An Education at Sea: Farm Boys and the Slave Trade
Slave ships leaving Newport tended to be smaller than their English competitors, and manned by smaller crews.
Each was likely to have no more than a crew of 10, which included an older — and better paid — captain, a first and second mate, a cooper, a cook and about five young seamen.
The seamen came from farms where they had little status in the Colony’s emerging mercantile economy.
”A life on the sea sounded romantic — especially if you were getting up at 4 a.m. and pulling a plow for your dad,” says Ray Battcher, director of the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society.
Jay Coughtry, the author of The Notorious Triangle, studied more than 100 slave voyages made between 1803 and 1807. Of those on board, 95 percent were Rhode Islanders; 75 percent lived in Newport, the Colony’s first major seaport. They were white, hometown boys, he says.
The average age of a first-time seaman was 16, but some 14- and 15-year-old, and even 11-year-old, sailors signed on as ”apprentices to the captain” or ”boys.”
Little is recorded about life at sea. But historian Howard Willis Preston imagined a typical seaman on a slave voyage in Rhode Island on the Sea, published in 1932.
”Of course, the first twenty-four or thirty-six hours would be torment; he would be seasick and yet forced to work. When this was over, there would be the long days at sea, disturbed only by the long roll of the billows as the ship slowly forged her way across the sea to the coast of Guinea and Anamaboe.”
On the African coast, the young sailor would see ”the low shores lined with the mysterious stilted mangroves and at length, through the trees on firmer ground, the trading house and so-called castles … or stockades where the slaves were imprisoned until a buyer came.” Everything, including the ”fetid pestilential” climate, was ”strange to the New England boy,” wrote Preston.
It was a world ruled by African chiefs and English traders, who dickered with the captains over prices, he said. Once purchased, the Africans were ”crowded between decks, where a space of three and one-half feet square was allotted to each.
”Then ensued the horrors of the so-called middle passage, the voyage from Africa to the West Indies. Squalid and fetid were the quarters of the slaves on shipboard,” although the crew sometimes scoured them with pails of vinegar while the slaves were on deck. ”The boy would be forced to witness the scenes of agony and see the dead thrown overboard.”
Once the slaves were sold, the young sailor could relax. The ship returned ”escorted by flying fish and porpoises, across the gulf stream to the darker waters of the north and at last to Newport and home to the farm.”
The young man would return with more than a seaman’s wage. ”The slave trade was the greatest educator Rhode Island ever had,” Preston speculated. Even if the young man returned to the farm, ”his whole outlook on life would be changed.”
Paul Davis is a former staff writer for The Providence Journal.