Archive for November, 2013

The capture and hanging of an Irish outlaw

One morning in late March 1809 in the Irish town of Clonmel in County Tipperary, the outlaw William Brennan was standing on a cart that was taking him to the gallows. He “gazed cheerfully round him… recognizing in the crowd several of his friends, perhaps followers, he nodded and smiled to them gaily.” When the cart was pulled away, and he and two others fell, there were “yells, more loud and terrible than men ever utter.” Brennan was loved by the Irish and songs are still sung about him to this day.

Not Brennan but another Irish ‘Rapparee’ called Randal

William Brennan was a famous Irish outlaw and highwayman at the turn of the nineteenth century. Outlaws, often called ‘tories’ or ‘rapparees’, were generally loved and supported by the Irish poor. The British tried in vain for years to capture Brennan. They did eventually succeed and he was hanged. It is thanks to the numerous versions of the Irish folk song or ballad, Brennan on the Moor, that his exploits and memory have been preserved – not only in Ireland and Britain, but to a surprising degree in North America as well. Yet like other outlaws, such as Dick Turpin, Jesse James and Ned Kelly, to name but three, his real life and death have become obscured in half-truths and legend.

Being a lover of folksong, I had a passing familiarity with Brennan’s ballad, but then quite by chance, and while researching the seemingly unrelated topic of the Peninsular War, I stumbled across what is probably the only eyewitness report of his capture and death. The discovery was the memoirs of Private George Farmer, entitled The Light Dragoon, which originally appeared in a serialized form in 1844. George Farmer is I would suggest a reliable witness He actually participated in Brennan’s capture and was present at his death. His story clears away a lot of historical fog, but I also think it is also a tale worth telling for its own sake.

Ray Cashman, in his book The Heroic Outlaw in Irish Folklore and Popular Literature, provides us with a little background on Irish outlaws:

As a symbolic figure in Irish folklore and popular literature, the outlaw embodies folk morality in conflict with the self-interest and inequity of the state. In the aftermath of British colonization, the Irish outlaw is represented as more than a criminal. He provides a hero through whom ordinary Irishmen and women can vicariously enjoy brief victories, and imagine their collective dignity in the midst of political defeat and its consequences. Legends, ballads and chapbooks portraying the outlaw are the products of hard-pressed people representing themselves to themselves, reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses, and contemplating issues of morality and justice.

The ballad Brennan on the Moor is one of the most famous of these outlaw ballads. It exists and is sung in many versions. While it only started to be printed in the mid-nineteenth century, the ballad had clearly been developing orally before. As far back as 1824, Thomas Crofton Croker commented:

It is not unusual to hear the adventures and escapes of highwaymen and outlaws recited by the lower orders with great minuteness, and dwelt on with a surprising fondness.

Here is one of the commoner renditions of Brennan on the Moor, printed as a ‘broadsheet’ in the 1840s:

                  BOLD BRENNAN ON THE MOOR

It’s of a fearless highwayman a story I will tell,
His name was Willie Brennan in Ireland he did dwell.
And on the Livart mountains he commenced his wild career,
Where many a wealthy gentleman before him shook with fear.

Chorus: Bold and undaunted stood brave Brennan on the moor.

A brace of loaded pistols, he carried night and day,
He never robb’d a poor man upon the King’s highway;
But when he’d taken from the rich like Turpin and Black Bess,
But he always did divide it with the widow in distress.

One night he robb’d a packman, his name was Pedlar Brown,
They travell’d on together till the day began to dawn;
The pedlar seeing his money gone, likewise his watch and chain,
He at once encountered Brennan and robb’d him back again.

When Brennan seeing the pedlar was as good a man as he,
He took him on the highway his companion for to be,
The pedlar threw away his pack without any more delay,
And proved a faithful comrade until his dying day.

One day upon the highway, as Willie he sat down,
He met the Mayor of Cashel, a mile outside the town;
The mayor he knew his features, I think, young man, said he,
Your name is Willie Brennan, you must come along with me.

As Brennan’s wife had gone to town, provisions for to buy,
When she saw her Willie, she began to weep and cry.
He says, ‘Give me that tenpence?’ as soon as Willie spoke,
She handed him the blunderbuss from underneath her cloak.

Then with his loaded blunderbuss, the truth I will unfold,
He made the mayor to tremble and robb’d him of his gold.
One hundred pounds was offered for his apprehension there,
And with his horse and saddle to the mountain did repair.

Then Brennan being an outlaw, upon the mountains high,
Where cavalry and infantry to take him they did try;
He laughed at them with scorn, until at length, ‘tis said,
By a false-hearted young man he was basely betrayed.

In the county of Tipperary in a place called Clonmore,
Willie Brennan and his comrade they did suffer sore;
He lay among the fern which was thick upon the field,
And nine wounds he did receive, before that he did yield.

Then Brennan and his companion knowing they were betray’d,
He with the mounted cavalry a noble battle made;
He lost his foremost finger, which was shot off by a ball,
So Brennan and his comrade they were taken after all.

