With Liberty For Some
The Rise of the Prisoner Trade
Among the ninety or so assorted crewmen whom Cristobal Colon--alias Christopher Columbus--assembled for his voyage of discovery were a black youth taken from the Canaries and at least four convicts, maybe more. How many others had previously been prisoners at some time will never be known, nor did it matter. Once they set sail, any ordinary seaman aboard the three ships became an inmate, subject to flogging or worse if he stepped out of line; upon the mighty ocean that separated the crews from the real world, the cramped vessels in which they were held were as isolating and potentially fatal as the darkest stone dungeon or the cruelest iron cage. Nobody was free to leave if he wished; none could be sure of surviving the indeterminate term that lay ahead.
But, as luck would have it, thirty-three days after leaving from Gomera, at two o'clock in the morning on October 12, 1492, Rodrigo de Triana, a watchman on the Pinta, spied something on the moonlit horizon and shouted "Tierra! Tierra!" His shipmates then alerted their counterparts on the nearby flagship, Santa Maria, and their sister caravel, the Nina. When told the news, Columbus wisely decided to hold back their approach until daylight to avoid running aground on coral reefs.
At dawn an armed search party stepped from a boat onto terra firma and waded onto a little island, lush and green, which turned out to be simply one link in a chain. Columbus, mistakenly believing he had found the fabled Passage to India, christened this archipelago the "Indies," so that when a band of mostly naked, tawny-skinned natives appeared, they became "Indians." As the two groups struggled to communicate by sign language and sounds, he discovered they called the island "Guanahani." Because they kept saying "taino, taino" (which in their language apparently meant "good"), Columbus named them the Taino Indians.
The Tainos were extraordinarily friendly and gentle, especially the well-proportioned, receptive women who tarried with his bearded men. He reported the natives "invite you to share anything that they possess, and show as much love as if their hearts went into it. He was quick to add, "They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them." He took six of them as prisoners and resumed his journey.
Columbus made it back to Spain with relative ease, and even though nobody yet understood exactly what new world he had discovered, clearly he had found a path of wind that could carry trade ships across the Atlantic and back. He proudly displayed an assortment of booty that included aloe, rhubarb, cinnamon, spices, cotton, brightly colored birds, and the exotic-looking Tainos, whom the Spaniards now referred to as "slaves." The strutting explorers did not know it yet, but some of the Indian women with whom they had coupled apparently had transmitted Treponema pallidum, the spirochete of syphilis, which eventually would take its toll in horrible suffering and deaths throughout Spanish ports, just as the natives left behind had contracted measles and smallpox from the whites that would spread among their villages with fatal effect.
A few months later, Columbus left Spain on a second voyage, commanding a fleet of seventeen ships with fifteen hundred men, including five of the Indians he had seized. When he finally returned home, two years and nine months later, he had failed to bring back most of his ships and company, much less any treasure. The most he could report was that he had encountered "a wild people fit for any work, well proportioned, and very intelligent, and who, when they have got rid of their cruel habits to which they have been accustomed, will be better than any other kind of slaves." At first, the Spanish Crown rejected his appeal to open a major slave trade, but the government did order the enlistment of three hundred convicts, thirty of them women, and authorized the realm's justices to ship away any condemned criminals (except for heretics, traitors, counterfeiters, and sodomites) who might be convinced to go.
Columbus's third expedition arrived to find Hispaniola's new colonial capital, Santo Domingo, embroiled in a settlers' revolt, which he quickly crushed in an effort to head off an even more dangerous Indian rebellion. In only a few years, he had conscripted Spanish convicts and other unfortunates on his voyages, many of whom he later had abandoned abroad. On one trip alone he had sent back six hundred Indian captives. But what goes around comes around, for in 1500 the Spanish sovereigns dispatched a new commissioner, who arrested Columbus on political charges and hauled him back to Spain to face inquisition. He entered Cadiz still in chains and was taken to Las Cuevas monastery in Seville, where he was kept for several months until finally being stripped of his powers and released. Like his idol, Marco Polo, who had written his epic journal in prison, Columbus had paid a price for discovery. One humorist later quipped that he had "discovered America and they put him in jail for it."
