Read The Amistad Rebellion Online

Authors: Marcus Rediker

The Amistad Rebellion (9 page)

BOOK: The Amistad Rebellion
11.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Chained bondspeople, as well as baskets of rice, casks of water, and livestock, would be loaded and stowed as quickly as possible, the canoemen and ship’s sailors working rapidly in concert. As soon as the men loaded everything the delivery craft could carry, back they went to shore for a second load of freight as the receiving vessel sometimes sailed back out to sea, in order not to be seen—or worse, caught—at the slaving factory. Half-loaded vessels would not head out to the main sea-lanes, but would stick close to the coast, hiding in lagoons and estuaries where the British vessels could not easily patrol.

The canoes and other small craft that swarmed around the slave factories were manned by the men of an ethnic group called the Kru, or “Fishmen,” because they oscillated between slave trading and fishing as the seasons and economic demand dictated. They lived along the coast of Liberia and were known for their maritime skills. Drumming and singing, the Kru deftly handled their canoes through “surge and breakers” others could not navigate. Their strength and stamina were legendary: they made two-hundred-mile journeys and could paddle fast enough to overtake vessels under sail. When they reached arriving vessels, they scrambled up the chains and got to work. They wore colored handkerchiefs around their loins and large carved bone or ivory rings around their wrists and ankles. Distinguished by their “country marks”—a line from the forehead along the ridge of the nose, with similar short horizontal lines at the outer angle of each eye—they also sported tattoos on their forearms, “in imitation of the English seamen with whom they associate.” These “universally great watermen” sported newly given names, such as Bottle of Beer, Frying Pan, and Duke of Wellington as they did the work of the slave trade and, indeed, almost all trades from Freetown to Monrovia.

British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and American vessels called at Lomboko, most of them in defiance of their own nation’s laws. The British government negotiated numerous treaties in which their trading competitors agreed to abolish the commerce in human beings, but the trade thrived illegally, much of it in the 1830s beneath the American stars and stripes. This was because the United States, unlike the other nations, refused to sign an agreement that allowed British naval captains to inspect their vessels. Francis Bacon, who was shipwrecked on the Gallinas Coast and spent two and a half years enjoying the hospitality of Blanco and other traders, noted that “the American flag is a complete shelter; no man of war dares to capture an American vessel.” The colors of the United States were often flown even when the owner of the vessel, the merchant, and the captain were not American, in order to disguise and protect their illegal activities. The proslavery American consul in Cuba, Nicholas Trist, supported these unlawful activities.

Each factory along the coast “consisted of a business room, with warehouse attached, filled with merchandize and provisions, and a barracoon for the slaves.” The buildings were constructed in the common regional style: workers drove stakes into the ground and wattled them together with tough, willowy vines and topped them with thatch. According to Frederick Forbes, a naval officer who had visited the factories of the Gallinas region in the 1840s, the barracoon was “a shed made of heavy piles, driven deep into the earth, and lashed together with bamboos, thatched with palm leaves,” equipped with chains, neck-rings, and padlocks. The walls of the structure were “four to six feet high, and between them and the roof is an opening about four feet, for the circulation of air.” The floor had planks, “not from any regard to comfort to the slave, but because a small insect, being in the soil, might deteriorate the merchandise, by causing a cutaneous disease.” Connected to each barracoon was a yard, where the enslaved were required to exercise daily. Dr. Hall noted that most enclosures contained “from 100 to 500 slaves,” the largest “near 1,000.” The
Africans were held here for several weeks awaiting
transit to a slaver. Sessi noted that he was incarcerated at Lomboko for a month, Cinqué for two months. Burna stayed at the fortress for “three and a half moons,” during which time he did something to earn a flogging from no less a person than Pedro Blanco himself. His future as a rebel aboard the
was foretold.


Two to four white men, usually Spanish or Portuguese, tended each barracoon. “A more pitiable looking set of men we never met with,” reported Dr. Hall. Blanco employed seventeen fellow European adventurers, who were variously feverish, suffering from malaria, emaciated, swollen, and dirty. They had dared to come to the “White Man’s Grave,” where, survivors said darkly, premature death was “
la fortuna de guerra.
” Many died under ignominious circumstances, far from home, chasing the wealth that could be accumulated rapidly in the slave trade on the Gallinas Coast.

During the 1830s the barracoons of Lomboko were often filled with children. Dr. Hall recalled visiting an enclosure that contained “some 300 boys, all apparently between ten and fifteen years of age, linked together in squads of twenty or thirty.” Children, he thought, were popular among traders because larger numbers of them could be jammed aboard the slave ships and, once there, more easily controlled. Hall was haunted by the thought of “these bright-eyed little fellows”
who were “doomed to the horrors of a middle latitude passage, probably in a three and a half feet between decks.” Grabeau recalled that there were about two hundred children on board the
during their voyage, which commenced in April 1839.

