Captain William Snelgrave

Captain William Snelgrave, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave trade.  London: 1734.


Mutinies among the Negroes, in the Ships where the Author has been.  I come now to give an Account of the Mutinies that have happened on board the ships where I have been.  This is the best first hand description of how the slave operative, and negotiated for Africans on the coast.

These Mutinies are generally occasioned by the Sailors ill usage of these poor People, when on board the Ships wherein they are transported to our Plantations.  Wherever therefore I have commanded, it has been my principal Care, to have the Negroes on board my ship kindly used; and I have always strictly charged my white People to treat them with Humanity and Tenderness:  In which I have usually found my Account, both in keeping them from mutinying, and preserving them in health..

And whereas it may seem strange to those that are unacquainted with the method of managing them, how we can carry so many hundreds together in a small Ship, and keep them in order; I shall just mention what is generally practiced.  When we purchase grown People, I acquaint them by the Interpreter, that now they are become my Property, I think fit to let them know what they are bought for, that they may be easy in their Minds: (for these poor People are generally under terrible Apprehension upon their being bought by white Men, many being afraid that we design to eat them; which I have been told is a story much credited by the inland Negroes;)  so after informing them, That they are bought to till the Ground in our Country, with several other Matters; I then acquaint them, how they are to behave themselves on board, toward the white Men; that if any one abuses the, they are to complain to the Linguist, who is to inform me of it, and I will do them Justice:  But if they make a Disturbance, or offer to strike a white Man, they must expect to be severely punished.

When we purchase the Negroes, we couple the sturdy Men together with Irons; but we suffer the Women and Children to go freely about:  And soon after we have sailed from the Coast, we undo all the Men’s Irons.

They are fed twice a day, and are allowed in fair Weather to come on Deck at seven a clock in the Morning, and to remain there, if they think proper, till Sun setting.  Every Monday Morning they are served with Pipes and Tobacco, which they are very fond of.  The Men Negroes lodge separate from the Women and Children; and the places where they are lye are cleaned every day, some white Men being appointed to see the do it.

It would be tedious to the Reader as well as to myself, should I relate all the Particular of our Management of them, and the Care we take to keep then in health and order; wherefore I shall conclude with this remark, That if a Commander is himself well inclined, and has good Officers to execute his Orders, the Negroes on board may be easily governed; and many Difficulties (which unavoidably arise amongst such Numbers) got over with a little trouble.

The first Mutiny I saw among the Negroes, happened during my first Voyage in the Year 1704.  It was on board the Eagle Galley of London, commanded by my Father, with whom I was a Purser.  We had bought our Negroes in the River of Old Callabar in the Bay of Guinea.  At the time of their mutinying we were in that River, having four hundred of them on board, and not above then white Men who were able to do Service:  For several of our ship’s Company were dead, and many more sick; besides, two of our Boats were just then gone wit twelve People on Shore to fetch Wood, which lay in sight of the Ship.  All these Circumstances put the Negroes consulting how to mutiny, which they did at four a clock in the Afternoon, just as they went to Supper.  But as we had always carefully examined the Men’s Irons, both Morning and Evening, none had got them off, which in a great measure contributed to our Preservation.  Three white Men stood on the Watch with Cutlaces in their Hands.  One of them who was on the Forecastle, a stout fellow, seeing some of the Men Negroes take hold of the chief Mate, in order to throw him over board, he laid on them so heartily with the flat side of his Cutlace, that they soon quitted the Mate, who escaped from them and run on the Quarter Deck to get Arms.  I was then sick with an Ague, and lying on a Couch in the great Cabbin, the Fit being just come on.  However I   no sooner heard the Outcry, That the Slaves were mutinying, but I took two Pistols, and run on the Deck with them; where meeting with my Father and the Chief Mate, I delivered a Pistol to each of them.  Whereupon they went forward on the Booms, calling to the Negroe Men that were on the Forecastle; but they did not regard their Threats, being busy with the Century, (who had disengaged the chief Mate,) and they would have certainly killed him with his own Cutlance, could they have got it from him; but they could make use of his Cutlace.  Being thus disappointeeed, they endeavoured to throw him overboard, but he held so fast by one of them that they could not do it.  My Father seeing this shout Man in so much Danger ventured amongst the Negroes, to save him; and fired his Pistol over their Heads, thinking to frighten them.  But a lusty Slave struck him with a Billet so hard, that he was almost stunned.  The Slave was going to repeat the Blow, when a young Lad about seventeen years old, whom we had been kind to, interposed him Arm, and revdewived the low, by which his Arm bone was fractured.  At the same instant the Mate fired his Pistol, and shot the Negroe that had struck my Father.  At the fight of this the Mutiny ceased, and all the Men negroes on the Forecastle threw themselves flat on their Faces, crying out for Mercy.