But Columbus was undeterred. Shortly after being freed from prison, he made a fourth voyage to the New World just prior to his death. Oddly, the lands he had discovered came to be known to Europeans, not as "Columbus," but as "America," in honor of another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci of Florence, who claimed to have reached the New World a year before him, but who really had not done so till a year after. (Some historians later suggested that Amerigo had a criminal past, prompting Ralph Waldo Emerson to comment, "Strange . . . that broad America must wear the name of a thief.")
Spain's discovery of precious-ore deposits led to further exploitation of the natives. War, disease, overwork, and suicide caused the population of the Antilles to sink like a rock in deep water. Historians have estimated the decline as proceeding from 300,000 in 1492 to 60,000 in 1508, 46,000 in 1510, 20,000 in 1512, and 14,000 in 1514; a Catholic priest who lived through it figured that fully three million Indians had died between 1494 and 1508, comprising one of the worst genocides in recorded history.
One Spaniard who was horrified by what was happening to the natives was a former explorer, Bartolome de Las Casas, who vowed to devote the rest of his life to securing "the justice of those Indian peoples, and to condemn the robbery, evil and injustice committed against them." To save them from extinction, he beseeched his king to introduce Negroes from Guinea as a substitute, arguing that "the labour of one Negro was more valuable than that of four Indians." The king agreed, and in 1517 the first asiento was arranged, enabling four thousand Negroes to be imported to the West Indies over the next eight years. African slaves started arriving a few months later, and by 1540 an estimated thirty thousand men, women, and children had been taken to Hispaniola alone.
At first the Spanish considered these Africans to be ideally suited for slavery in the mines and fields. But in his old age, Las Casas came to realize he had made another terrible mistake. Black slavery did not save the Indians but merely added another oppressed race--and the colony became even more dependent on slavery for its survival. From their base in Hispaniola, Spanish conquistadors under Hernando Cortes plunged into Mexico and liquidated the golden Aztec empire. More conquerors sailed up to Florida and fanned out into the Texas panhandle, Santa Fe, the Mississippi, the Grand Canyon, and California. Among their earliest constructs in North America, Spanish soldiers in 1570 erected the first substantial prison, at St. Augustine, Florida.
By then a few brave Spaniards had begun to criticize the slave trade publicly. Bartolome de Albornoz attacked it as morally and legally wrong, but his views were officially suppressed. Tomas Mercado condemned the trade as being based upon deceit, robbery, and force. Alonso de Sandoval declared, "God created man free. . . . Slavery is not exile, but also subjection, hunger, sorrow, nakedness, insult, prison, perpetual persecution, and, in short, is a Pandora's box of all the evils."
Nevertheless, more explorers of the New World brought more convicts and Africans whom they held as prisoners; the latter were to be useful in case they encountered other blacks. Vasco Nunez de Balboa had thirty Africans with him when he discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513, and Francisco Pizarro brought some on his conquest of Peru. Blacks went with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado to New Mexico and with Panfilo de Narvaez and Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca as they crossed Florida, New Mexico, and Arizona a few years later. Hernando de Soto's expedition included African slaves and Indians; in his travels he discovered some Cherokees who had taken other Indians as prisoners of war and made them slaves--a practice that was common to other tribes as well. Many early Spanish and French accounts used the terms "prisoner" and "slave" interchangeably when referring to the Indians' captives. However, the distinctions could actually be sharp, even fatal, since some women or children prisoners of the Indians were subsequently adopted, whereas adult male captives were usually tortured to death.
