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Stories Onboard Slave Ships

Lee is a Masters in Management graduate who has been working as a freelance writer and researcher since 2009.

The slave trade lasted for almost four hundred years, reaching its height from 1700 to 1808. This saw over 12 million slaves being transported across the Atlantic ocean on American and British ships in the greatest forced migration history has ever seen. Almost two million never survived the 6 to 10 weeks long Middle Passage, whether dying from the ever-present danger of deadly diseases or from man-made causes, their bodies were thrown into the sea for the trailing sharks. (Rediker, 2008, p.5).

Slave uprising is not only common but expected on board. Even if there is little or no chance of escape, slaves will still attempt to do so (Rediker, 2008, p.14). They are willing to risk their lives than to live a life as slaves.

Captain Tomba

Captain Tomba stood out from other slaves, not just because of his outward appearance—tall, masculine, and brave looking, but because of his stubborn and apparent defiance of authority. He was once a chief of a group of villages in Rino Nuñez that is against slavery. He led a hostile uprising against neighboring villages that cooperate and tolerate slave trades. He was eventually captured and purchased by Captain Richard Harding and taken aboard the slave ship Robert of Bristol (Rediker, 2008, 15).

Aboard the Robert Captain Tolba stayed in a holding pen with other miserable captives. Once, on a line-up for inspection aimed at prospective buyers, he showed utter disgust, remained uncooperative and did not want to submit his body for examination. For his behavior, he was awarded by John Leadstine, head of the slave factory on Bance Island in Sierra Leone, with a brutal whipping. But even then, he refused to cooperate, which made Leadstine angrier. Captain Tolba showed resilience throughout the whipping. He even felt ashamed that a trickle of tears escaped his eyes and tried to hide it (Rediker, 2008, p.14-15).

However, the punishment only added to his desire to escape from his captors. Captain Tolba planned and rallied his co-captives to his campaign “with the prospect of liberty” but only two, a man and a woman, joined him. The plan failed though he managed to kill a few crewmen. As a result of their action, Captain Harding decided that it is not for his economic favor if he’ll kill the mutineers. Captain Tolba’s accomplice suffered cruel deaths. Captain Harding used their death as an example to elicit fear among the other captives to suppress any further attempts to escape. Captain Tolba was later on sold in Jamaica together with 189 other slaves at a much higher price (Rediker, 2008, p.16).

The Nameless Man

A family man from Saltpan village on the Gold Coast, together with his mother, wife, and two daughters--all convicted of witchcraft, came to be on board slave ship Brooks bound for Kingston, Jamaica around late 1783 or early 1784. A trader by occupation, he became enslaved because of a disagreement with his village captain. As retaliation, the village captain accused him and his family of witchcraft and sold to the ship (Rediker, 2008, p.17).

The Physician of the Brook, Thomas Trotter, noticed that when the man and his family came on board, they all seemed to be in the state of shock and sullen melancholy. This is by no means unusual; any person who gets thrown in a slave ship would do so. But captives tend to get over their sorry state and lift their spirits after accepting the reality that they are now in bondage and after familiarization of the strange new world. The family’s disposition did not (Ibid.).

The Nameless Man immediately turns down any food that was given to him. This reaction is typical, but he went further. On one early morning, when sailors went below deck to check on the prisoners, they found the man with blood all over him, attempting to cut his own throat. The sailors immediately called Thomas Trotter. Trotter immediately provided aid and stitched up the man’s throat. The throat wound, however, made it more impossible for the man to eat or even to force feed him. Nevertheless, on the following night, the man attempted to commit suicide by ripping open the stitches on his throat and tried cutting it once more. Trotter once again provided medical aid when the man talked to him. The nameless man expressed that he’d rather face death than go with white men. The doctor ordered a search to the crewmen to find the tool he used to cut his throat. When the search turned up empty, Doctor Trotter noticed the man’s jagged fingernails. He concluded that the man was desperate enough, that he will do anything to kill himself (Rediker, 2008, p.18).

Yet the Nameless Man survived another suicide attempt and this time, the man’s hands were secured to avoid inflicting more harm to himself. No efforts will rival the nameless man’s determination to die. He still refused to eat anything and after a few more weeks on the Brook, he died of starvation. Trotter informed the captain of the Brook, Captain Clement Noble of what had happened. The Captain replied by saying of the man to have “stormed and made a great noise, worked with his hands, and threw himself about in an extraordinary manner, and showed every sign of being mad.” (Ibid).