Upon examining into the matter, we found, there were not above twenty Men slaves concerned in this Mutiny; and the two Ringleaders were missing, having, it seems, jumped overboard as soon as they found their Project defeated, and were drowned.  This was all the Loss we suffered on this occasion:  for the Negroe that was shot by the Mate, the Surgeon, beyond all Expectation, cured. And I had the good Fortune to lose my Ague, by the fright and hurry I was put into.  Moreover, the young Man, who had received the Blow on his Arm to save my Father, was cured by the Surgeon in our Passage to Virginia.  At our Arrival in that place we gave him his Freedom; and a worthy Gentleman, one Colonel Carter, took him into his service, till he became well enough acquainted in the Country to provide for himself.

I have been several Voyages, when there has been no Attempt made by our Negroes to mutiny; which, I believe, was owing chiefly, to their being kindly used, and to my officers Care in keeping a good Watch.  But sometimes we meet with stout stubborn People amongst them, who are never to be made easy; and these are generally some of the Cormantines, a Nation of the Gold Coast.  I went in the year 1721, in the Henry of London, A Voyage to that part of the Coast, and bought a good many of these People.  We were obliged to secure them very well in Irons, and watch them narrowly:  Yet they nevertheless mutinied, though’ they had little prospect of succeeding.  I lay at that time near a place called Mumford on the Gold Coast, having near five hundred Negroes on board, three hundred of which were Men.  Our Ship’s Company consisted of fifty while People, all in health: And I had very good Officers; so that I was very easy in all respects.

This Mutiny began at Midnight (the Moon then shining very bright) in this manner.  Two men that stood Centry at the Fore-hatch way, where the Men Slaves came up to go to the house of Office, permitted four to go to that place; but neglected to lay the Gratings again, as they should have done:  Whereupon four more Negroes came on Deck, who had got their Irons off, and the four in the house of Office having done the same, all the eight fell on the two Centries, who immediately called out for help.  The negroes endeavoured to get their Cutlaces from them, but the Lineyards (that is the Lines by which the handles of the Cutlaces were fastened to the Men’s Wrists) were so twisted in the Scuffle, that they could not get them off before we came to their Assistance.  The Negroes perceivng several white Men coming toward them, with Arms in their hands, quitted the Centries, and jumped over the Ship’s side into the Sea.

I being by this time come forward on the Deck, my first care was to secure the Grating, to prevent any more Negroes from coming up; and then I ordered People to get into the Boat, and save those that had jumped over-board, which they luckily did:  For they found them all clinging to the Cables the Ship was moored by.

After we had secured these People, I called the Linguists, and ordered them to bid the Men-Negroes between Decks be quiet; (for there was a great noise amongst them).  On their being silent, I asked, “What had induced them to mutiny?  They answered, I was a great Rogue to buy them, in order to carry them away from their own Country; and that they were resolved to regain their Liberty if possible.”  I replied “That they had forfeited their Freedom before I bought them, either by Crimes, or by being taken in War, according to the Custom of their Country; and they being now my Property, I was resolved to let them feel my Resentment, if they abused my Kindness:  Asking at the same time, Whether they had been ill used by the white Men, or had wanted for anything the Ship afforded?”  To this they replied, “They had nothing to complain of.”  Then I observed to them, “that if they should gain their Point and escape to the Shore, it would be no Advantage to them, because their Countrymen would catch them, and sell them to other Ships.”  This served my purpose, and they seemed to be convinced of their Fault, begging, I would forgive them, and promising for the future to be obedient, and never mutiny again, if I would not punish them this time.  This I readily granted, and so they went to sleep.  When Day-light came we called the Men Negroes up on Deck, and examining their Iron, found them all secure.  So this Affair happily ended, which I was very glad of; for these People are the stoutest and most sensible Negroes on the Coast:  Neither are they so weak as to imagine as others do, that we buy them to eat them; being satisfied we carry them to work in our Plantations, as they do in their own Country.