Before long, other European nations began competing with Spain and Portugal in overseas exploration, and they too utilized convicts to fill out their crews. Jacques Cartier of France combed the jails for fifty convicts, men and women, whom he employed on his expedition to Newfoundland in 1542. Pierre du Guast, sieur de Monts, and Samuel De Champlain used convicts as sailors on their northern voyages. Blacks accompanied French explorers into Canada and the Mississippi River Valley.
During the 1560s, John Hawkins and Francis Drake started trafficking slaves between England, Africa, and Spanish America, and Richard Hakluyt later called for a large-scale conscription of criminals as a better way to settle the New World. But England's colonization efforts waned until 1606, when policies abruptly changed. Sir John Popham's venture at Kennebec, or Maine, was stocked "out of all the gaols [jails] of England," prompting one critic to complain, "It is a shameful and unblessed thing to take the scum of people, and wicked and condemned ones, to be the people with whom you plant." That same year, the Virginia Company sent an expedition to America, which landed several hundred miles to the south. One of its voyagers, Captain John Smith, then twenty-six, was a soldier of fortune who claimed to have escaped from slavery under the Turks. Arrested en route to Virginia for conspiring to mutiny, he remained imprisoned in the hold until the end of the voyage, whereupon he was unshackled to help defend the colony. (He turned out to be one of only 38 of Jamestown's original 105 colonists to survive the first year.) But one day, as he foraged for food, Smith was captured by Indians. As he later told the tale, just as he was about to be executed, the Indian emperor's favorite daughter "got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death." Smith eventually made it home to England to tell his story in various printed versions, thus marking the beginning of one of the first American literary genres--the captivity narrative.
The Virginia Company authorized its colonists to seize native children wherever they could "for conversion . . . to the knowledge and worship of the true God and their redeemer, Christ Jesus." One of those abducted--Smith's rescuer, young Pocahontas--was ransomed, taken as a wife by one of the Englishmen, and brought as a trophy to London, where she soon died.
Company officials ignored the colonists' urgent pleas for better living conditions, insisting instead that greater discipline was needed. In 1610 a tough new governor, Lord Delaware, arrived and imposed a dictatorship. His successor, Thomas Dale, was even more severe. Under his regime, Virginia's colonists were literally held as prisoners, and punishments became more and more harsh. For uttering "base and detracting words" against the governor, Richard Barnes was ordered to be "disarmed and have his arms broken and his tongue bored through with an awl and [he] shall pass through a guard of 40 men and shall be butted by every one of them and at the head of the troop kicked down and footed out of the fort; and he shall be banished out of James City and the Island, and he shall not be capable of any privilege of freedom in the country." Men caught trying to escape were tortured to death. Seamstresses who sewed their lady's skirts too short were whipped. Governor Dale pronounced his methods justified and the company backed him up. Back in London, an official said that the Virginians were "dangerous, incurable members, for no use so fit as to make examples to others."
On his first voyage, Columbus had encountered Tainos toting rolls of dried leaves, called "tobacco," which they lit and inhaled in curls of smoke through their nostrils. By the early seventeenth century tobacco smoking had become so popular in England that one observer remarked, "Many a young nobleman's estate is altogether spent and scattered to nothing in smoke [and] a man's estate runs out through his nose, and he wastes whole days, even years, in drinking of tobacco; men smoke even in bed." Soon the leaf's value equalled that of silver.
The weed grew wild in Virginia, and English entrepreneurs sought to cultivate it there for shipment home. Investors liked its high yield per acre, excellent keeping properties, and light shipping weight. Once colonists succeeded in growing a nonbitter strain from seeds acquired in the Caribbean, Virginia was perched to take the first step toward becoming a lucrative plantation. The colony finally had an attractive product to export.
