Archive for the ‘Slavery’ Category

As long as civilization has existed the majority has always been deprived of its liberty and its voice. It has been literally and figuratively muzzled. You can look anywhere in the world and to any period in history and you will find that this is so. I recently discovered a very strange link between two such barbarities – between press-ganged English sailors and the ‘dirt-eating masks’ many African slaves were made to wear in America.  Both sets of people had their voice removed, and although the reasons seem quite distinct they are really just separate manifestations of a more central truth.

Whitby, Yorkshire – The setting for Gaskell’s Novel and a town much plagued by press-gangs

In 1863, the English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell published Sylvia’s Lovers, set in a fictional Whitby, Yorkshire (‘Monkshaven’), at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is both a typical nineteenth century tragic love story and a strident denunciation of the evils of British naval impressment. I explained in a recent short article that by 1793 seventy-five percent of the crews of British naval vessels consisted of prisoners of war, convicts and those forced into service. Sailors, their families, their friends and whole communities tried to evade the rapacious press-gangs whenever and wherever they could. When they couldn’t, they fought back. Sometimes hundreds of people would turn out, armed as they best could, to prevent their men being hauled away ‘like slaves or criminals’, first to rot in offshore ‘tenders’ lined with metal to stop them hacking away the wood to escape, and then to serve at His Majesty’s pleasure in ships of the Royal Navy – often never to return. Throughout the eighteenth century people also tried to escape the gangs by recourse to the law and the courts. Although they occasionally had some success, the law, the judges and the politicians, the ruling elite, were usually against them. The government wanted to fight its wars on distant fields and seas and if the common people didn’t show enough alacrity by volunteering in sufficient numbers to man the growing Royal Navy, then they would have to simply be ripped from their homes, from their taverns and from merchant vessels and forced to serve.

In Sylvia’s Lovers, the eponymous heroine’s father, Daniel, who had  been impressed some years previously during the ‘American War’ (or Revolution if you like), decided to resist the press-gangs when they returned again to the town to collect fodder for the war with France. There was a major riot and the people of the town chased the gangs away. But retribution soon followed and Daniel was hanged as an example. The story was based on true events in Whitby of 1793 and Daniel’s fate was based on the hanging of a certain William Atkinson:

William Atkinson, Hannah Hobson, John Harrison late of the parish of Whitby in the North Riding committed Feb. 26th, 1793, charged on subpoena of a Felony in having with divers other persons then unknown, on Sat. 23d of the same month about nine o’clock at night riotously assembled themselves together against the peace of our Lord the King, and with force and arms, unlawfully begun to pull down and demolish the dwelling House of John Cooper of Whitby aforesaid Shoe Maker… William Atkinson, hanged 13th April, 1793.             Calendar of Felons and Malefactors tried at the Assizes at York on the 18th day of March, 1793.

William Wilberforce – The anti-slavery campaigner

Only with Napoleon’s defeat did the movement for the abolition of impressment start to gain strength. Although by the time Gaskell wrote her book she could write in it, ‘Now all this tyranny (for I can use no other word) is marvellous to us; we cannot imagine how it is that a nation submitted to it for so long, even under any warlike enthusiasm, any panic of invasion, any amount of loyal subservience to the governing powers’, impressment was never actually legally abolished and came back in different guises throughout the, misnamed, nineteenth century ‘Pax Britannica’, finally to be replaced by explicit conscription during the First World War. One of the most vociferous advocates of impressment abolition was Thomas Urquhart. Released, he tells us, from any feeling of patriotic duty once the war against the French had been won, he started a long campaign of writing to the Admiralty, to politicians and to the’ great and the good’ to try to persuade them that impressment was a crime against every Englishman’s birth right of liberty and was comparable to slavery.