However, a few days after this, we discovered they were plotting again, and preparing to mutiny.  For some of the Ringleaders proposed to one of our Linguist, if they could procure them an Ax, they would cut the Cables the Ship rid by in the night; and so on her driving (as they imagined) ashore, they should get out of our hands, and then would become his Servants as long as they lived.

For the better understanding of this I must observe here, that these Linguists are Natives and Freemen of the Country, whom we hire on account of their speaking good English, during the time we remain trading on the Coast; and they are likewise Brokers between us and the black Merchants.

This Linguist was so honest as to acquaint me with what had been proposed to him; and advised me to keep a strict Watch over the Slaves:  For tho’ he had represented to them the same as I had done on their mutinying before, That they would be all catch’d again, and sold to other Ships, in case they could carry their Point, and get on Shore; yet it had no effect on them.

This gave me a good deal of Uneasiness.  For I knew several Voyages had proved unsuccessful by Mutinies; as they occasioned either the total loss of the Ship and the white Men’s Lives; or at least by rendering it absolutely necessary to kill or wound a great number of the Slaves, in order to prevent a total Destruction.  Moreover, I knew many of these Cormantine Negroes despised Punishment, and even death itself:  It having often happened at Barbados and other Islands, that on their being any ways hardly dealt with, to break them of their Stubbornness in refusing to work, twenty or more have hang’d themselves at a time in a Plantation.  However, about a Month after this, a sad Accident happened, that brought our Slaves to be more orderly, and put them in a better Temper:  And it was this.  On our going from Mumfort to Annmaboe, which is the principal part on the Gold Coast, I met there with another of my Owner’s ships, called the Elizabeth. One Captain Thomson that commanded her was dead; as also his chief Mate:  Moreover the Ship had afterwards been taken at Cape Laboe on the windward Coast, by Roberts the Pirate, with whom several of the Sailors belonging to her had entered.  However, some of the Pirates had hindered the Cargoe’s being plundered, and obtained that the Ship should be restored to the second Mate:  Tell him, They did it out of respect to the generous Character his Owner bore, in doing good to poor Sailors.

When I met with this Vessel I had almost disposed of my ship’s Cargoe; and the Elizabeth being under my Direction, I acquainted the second Mate, who then commanded her, That I thought it for our Owner’s Interest, to take the Slaves from on board him, being about 120, into my ship; and then go off the Coast; and that I would deliver him at the same time the Remains of my Cargoe, for him to dispose of with his own after I was sailed.  This he readily complied with, but told me, “He feared his Ship’s Company would mutiny, and oppose my taking the Slaves from him:  and indeed, they came at that instant in a Body on the Quarter-deck; where one spoke for the rest, telling me plainly, they would not allow the Slaves to be taken out by me.  I found by this they had loss all respect for their present Commander, who indeed was a weak Man.  However, I calmly asked the reason, Why they offered to oppose my taking the Slaves?  To which they answered, “I had no business with them.”  On this I desired the Captain to send to his Scrutre, for the Book of Instructions Captain Thompson had received from our Owner; and he read to them at my request, that Parr, in which their former Captain, of his successor (in case of Death) was to follow my Orders.  Hereupon they all cried out, they should remain a great while longer on the Coast to purchase more Slaves, if I took these from them, which they were resolved to oppose.  I answered, “That such of the Ship’s Company as desired it, I would receive on board my own; where they should have the same Wages they had at present on board the Elizabeth, and I would send some of my own People to supply their Places.”  This so reasonable an Offer was refused, one of the Men who was the Ship’s Cooper telling me, that the Slaves had been on board a long time, and they had great Friendship with them:  therefore they would keep them.  I asked him, whether he had ever been on the Coast of Guinea before:  He replied no.  Then I told him, I supposed he had not by his way of talking, and advised him not to rely on the Friendship of the Slaves, which he might have reason to repent of when too late.  And ‘tis remarkable this very person was killed by them the next Night, as shall be presently related.