The condition of the enslaved held in the barracoons varied over time. Blanco was known for what some considered “humane” treatment—reasonable amounts of food, and limited violence on the part of the barracoon overseers. The regional system for the delivery of provisions did not always work well, and famine-like conditions could arise, whereupon, under extreme circumstances, “whole barracoons of slaves have been let loose for want of food.” Those who escaped of their own initiative would be hunted down by overseers using dogs, and sometimes killed.

The social routine at Lomboko was similar to what the enslaved would encounter at sea; indeed, it was in many ways a preparation for it. Forbes noted that “night and day these barracoons are guarded by armed men: the slightest insubordination is immediately punished.” Those who resisted their enslavement would not be allowed out of the barracoon for meals, washing, and dancing. Overseers fed captives fish and rice twice a day. Grabeau recalled that men were “chained together by the legs.” Any man the guards considered strong and dangerous was singled out for special treatment: he might be “beaten half to death to ensure his being quiet,” then heavily fettered and locked in place between two others to limit his movements. Any man who dared to resist his captors would be given vicious exemplary punishments in order to terrorize everyone else. The most rebellious might be flogged to death.

The horror stories of Lomboko spread far and wide. Brazilian, Portuguese, and Spanish seamen told Captain Forbes “fearful tales” of fever, famine, and mass death at the factories. George Thompson heard that because of rough waters and the “bad bar” at the mouth of the Gallinas River, “hundreds of poor natives” had been lost to “swarms of sharks” when canoes overset. On one occasion, the sea for miles around was “red with their blood.” The
Africans would
carry horror stories of their own as they left Lomboko and boarded the slave ship

A Brazilian Slaver

As it happened, George Thompson went aboard a Brazilian slave ship of roughly the same size as the
soon after he arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in May 1848. The vessel had been captured by the British antislavery squadron. The five hundred enslaved on board would be liberated and the ship itself would be condemned and later sold at auction. Thompson, it must be noted, was no stranger to slavery. He was a committed abolitionist who had spent five years in a Missouri prison for his efforts to free the enslaved and ferry them to freedom. Still, he was profoundly shocked by what he saw.

The first thing he noticed about the slaver was the extreme, promiscuous crowding: the “deck was literally covered with men, women and children
in a state of nudity—
many young girls and boys, and many
also!” Another two to three hundred people of all ages sat packed below on the lower deck, “
crowded between each other’s legs
” in a space of thirty to thirty-six inches headroom, “not sufficient for a person to sit up straight!” As he paced the main deck, everywhere Thompson looked, “a
dense mass
of human beings” stared back at him mutely. “It was a soul-sickening sight.” Will not the Lord awake? he wondered.

Thompson included an image of the ship he visited, drawing, literally, on the abolitionist tradition of rendering the slave ship in order to make its horrors visible and real to a reading public. He provides three views of vessel. The main one, at the top, diagrams the “form, divisions, arrangement and cargo” of the ship, with its main deck, lower (slave) deck, and hold, along with gun rooms for the ship’s thirteen cannon, and the captain’s cabin. In the hold are “leaguers,” the huge water casks required to sustain hundreds as they crossed the ocean in the tropics, as well as smaller casks for food, and ship stores. At the bottom of the page is an aerial view of the ship’s main deck, showing the two small gratings that were likely the only sources of air to those locked below.

View of a slave ship

At the left is a depiction of the enslaved stowed on the lower deck, “crowded very thickly together.” Thompson wrote that they were “shackled and handcuffed together, two and two (the right leg of one to the left leg of the next, and also the arms) to prevent their rising on the captors.” In this dark and miserable place “deadly fevers” erupted, causing many bodies to be thrown overboard each morning to “the monsters of the deep.” Such was the grim reality for several weeks as such vessels carried four hundred to six hundred people to the slave markets of Brazil and Cuba.

Thompson concluded that his efforts, in word and image, must be a failure: “No one can get a realizing sense of the horrors of a slave ship from any oral or written description—it must be
.” His final words on the subject were, “It certainly was the most awful and shocking sight that I ever beheld.” And yet whatever success he had describing these horrors owed something significant to the
rebels. Not only was Thompson in Sierra Leone because his own American Missionary Association had been founded to accompany the
captives in their repatriation, his very visualization of the slave ship
had been shaped by the successful rebellion nine years earlier. For in drawing the lower deck full of the enslaved, Thompson drew upon an image that had been engraved by John Warner Barber and published in
A History of the Amistad Captives
(1840). The original image was based on conversations the artist had with the rebels themselves in the New Haven jail. The distance between decks in both images is listed as “3 feet 3 in.” One of the faces on the lower deck appears to be that of Cinqué.

BOOK: The Amistad Rebellion
11.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Under the Apple Tree by Lilian Harry
Welcome to Icicle Falls by Sheila Roberts
Dark Lie (9781101607084) by Springer, Nancy
Nobody Loves a Bigfoot Like a Bigfoot Babe by Simon Okill, Simon Okill
Reawakening by K. L. Kreig
Yes: A Hotwife Romance by Jason Lenov
Christmas at Twin Falls by Rose, Dahlia, Lockwood, Tressie