In 1816, in a public letter to William Wilberforce, the leading anti-slavery campaigner, Urquhart wrote:

I have been anxiously waiting for the present period, when the foes of our country are subdued, to address you on the subject of Slavery. The great and unwearied efforts you have made to suppress the traffic of human flesh will transmit your name with honor, as a man and Christian, to the most remote posterity. You have at last received the noblest reward in the success which has crowned your labours; and the treaty just concluded with France, consecrates your exertions, whilst it shews what a single individual, impelled by an honest zeal, is capable of performing. This perseverance and this success in behalf of the negro, encourages me to claim your powerful aid, in order to redress another grievance equally glaring and where the sufferers have a much stronger title than the African, to your sympathy. The sufferers are Britons; and what is more, to their courage and intrepidity the country is principally indebted for the prosperity and security she now enjoys.

I belong myself to this class of men, whose hardships have been so long and so unaccountably neglected ; and whilst you, Sir, and other philanthropists ranged the earth, in order to break the fetters of the slave, you disregarded with singular inconsistency, the ill treatment which the British seaman, the guardian of your independence, has been obliged to endure. In his cause no bolts of eloquence were shot, no commiseration was excited ; and whilst he encountered death in every form, and raised the fame of Britain to the highest elevation that can be reached, his ill treatment, though more galling than that of the negro, because he was born and bred up with the rights and feelings of a free man, remain unnoticed and unredressed.

Despite his rather objectionable comparison of the relative ‘title’ of the slaves and the seamen, Urquhart wasn’t against the abolition of slavery:

It is not my intention to defend the principle or the practice of slavery; I am only anxious that the persons who have displayed so much fervour, zeal, and perseverance in attacking both, would look at home, and try to correct the evils to which I have called your attention in the course of this letter. To the condition of the lower classes in this and every other country, hardships are attached, which demand as much sympathy as the case of the African.

Yet he does suggest that escaped slaves were happy to return to their owners, while impressed seamen never returned to the Royal Navy willingly:

I have known a concern in one of those islands (the West Indies)  which had from twenty to thirty negroes, most of whom were sailors, and who during the late war, were captured, some once, twice, and even thrice, and were conveyed to that land of liberty and equality, Guadeloupe, all of whom voluntarily returned to their owners as soon as they could get away, except one who could not be accounted for; but this you will perhaps say was a rare instance. Sir, I could produce various of the same kind, as well attested as any other fact, and which would shew that no small share of exaggeration has prevailed on the subject ; however, it substantiates the truth of my comparison, and I might go farther, and ask, if there be one instance on record, of mercantile seamen who had been impressed into the naval service, with the same opportunity to evade it, ever voluntarily returning to it again?

He then makes this (for us) perhaps rather strange observation:

In the print-shops in London, a negro is represented with an iron mouth-piece, and this exhibition has been made with a view to make the public suppose, that this mouth-piece is put on to prevent the slave from eating sugar or cane; yet the whole of the inference intended to be drawn from this subject is false.

(When I say this, I mean as to the cause ascribed for the use of it. That it may have been put upon a negro for a criminal act, as punishment, I can believe, although I never saw it done, or heard of its being done. In this country for the game act, you perhaps would have put a rope round his neck)

There is a distemper to which negroes are subject and at which time they are in the habit, unless forcibly prevented, of eating earth; at this time their mouth is covered until a cure can be effected. This is the secret of the terrific mouth-piece, which has been the topic of so much invective against West Indians.

Slave wearing a dirt-eater mask

He was referring to what are now called ‘Dirt-Eater Masks’. These were just one of numerous barbaric punishments and humiliations inflicted on African slaves in North America, in the West Indies and in South America.

But were these masks really ‘designed’ to prevent the slaves eating dirt? The answer seems to be ‘Yes… but’. I’ll first try to explain the ‘yes’ and later the more tricky question of ‘but’.

Dirt-eating’s Latin medical name is Geophagia: ’The deliberate consumption of earth, soil or clay.’ Surprising as it may seem, this practice goes back millennia in Europe and Africa. It still exists today. In fact it is a sub-category of Pica, ‘a term that comes from the Latin for magpie, a bird with indiscriminate eating habits’. The American Psychiatric Association defines Pica as, ‘persistent eating of non-nutritional substances that is inappropriate to developmental level (sic), occurs outside culturally sanctioned practice and, if observed during the course of another mental disorder, is sufficiently severe to warrant independent attention.’ Well that seems debatable, but I’ll leave it to one side.