So they were taken prisoners, in irons they were bound,
And conveyed to Clonmel jail, strong walls did them surround;
They were tried and found guilty, the judge made his reply,
‘For robbing on the King’s highway, you are both condemned to die.’

Farewell! Unto my wife, and to my children three,
Likewise my aged father, he may shed tears for me;
And to my loving mother, who tore her locks and cried.
Saying, ‘I wish Willie Brennan, in your cradle you had died.’

By around the same time, i.e. the mid-nineteenth century, the ballad had already spread to North America. John McElroy recounts how he heard it sung in 1864 in a notorious Confederate prison camp called Andersonville. While in Canada the “old buffalo hunter” E. B. Osborn related how it was sung on the prairies by Scottish buffalo hunters.

Yet despite the wide-spread fame of the ballad or song, we know surprisingly little about the life, capture and death of Brennan – at least not with any degree of certainty. We will skip over Brennan’s early life; we don’t even know for sure where he was born. It has been reasonably suggested that he was born near “Killworth, some two miles north of Fermoy, in County Cork”, and that he took to his life of banditry after his family were evicted from their home. While telling us nothing about his birth, George Farmer’s memoirs can help us clear away a number of the uncertainties surrounding Brennan’s life, particularly his capture, trial and death.

A private in the 11th Light Dragoons like George Farmer – Brennan was in the 12th!

As a young man of 17, George had enlisted in London as a private in the 11th Light Dragoons – a regiment that was then serving in Ireland; trying to suppress Irish sedition as well as chasing outlaws such as Brennan. In preparation for joining the regiment, he was sent to a barracks in Maidstone in Kent. It was here that his real education began. He recalls:

For the first time in my life … I acquired some knowledge of the darker shades in human nature.

In his over twenty years as a Dragoon, which took him through Portugal, Spain, France, Germany and the Low Countries all the way to India, and saw him fight in many important engagements, including the Battle of Waterloo, George would get even more experience of the “darker shades in human nature.” But first he had to get used to army life:

My extreme youth… exposed me to many and great temptations. The same circumstances laid me open to chicanery and deceit on the part of those around me; and I lament to say that I became victim as well of my own folly as of the knavery of others.

He was robbed, preyed upon and bullied; an experience all too familiar to army recruits over the centuries. His particular ire is reserved for a certain Corporal Gorman, who was “of the sort of land-sharks out of which the staff of the recruiting department used long ago to be formed.” During the men’s long trek from Maidstone to Holyhead, where they were to take ship for Dublin, Corporal Gorman fleeced them of their sign-on pay and half their daily ‘walking-money’. Eventually, after being ordered to repay the money, he did so, but only in part, and took off as soon as they reached Dublin.

George and the other recruits arrived at their regiment’s headquarters in Clonmel at “a moment when both town and country rang with the exploits of two celebrated robbers, called, respectively, Brennan and Hogan. Brennan, as all the world knows, was originally a soldier… unless my memory be at fault… in the 12th Light Dragoons, from which regiment he deserted in consequence of some quarrel with one of the officers …”

Now it has often been suggested that Brennan had been a soldier, though never ‘proved’ beyond a reasonable doubt. Only in one Scottish version of the ballad is it said, “the first of my misfortunes was to list (sic) and desert.” Farmer’s statement can’t completely prove the assertion, but he does specifically say that Brennan’s army service was “known to all the world”, and it seems that this service was in the 12th Light Dragoons while George Farmer himself was in its sister regiment – the 11th! So maybe we should accept his word.

Most variants of the ballad recount how Brennan had a partner; he’s usually referred to as the Pedlar or the Pedlar Brown. Supposedly they tried to rob each other, but seeing themselves to be kindred spirits, they joined forces. But if we are to believe Farmer the peddler’s real name was Hogan and, not just that, he is later mentioned by his full name: Paddy Hogan. Once again I think we can have some confidence here. Farmer’s testimony isn’t just hearsay; he took part in the capture of both Brennan and Hogan and witnessed them hang together.

So Brennan became an outlaw and highwayman. Farmer even tells, in a very similar vein to the ballads, how Brennan and Hogan had fought and then become ‘partners in crime’. It such a good tale it’s worth quoting at length:

Of Hogan I am unable to say more than that common report spoke of him as a peddler, whose brave resistance to Brennan’s attack originally won for him the friendship of the outlaw. It is said that the bandit fell in with his future associate one day when the pressure of want was peculiarly severe upon him. He had alighted, for some purpose or another, when the peddler came up; and, not anticipating any resistance, he carelessly desired the latter to render up his pack. But the peddler, instead of obeying the command, closed instantly with his assailant. A fierce struggle took place between them, neither having time to appeal to the deadly weapons with which both, it appeared, were armed.

“Who the devil are you?” said Brennan at last, after he had rolled with his antagonist in the dust till both were weary. “Sure, then, I didn’t think there was a man in all Tipperary as could have fought so long with Bill Brennan.”

