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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.