In the fifth century BC in Greece, the ‘founder’ of medicine, Hippocrates of Kos, wrote:

If a pregnant woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things.

A Roman medical textbook tells us that ‘people whose colour is bad when they are not jaundiced are either sufferers from pains in the head or earth eaters’. The Roman Pliny writes that ‘Alica’, made of red clay, ‘used as a drug has a smoothing effect… as a remedy for ulcers in the humid part of body such as the mouth or anus. Used in an enema it arrests diarrhoea, and taken though the mount… it checks menstruation’. Actually the use of clay for such purposes is still prevalent today; you can buy it in any pharmacy!

Throughout the Classical period and into the Middle Ages and early modern period there are numerous references to earth or dirt eating and its various beneficial effects. Some of the references given at the end provide more detail as well as the examples I have quoted. One such, entitled Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, by two South African doctors, concludes as follows:

All the concepts of geophagia—as psychiatric disorder, culturally sanctioned practice or sequel to famine—fall short of a satisfying explanation. The causation is certainly multifactorial; and clearly the practice of earth-eating has existed since the first medical texts were written. The descriptions do not allow simple categorization as a psychiatric disease. Finally, geophagia is not confined to a particular cultural environment and is observed in the absence of hunger. Might it be an atavistic mode of behaviour, formerly invaluable when minerals and trace elements were scarce? Its re-emergence might then be triggered by events such as famine, cultural change or psychiatric disease.

In his survey of Holmes County in the 1970s, Dr. Dennis Frate of the University of Mississippi wrote:

Dirt-eating can be traced to ancient Greece, to Africa. It was a part of European culture and was observed in the American Indians. Practically every culture has had a dirt-eating phase,’ Frate said. ‘But very little is known about why people do it.

So there is ample evidence that African slaves brought the practice of earth eating with them to the colonies. In the United States there have been quite a few newspaper articles describing how the practice still persists, predominantly (though not exclusively) amongst Afro-Americans and in the southern states. Here’s just one from the New York Times in 1984, it quotes Dr. Frate again:

According to his research, Dr. Frate said it was not uncommon for slave owners to put masks over the mouths of slaves to keep them from eating dirt. The owners thought the practice was a cause of death and illness among slaves, when they were more likely dying from malnutrition.

It is difficult to say how prevalent dirt-eating is today. But in 1975, among 56 black women questioned by Dr. Frate as part of a larger study on nutrition in rural Holmes County, 32 of them said they ate dirt. The survey also showed that the ingestion of dirt tended to be more common in pregnancy.

There have been other explanations. Some have suggested that the masks were used by slave owners to prevent slaves eating earth to excess, trying to commit suicide, and although there isn’t much evidence for this it may well have happened. In Brazil, where the slaves were used to mine gold, it has also been suggested that the masks were to prevent them from eating earth containing nuggets of gold and later, no doubt, recovering the nuggets from their faeces.

Another mask

Whatever the reasons for the slaves eating ‘dirt’ – be they cultural, nutritional, medicinal, suicidal or financial – and scholarly opinion has yet to reach a consensus – the fact is that the slave owners wouldn’t allow it. Perhaps they were just trying to protect their ‘investment’ in their slaves, to stop them harming themselves, even killing themselves or (and only in Brazil) stealing gold? I don’t really know and the whole subject needs more attention. But here is the ‘but’. Slaves had already been deprived of their liberty, and often their lives, but they must also be deprived of their customs, their voice. Eating the earth, eating dirt, was just one of these.

Thus while there is still some mystery about the ‘role’ of dirt eating and the reasons for the masks, there can, perhaps, be no better graphic and literal illustration of the loss of slaves’ voices than the horrific pictures of them wearing these ‘dirt eating masks’.

English sailors didn’t go quietly, and neither did the Africans. They went kicking and screaming. But the sailors, once on board His Majesty’s Royal Navy ships, had lost their voice as well as their liberty. If they tried to escape (which they repeatedly did) they could be flogged, incarcerated or hanged, as could the African slaves.