“Och, then, blood and ouns!” exclaimed the other, “if you be Brennan, arrah! then, aren’t I Paddy Hogan? and if you cry stand to all the world in Tipperary, sure don’t I do that same to the folks in Cork?”

This was quite enough for Brennan. He entertained too high a respect for his own profession to exercise it in hostility towards a brother of the order; so he struck up, on the instant, an alliance with the peddler, and the two thenceforth played one into the hands of the other.

Others have suggested that the “pedlar” name had been imported into the ballad, as it evolved, from the earlier Robin Hood and the Bold Pedlar, which might also have partly inspired it. But maybe not from what we read above?

Farmer continues his tale. In the tradition of all good outlaws:

He was never known to rob, or in any way to molest, a peasant, an artisan, or a small farmer. He made war, and professed to make war only upon the rich, out of the plunder taken from whom he would often assist the poor; and the poor in return not only refused to betray him, but took care that he should be warned in time, whenever any imminent danger seemed to threaten. The consequence was, that for full five years–a long space of time for a highwayman to be at large, even in Ireland–he continued to levy contributions upon all who came in his way, and had always about him the means of satisfying his own wishes.

There were lots of narrow escapes, feats of daring and, sometimes, semi-comical exploits. But the British wanted Brennan badly:

Large rewards were offered to any persons who should betray him: and day and night the magistracy of the counties were abroad, with dragoons at their heels, striving to intercept him.

It was perhaps inevitable that one day Brennan’s luck would run out.  “A gentleman riding along the high-road” saw two men creeping though a gap in a hedge; he guessed that it might be Brennan and his accomplice, the ‘peddler’, and reported his suspicions to Lord Caher, who immediately dispatched a mounted troop of the 11th Light Dragoons and some local militia to investigate. George Farmer was “one of the mounted detachment” that went to find him. Our broadsheet version of the ballad mentioned that it was a “young man” who betrayed Brennan, but many later versions, perhaps typically, say it was a woman. George’s eyewitness account certainly clears this up.

Arriving on the scene, the Dragoons see that near the hedge a new house is being constructed. The troops cordon off the area and start to close their noose. But when they arrived at the house and searched it, “they found it empty.” Farmer continues:

One of our men suddenly exclaimed, “You haven’t examined the chimney; you may depend upon it you’ll find him there.” It was no sooner said than done; for the speaker sprang from his horse, ran inside, poked his head up the kitchen chimney, and in an instant withdrew it again. It was well for him that he did so, for almost simultaneously with his backward leap, came the report of a pistol, the ball from which struck the hearth without wounding anybody. It is impossible for me to describe the scene that followed. Nobody cared to get below the robber; nobody fancied that it would be possible to get above him; and threats and smooth speeches were soon shown to be alike unavailing to draw him from his hiding-place. But the marvel of the adventure did not stop there. While a crowd of us were gathered about the house, some shouting on Brennan to surrender, others firing at the top of the chimney, a sort of salute which the robber did not hesitate to answer,–one of the Sligo men suddenly called out from the rear, that he had pricked a man with his bayonet among the gorse. In an instant search was made, and sure enough there lay Brennan himself, on his back in a narrow ditch, with a brace of pistols close beside his feet, of which, however, he did not judge it expedient to make use. He was instantly seized, disarmed, and put in charge of a sufficient guard; while the remainder of addressed ourselves to the capture of his companion, concerning whom we could not for an instant doubt that he was Hogan.

Caher Castle where Brennan and Hogan were held before they were taken to Clonmel for trial.

So this is the real story of how the famous Irish outlaw William Brennan and his accomplice Paddy Hogan ‘the peddler’ were captured. Brennan, it seems, surrendered “serenely”, but Farmer tells us that Hogan resembled a “wild beast”, refusing to surrender from his chimney refuge until his ammunition ran out. Even after he was obliged to surrender, he answered Lord Caher’s question as to why he had put his own life and that of others in danger, when the odds were so hopeless, with “silence”.

The prisoners were led under heavy guard to spend the night at Caher Castle. The next day they were conveyed to Clonmel for trial.

No Irishman wanted to testify against them, yet their trial with swift. Farmer tells us that as “the robber was so far in the right … nobody could be persuaded to swear to his identity.” So with only the testimony of one Quaker who, while he couldn’t be sure, “believed” that it was Brennan who had robbed his carriage, Brennan was convicted and sentenced to death. Hogan was “on some such evidence … in like manner convicted.”

Bearded men wept in the court-house like children. There were groans, deep and bitter, rising from every quarter; and more than one, especially among the women, fainted away, and was carried out. Meanwhile the troops, anticipating an attempt at rescue, stood to their arms, and the whole night long the streets were patrolled; but no disturbance took place. After indulging for an hour or two in useless howling, the crowd melted away, and long before midnight a profound calm pervaded every corner of the town.

