Posts Tagged ‘Slave trade’

‘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