But establishing a successful tobacco trade posed a tremendous challenge. Land in Virginia was fertile and free, yet cultivating any crop, especially tobacco, required a large and constantly replenished supply of labor--large because of the innumerable manual tasks that had to be performed, constantly replenished because of the workers' short life expectancy. The cargoes also had to be transported across the ocean. After only three or four crops the soil would become exhausted and no longer able to produce tobacco; sometimes it would not even yield corn, which meant that more and more land would have to be cleared and planted. All this demanded laborers to chop trees, pull stumps, lay fences, and manage the crops. Fortifications had to be built, roads constructed, firewood split, fuel carted, water fetched, game hunted, fish caught, corn and wheat planted. There was a need for carpenters, boatwrights, blacksmiths, brickmakers, joiners, coopers, sawyers, fowlers, bakers, tanners. In 1618, the prospect of this happening seemed remote, since after eleven years of struggle and considerable investment by the stockholders only about six hundred of eighteen hundred colonists had survived.
That year, however, the Virginia Company underwent a shakeup that put Sir Edwin Sandys in control. Under his direction the company launched an intensive promotional campaign to attract more investors, settlers, and servants. Publicists wrote enticing broadsides, promising everything from daily sustenance to eternal bliss to anyone who would go to Virginia. Drummers marched from village to village, beating up interest. Hucksters combed the fairs and groghouses, enlisting recruits. Minstrels sang seductive ballads. From Parliament to pulpit, Virginia's colonization was depicted as a noble effort of Christian reformation, for, as one pious supporter asked, "What can be more excellent, more precious, more glorious, than to convert a heathen nation from worshipping the devil to the saving knowledge and true worship of God in Jesus Christ?" Sandys offered a promise of something that was generally not available in England: an opportunity for upward mobility. Piece by piece, he and his image makers created the American Dream.
Tracts of land were apportioned for persons who performed a service for the company. This "headright" system was expanded for every person, or head, who was transported to Virginia. Private ownership of land was authorized in the belief that it would encourage people of means to emigrate with their families and servants. A modified version of apprenticeship, known as "indenture," was devised to attract servants who otherwise could not afford the costs of passage. Named from the Latin indentare or indentura (to cut into teeth, to give a jagged edge), an indenture was a kind of contract between two or more parties. Legally, the term signified a covenant, drawn on parchment and cut into pieces; the peculiar fit between its parts marked the meeting of the minds between the party of the first part (the master) and the party below (the servant). Typically its terms bound a person as servant for a determinate period--usually from four to seven years, or (if a minor) until he or she reached twenty-one years of age.
The authorities also examined the feasibility of sending large numbers of persons abroad against their will. Such an approach could supply workers for the plantations and help to rid the home front of undesirables. A legal way of doing this had not yet been worked out, but one option was to utilize the vagrancy laws to round up society's outcasts. Vagrancy statutes had been in use since the fourteenth century, with the usual penalties being execution, branding, whipping, or penal slavery. Under Elizabeth I the measures had begun to provide for exile beyond the seas as an alternative to capital punishment, and the definition of "rogues" and "vagabonds" had been widened to an exceptional degree. But large-scale unloading to the colonies was not yet feasible. Some legal scholars objected that the Magna Carta prohibited exile "but by lawful judgment of [an individual's] peers and by the law of this province." Others reasoned that exporting known troublemakers to the fledgling colonies might fatally contaminate any effort to build a successful plantation. Thus one company official initially opposed plans to send criminals abroad on the grounds that "the weeds of their native country . . . would act as a poison with the body of a tender, feeble, and yet unreformed colony." Even if some were sent, the basic question remained whether evildoers should be segregated or spread around. If concentrated, could they be governed? If dispersed, would they corrupt the good?
Back in Virginia, Governor Dale confided that "[e]very man laments himself of being here" and wondered how the plantation might ever succeed with "such disordered persons, so profane, so riotous . . . besides of such diseased and crazed bodies." In desperation he urged the king to "banish hither all offenders condemned to die out of common gaols," arguing that it "would be a ready way to furnish us with men and not always with the worst of men, either for birth, for spirit, or body," and adding that many "would be glad to escape a just sentence and make this their new country . . . with all diligence, cheerfulness and comfort."