These two examples of ‘historic’ barbarities might seem very different – and they are – but one truth connects them. Britain’s rulers – the rich and powerful – wanted to extend their wealth and were willing to fight in distant lands and on distant seas to do so. Of course, most of them didn’t want to fight themselves; they needed a constant and growing stream of common cannon-fodder to man the Royal Navy’s ships and to fight for them. When ordinary English people didn’t flock to the mast in sufficient numbers to crew the growing navy, the rulers did what they always have done, they forced them to.

Exactly the same happened with slavery in the colonies. Initially, European indentured bondsmen were used on the plantations. But more and more servile and cheap labour was needed if the planters were to enrich themselves further. So what was done? With the active encouragement and support of the British government/rulers, private entrepreneurial slave traders from Bristol and Liverpool (and from elsewhere in Europe) forcibly yanked Africans from their homes and transported them to America.

Both of these things were about power and money. The voices of the less powerful were repressed and their liberties stolen. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. Marie Antoinette may have suggested that the unwashed masses eat cake, but more often than not they had to eat dirt.

Some references:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia’s Lovers, 1863; Nicholas Rogers, The Press Gang, Continuum UK, 2007; Thomas Urquhart, A letter to William Wilberforce on the Subject of Impressment, 1816; Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate,  Geophagia in rural Mississippi: environmental and cultural contexts and nutritional implications, 2001. http://www.ajcn.org/content/32/10/2129.full.pdf , William Schmidt, Southern Practice of Eating Earth shows signs of Waning, New York Times, 1984; Alan Huffman, It’s hard to quite the habit, Mississippi dirt-eaters say, Clarion-Ledger, 1983; Alexander Woywodt and Akos Kiss, Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, 2002;  Geophagy,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geophagy.

‘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!

Sources

You can download a pdf of Crow’s memoirs here: http://archive.org/details/memoirsoflatecap00crow

Memoirs of Captain Crow

“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!

Sources

You can download a pdf of Crow’s memoirs here: http://archive.org/details/memoirsoflatecap00crow

Memoirs of Captain Crow

As long as Civilization has existed the majority has always been deprived of its liberty and its voice. It has been literally and figuratively muzzled. You can look anywhere in the world and to any period in history and you will find that this is so. I recently discovered a very strange link between two such barbarities – between press-ganged English sailors and the ‘dirt-eating masks’ many African slaves were made to wear in America.  Both sets of people had their voice removed, and although the reasons seem quite distinct they are really just separate manifestations of a more central truth.

Whitby, Yorkshire – The setting for Gaskell’s Novel and a town much plagued by press-gangs

In 1863, the English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell published Sylvia’s Lovers, set in a fictional Whitby, Yorkshire (‘Monkshaven’), at the start of the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is both a typical nineteenth century tragic love story and a strident denunciation of the evils of British naval impressment. I explained in a recent short article that by 1793 seventy-five percent of the crews of British naval vessels consisted of prisoners of war, convicts and those forced into service. Sailors, their families, their friends and whole communities tried to evade the rapacious press-gangs whenever and wherever they could. When they couldn’t, they fought back. Sometimes hundreds of people would turn out, armed as they best could, to prevent their men being hauled away ‘like slaves or criminals’, first to rot in offshore ‘tenders’ lined with metal to stop them hacking away the wood to escape, and then to serve at His Majesty’s pleasure in ships of the Royal Navy – often never to return. Throughout the eighteenth century people also tried to escape the gangs by recourse to the law and the courts. Although they occasionally had some success, the law, the judges and the politicians, the ruling elite, were usually against them. The government wanted to fight its wars on distant fields and seas and if the common people didn’t show enough alacrity by volunteering in sufficient numbers to man the growing Royal Navy, then they would have to simply be ripped from their homes, from their taverns and from merchant vessels and forced to serve.