So finding that reasoning with these Men was to no Purpose, I told them, when I came with my Boats to fetch the Slaves, they should find me as resolute to chastise such of them as should dare t oppose me, as I had been condescending to convince them by arguing calmly.  So I took my leave of their Captain, telling him, I would come next Moring to finish the Affair.

But that very Night, which was near a month after the Mutiny on board of us as Mumfort, the Moon shining now very bright, as it did then, we heard, about ten a Clock, two or three Musquets fired on board the Elizabeth.  Upon that I ordered all our Boats to be manned, and having secured everything in our Ship, to prevent our Slaves from mutinying, I went myself in our Pinnacle, (the other Boats following me) on board the Elizabeth.  In our way we saw two Negroes swimming from her, but before we could reach them with our Boats, some Sharks rose from the bottom, and tore them in Pieces.  We came presently along the side of the Ship, where we found two Men-Negroes holding b reach them with our Boats, some Sharks rose from the bottom, and tore them in Pieces.  We came presently along the side of the Ship, where we found two Men-Negroes holding b a Rope, with their Heads just above water; they were afraid, it seems, to swim from the Ship’s side, having seen their Companions devoured just before by Sharks.  These two slaves we took into our Boat, and then went into the Ship, where we found the Negroes very quiet, and all under Deck; but the Ship Company was on the Quarter-deck, in a great Confusion, saying “The Copper, who had been placed centry at the Fore-hatch way, over the Men-Negroes, was, they believed, kill’d by them.  I was surprised to hear this, wondering that these cowardly fellows, who had so vigorously opposed my taking the Slaves out, a few hours before, had not Courage enough to venture forward, to save their Ship-mate; but had secured themselves by shutting the Quarter-deck-door, where they all stood with Arms in their Hands, so went to the fore-part of the Ship with some of my People, and there we found the Cooper lying on his back quite death, his Scull being cleft asunder with a Hatcher that lay by him.  At the sight of this I called for the Linguist, and bid him ask the Negroes between Decks, “Who had killed the white Man?”  They answered They knew nothing of the matter; for there had been no design of mutinying amongst them:  Which upon Examination we found true; for above one hundred the Negroes then on board, being bought to Windward [Coast] did not understand a word of the Gold Coast [Akan] language, and so had not been in the Plot.  But this Mutiny was contrived by a few Cormantee-Negroes, who had been purchased about two or three day before.  At last, one of the two Men-Negroes we had taken up along the Ship side, impeached his Companion, and he readily confessed he had kill’d the Cooper, with no other View, but that he and his Countrymen might escape undiscovered by swimming on Shore.  For on their coming upon Deck, they observed, that all the white Men set to watch were asleep; and having found the Cook’s Hatcher by the fire-place, he took it up, not designing then to do any Mischief with it; but passing by the Cooper, who was centry, and he beginning to awake, the Negroes rashly struck him on the head with it, and they jump’d overboard.  Upon this frank Confession, the white Men would have cut him to Pieces; but I prevented it, and carried him to my own Ship.  Early the next morning, I went on board the Elizabeth with my Boats, and sent away all the Negroes then in her, into my own ship: not one the other ship’s Company offering to oppose it.  Two of them, the Carpenter and Steward, desired to go with me, which I readily granted; and by way of Security for the future success of the Voyage, I put my chief Mate, and four of my under Officers (with their own Consent,) on board the Elizabeth; and they arrived, about five Months after this, at Jamaica, having disposed of most part of the Cargoe.

