. They are well worth reading.

On his first voyage to the West Indies in 1782, and before he started slaving, Hugh was to experience the iniquities and brutalities of the British navy’s policy of impressing sailors that I discussed in a previous article. He was aboard a Dutch ship called the Crown, commanded by Captain Newton. The ship first delivered coal to Waterford, in Ireland, but then, he writes:

At Waterford we took in a cargo of provisions for the West Indies, and proceeded to Cork to join convoy. I had now overcome my sea sickness, and soon became a favourite with the crew; the knowledge I had acquired of nautical affairs…. enabling me to make myself nearly as useful as the oldest sailor in the vessel. While at Cork, to our great vexation and inconvenience, all our best seamen were impressed. The scenes of oppression and distress which I witnessed every night, arising out of the cruel system of impressment, which is alike repugnant to liberty and to humanity, it is impossible for me adequately to describe. Some of the sailors, to escape the press-gang, leaped overboard, and swam from ship to ship, or endeavoured to gain the shore: others were in danger of being smothered by stowing themselves away in confined places below decks: and those who fell into the hands of the Philistines were dragged away like felons, sometimes by the hair of the head. Our captain, after much trouble and delay, succeeded in procuring fresh hands, and we sailed under convoy, with a fleet of between forty and fifty sail, bound to the island of Barbadoes.

The Press-gangs at work at sea

He was to experience the same thing over and over again. For instance in Jamaica he tells us that scarcely had they “let go the anchor at Port Royal when no fewer than eight men-of-war boats came alongside, and took from us every man and boy they could find”. On another occasion when returning home to the coast of Lancashire:

We came to anchor at the N. W. buoy early in August, 1790, after a short passage; and there, in the greatest hurry and confusion we took to the boats to avoid those land-sharks, the pressgang. Some of the men having got half drunk we were as nearly drowned as possible, by running aground on a bank on the Formby side, in the night. There were at the time several tenders in the river, with their holds crammed full of poor impressed sailors and landsmen. These press rooms were little better than pigsties…. On this occasion we had the good fortune to escape the pressgang, and I once more found myself safe and sound in Liverpool.

Captain Crow saw impressment for what it actually was; he termed it “white slavery”. One of his main concerns was that “hardly a word was said, or a murmur raised, by our great statesmen, about the pitiable condition of those who crowded these receptacles of misery”.

All the talk, all the commiseration of the day, was about the black slaves: the white slaves were thought unworthy of consideration, although I cannot help thinking that the charity of those who held such “palaver” ought in justice to have begun at home.

Crow’s particular ire was directed at William Wilberforce and the other leading “statesmen” campaigning for the abolition of the African slave trade. Not because he was for any type of slavery (despite being one of those involved in the trade) but because he felt that all the attention of well-meaning people in England was concentrated solely on the plight and suffering of black Africans whilst they completely and wantonly ignored the equally terrible “white slavery” at home.

Not a word was said about the white slaves, the poor sailors; these might die without regret.

The Ceres – One of Captain Crow’s Ships

But there were other types of slavery besides naval impressments. In the passage with which I began, he mentions fishermen, coal and other mines, hellish factories, Irish peasants, starving criminals and workhouses; all manifestations of white slavery and all of which he would have seen both in and around his home ports in Cumberland and Lancashire as well as during his travels in Europe, America and Africa. He also witnessed the operation of the system of white indentured labour in America – a system which saw poor whites literally selling themselves into bondage, into slavery, to plantation owners. Merchants and sea captains would “pay” for the transportation of these poor white souls to America and the West Indies. There they would sell them to the planters for an agreed number of years of servile labour. Hugh Crow witnessed this happening in Charleston, Virginia to a group of poor Irish. They were “half starved poor creatures” who:

Were advertised to be sold to the highest bidder; and many ludicrous jokes were played off by the blacks who attended the sale. While the whites were bidding, one of these sable humourists would cry out “One dollar more for ’em da; I have ’em, negra buy buckra now!” another would say “Three bit more for ’em da; I have ’em, negra buy buckra now!” while the poor Irishmen, whose bodies were thus exposed to vendue, would imploringly repeat ” Och! masters! och! jewels! don’t let them blackamoors buy us at all, at all!”

At first Hugh hadn’t wanted to be involved in the slave trade: “I still dreaded the words ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’; but my friends at length overruled my objections to an African voyage. Indeed, had I not gone to the coast I should, probably, have been a white slave to this day, or perhaps have found a berth in a prison or a workhouse.”

Given the experiences of so many English this might have indeed been true.