In Sylvia’s Lovers, the eponymous heroine’s father, Daniel, who had  been impressed some years previously during the ‘American War’ (or Revolution if you like), decided to resist the press-gangs when they returned again to the town to collect fodder for the war with France. There was a major riot and the people of the town chased the gangs away. But retribution soon followed and Daniel was hanged as an example. The story was based on true events in Whitby of 1793 and Daniel’s fate was based on the hanging of a certain William Atkinson:

William Atkinson, Hannah Hobson, John Harrison late of the parish of Whitby in the North Riding committed Feb. 26th, 1793, charged on subpoena of a Felony in having with divers other persons then unknown, on Sat. 23d of the same month about nine o’clock at night riotously assembled themselves together against the peace of our Lord the King, and with force and arms, unlawfully begun to pull down and demolish the dwelling House of John Cooper of Whitby aforesaid Shoe Maker… William Atkinson, hanged 13th April, 1793.             Calendar of Felons and Malefactors tried at the Assizes at York on the 18th day of March, 1793.

William Wilberforce – The anti-slavery campaigner

Only with Napoleon’s defeat did the movement for the abolition of impressment start to gain strength. Although by the time Gaskell wrote her book she could write in it, ‘Now all this tyranny (for I can use no other word) is marvellous to us; we cannot imagine how it is that a nation submitted to it for so long, even under any warlike enthusiasm, any panic of invasion, any amount of loyal subservience to the governing powers’, impressment was never actually legally abolished and came back in different guises throughout the, misnamed, nineteenth century ‘Pax Britannica’, finally to be replaced by explicit conscription during the First World War. One of the most vociferous advocates of impressment abolition was Thomas Urquhart. Released, he tells us, from any feeling of patriotic duty once the war against the French had been won, he started a long campaign of writing to the Admiralty, to politicians and to the’ great and the good’ to try to persuade them that impressment was a crime against every Englishman’s birth right of liberty and was comparable to slavery.

In 1816, in a public letter to William Wilberforce, the leading anti-slavery campaigner, Urquhart wrote:

I have been anxiously waiting for the present period, when the foes of our country are subdued, to address you on the subject of Slavery. The great and unwearied efforts you have made to suppress the traffic of human flesh will transmit your name with honor, as a man and Christian, to the most remote posterity. You have at last received the noblest reward in the success which has crowned your labours; and the treaty just concluded with France, consecrates your exertions, whilst it shews what a single individual, impelled by an honest zeal, is capable of performing. This perseverance and this success in behalf of the negro, encourages me to claim your powerful aid, in order to redress another grievance equally glaring and where the sufferers have a much stronger title than the African, to your sympathy. The sufferers are Britons; and what is more, to their courage and intrepidity the country is principally indebted for the prosperity and security she now enjoys.

I belong myself to this class of men, whose hardships have been so long and so unaccountably neglected ; and whilst you, Sir, and other philanthropists ranged the earth, in order to break the fetters of the slave, you disregarded with singular inconsistency, the ill treatment which the British seaman, the guardian of your independence, has been obliged to endure. In his cause no bolts of eloquence were shot, no commiseration was excited ; and whilst he encountered death in every form, and raised the fame of Britain to the highest elevation that can be reached, his ill treatment, though more galling than that of the negro, because he was born and bred up with the rights and feelings of a free man, remain unnoticed and unredressed.

Despite his rather objectionable comparison of the relative ‘title’ of the slaves and the seamen, Urquhart wasn’t against the abolition of slavery:

It is not my intention to defend the principle or the practice of slavery; I am only anxious that the persons who have displayed so much fervour, zeal, and perseverance in attacking both, would look at home, and try to correct the evils to which I have called your attention in the course of this letter. To the condition of the lower classes in this and every other country, hardships are attached, which demand as much sympathy as the case of the African.