After having sent the Slaves out of the Elizabeth, as I have just now mentioned, I went on board my own ship; and there being then in the Road of Anamaboe, eight fail of ships beside us, I sent an officer in my Boat to the Commanders of them, To desire their Company on board my ship, because I had an Affair of great Consequence to communicate to them.  Soon after, most of them were pleaa3ed to come; and I having acquainted them with the whole Matter, and they having also heard the Negroe’s Confession, that he had killed the white Man; they unanimously advised me to put him to death; arguing, that Blood required Blood, by all Laws both divine and human; especially as there was in this Case the clearest Proof, namely the Murderer’s Confession:  Moreover this would in all probability prevent future Mischiefs; for by publicly executing this Person at the ship’s Fore-yard Arm, the Negroes on board their Ships would see it; and as they were very much disposed to mutiny, it might prevent them from attempting it.  These Reasons, with my being in the same Circumstances, made me comply.

Accordingly we acquainted the Negroe that he was to die in an hour’s time for murdering the white Man.  He answered, “He must confess it was a rash action in him to kill him; but he desired me to consider, that if I put him to death, I should lose all the Money I had paid for him.”  To this I bid the Interpreter reply, That tho’ I knew it was customary in his Country to commute for Murder by a Sum of Money, yet it was not so with us; and he should find that I had no regard to my Profit in this respect:  for as soon as an Hour-Glass, just then turned, was run out, he should be put to death; At which I observed he shewed no Concern.

Hereupon the other Commanders went on board their respective ships, in order to have all their Negroes upon Deck at the time of Execution and to inform them of the occasion of it.  The Hour-Glass being run, the Murderer was carried on the Ship’s Forecastle, where he had a Rope fastened under his Arms, in order to be hoisted up to the Fore-yard Arm, to be shot to death.  This some of his Countrymen observing, told him, (as the Linguist informed me afterwards) “That they would not have him be frightened; for it was plain I did not design to put him to death, otherwise the Rope would have put about his neck, to hang him”  for it seems they had no thought of his being shot; judging he was only to be hoisted up to the Yard-arm, in order to scare him:  But they immediately saw the contrary; for as soon as he was hoisted up, ten white Men who were placed behind the Barricado on the Quarter-deck, fired their Musquets, and instantly killed him.  This struck a sudden Damp upon our Negroe-Men, who thought, that on account of my Profit, I would not executed him.

The Body being let down upon the Deck, the Head was cut off, and thrown overboard.  This last part was done, to let our Negroes see, that all who offended thus, should be served in the same manner.  For many of the Blacks believed that if they are put to death and not dismembered, they shall return again to their own Country, after they are thrown overboard.  But neither the Person that was executed, nor his Countrymen of Cormantee (as I understood afterward,) were so weak as to believe any such thing; tho’ many I had on board from other Countries had that Opinion.

When the Execution was over, I ordered the Linguist to acquaint the Men-Negroes, that now they might judge, no one that killed a white Man should be spared:  And I thought proper now to quaint them once for all, That it they attempted to mutiny again, I should be obliged to punish the Ring leaders with death, in order to prevent further Mischief.  Upon this they all promised to be obedient, and I assured them they should be kindly used, if they kept their Promise: which they faithfully did.  For we sailed, two day after, from Anamaboe for Jamaica; and tho’ they were on board near four Months, from our going off the Coast, till they were sold at that Island, they never gave us the least reason to be jealous of them; which doubtless was owing to the Execution of the white Man’s Murderer.

These three Mutinies, I have here related, are all that ever happened where I was present, tho’ I have gone many Voyages to the Coast of Guinea.  But I have heard of several that have ended in a very tragical manner.  However to avoid being tedious, I shall relate only one, which is very remarkable, and happen’d on board the Ferrers Galley of London Capt. Messervy; who by his over care, and too great Kindness to the Negroes on board his Ship, was destroyed by them, and the Voyage at last came to nothing.  I meet this Gentleman at Anamaboe on the Coast of Guinea, in January 1722.  At his coming on board my Ship, he informed me of his good fortune, in that he had purchased near 300 Negroes in a few Days, at a place called Cetre-Crue, on the windward part of the Coast of Guinea; which happened in this manner.