Brennan and Hogan were hanged with a mysterious third man

When the morning of the executions arrived, huge crowds had gathered. The British were fearful of violence and soldiers escorted the cart carrying the prisoners and watched the crowd for trouble. This, it seems, was enough to prevent the Irish, who revered Brennan, from rioting. Brennan gazed “cheerfully round him, while Hogan “never bestowed upon any of the throng one mark of recognition, nor once addressed a word to his fellow-sufferer.” Just before the cart was pulled away, Brennan turned to Hogan and offered him his hand, but Hogan, “turned aside with undisguised contempt and loathing.”

Thus ended the lives of the Irish outlaws William Brennan and Paddy Hogan. Along, it seems, with a rather mysterious third person:

A young man, found guilty of forcibly carrying away a girl from her home and the protection of her parents, was the same day executed in pursuance of his sentence; and he chose to die in a garb which excited not only our surprise, but our ridicule. He came to be hanged in a garment of white flannel, made tight to the shape, and ornamented in all directions with knots of blue ribbon, rather more befitting a harlequin on the stage, than a wretched culprit whose life had become forfeit to the offended laws.

Who this person was we will likely never know; but it is interesting to note that in one of the most accurate early accounts of Brennan’s death, published in 1884 by the Dublin University Magazine, it was said that Brennan died “together with an accomplice, called ‘the White Pedlar’!

On April 8, 1809, the Lancaster Gazette reported:

Brennan and his associate, the Pedlar, after a short trial, have been capitally convicted at the Clonmel Assize.

For George Farmer, however, it was just the beginning. After more than twenty years of fighting for King and Country throughout Europe and India, he eventually came home and left the Dragoons. One day in 1840 he walked into the London office of a certain Rev. George Robert Gleig and showed him the journals he had written during his service. He complained, says Gleig, of his poverty “as many of his class are accustomed to do.” But Gleig found the story “sufficiently interesting to warrant its insertion, as a series of papers, in a professional magazine.” And thus, with the good offices of London publisher Henry Colburn they were published in 1844 as a serial in twenty-seven parts; under the title The Light Dragoon. Rev. Gleig reports:

Mr. Colburn has remunerated the old soldier well.

We can only hope so.


George Farmer (ed. G. R. Gleig). The Light Dragoon. Henry Osbourne, London, 1844. (Here) ; Juergen Kloss. Just Another Tune (Internet: ); Ray Cashman. The Heroic Outlaw in Irish Folklore and Popular Literature. Folklore, Oct 2000;  Graham Seal. The Outlaw Legend: A Cultural Tradition in Britain, America and Australia. Cambridge and New York, 1996.

‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’

I want to write a little about one of my favourite poems: Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Like all poetry this should be heard rather than read. The Northern Irish actor Kenneth Branagh has recorded most of Owen’s poetry and you can listen to his rendition here if you wish. But for me at least, Branagh’s readings of Owen’s poetry, beautiful diction though they have, leave me cold. There is real anger and real sadness in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, anger and sadness that Branagh’s reading totally misses. I prefer the very simple reading at the end of the magnificent 1997 film Regeneration (here). If you watch the whole film, the poem, when it comes, will have you in tears. It’s still not angry enough for me, but very moving nonetheless.

I first read this poem at school more than forty years ago. Our English teacher was, I think, a bit of a closet radical. Coming back to it now I thought the poem’s meaning was so obvious that no one would ever need to spend more than a minute or two on interpretation. Yet actually that’s probably not correct. The reason why the ‘meaning’ of the poem is so obvious to me is because I was brought up at a time and in a society where knowledge of the Bible and of the First World War was just there. Every day we had Bible readings in school. Our grandparents had experienced the war and many of our teachers had lived through it. In much of the western world this is no longer the case. In many, many ways this is a good thing. Thank God (oops!) children don’t have to have horrendous biblical bunkum pushed down their throats. Thank God most western children no longer have to hear about the massacre of whole generations. But when it comes to canonical poetry or literature there’s a bit of a gap.

This became clear to me when I wrote a couple of short pieces on poetry, in particular one about A. E. Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills. I soon realised that this poem must be on the curriculum of quite a few American schools or colleges. At least every few weeks a school teacher in the US sets his or her students a task of writing a critique or interpretation of Blue Remembered Hills. And, lo and behold, it seems that the students don’t read the poem and think about what it means to them or even try to figure out for themselves what the poet might have meant. No, what they do is go straight onto the internet looking for someone else’s ready-made interpretation which they can then, at best, use or, at worst, plagiarize.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Now for every ten students who cut and paste or simply plagiarize there will be one who is really moved and wants to offer their own penny worth. Perhaps it was ever thus.

We might even want to question (I hope not) the relevance of old canonical novels, plays and poetry. After all for school and college students today the Boer War which Housman alludes to and the First World War which is the immediate subject of Owen’s poetry are ancient history. Be that as it may.

Let’s return to The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It is of course an anti-war poem, but it is so much more than that. It’s also a denunciation of imperialistic capitalism and a searing indictment of the warped morality of sacrifice. Whose sacrifice and for whom?

