The Slave Rebellion
This fictional story of an onboard slave rebellion is based around the known history of the Lancaster Captain Samuel Sandys and the Lancaster slave ship “The Mary” in 1761. After what appears to have been a very troubled voyage, and having survived one attempted uprising, Sandys and most of his crew ended up being killed in a slave insurrection off the coast of The Gambia. This fictional story is told from the perspective of one of the few survivors of the voyage, on his return to Lancaster many months later.
Onboard slave rebellions were not uncommon on slave ships. Some succeeded, many did not, but all ended with many captives and crew being killed or badly injured.
For example, in Sept 1754 on “The Swallow” from Lancaster, under Capt. Robert Dobson 22 Africans and 5 crewmen killed in an unsuccessful revolt in The Gambia. It is reliably estimated that 75% of all onboard rebellions occurred whilst the ships were near the African coast.
Jeremiah Fletcher’s Story
This is my story of the cursed ship “The Mary”. You will have heard of her terrible fate and some think that none survived. Truth be told, as God is my witness, I escaped the carnage that was enacted on that day in December last year, but it was a terrible thing to behold.
I signed on as crew to escape the drudgery of life in Lancaster. I’d done some sailing up the coast and across to Ireland a few times, but no regular work. A future carrying backbreaking loads on the quay did not appeal. I had heard tell that there was good work to be had on islands of the Caribbean overseeing negroes, so my plan was to sail there and remain. Many Captains are happy to have less crew for the final leg home, so to reduce their wage bill.
He went searching the ale houses and gutters to get his quota of crew. Those in deep debt were offered the choice of debtors prison or ships crew.
I should have realised that this journey was set bad from the start. We were to set sail in January, but crewmen were in short supply. We ended up with James Hetherington as mate… one of the cruelest fellows you could wish to meet. He went searching the ale houses and gutters to get his quota of crew. Those in deep debt were offered the choice of debtors prison or ships crew. They were drunks and ne’er do wells. Of the crew of twenty one there was only 11 of us of any experience. For a ship like The Mary we needed 24, but we sailed as we were ‘cause Hinde didn’t want his money standing idle for too long!
Capt Sandys was well known, but a deal maker not a captain. The owner, Thomas Hinde, gives nothing for the care of his crew he is only interested in the money. It is why he sits in the biggest house on Dalton Square, whilst so many are rotting in the African seas. Sandys had worked for Hinde some years before as Captain of The Duke of Cumberland, so I supposed he would have learned something.
Those of us who could sail worked twice as hard for little or no praise, the others looked for every opportunity to idle and hide away. They were no use apart from cleaning decks and stowing goods. We spent much time trying to show them the ropes, but only one or two showed any ability. Hetherington said the others would be watchmen and guards for the cargo, but I knew they had no stomach nor loyalty for that work.
After several weeks at sea the first of our troubles started. We were off Cape Finisterre in good seas, when we spotted a ship heading in our direction. As she drew closer it became apparent she wasn’t friendly, but an Algerine cruiser out for a prize. Barbary pirates are a nasty bunch and given half a chance will not only take your ship, but the crew as well. Many a free christian man and woman has been taken to North Africa and sold into slavery by these Berbers! This possible fate awakened us all as we armed ourselves for the fight that was to come.
As she drew closer she fired a volley into our rigging causing some damage and hitting Abel Cragg badly in the leg. We fired back with our 4 deck guns and muskets and had good fortune to cause some injury and confusion amongst them. She turned away as we had chance to fire again and they to fire back, but she wasn’t deterred. After some time she turned again to come at us a second time. We could see the evil intent on their faces as they drew nearer… it didn’t look good. Were we doomed to be captives ourselves?
It looked bad until all of a sudden, before we exchanged fire and much to our surprise, she turned away again. We were thinking it was a tactic to draw our fire, until we saw the real reason. Sailing hard towards us was a large, well gunned ship. She turned out to be “HMS Wager” of the British Navy and it was a sight for sore eyes. She soon chased off the Corsair with a few cannon volleys then hove to alongside us. Abel Cragg was taken to their surgeon and we left him to return to England, no doubt minus a leg.
We spent three months in shore making good our rigging, but we eventually sailed on with dark murmurings from those who didn’t sign up for fighting! That was the last of our good fortune.