In 1790, when Doctor Thomas Trotter told the Nameless Man’s story before a parliament committee investigating the slave trade, it sparked a surge of debate. Proslavery parliament members sided with Captain Clement Noble arguing that the Nameless Man was probably insane because no man in his right man would do such harm to himself. Antislavery parliament members, counteract by asking the professional opinion of Doctor Trotter if, indeed, the man is mad. The doctor replied that a degree of delirium overtook the man’s health. However, he was perfectly sane when he boarded the ship (Ibid).

The Boatswain

Leadership among slaves occur from below decks during the Middle Passage. On a slave ship called Nightingale, a woman who came to be known as “the boatswain” showed her leadership skills by keeping order amongst her fellow enslaved women. She ruled them with fierce determination in ensuring that everyone survives the torment of ocean crossing (Rediker, 2008, p.16).

In early 1769, her self-proclaimed authority conflicted with that of the ship’s officers. She was uncooperative with the second mate and as a result, got herself whipped by him. She was outraged by his treatment and retaliated by attacking the man. This only resulted in much more whipping. Thwarted and overmatched, she leaped a few feet on the deck and dropped down dead. Her body was later thrown overboard (Ibid).

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Not all slaves tend to experience the same horrendous life aboard slave ships. A very few numbers do find favor in their captains. In 1785, a young woman aboard a Liverpool slave ship Hudibras in Old Calabar is a good example. Captain Jenkin Evans gave her the biblical name Sarah meaning princess, after the name of the wife of Abraham (Rediker, 2008, p.19).

A sailor named William Butterworth described Sarah as having beauty, charm, and grace. She is the best dancer and singer on deck. She appeared to be of a happy disposition even under the pressure of enslavement and displacement. Other crewmen had high esteem saying, she was generally respected. Captain Evan enjoyed the company of Sarah the most since she provided him not only entertainment but sexual gratification as well (Ibid).

Inevitably, the slaves of the Hudibras mutinied with the goal of killing the ship’s company and taking over the vessel. The uprising was quickly suppressed with severe punishments for the instigators. Captain Evans suspected that Sarah was indirectly involved in the revolt (Ibid).

Human Commodity

Slaves constituted of men, women, and children of different race, mostly of raids and prisoners of wars. Captain Tomba, The Nameless Man, The Boatswain and Sarah are just a few of the millions of slaves traded as commodities. These human commodities are transported to work as field laborers in plantation and factories. The process of displacing these people shaped and transformed racial thinking and ideas. These racist ideas are propagated until it is widely accepted by the public as truths.

These slaves, constituted mostly of African descent, were given the name “Negros” because of their dark-colored skin. Negros was described as the epitome of ugliness and misshapenness because of the form of their physical features. Negro women would be described with very large buttocks depicting the shape of the saddle. What is worst is the way they characterize the behavior of these people. They would be categorized synonymously with idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness and intemperance. Almost everything unconstructive that could be associated with a person. Most hurtful of all is the way they are treated—as barbaric and savage people.

Deep-rooted prejudices resulted in treating slaves as animals. They take the form of a human being but are not equal. They are studied as though they are some sort of specimen that seemed to have not evolved as fully as those of “white men.”

Capitalism and Slave Trade

Marcus Rediker explains that the invention of the ship marks the beginning of the slave trade. The origins of the slave ship go back to the late fifteenth century when the Portuguese made voyages to the west coast of Africa, where they bought gold, ivory, and human beings (Rediker, 2008, p. 41-42).

Slave trade flourished because of capitalism. The urgent and exceeding demand for workforce made the slave trade profitable and acceptable. They provide maximum efficiency while minimizing the costs of production. It would be easy to assume that the slave trade transpires because of the looming technological development and economic boom. This assumption is false. Propaganda proliferated to again, justify the existence and validity of human trade.


In our contemporary world, slaves are just a thing of the past, part of a dark history that seemed to be a million years ago. Reparations have been made. Negros was no longer referred to as such. Called African-Americans, these people now enjoy the same rights and privileges that the “white men” enjoy.

The past cannot be undone. We cannot amend with people who already died. What we could do is learn from their story. And the best way to preserve their journey and affirm their existence is to not forget that it happened. No matter how painful the past is, it should not be forgotten.


Rediker, M. (2008). The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Penguin Books.


ThomasBaker from Florida on March 13, 2012:

This is great piece of writing, Lee. I have crewed aboard sailing vessels with all the comforts of home and still been uncomfortable. I cannot imagine what being on a slave ship was like. It seems like the depths of hell to me. I really have not heard much about slave ships before. Thank you for educating me.


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