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is an allegory based on the Old Testament story (or parable if you like) found in Genesis 22 and usually called The Binding of Isaac. This story is, like most in the Old Testament, a pretty evil story, completely lacking in anything that we would regard as moral today:

The Binding of Isaac

Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.  On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac

Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac

God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham didn’t even hesitate. He started straight away to prepare the sacrificial altar: ‘Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife… Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.’ Isaac in his innocence didn’t get what his father was doing: ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham avoided the question and lied: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’

No hesitation, no compassion. Abraham just had to obey God’s word. ‘Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.’ Then and only then do we get one of the original Deus ex machina. Just as he was about to slay his son God stops him:

Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.

Because Abraham had been more than ready to obey, God let him off the hook. He could sacrifice ‘a ram caught by its horns’ instead. God was very pleased with the result of his little charade and rewarded Abraham:

I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

A more pitiless, immoral tale it would be hard to find, with the obvious exception of the Koran. What on earth can this ‘lovely’ story or parable teach us except unthinking obedience to a remote and all powerful God? But at least Isaac had been spared, even though this seems to have mattered not one iota to his father.

In Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Isaac, who represents the millions of young men slaughtered in the trenches of the First World War, is not spared. Abram (an earlier form of Abraham) is the heartless omnipotent power; he is the ‘old’ power of the imperialistic, militaristic states. The power of money, position and pride. This power, just like God, demands obedience and sacrifice, the sacrifice not of their power but of ‘the young’. As in the Old Testament the young ask an obvious innocent question:

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

‘Fire and iron’ to make the weapons of war are being prepared, but who will be the sacrificial ‘lamb’? Like the Biblical Isaac they got no answer:

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

The young were kitted out in ‘belts and straps’. Parapets and trenches were dug ready for the knife to fall, ready for the sacrifice of a whole generation. God’s angel tries to offer a helping hand and a way out:

When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

There was no reason for this war, no fight of good against evil. It was just the useless pride of the rulers that prevented them from seeing reason. If they had been willing to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’ instead of their own people, the slaughter could have been avoided. But no, the rulers were more pitiless than God:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In the heartless Bible Abraham’s people (the later Jews) were rewarded: ‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’ In our time there is no redemption, not even an offer of future glory. The power must be obeyed, the people are sacrificed.

Following the ‘advent’ of the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century, it took the invaders (if that is what they really were) over two centuries of battles, victories, squabbles and setbacks to finally conquer much, though not all, of what is now England. The ‘English’ subjugated most of the native Britons, slaughtered thousands and pushed back British rule to the remoter, hilly regions of the island: Wales, Cumbria, Cornwall and Scotland. Yet resistance continued for centuries more.

Britain circa 600

Britain circa 600

In what is now the ‘borderland’ between England and Wales, and particularly in Shropshire, the English didn’t start to make any real impression until the seventh century. One native prince (or king) of Powys was called Cynddylan son of Cyndrwyn. His rule probably extended over most of present Shropshire, southern Cheshire and Powys. It was sometimes called the land of Pengwern. There is a whole series of poems in Old Welsh telling of Cynddylan’s deeds. We know from these as well as from Anglo-Saxon sources that Cynddylan was at first able to keep the English at bay.

The ‘English’ Mercians had already pushed into Staffordshire, while their Northumbrian cousins were trying to extend their rule south. On the 5th August 641/2, the Mercian king Penda, together with many allies, including, it is generally believed, Cynddylan, the Prince of Powys, faced the Northumbrian king Oswald at a place called Maserfield in English or Maes Cogwy in Welsh. Oswald was defeated, killed, dismembered and his head and hands ‘hung’ on a tree, an incident giving rise to the name of the Shropshire town of Oswestry (‘Oswald’s Tree’). Penda for a time became the most powerful English warlord. But it wasn’t to last. After Penda had raided deep in Northumbria and even besieged Bamburgh, in 653/4 Oswald’s brother Oswy, who had become king of the northern part of Northumbria called Bernicia, pursued Penda south to exact his revenge. Penda, once again probably  accompanied by Cynddylan, met Oswy’s army at ‘Winwaed’, a place not yet identified with certainty.

Death of King Penda at Winwaed

Death of King Penda at Winwaed

The Northumbrian monk the Venerable Bede gives the most detailed description of the Battle of Winwaed. Under the year 655 he wrote:

