Slavery’s Defenders vs. The First Abolitionists
William Snelgrave traded slaves because it made him fabulously wealthy—But try as he might, he could not transform men and women into mere machines.
William Snelgrave was a British slave trader and occasional sufferer of pirate attacks and captivity. Snelgrave regularly traded and even lived a significant portion of his life in West Africa, one of the many hundreds and thousands of powerful lynchpins in the developing world of trans-Atlantic slavery, capitalism, and empires. Snelgrave’s accounts of slavery, the slave trade, and piracy remain some of the most complete and detailed that were ever written and they are positively riddled with biases toward merchants’ interests, white, European, and Christian supremacy, and writing that often engages with the imaginations of his readership more so than an honest portrayal of his subject. In the following extracts from Snelgrave’s New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-Trade, the author endeavors to defend his peculiar trade as entirely lawful and indeed beneficial to all parties involved.
A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-Trade (1734)
By William Snelgrave
BOOK II. The manner how the Negroes become Slaves. The Numbers of them yearly exported from Guinea to America. The Lawfulness of that Trade. Mutinies among them on board the Ships where the Author has been, &c.
As for the Manner how those People become Slaves; it may be reduced under these several Heads.
1. It has been the Custom among the Negroes, time out of Mind, and is so to this day, for them to make Slaves of all the Captives they take in War. Now, before they had an Opportunity of selling them to the white People, they were often obliged to kill great Multitudes, when they had taken more than they could well employ in their own Plantations, for fear they should rebel, and endanger their Masters safety.
2dly. Most Crimes amongst them are punished by Mulcts and Fines; and if the Offender has not wherewithal to pay his Fine, he is sold for a Slave: This is the Practice of the inland People, as well as of those on the Sea side.
3dly. Debtors who refuse to pay their Debts, or are insolvent, are likewise liable to be made Slaves; but their Friends may redeem them: And if they are not able or willing to do it, then they are generally sold for the Benefit of their Creditors. But few of these come into the hands of the Europeans, being kept by their Countrymen for their own use.
4thly. I have been told, That it is common for some inland People, to sell their Children for Slaves, tho’ they are under no Necessity for so doing; which I am inclined to believe. But I never observed, that the People near the Sea Coast practice this, unless compelled thereto by extreme Want and Famine, as the People of Whidaw have lately been.
Now, by these means it is that so many of the Negroes become Slaves, and more especially by being taken Captives in War. Of these the Number is so great, that I may safely affirm, without any Exaggeration, that the Europeans of all Nations, that trade to the Coast of Guinea, have, in some Years, exported at least seventy thousand. And tho’ this may no doubt be thought at first hearing a prodigious Number; yet when ‘tis considered how great the Extent of this Coast is, namely from Cape Verd to Angola, which is about four thousand Miles in length; and that Polygamy is allowed in general amonst them, by which means the Countries are full of People, I hope it will not be thought improbable that so many are yearly exported from thence.
Snelgrave thus produces the standard defense of slavery from his day, developed in part by thinkers like John Locke, which justified slavery as an extension of the state of war. In fact, because most slaves became such as a result of defeat and capture in battle, Snelgrave argued that he and his slave ships rescued these captives from execution by adding trade value to their lives and labor. Despite the slaves’ and European moralizers’ ignorance, Snelgrave and his fellow human-dealers fancied themselves the African’s benefactor. What strikes the modern reader as almost assuredly his real reason for defending slavery, however, is the fabulous wealth and power African slave labor channeled to the English Nation-State:
Several Objections have often been raised against the Lawfulness of this Trade, which I shall not here undertake to refute. I shall only observe in general, That tho’ to traffick in human Creatures, may at first sight appear barbarous, in-human, and unnatural; yet the Traders herein have as much to plead in their own Excuse, as can be said for some other Branches of Trade, namely, the Advantage of it: And that not only in regard of the Merchants, but also of the Slaves themselves, as will plainly appear from these following Reasons.
First, It is evident, that abundance of Captives, taken in War, would be inhumanly destroyed, was there not an Opportunity of disposing of them to the Europeans. So that at least many Lives are saved, and great Numbers of useful Persons kept in being.
Secondly, When they are carried to the Plantations, they generally live much better there, than they ever did in their own Country; for as the Planters pay a great price for them, ‘tis their interest to take care of them.
Thirdly, By this means the English Plantations have been so much improved, that ‘tis almost incredible, what great Advantages have accrued to the Nation thereby; especially to the Sugar Islands, which lying in a Climate near as hot as the Coast of Guinea, the Negroes are fitter to cultivate the Lands there, than white People.
Then as to the Criminals amongst the Negroes, they are by this means effectually transported, never to return again; a Benefit which we very much want here.
In a word, from this Trade proceed Benefits, far outweighing all, either real or pretended Mischiefs and Inconveniencies. And, let the worst that can, be said of it, it will be found, like all other earthly Advantages, tempered with a mixture of Good and Evil…
As Snelgrave’s narratives of slave ship mutinies demonstrate, the slaves were quite far from appreciating their new status. His narrative reminds us that the first abolitionists were not stuffy Puritans or radical Quakers without regard to social order and realism; rather, the first abolitionists were the slaves themselves. Slaves fought the crystallization of their status as property at every opportunity, many of them resorting to suicidal attempts at rebellion and, failing that, casting themselves overboard, starving and strangling themselves to death, and even conspiring to and actually committing mass suicide both at sea and on plantations.
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, tho’ they had little prospect of succeeding…
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 Wrists) were so twisted in the Scuffle, that they could not get them off before we came to their Assistance. The Negroes perceiving several white Men coming towards 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 Gratings, to prevent any more Negroes from coming up; and then I ordered People to get into the Boat, and save those that 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 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 any thing 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 Irons, 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 Linguists, If he 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 upon them.
This gave me a good deal on Uneasiness. For I knew several Voyages had proved unsuccessful by Mutinies; as they occasioned either the total loss of the Ship and the white Mens Lives; or at least by rendring 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 it self: It having often happened at Barbadoes 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.
We also see in this document early notions of race as a socio-political construction, a category linking one’s legal status and one’s skin color. In this case, the final paragraphs of the document starkly show skin color as the dividing line of those within the protection of the law, and those literally without it.
[A month later, another mutinous slave killed a white man aboard Snelgrave’s ship. The crew captured the slave.]
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 out, the Murdered 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 been put about his neck, to hang him.” For it seems they had no thought of his being shot…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 have 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 believe, 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 afterwards,) 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…”
See also: Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Penguin. 2007.