It seems the Inhabitants of this place, which lies near the Sea-side, had been often misused by some inland People, who for a long time had treated them in a villainous manner, whenever they went out their Towns with Salt, or any other Commodities to sell.  For knowing the People of Cetre-Crue, did in a great measure depended on them for their Food, which is Rice, they took their Commodities, and gave them just what quantity of rice they pleased, in exchange.  The Cetre-Crues having long complained of this Injury, with redress, revolved to bear it no longer, but to revenge themselves by Arms.  And they were crowned with Success, destroying and taking all the Inhabitants of the principal Town where they used to go and buy Rive.

Captain Messervy happened to anchor near Cetre-Crue just at that time, and had the opportunity of purchasing a great many of the Captives at an easy rate.  For the Conqueror were glad to get something for them at that instance, since if a Ship had not been in the Road, they would have been obliged to have killed most of the Men-Captives, for their own Security.

After the Captain had told me this story he desire me to spare him some Rice, having heard, I had purchased a great many Tons to the Windward; where he had bought little, not expecting to meet with some many Slaves.  This request I could not comply with, having provided no more than was necessary for myself, and for another of my Owner’s ships, which I quickly expected.  And understanding form him, that he had never been on the Coast of guinea before, I took the liberty to observe to him that as he had on board so many Negroes of one Town and Language, it required the utmost Care and Management to keep them from mutinying; and that I was sorry he had so little Rice for them; For I had experienced that the Windward Slaves are always very fond of it, it being their usual Food in their own Country; and he might certainly expect dissatrications and Uneasiness amongst them for want of a sufficient quantity.

This he took kindly, and having asked my Advice about other Matters, took his leave, inviting me to come next day to see him.  I went accordingly on board his ship, about three a clock in the afternoon.  At four a clock the Negroes went to supper, and Captain Messervy desired me to excuse him for a quarter of an hour, whist he went forward to see the Men-Negroes served with Victuals.  I observed from the Quarter-Deck, that he himself put Pepper and Palm Oil amongst the Rice they were going to eat.  When he came back to me, I could not forbear observing to him, How imprudent it was in him to do so:  For tho’ it was proper for a Commander sometimes to go forward, and observe how thing were manage; yet he ought to take a proper time and have a good many of his white People in Arms when he went; or else the having him so much in their Power, might encourage the Slaves to mutiny:  For he might depend upon it, they always aim at the chief Person in the Ship, whom they soon distinguish by the respect shown him by the rest of the People..

He thanked me for this Advice, but did not seen to relish it; saying He thought the old Proverb good that “The Master’s Eye make the Horse Fat.”  We then fell into other Discourse, and among other things he told me, He designed to go away in a few days:  Accordingly he sailed three days after for Jamaica.  Some Months after I went for that place, where at my arrival I found his Ship, and had the following melancholy account of his Death, which happened about ten days after he left the Coast of Guinea in this manner.

Being on the Forecastle of the Ship, amongst the Men-Negroes, when they were eating their Victuals, they laid on him, and beat out his Brains with the little Tubes, out of which they eat their boiled Rice.  This Mutiny having been plotted amongst all the grown Negroes on board, they run to the fore-art of the ship in a body, and endeavoured to force the Barricado on the Quarter-Deck, not regarding the Musquets or Half Pikes, that were presented to their Breasts by the white Men, through the Loop-holes.  So that at last the Chief Mate was obliged to order one of the Quarter-deck Guns laden with Partridge-Shot, to be fired amongst them; which occasioned a terrible Destruction:  for there were near eighty Negores killed and drowned, many jumping overboard when the Gun was fired.  This indeed put an end to the Mutiny, but most of the Slaves that remained alive grew so sullen, that several of them were starved to death, obstinately refusing to take any Sustenance:  And after the Ship was arrived at Jamaica, they attempted twice to mutiny, before the Sale of them began.  This with their former Misbehavior coming to be publicly known, none of the Planters cared to buy them, tho’s offered at a low Price.  So that this proved a very unsuccessful Voyage, for the Ship was detained many Months at Jamaica on that account, and at last was loss there in a Hurricane.