At this time King Oswy was exposed to the fierce and intolerable irruptions of Penda, king of the Mercians, whom we have so often mentioned, and who had slain his brother; at length, necessity compelling him, he promised to give him greater gifts than can be imagined, to purchase peace; provided that the king would return home, and cease to destroy the provinces of his kingdom. That perfidious king refused to grant his request, and resolved to extirpate all his nation, from the highest to the lowest; whereupon he had recourse to the protection of the Divine goodness for deliverance from his barbarous and impious foes, and binding himself by a vow, said, ‘If the pagan will not accept of our gifts, let us offer them to Him that will, the Lord our God.’ He then vowed, that if he should come off victorious, he would dedicate his daughter to our Lord in holy virginity, and give twelve farms to build monasteries. After this he gave battle with a very small army against superior forces: indeed, it is reported that the pagans had three times the number of men; for they had thirty legions, led on by most noted commanders. King Oswy and his son Alfrid met them with a very small army, as has been said, but confiding in the conduct of Christ; his other son, Egfrid, was then kept a hostage at the court of Queen Cynwise, in the province of the Mercians. King Oswald’s son Ethelwald, who ought to have assisted them, was on the enemy’s side, and led them on to fight against his country and uncle; though, during the battle, he withdrew, and awaited the event in a place of safety. The engagement beginning, the pagans were defeated, the thirty commanders, and those who had come to his assistance were put to flight, and almost all of them slain; among whom was Ethelhere, brother and successor to Anna, king of the East Angles, who had been the occasion of the war, and who was now killed, with all his soldiers. The battle was fought near the river Winwed, which then, with the great rains, had not only filled its channel, but overflowed its banks, so that many more were drowned in the flight than destroyed by the sword.

The Song of Heledd

The Song of Heledd

As you will have seen Bede tells us nothing about Penda’s Welsh allies, for him this was purely an English thing. Who was to be top dog among the English? Penda had been killed but so had Cynddylan, together with most of his kinsmen and followers. The eighth-century historian Nennius does however mention Penda’a British allies at Winwaed: ‘He (Oswy) slew Penda in the field of Gai, and now took place the slaughter of Gai Campi, and the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu, were slain.’ The Welsh poets rightly saw this as a disaster for the British. One cycle of poems they sang is called Canu Heledd – the Song of Heledd. Heledd was Cynddylan’s sister, she laments his death and the court, her brother’s hall that was attacked and destroyed, and also mourns the death of her sister Ffreuer. Here is the part dealing with the destruction of Cynddylan’s Hall, I find it very beautiful, it must be more so in Old Welsh.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without a bed.
I will weep for a while; then I will be silent.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without candle.
Save God, who will give me sanity?

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without light.
Grief for you comes over me.

The hall of Cynddylan, its roof is dark,
After the blest assembly.
Woe the good that does not come to it.

The hall of Cynddylan, you have become shapeless,
Your shield is in the grave.
While he was alive, there were no breached gates.

The hall of Cynddylan is forlorn tonight,
After the one who owned it.
Alas death, why does it spare me?

The hall of Cynddylan is not comfortable tonight,
On the top of the enduring rock,
Without lord, without host, without protection.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without songs.
My cheeks are worn away by tears.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
Without fire, without a warband.
Abundant my tears where it falls.

The hall of Cynddylan, it wounds me to see it,
Without roof, without fire.
My lord is dead, but I am alive.

The hall of Cynddylan lies waste tonight,
After steadfast warriors,
Elfan, and gold-wearing Cynddylan.

The hall of Cynddylan is desolate tonight,
After the respect which was mine,
Without men, without women who cared for it.

The hall of Cynddylan is quiet tonight,
After losing its lord.
Great merciful God, what shall I do?

The hall of Cynddylan, its roof is dark,
After the English destroyed
Cynddylan and Elfan of Powys.

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight,
After the race of the Cyndrwyn,
Cynon and Gwion and Gwyn.

The hall of Cynddylan, it is a wound to me each hour,
After the great company
That I saw on your hearth.

A depiction of the Battle of Winwaed

A depiction of the Battle of Winwaed

In telling this brief history I have skipped vast amounts of Welsh and English scholarship, as well as avoided many on-going historical debates. One such debate is whether Cynddylan was killed alongside Penda in 655 at Winwaed or whether he and his family perished the next year when Oswy destroyed his ‘court’ at Pengwern. Whatever the truth, the point here is simply to show that the defeat and death of Cynddylan in 655/6 was just the beginning of the process whereby the Welsh of ‘Shropshire’ started to lose their land and their identity. For now Shropshire remained Welsh, but it was not too long before a resurgent Mercia would annex this part of Powys to the English lands, to England. That is for another time.

‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ – Walter Benjamin

There have been literally thousands of books written about the horrors and barbarities of the African slave trade as well as the subsequent treatment of slaves in North America. This is as it should be. But we often forget that slavery has always been with us since ‘civilisation’ arose. One only needs to remember that the people who would become the Jews were enslaved in Egypt before Moses led them to the ‘promised land’, where they could then slaughter and enslave others. Slavery has very little to do with colour and all to do with power, war and economics. There is hardly a society anywhere in the world which has not had slaves and many where de facto and sometimes even de jure slavery still exists. Here I want just to touch briefly on the ‘white slavery’ practiced by the Moslems of North Africa for over a thousand years. It’s a subject that was made all the more poignant for me when I discovered that my own 8th great grandfather, a Lancastrian mariner called Thomas Rimmer, was captured in the late seventeenth century by the Barbary corsairs and spent sixteen and a half years as a slave in North Africa.