We sailed down to Africa passing many weeks through murderous seas and levante winds. Those without sea legs suffered badly, 6 or 8 were in a weak and sorry state. We stopped over on the island of Goree, recently taken by the British, then by September we arrive in Gambia, and James Island with its stinking, rotten Fort. We were all relieved to see the fort sheltered between the shores of the river, but the heat was insufferable. Captain Sandys took the four worst of the sick ashore for attention in the Fort’s infirmary, as he went to speak with the officer in charge.
The island is run as a trading post by The African Company of Merchants, but Lancaster ships had no part in this, so we could only get information and little help. When Sandys returned he told us the bad news that we were likely to be here for some time as many ships had been in recent months and so there were few negroes to buy and the price was too high. I knew this was a bad sign as the heat, disease and idleness would add to the toll on our ragged crew. The only thing stopping some from jumping ship was that there was nowhere to go!
We spent many days and weeks carrying out further repairs and preparing the ship for its cargo. Clearing out the hold, stowing away tools and weapons. One of the sick ashore, Isaac Walton from Caton, did not recover and was buried on the island. The other three returned albeit in a poor and weakened state. The mate Hetherington kept us working even in the heat and it was only the Captain who saved us from exhaustion in that humid hell. He told hetherington to go easy on us as we were already down to 19 crew and we could hardly afford to lose more.
Some weeks later we got word from the local chief on the north shore that negro captives had arrived in his town, Juffureh and that we should go to see them. We cast off and sailed closer to the shore, then Sandys and six crew, including myself, went ashore. These people may be considered primitives, but they are seasoned traders. The Chief wore so much gold he would have struggled to stand. After some pleasantries which included a gift of Whisky and some cloth, We were shown out to meet the traders and their wares. They first asked for £20 a head in goods and silver, but Sandys would have none of it. Some of the slaves were old and didn’t look in good shape. He offered £10 for the healthiest and £8 each for the three women. There were 35 of the wretches in all and in the end they agreed £10 a head for all, and although Sandys wasn’t happy with that price, it was reported to be better than many previous, who paid up to £14 per head. We would take them aboard the next day.
Many a man in Lancaster, like Hinde, Satterthwaite and Barber, has been made wealthy on the backs of negro slaves, either from trading them or from their labour, but it is a pitiable and beastly trade when seen close to hand.
As these blacks were brought aboard you could see the mix of fear, anger and defiance amongst them. The men were shackled and put straight in the hold and some started wailing and shouting, but Sandys insisted, against Hetherington’s wishes, that the women could help on deck washing clothes and preparing food. The men liked this idea, having not seen a woman for several months. On securing the hold, we sailed back towards James Island to await more cargo. We still needed another 60 or more.
Suddenly one of them gave a loud cry and they all came at us with their loose shattles as weapons.
We waited 2 more weeks keeping the slaves washed and exercised, the boat clean and trying to avoid the heat, stink and insects. By the end of November, some of the lads came down with the fever, common in those parts when close to shore. At around this time 5 of the captives had to be brought up on deck because of sickness. Sandys ordered that we remove their shattles whilst they were washed down before isolating them to stop any spread. Suddenly one of them gave a loud cry and they all came at us with their loose shattles as weapons. We quickly retreated to the Quarter Deck, closing the gates and raising the alarm, firing guns to subdue them. The watch on James Island also shot and hit one in the stomach, at which the others lost heart. Hetherington had them rounded up and seemed to relish their punishment with the cat, held back only by Sandys desire not to lose any more of Hinde’s property. The one who was shot was thrown overboard as he would not have survived.
These rebellions are not as rare as you think, it’s a dangerous trade. The slaves are desperate and seem to know that their best chance is whilst close to shore, so we made sure that the guard was stepped up. Several weeks went by with no further news of captives. We had to bury Elijah Cross who succumbed to the fever.This gave me a very bad feeling as we were now down to 18 with some of them in no healthy state and others who had no loyalty nor fight in them if trouble should start again.
One of the women who caught my eye, was young and proud, very different from the other two who cowered if spoken to. We called her Matilda. She organised the others and helped prepare food, but she was often seen talking through the hatches to the negro men, always a danger as it means they have some kinship.