Although Dale's request was denied, his ideas gained support as a means of ridding the gaols (jails) and countryside of the growing hordes of rabble who were thought to be threatening the kingdom's physical, moral, and political health. England's overcrowded gaols often made criminals more dangerous to society. The prisons were breeding grounds for typhus ("gaol fever") and other diseases, which often spread beyond the walls, endangering the whole population. Sir Francis Bacon described gaol fever as the "most pernicious infection, next to the plague." One such epidemic at Oxford in 1577 claimed more than five hundred lives and helped give rise to the notion that all prisoners were dangerous and that their disease, perhaps even their criminality, might contaminate anyone around them. This reinforced images of prisons as "schools of crime" in which younger pupils became corrupted by older, more hardened offenders.
From this perspective even quarantine seemed insufficient; banishment out of the country appeared more sensible. Surely such rabble were of no use to society in society. In America, on the other hand, criminals could at least be put to use earning a profit for company and crown, and they could serve the interests of Christendom at the same time. Having already established the "reformative" value of colonization for heathen savages, it required no great leap to apply this standard to others.
Thus it was that a royal commission concluded that any felon, except those convicted of murder, witchcraft, burglary, or rape, could legally be transported to Virginia or the West Indies to become servants on the plantations. Those prisoners who were physically able to work, or whose "other abilities shall be thought fit to be employed in foreign discoveries or other services," were henceforth authorized for banishment beyond the seas. The plan to transport "notorious and wicked offenders that will not be reformed but by severity of punishment, in order that they may no more infect the places where they abide within our realm," was the subject of a royal proclamation dated December 23, 1617. Almost immediately prisoners were selected from county jails "to yield a profitable service to the Commonwealth in parts abroad." The economic purpose of this policy was clear from the start. In one case, a man convicted of manslaughter and condemned to death was reprieved "because he was a carpenter and the plantation needed carpenters."
Soon afterward Sandys proposed sending over maids as breeders, "that wives, children and family might make them less movable and settle them, together with their posterity in that soil." The costs of passage could be paid by the planters who took them as "wives." Twelve women were accordingly obtained by the Virginia Company and shipped to Jamestown as wives to colonists. A month later, fifty more were sent. Sandys went on record as hoping that their marriage would be "free according to the law of nature," asking Virginia's governor and council to be "fathers to them in this business, not enforcing them to marry against their wills." He cautioned against making them servants "but in case of extremity," since the company needed their condition to be viewed favorably in order that "multitudes may be allured thereby to come unto you."
A scandal arose from allegations that some maids had been taken by force or bought from their parents for a few pieces of silver; some even whispered that King James himself had received a kickback ("royalty") from the scheme.
The king had begun sending children away as servants as well. The president of the company begged London's mayor for permission to hold such children in the city's Bridewell jail and put them to work until a ship was ready to transport them; the Common Council ordered "100 children out of the swarms that swarm in the place to be sent to Virginia . . . as apprentices for certain years." Sandys reported to the Crown that the council had "appointed 100 children from the superfluous multitude to be transported to Virginia, there to be bound apprentices for certain years, and afterward with very beneficial conditions for the children." But he was careful to request legal authorization that would enable him to coerce the youngsters.
As it granted Sandys's request, the Privy Council commended the city fathers for "redeeming so many poor souls from misery and ruin and putting them in a condition of use and service to the State." If any children were found "obstinate to resist or otherwise to disobey such directions as shall be given in this behalf," company officials were henceforth empowered to "imprison, punish and dispose of any of those children, upon any disorder by them or any of them committed, as cause shall require, and so to ship them to Virginia with as much expedition as may stand for conveniency."