The Vikings weren’t only rapists and pillagers; they weren’t in fact any more brutal than others at the time. The Vikings were also great long-distance traders. One of the principal things they traded was slaves. They took slaves from England, from France and from everywhere they could and then they brought them to the numerous slave markets long established in Europe, there generally to be on-sold to the Moslems who, starting in the seventh century, had conquered much of the Middle East and North Africa from the Romans. Like the Romans themselves the Moslem descendants of Mohammed were dependent on slave labour. It didn’t matter to them the race or colour of their slaves. All that mattered was that they were the victorious people and the slaves, in whatever way, had been subjugated or captured. In England in the eleventh century the brutal Norman invaders had found active ‘white’ Anglo-Saxon slave markets still in existence, particularly in Bristol. The ultimate buyers were usually the Moslems in North Africa. Most of these unfortunate white slaves were, like slaves of all colours and at all times, rarely ever to return home, and had to suffer unbearable cruelty in their often short lives.

A White Female Slave in Barbary

A White Female Slave in Barbary

Over the coming centuries the white slave trade continued, but as various European countries managed to repress this trade, and as the various states in North Africa became more powerful at sea, the emphasis switched to the Moslems snatching white slaves from European ships in the Mediterranean and by making raids along the coasts of Europe. These slave raiders are known to history as the pirates or corsairs of the Barbary Coast. The historical consciousness of countries such as Spain and Italy have been seared with the memory of the Barbary corsairs and the countless thousands of their compatriots grabbed from their ships and homes to serve as slaves in Moslem galleys and palaces.

What is most striking about Barbary slaving raids is their scale and reach. Pirates took most of their slaves from ships, but they also organized huge, amphibious assaults that practically depopulated parts of the Italian coast. Italy was the most popular target, partly because Sicily is only 125 miles from Tunis, but also because it did not have strong central rulers who could resist invasion. Large raiding parties might be essentially unopposed. When pirates sacked Vieste in southern Italy in 1554, for example, they took an astonishing 6,000 captives. Algerians took 7,000 slaves in the Bay of Naples in 1544, in a raid that drove the price of slaves so low it was said you could “swap a Christian for an onion.” Spain, too, suffered large-scale attacks. After a raid on Granada in 1566 netted 4,000 men, women, and children, it was said to be “raining Christians in Algiers.” For every large-scale raid of this kind there would have been dozens of smaller ones. The appearance of a large fleet could send the entire population inland, emptying coastal areas. In 1566, a party of 6,000 Turks and Corsairs sailed up the Adriatic and landed at Fracaville. The authorities could do nothing, and urged complete evacuation, leaving the Turks in control of over 500 square miles of abandoned villages all the way to Serracapriola.

“The unfortunate southerners were sometimes taken by the thousands, by slavers who raided the coasts of Valencia, Andalusia, Calabria and Sicily so often that eventually it was said that ‘there was no one left to capture any longer’”. What is not as generally well known is that the slave-seeking Barbary corsairs roamed much wider: to northern France, the British Isles and even to Iceland. Their heyday was in the seventeenth century, though as many American white slaves were to find to their cost it extended well into the nineteenth century. The Reverend Devereux Spratt – ‘carried off in April 1641 for several years’ bondage in Algiers, while attempting a simple voyage across the Irish Sea from County Cork to England’ wrote:

When we had arrived [in Cork], I made a request to Lord Inchaquoin to give me a passport for England. I took boat to Youghal and then embarked on the vessel John Filmer, which set sail with 120 passengers. `But before we had lost sight of land, we were captured by Algerine pirates, who put all the men in irons.

The Barbary Corsairs

The Barbary Corsairs

Professor Robert Davis writes:

In the first half of the 1600s, Barbary corsairs – pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa, authorised by their governments to attack the shipping of Christian countries – ranged all around Britain’s shores. In their lanteen-rigged xebecs (a type of ship) and oared galleys, they grabbed ships and sailors, and sold the sailors into slavery. Admiralty records show that during this time the corsairs plundered British shipping pretty much at will, taking no fewer than 466 vessels between 1609 and 1616, and 27 more vessels from near Plymouth in 1625. As 18th-century historian Joseph Morgan put it, ‘this I take to be the Time when those Corsairs were in their Zenith‘. Unfortunately, it was hardly the end of them, even then. Morgan also noted that he had a ‘…List, printed in London in 1682’ of 160 British ships captured by Algerians between 1677 and 1680. Considering what the number of sailors who were taken with each ship was likely to have been, these examples translate into a probable 7,000 to 9,000 able-bodied British men and women taken into slavery in those years.

It was in this period, probably around 1680, that my 8th great grandfather Thomas Rimmer was taken as a slave. Thomas was a Lancashire mariner who was most likely captured by the Barbary corsairs while aboard ship somewhere in the Irish Sea. In the churchyard of Saint Cuthbert’s church in Churchtown (Southport) in Lancashire there is a plaque which reads:

Here Lyeth the Body of Thomas Rimmer Mariner who was captive in Barbary sixteen years and six Months who departed this life the Sixth of January the Sixty first year of his age in the year of our Lord 1713

Sometimes the corsairs even took whole villages:

Not content with attacking ships and sailors, the corsairs also sometimes raided coastal settlements, generally running their craft onto unguarded beaches, and creeping up on villages in the dark to snatch their victims and retreat before the alarm could be sounded. Almost all the inhabitants of the village of Baltimore, in Ireland, were taken in this way in 1631, and other attacks were launched against coastal villages in Devon and Cornwall.