Yet he does suggest that escaped slaves were happy to return to their owners, while impressed seamen never returned to the Royal Navy willingly:

I have known a concern in one of those islands (the West Indies)  which had from twenty to thirty negroes, most of whom were sailors, and who during the late war, were captured, some once, twice, and even thrice, and were conveyed to that land of liberty and equality, Guadeloupe, all of whom voluntarily returned to their owners as soon as they could get away, except one who could not be accounted for; but this you will perhaps say was a rare instance. Sir, I could produce various of the same kind, as well attested as any other fact, and which would shew that no small share of exaggeration has prevailed on the subject ; however, it substantiates the truth of my comparison, and I might go farther, and ask, if there be one instance on record, of mercantile seamen who had been impressed into the naval service, with the same opportunity to evade it, ever voluntarily returning to it again?

He then makes this (for us) perhaps rather strange observation:

In the print-shops in London, a negro is represented with an iron mouth-piece, and this exhibition has been made with a view to make the public suppose, that this mouth-piece is put on to prevent the slave from eating sugar or cane; yet the whole of the inference intended to be drawn from this subject is false.

(When I say this, I mean as to the cause ascribed for the use of it. That it may have been put upon a negro for a criminal act, as punishment, I can believe, although I never saw it done, or heard of its being done. In this country for the game act, you perhaps would have put a rope round his neck)

There is a distemper to which negroes are subject and at which time they are in the habit, unless forcibly prevented, of eating earth; at this time their mouth is covered until a cure can be effected. This is the secret of the terrific mouth-piece, which has been the topic of so much invective against West Indians.

Slave wearing a dirt-eater mask

He was referring to what are now called ‘Dirt-Eater Masks’. These were just one of numerous barbaric punishments and humiliations inflicted on African slaves in North America, in the West Indies and in South America.

But were these masks really ‘designed’ to prevent the slaves eating dirt? The answer seems to be ‘Yes… but’. I’ll first try to explain the ‘yes’ and later the more tricky question of ‘but’.

Dirt-eating’s Latin medical name is Geophagia: ’The deliberate consumption of earth, soil or clay.’ Surprising as it may seem, this practice goes back millennia in Europe and Africa. It still exists today. In fact it is a sub-category of Pica, ‘a term that comes from the Latin for magpie, a bird with indiscriminate eating habits’. The American Psychiatric Association defines Pica as, ‘persistent eating of non-nutritional substances that is inappropriate to developmental level (sic), occurs outside culturally sanctioned practice and, if observed during the course of another mental disorder, is sufficiently severe to warrant independent attention.’ Well that seems debatable, but I’ll leave it to one side.

In the fifth century BC in Greece, the ‘founder’ of medicine, Hippocrates of Kos, wrote:

If a pregnant woman feels the desire to eat earth or charcoal and then eats them, the child will show signs of these things.

A Roman medical textbook tells us that ‘people whose colour is bad when they are not jaundiced are either sufferers from pains in the head or earth eaters’. The Roman Pliny writes that ‘Alica’, made of red clay, ‘used as a drug has a smoothing effect… as a remedy for ulcers in the humid part of body such as the mouth or anus. Used in an enema it arrests diarrhoea, and taken though the mount… it checks menstruation’. Actually the use of clay for such purposes is still prevalent today; you can buy it in any pharmacy!

Throughout the Classical period and into the Middle Ages and early modern period there are numerous references to earth or dirt eating and its various beneficial effects. Some of the references given at the end provide more detail as well as the examples I have quoted. One such, entitled Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, by two South African doctors, concludes as follows:

All the concepts of geophagia—as psychiatric disorder, culturally sanctioned practice or sequel to famine—fall short of a satisfying explanation. The causation is certainly multifactorial; and clearly the practice of earth-eating has existed since the first medical texts were written. The descriptions do not allow simple categorization as a psychiatric disease. Finally, geophagia is not confined to a particular cultural environment and is observed in the absence of hunger. Might it be an atavistic mode of behaviour, formerly invaluable when minerals and trace elements were scarce? Its re-emergence might then be triggered by events such as famine, cultural change or psychiatric disease.

In his survey of Holmes County in the 1970s, Dr. Dennis Frate of the University of Mississippi wrote:

Dirt-eating can be traced to ancient Greece, to Africa. It was a part of European culture and was observed in the American Indians. Practically every culture has had a dirt-eating phase,’ Frate said. ‘But very little is known about why people do it.