Once the procedure had been worked out, roundups became routine. Soon the Virginia Company's request for another 100 children was quickly approved and another batch was swept up and sent away. It is unclear how many boys and girls were taken, but company records indicate that additional cargoes were authorized, at least in 1620 and 1622, and a letter of 1627 mentions 1,400 to 1,500 children as being shipped to Virginia. The policy of allowing, even encouraging, private companies to forcibly apprehend, detain, transport, and sell into service lower-class children was legitimized by every branch and level of government and praised by the highest church officials. Shipping such persons abroad, John Donne said, "is not only a spleen to drain the ill humors of the body, but a liver to breed good blood." This seizure (or "napping") of children ("kids") for shipment to America as servants became so well-known that the practice acquired a new name: "kidnapping." Its original practitioners and defenders included government officials, corporate executives, clergymen, and parents.
Important developments often coincide, and the year 1619 was marked by another event, barely noticed at the time, that would prove of great significance for many generations to come. That was when John Rolfe reported to Sandys that at the end of August there had come to Virginia a Dutch man-of-war that "sold us twenty and odd Negers."
The precise circumstances surrounding the arrival of these first Africans in Virginia are not clear. But historians have concluded that twenty or more black prisoners were taken to Point Comfort by Captain Jope in a Dutch ship of 160 tons that was guided by an English pilot named Master Marmaduke Rayner. Virginia's governor, George Yeardley, and his cape merchant, Abraham Piersey, appear to have purchased them with provisions. Their Dutch supplier seems to have taken them from a Spanish slaver, which the warship had captured as booty, Spain and Holland then being at war.
Although Elizabeth's policy of noninvolvement in the African slave trade was still in effect, only a few months before--simultaneous with the roundup of maids and children--King James had created the Company of Adventurers of London Trading into Parts of Africa. England was just beginning to make another attempt to colonize the Dark Continent.
THE GROWTH OF THE PRISONER TRADE
The infusion into Virginia of kidnapped children, maids, convicts, and Africans, all to work as servants on the plantations, marked the beginning of a pattern that would continue for nearly two centuries. By 1650, most British emigrants to colonial America went as prisoners of one sort or another. Some were forcibly "kidnapped" or "arrested" (a legal distinction that can prove hard to make out, particularly for those seized) and shipped here against their will. Some were tricked or enticed into giving up their liberty. Others bound themselves as servants in order to avert execution, starvation, imprisonment, or boredom. There were some significant distinctions between indentured servants, transported convicts, slaves, and seamen or soldiers compelled into military service (impressed), but all of them qualified as prisoners, since they were deprived of their liberty to leave.
British America was not the first prison colony. Many earlier empires had used transplanted prisoners to cultivate foreign plantations, dig mines, and perform other hard labor. Starting in the early seventeenth century and continuing for 150 years, however, an organized, international prisoner trade, of which the African slave trade was just one important part, provided the foundation for England's colonial wealth and America's identity. To the extent that American history is the story of immigration, then American colonial history is largely the story of the immigration of prisoners.
Following sea routes discovered by their explorers, European merchants transported iron, alcohol, and other goods to Africa, exchanging them for human cargoes. These people were brought by force to the West Indies and the Americas and traded for tobacco, sugar, gold, silver, and other items that were taken back to English and European ports. Prisoners manned the ships, prisoners were carried to the colonies to work in the mines and fields, prisoners were brought in chains from Africa and Europe to the Caribbean and the Americas as slaves.
An organized system soon developed to get servants and send them overseas. Some enterprising souls functioned as agents working on commission. Offices sprang up that offered laborers on order "at a day's warning." Investors ventured into the systematic speculation in servants. Shipbuilders, outfitters, and insurers got involved, and colonial planters discovered a new means of exchange for greater volumes of goods. A successful trading company stood to realize profits of as much as 800 percent.
One Londoner observed that the "usual way of getting servants hath been by a sort of men nick-named spirits, who take up all the idle, lazy, stupid people they can entice, such as have professed idleness, and would rather beg than work." Around 1638 the lord mayor and aldermen of London complained to the Privy Council that "usually for the supply of soldiers into divers parts, and sending of men to the several plantations beyond the seas, without lawful press, certain persons called spirits, do inveigle and by lewd subtleties entice away youth, against the consent either of their parents, friends, or masters; whereby of times great tumults and uproars are raised within the city, to the breach of the peace, and the hazard of men's lives."