In mid-December we took on another 23 negroes and heard news that we would get the rest by the end of the month. When we finally got word we sailed “The Mary” closer to shore again, four men were sent off to start buying provisions for next stage of our voyage. I myself stayed aboard, sick in the stomach like 4 or 5 others. When the negotiations were done Sandys was impatient to load up and decided to bring the negroes aboard the same day. So men were loading up provisions when the new captives arrived. We were all, including the sick, ordered to be on hand to load the ship. Everything seemed disorganised but calm. That was until the hatch was opened!
Without warning 15 or 20 negroes exploded out from the hold, unshackled, like grapeshot from a cannon.
Because of illness, inexperience and short-handedness, we were taken completely off guard. They used their manacles like maces, to break bone and smack unconscious any crew nearby. One had a sword and without ceremony ran through Captain Sandys, who died with a look of surprise. Hetherington called to retreat to the Quarter Deck, but most of the men sensing the danger climbed the rigging trying unsuccessfully to escape. I was separated and retreated with 3 others to the forecastle. By this time the negroes were fearless and had the upper hand, having taken weapons from those they had killed. It was bedlam!
They were screaming, shouting and showing no care for their own lives. They slashed at the rigging causing men to fall, others climbed up to give chase. The quarter deck was covered in blood and soon overrun, piled with the intertwined bodies of dead and dying crew and negroes. The last I saw was Hetherington and two others hacked down trying to defend themselves, in a vain attempt to save the ship. When the negroes noticed the four of us for’ard, their blood was well and truly up as they scented victory and freedom. The ship veered toward the shore, we could hear them hailing us to come close to the fort, but we were lost.
The four of us backed up toward the bow trying to hold them off, two fell to their blows, one was Sam Gornall, a good man. By now I knew the game was up. I was sliced on the arm so made to jump into the river with my remaining companion Thomas Taylor. The boat sent for provisions was nearby with one crew still aboard, but poor Thomas couldn’t swim and went down. I struggled my way to the boat and then with a power built of fear we pulled her away from the shouts and missiles, toward the eventual sanctuary of the fort. The ship and the rest of the crew bar us two were lost. The negroes freed themselves and with the ship aground, made their desperate bid for liberty.
Looking back it is easy to see how it came about. I suspect Matilda had been plotting with those in the hold. She had probably smuggled them any tool or weapon left unguarded and may even have poisoned our food to weaken us. Some of the scum who Hetherington had employed, had no discipline and left all manner of things lying around. The slaves had used the tools to quietly free themselves from their bonds. Learning from their earlier failed attempt to rise up, they just waited until we pulled away from the protection of the fort and were easily cut off.
After this, I’d had my belly full of the negro trade.
I felt sympathy for those wretched souls and knew that I wouldn’t want to work in that trade and make their suffering my release from my drudgery.
I waited weeks at the fort and took the first supply ship returning to Liverpool, then a coaster up to Lancaster. I’ve heard since that many of the families of the dead have been given help from the Parish, but Thomas Hinde doesn’t want to dip into his pocket for the living. He still owes me wages and also he refuses to pay wages for my days after the ship was lost until my return! Seems you have to die to get any relief!
Alas there is nothing known of what happened to the surviving captives other than reports that they escaped. Many may have been assisted by former escaped slaves on shore. Others, not so lucky, may have been recaptured only to be sold again by slave traders.
The rebellion happened sometime after Christmas in 1761. The news of it, the death of Captain Sandys and much of the crew seems to have reached England fairly rapidly. The authorities in Fort James sent a report on the 28th Dec 1761 and three months later there is evidence of compensation being paid to families of the dead crew. (See historical timeline).
As for the ship itself the authorities at Fort James reported that, “The King of Barrati we prevailed on to deliver up the hull, which indeed is in a manner useless, as all her sails and rigging were destroyed and nothing left in her but her masts. We have hired her out for the proprietor’s benefit till they send some orders about her.” PRO, T 70, 30, p. 436 from a Letter from Joseph Debat, Edmund Tew, and Thomas Radcliff to the Royal Africa Co. Committee dated James Fort, December 28, 1761
The manner of the rebellion and the nature of the crew are unknown, but much of the information used in the story was based on examples from the following publications:
If We Must Die: Shipboard Insurrections in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade – Eric Robert Taylor – Louisiana State University 2006
Slave Ship Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes, 1730-1807 – Emma Christopher, Cambridge University Press, 3 Apr 2006