So there is ample evidence that African slaves brought the practice of earth eating with them to the colonies. In the United States there have been quite a few newspaper articles describing how the practice still persists, predominantly (though not exclusively) amongst Afro-Americans and in the southern states. Here’s just one from the New York Times in 1984, it quotes Dr. Frate again:

According to his research, Dr. Frate said it was not uncommon for slave owners to put masks over the mouths of slaves to keep them from eating dirt. The owners thought the practice was a cause of death and illness among slaves, when they were more likely dying from malnutrition.

It is difficult to say how prevalent dirt-eating is today. But in 1975, among 56 black women questioned by Dr. Frate as part of a larger study on nutrition in rural Holmes County, 32 of them said they ate dirt. The survey also showed that the ingestion of dirt tended to be more common in pregnancy.

There have been other explanations. Some have suggested that the masks were used by slave owners to prevent slaves eating earth to excess, trying to commit suicide, and although there isn’t much evidence for this it may well have happened. In Brazil, where the slaves were used to mine gold, it has also been suggested that the masks were to prevent them from eating earth containing nuggets of gold and later, no doubt, recovering the nuggets from their faeces.

Another mask

Whatever the reasons for the slaves eating ‘dirt’ – be they cultural, nutritional, medicinal, suicidal or financial – and scholarly opinion has yet to reach a consensus – the fact is that the slave owners wouldn’t allow it. Perhaps they were just trying to protect their ‘investment’ in their slaves, to stop them harming themselves, even killing themselves or (and only in Brazil) stealing gold? I don’t really know and the whole subject needs more attention. But here is the ‘but’. Slaves had already been deprived of their liberty, and often their lives, but they must also be deprived of their customs, their voice. Eating the earth, eating dirt, was just one of these.

Thus while there is still some mystery about the ‘role’ of dirt eating and the reasons for the masks, there can, perhaps, be no better graphic and literal illustration of the loss of slaves’ voices than the horrific pictures of them wearing these ‘dirt eating masks’.

English sailors didn’t go quietly, and neither did the Africans. They went kicking and screaming. But the sailors, once on board His Majesty’s Royal Navy ships, had lost their voice as well as their liberty. If they tried to escape (which they repeatedly did) they could be flogged, incarcerated or hanged, as could the African slaves.

These two examples of ‘historic’ barbarities might seem very different – and they are – but one truth connects them. Britain’s rulers – the rich and powerful – wanted to extend their wealth and were willing to fight in distant lands and on distant seas to do so. Of course, most of them didn’t want to fight themselves; they needed a constant and growing stream of common cannon-fodder to man the Royal Navy’s ships and to fight for them. When ordinary English people didn’t flock to the mast in sufficient numbers to crew the growing navy, the rulers did what they always have done, they forced them to.

Exactly the same happened with slavery in the colonies. Initially, European indentured bondsmen were used on the plantations. But more and more servile and cheap labour was needed if the planters were to enrich themselves further. So what was done? With the active encouragement and support of the British government/rulers, private entrepreneurial slave traders from Bristol and Liverpool (and from elsewhere in Europe) forcibly yanked Africans from their homes and transported them to America.

Both of these things were about power and money. The voices of the less powerful were repressed and their liberties stolen. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. Marie Antoinette may have suggested that the unwashed masses eat cake, but more often than not they had to eat dirt.

Some references:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia’s Lovers, 1863; Nicholas Rogers, The Press Gang, Continuum UK, 2007; Thomas Urquhart, A letter to William Wilberforce on the Subject of Impressment, 1816; Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate,  Geophagia in rural Mississippi: environmental and cultural contexts and nutritional implications, 2001. http://www.ajcn.org/content/32/10/2129.full.pdf , William Schmidt, Southern Practice of Eating Earth shows signs of Waning, New York Times, 1984; Alan Huffman, It’s hard to quite the habit, Mississippi dirt-eaters say, Clarion-Ledger, 1983; Alexander Woywodt and Akos Kiss, Geophagia: the history of earth-eating, 2002;  Geophagy,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geophagy.