Once persons disappeared, their relatives or friends had little chance of finding them again. Even if a victim managed to tell somebody in authority that she had been taken against her will, she was not likely to be freed. Officers of the law were expected to apprehend persons, not release them. Moreover, England lacked a professional system of police, so that the powers of law enforcement, especially arrest, belonged to those with the right political connections--in short, to those who were behind the manstealing. The number and variety of officials and semiofficials authorized to take prisoners into custody made it difficult to determine who was a "kidnapper" and who was not. Some thugs were licensed to apprehend persons and bind them as servants to foreign plantations; others stole without a license to steal. The line between kidnapping and arrest was literally paper thin. Not everyone was entitled to take people, but there was tremendous potential for abuse. Instead of rounding up 100 "vagrants," as legally authorized, a gang might grab 150 and sell the excess for their own aggrandizement. The gangs might resort to force when force was forbidden or unnecessary, or seize someone who did not fit the approved description. Many victims were not in a position to resist.
During his conquest of Ireland, Oliver Cromwell ordered mass roundups of Irish for the plantations. He also favored impressment, and seized Jamaica with an army that was composed primarily of "common cheats, thieves, cutpurses and such like persons." The ship Unity was used to transport some captive Scots to Boston and Charlestown. Two London merchants, John Jeffries and Robert Lewellin, negotiated through their Irish agent to transport two hundred "passengers" from Dublin to Virginia in the vessel. The contract called for them to be taken from Irish prisons, but when only thirteen or fourteen could be obtained there the Unity's master "laid out a considerable sum of money" to meet his quota. The spirit he hired organized a press-gang to comb the city. Later the ship was used in the African slave trade, carrying captive blacks between Antigua, Angola, Nevis, Barbados, Sierra Leone, and Sherbro Island. John Jeffries, meanwhile, engaged in the trafficking of not only political prisoners but indentured servants and black slaves as well.
It was during the Restoration (which began in the summer of 1660) that the prisoner trade really became a moving force of English colonial policy. The return of Charles II to the throne inaugurated an age of great monopoly in which the prevailing powers ruled by using kidnapping, violence, and imprisonment on a massive scale. Plans were made for expanded trafficking in felons and Africans, and the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa dispatched its first forty ships in search of gold and slaves. It was a system that would thrive for more than a century. (General James Edward Oglethorpe, the "prison reformer" who founded Georgia in 1732-33 with colonists obtained from English prisons, was a director of the Royal African Company. Micajah Perry was both a leading colonial agent for servants and convicts and a secretary to the company.)
England's trafficking of prisoners would continue for generations, outlasting most of the kings and businessmen who temporarily controlled it. Without the seizure, imprisonment, shipment, and sale of human beings to America, immense fortunes would not have been made from tobacco, sugar, and rum.
Although the wide scope and high level of organization of spiriting were self-evident, the real powers behind it were rarely revealed. A notable exception occurred in 1670 when a convicted spirit named William Haverland testified against sixteen cohorts. Among his allegations was that John Steward of St. Katherine's Parish had taken away five hundred persons a year for the last twelve years. For this Steward was paid forty shillings per head, the same amount usually imposed as a fine for forcible kidnapping at that time. But even Haverland's sensational disclosures failed to produce stiff penalties for kidnapping, and the higher-ups--the merchants and planters who employed the spirits and bought the servants from them--were rarely implicated. Very few disappearances ever resulted in prosecution; even when they did, the convicted kidnapper was seldom punished more severely than with a small fine--a remarkable fact considering that various forms of petty theft, such as filching a lady's petticoat or a gentleman's spoon, drew sentences of whipping, branding, penal servitude, and even death. By 1680, the Reverend Morgan Godwyn estimated that ten thousand souls were being spirited to the colonies every year.
