Shipboard revolt: Not an unusual occurrence
About 100 leagues off the west coast of Africa, the Newport slave ship Little George bobbed in the darkness.
While the crew slept – dawn was an hour away — a group of slaves escaped from their irons and killed John Harris, a doctor; Jonathan Ebens, a barrel-maker and Thomas Ham, a sailor.
Awakened by the commotion, Capt. George Scott and several crewmen huddled in his quarters to come up with a plan: they would hurl two bottles of gunpowder into the midst of the slaves and “either suppress them or lose our Lives,” Scott told the Newport Mercury.
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But when a crewman tried to light a bottle of gunpowder, a slave broke it with an ax. A nearby keg of gunpowder exploded, blew out the windows, burned a crew member and injured Scott.
After blocking the captain in his quarters, the Africans sailed for land. Nine days later, the ship struck a sandbar in the Sierra Leone River. The Africans waded ashore and fired on Scott and his men as they tried to escape to the other side of the river. The beaten crew sought food and water from a French ship, “being all of us in a weak and miserable condition” Scott said of the 1730 uprising.
The shipboard revolt is 1 of 17 — including the attack aboard the Sally — reported by Rhode Island captains and newspapers from 1730 to 1807. More than a dozen crewmen and more than 100 slaves died in the uprisings, says historian Jay Coughtry. That number is probably higher because captains were reluctant to report such losses, he says.
In 1762, Newport Capt. George Frost, anchored in an African river, sent two men ashore to gather wood, then allowed 60 slaves to come topside. The Africans threw Frost overboard. When he tried to return to the ship, they harpooned him, according to a newspaper account. Frost then tried to swim to shore, “but after swimming about half the way, he sunk, and was seen no more.”
Even a few Africans could mount a takeover. In 1795, Providence Capt. Abijah Potter allowed his first six slaves to roam the main deck of the Liberty. They killed him and a mate with an ax.
Crews were careless and often ill, explains David Eltis, a history professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Also, many slaves were prisoners from tribal wars and may have been combative, he says. In fact, during the 300 years that slave trading flourished internationally, the slaves commandeered about 40 ships and returned to Africa.
The attacks dispel the image by some historians of chained and passive captives suffering aboard ships bound for the New World. “I have no doubt that, given the opportunity, they wanted to take over the ship and return to Africa,” says Eltis.
Paul Davis is a former staff writer for The Providence Journal.