Samuel Pepys, the famous English diarist, gave a vivid account of an encounter with two men who’d been taken into slavery, in his diary of 8 February 1661:

…to the Fleece tavern to drink and there we spent till 4 a-clock telling stories of Algier and the manner of the life of Slaves there; and truly, Captain Mootham and Mr Dawes (who have been both slaves there) did make me full acquainted with their condition there. As, how they eat nothing but bread and water…. How they are beat upon the soles of the feet and bellies at the Liberty of their Padron. How they are all night called into their master’s Bagnard, and there they lie.

Barbary Galley Slaves

Barbary Galley Slaves

There are many first-hand accounts of the experiences of white European slaves in Moslem North Africa, told in some of the references I give at the end. One summary has this to say:

Once in North Africa, it was tradition to parade newly-captured Christians through the streets, so people could jeer at them, and children could pelt them with refuse. At the slave market, men were made to jump about to prove they were not lame, and buyers often wanted them stripped naked again to see if they were healthy. This was also to evaluate the sexual value of both men and women; white concubines had a high value, and all the slave capitals had a flourishing homosexual underground. Buyers who hoped to make a quick profit on a fat ransom examined earlobes for signs of piercing, which was an indication of wealth. It was also common to check a captive’s teeth to see if he was likely to survive on a tough slave diet. The pasha or ruler of the area got a certain percentage of the slave take as a form of income tax. These were almost always men, and became government rather than private property. Unlike private slaves, who usually boarded with their masters, they lived in the bagnos or “baths,” as the pasha’s slave warehouses came to be called. It was common to shave the heads and beards of public slaves as an added humiliation, in a period when head and facial hair were an important part of a man’s identity. Most of these public slaves spent the rest of their lives as galley slaves, and it is hard to imagine a more miserable existence. Men were chained three, four, or five to an oar, with their ankles chained together as well. Rowers never left their oars, and to the extent that they slept at all, they slept at their benches. Slaves could push past each other to relieve themselves at an opening in the hull, but they were often too exhausted or dispirited to move, and fouled themselves where they sat. They had no protection against the burning Mediterranean sun, and their masters flayed their already-raw backs with the slave driver’s favorite tool of encouragement, a stretched bull’s penis or “bull’s pizzle.” There was practically no hope of escape or rescue; a galley slave’s job was to work himself to death–mainly in raids to capture more wretches like himself–and his master pitched him overboard at the first sign of serious illness.

White Slaves on the Barbary Coast

White Slaves on the Barbary Coast

In his excellent book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters (Palgrave Press) Robert Davis tells us: “There was no countervailing force to protect the slave from his master’s violence: no local anti-cruelty laws, no benign public opinion, and rarely any effective pressure from foreign states… All slaves who lived in the bagnos and survived to write of their experiences stressed the endemic cruelty and violence practiced there.”

The favourite punishment was the bastinado, in which a man was put on his back, and his ankles clamped together and held waist high for a sustained beating on the soles of the feet. A slave might get as many as 150 or 200 blows, which could leave him crippled. Systematic violence turned many men into automatons. Slaves were often so plentiful and so inexpensive, there was no point in caring for them; many owners worked them to death and bought replacements.

It has been estimated that just between 1530 and 1780 there were probably in excess of 1,250,000 white slaves taken from Europe to North Africa. While many Catholic countries tried to raise funds to secure the return of these slaves (occasionally with some success), the northern protestant countries (including Britain) generally left them to rot. One can only speculate how Thomas Rimmer was eventually able to return to his Lancashire home after sixteen and a half years as a slave in Barbary? It’s doubtful that his family had sufficient money to ransom him, if they even knew where he was. Perhaps if he had been a galley slave he was freed by the Royal Navy or another European navy when they captured a corsair ship? We don’t know. The story of the white slaves in North Africa needs to be better known, as indeed does the story of ‘white slaves’ at home (see here) or even the de facto white slaves taken in their thousand to toil alongside the unfortunate negro slaves in America. As I mentioned at the beginning, slavery and oppression have almost nothing to do with colour, race or religion and all to do with the naked exercise of power.

Slaves in Barbary could be black, brown or white, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim. Contemporaries were too aware of the sort of people enslaved in North Africa to believe, as many do today, that slavery, whether in Barbary or the Americas, was a matter of race. In the 1600s, no one’s racial background or religion automatically destined him or her for enslavement. Preachers in churches from Sicily to Boston spoke of the similar fates of black slaves on American plantations and white slaves in corsair galleys; early abolitionists used Barbary slavery as a way to attack the universal degradation of slavery in all its forms

“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