1788 | Plymouth

Slave Ship

William Elford assails a horrifying passage.

In the men’s apartment, on the lower deck of an African ship of 297 tons burden, the space allowed to each slave is six feet in length by sixteen inches in breadth. The boys are each allowed five feet by fourteen inches. The women, five feet ten inches by sixteen inches, and the girls, four feet by one foot each. The perpendicular height between the decks is five feet eight inches.

The men are fastened together, two and two, by handcuffs on their wrists and by irons riveted on their legs. They are brought up on the main deck every day, about eight o’clock, and as each pair ascend, a strong chain is fastened by ringbolts to the deck, is passed through their shackles—a precaution absolutely necessary to prevent insurrections. In this state, if the weather is favorable, they are permitted to remain about one-third part of the twenty-four hours, and during this interval they are fed, and their apartment below is cleaned; but when the weather is bad, even these indulgences cannot be granted them, and they are only permitted to come up in small companies of about ten at a time to be fed, where after remaining a quarter of an hour, each mess is obliged to give place to the next in rotation.

No ship, if her intended cargo can be procured, ever carries a less number than one to a ton, and the usual practice has been to carry nearly double that number. The bill which was passed during the last session of Parliament only restricts the carriage to five slaves for three tons. The mode of stowing them was as follows: platforms or wide shelves were erected between the decks extending so far from the sides toward the middle of the vessel as to be capable of containing four additional rows of slaves, by which means the perpendicular height between each tier, after allowing for the beams and the platforms, was reduced to two feet six inches, for they could not even fit in an erect posture; besides which, in the men’s apartment, instead of four rows, five were stowed by placing the heads of one between the thighs of another. All the horrors of this situation are still multiplied in the smaller vessels.

Trade’s proud empire hastes to swift decay.

—Oliver Goldsmith, 1770

This mode of carrying the slaves, however, is only one among a thousand other miseries, which those unhappy and devoted creatures suffer from this disgraceful traffic of the human species, which in every part of its progress exhibits scenes that strike us with horror and indignation. If we regard the first stage of it on the continent of Africa, we find that a hundred thousand slaves are annually produced there for exportation, the greatest part of whom consist of innocent persons, torn from their dearest friends and connections, sometimes by force and sometimes by treachery. Of these, experience has shown that five and forty thousand perish, either in the dreadful mode of conveyance before described or within two years after their arrival at the plantations, before they are seasoned to the climate. Those who unhappily survive these hardships are destined, like their beasts of burden, to exhaust their lives in the unremitting labors of a slavery without recompense and without hope.

The inhumanity of this trade, indeed, is so notorious and so universally admitted that even the advocates for the continuance of it have rested all their arguments on the political inexpediency of its abolition and, in order to strengthen a weak cause, have either maliciously or ignorantly confounded together the emancipation of the Negroes already in slavery with the abolition of the trade; and thus many well-meaning people have become enemies of the cause by the apprehensions that private property will be materially injured by the success of it. To such it becomes a necessary information that liberating the slaves forms no part of the present system; and so far will the prohibition of a future trade be from injuring private property that the value of every slave will be very considerably increased from the moment that event takes place, and a more kind and tender treatment will immediately be ensured to them by their masters, from the necessity every planter will then be under to keep up his stock by natural means, a practice which some humane inhabitants of the islands have pursued with the greatest success, and upon whose estates no new Negroes have been purchased for a number of years, the death vacancies having been supplied by young ones born and bred in their own plantations. Thus then the value of private property will not only suffer no diminution but will be very considerably enhanced by the abolition of the trade. It now only remains to see how the public and the slave merchants will be affected by it.

It is said by the well-wishers to this trade that the suppression of it will destroy a great nursery for seamen and annihilate a very considerable source of commercial profit. In answer to these objects, Mr. Clarkson, in his admirable treatise on the impolicy of the trade, lays down two positions, which he has proved from the most incontestable authority. First, that so far from being a nursery, it has been constantly and regularly a grave for our seamen; for that in this traffic only, more men perish in one year than in all the other trades of Great Britain in two years. And secondly, that the balance of the trade, from its extreme precariousness and uncertainty, is so notoriously against the merchants that if all the vessels employed in it were the property of one man, he would infallibly, at the end of their voyages, find himself a loser.

As then the cruelty and inhumanity of this trade must be universally admitted and lamented, and as the policy or impolicy of its abolition is a question which the wisdom of the legislature must ultimately decide upon, and which it can only be enabled to form a just estimate of by the most thorough investigation on all its relations and dependencies; it becomes the indispensable duty of every friend to humanity, however his speculations may have led him to conclude on the political tendency of the measure, to stand forward and to assist the committees, either by producing such facts as he may himself be acquainted with or by subscribing, to enable them to procure and transmit to the legislature, such evidence as will tend to throw the necessary lights on the subject. And people would do well to consider that it does not often fall to the lot of individuals to have an opportunity of performing so important a moral and religious duty as that of endeavoring to put an end to a practice which may, without exaggeration, be styled one of the greatest evils at this day existing upon the earth.


William Elford

From a pamphlet. The chairman of the Plymouth chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Elford included in this pamphlet an engraving of the slave ship Brooks’ lower deck. “This schematic plan shows a cargo hold packed with hundreds of enslaved Africans,” writes historian Cheryl Finley, “and so hints at the barbarity they were made to suffer during the Middle Passage.” The pamphlet circulated widely; the slave trade was finally outlawed in Great Britain in 1807.