The horrors of a slave ship

Yet despite his misgiving Hugh spent most of his working life plying the triangular slave trade route from the northern English ports of Whitehaven and Liverpool to Africa to buy slaves, onward to the Americas, where they were sold, and then back with a cargo of tobacco, sugar and rum to England. He tells us a lot about African local kings who sold him the slaves, the customs of the people and even about flora and fauna. His book is at once a wonderful ethnographic and historical treasure trove, a ripping yarn and, as Walter Benjamin might have said, a document of barbarity.

Crow always maintained that he had treated the slaves well on his “Middle Passage” voyages. He was proud of the fact that there were few deaths on his ships and that he could usually claim the £100 reward for captains when they arrived with only a few dead slaves – a measure which Wilberforce had forced to be introduced. He also denied the fact that slave captains ever threw slaves overboard, saying this would be ridiculous because it was against their pecuniary interests. (There were in fact such instances).

And with respect to the insinuation thrown out, in this country, that African captains sometimes threw their slaves overboard, it is unworthy of notice, for it goes to impute an absolute disregard of self interest, as well as of all humanity. In the African trade, as in all others, there were individuals bad as well as good, and it is but justice to discriminate, and not condemn the whole for the delinquencies of a few.

Many later historians of the African slave trade have treated Crow’s pleas that he was a humane slave trader as self-deluding at best, or plain self-serving, or at worst simply fabrications. That could well be right. He did declare that: “God forbid that I should favour a system through which my fellow creatures should suffer any species of oppression, hardship, or injustice!”, and yet, while discussing the fate of press-ganged sailors and other white slaves, could still ask: “Let the reader contrast these things with the general comfortable condition of the negroes in the West Indies, and he will have no difficulty in pronouncing to which side (the black slave or the white) the balance of happiness preponderates.” He even wrote that if he had to be a slave he would choose the life of the Negros in the Americas rather than that of the white English slaves!

But this brings me to the point of this short piece: What good does it do to compare forms of slavery and oppression?

William Wilberforce

Wilberforce and his supporters didn’t know much about the true realities of the African slave trade “on the ground”, a fact Crow was always happy to point out. But he was right to campaign for the abolition of the slave trade and, through the efforts of many, Britain was the first country to abolish the trade in 1807. For decades afterwards the British even maintained a West Africa Squadron to intercept and impound slave ships still plying the trade – illegally from Britain or legally from the many other European countries who hadn’t yet made it illegal. Unfortunately it took rather longer for slavery itself to be abolished.

The African slave trade was a heinous crime, a fact, I think, that is accepted by all today. So was the slaving of the Vikings, the centuries-long white slaving of the Muslims in North Africa, of the Chinese and Indians and, it has to be said, even of the Africans themselves. Stalin’s Gulags and Hitler’s forced labour camps were also forms of slavery. Slavery has always existed throughout the world (at least since ‘civilizations’ arose) and exists to this day. The forms slavery has taken are of course varied, but to compare them and say one was worse than another, as Crow perversely did and many still do, gets us nowhere. It’s like suggesting one genocide is worse than another. The Nazi Holocaust was a crime against humanity, as was the genocide committed by the Turks on the Armenians, the genocide of Pol Pot in Cambodia or the horrors perpetrated in Rwanda.

When we look around the world today we can still find de facto slavery, even “legal” slavery. These are evils we must fight against. But, I would suggest, so are the other forms of slavery Captain Crow referred to nearly two hundred years ago. I am not one of those historians who maintain that we must always judge people’s actions in “context”, by the standards of the time. On the contrary, I think that, anachronistically or not, there are absolute morals and Captain Crow’s involvement in the slave trade was wrong. Yet I still have a soft spot for this man. Read his memoirs and see what you think?

Having experienced first-hand the horrors of the Terror following the French Revolution – during his time in French captivity – Crow was not a revolutionary. He wrote:

It is clear, that from the various natures, dispositions, talents and energies of men, there must exist in every society a mixture of rich and poor, and that slavish occupations will necessarily fall to the lot of those who are incapable or undeserving of higher employments. This is a dispensation of that wise Providence that rules over all…

And yet he continues:

I will in conclusion venture to affirm, while I deplore the fact, that the genuine friends of humanity who are not hoodwinked by prejudice or ignorance, or blinded by self-interest, will find, that slavery in its essence exists at home as well as abroad.

Sometimes a lot nearer home than we might care to believe!


You can download a pdf of Crow’s memoirs here:

Memoirs of Captain Crow