Although the English had been relatively late starters in the African slave trade, by the last quarter of the seventeenth century they had begun to dominate it. Once they had established a colony capable of turning out a lucrative product, such as tobacco or sugar, and could staff their plantations with a white labor force capable of overseeing black slaves, all that remained was to develop the legal and moral justification for racial slavery.
Africans qualified for slavery because they were black, "primitive" strangers, infidels. It seemed to follow that the African was eligible for less humane treatment than other (white, Christian) servants. Once black prisoners began to receive worse treatment, they assumed less humanity in the eyes of their captors. And once they had been made to seem subhuman, their capture, custody, and living conditions became much more harsh.
The captive Africans, some of them loaded down with heavy stones to prevent escape, were tied to each other to form long columns and prodded through the jungle until they reached a place where other prisoners were being held. At the Niger Delta they were herded into an immense outdoor cage (a barracoon); at Wydah, monsters shoved them into a stinking storehouse called the "trunk." Brought down to Fida from the inland country, one Guinea slaver wrote, the captives were "put into a booth, or prison, built for that purpose, near the beach, all of them together; and when the Europeans are to receive them, they are brought out into a large plain, where the surgeons examine every part of everyone of them, to the smallest member, men and women being all stark naked."
Africans who were too old or deformed or maimed or missing too many teeth or lame or too seriously wounded or sick--particularly if it was with obvious venereal disease that might infect a white man--were pulled out and "rejected." The rest were often branded, then put back into their cages, where they might stay for a day, a week, or a month, if they survived, until their time came to be moved. Like the Portuguese, the Royal African Company hoarded its slaves and other goods in huge stone castles along the shore. Accommodations for the officers at Cape Coast Castle were so luxurious that Captain Thomas Phillips wrote in his journal: "I believe there are not better barracks anywhere than here." Slaves in silk livery served him punch and fanned away the heat. But beneath the brick-lined apartment with its feather bed and arcaded balcony, below the "handsome staircase" leading to the "stately hall," deep underground a thousand slaves groaned in a vaulted dungeon carved in the sweating rock, bats flapping about them in the darkness of their tomb.
THE ROLE OF PRISONS
Prisons were an essential part of the prisoner trade, whether the captives were Africans, servants, convicts, or pressed men. In the British Isles as well, after a person had been taken into custody he or she was brought to a holding place near the shore to await shipment abroad. If the apprehension was lawful, the captive might be kept in a local gaol, prison, or house of correction until being moved aboard a vessel. Some prisons from the twelfth century were still in use in England. One of the oldest was the Fleet, an immense stone fort surrounded by a sewer, which had nearly been destroyed by London's Great Fire of 1666. The most famous was Newgate, which dated back to the reign of King John and perhaps even to Roman times. This prison took its name from a gate in the wall that surrounded the ancient City. Like many fortifications it had contained dungeons, some of which (such as Cripplegate, Ludgate, and this one) remained the foundation upon which subsequent prisons had been built over centuries.
By the mid-seventeenth century, Newgate was a dark, damp warren of stone yards, winding staircases, and narrow passageways. Some of the latter led to well-furnished apartments, others to black dungeons like the condemned hold--a stone pit with an open sewer running through its middle, hooks and chains fastened to its moist walls, and floors covered with lice that cracked under one's feet like shells strewn on a garden walk. Newcomers were placed into the prison's "common side" with rogues and rabble who could not afford to pay for better accommodations; moreover, new prisoners oftentimes started out in shackles, iron collar, or fetters until they paid a special fee to ease their irons. Those wanting to receive visitors had to pay. A captive could send for his servant, his wife, or an occasional prostitute; he could enjoy as much liquor or other items as he could buy. Candles, firewood, and food were available for a price; they were not available to those without means. Besides these lawful fees, there were unofficial charges. A new arrival (or "rat," as he was often called) quickly found himself beset by a gang of brutish-looking ruffians who, one visitor explained, "eyed me as if they would look me through, and examined every part of me from head to toe, not as tailors to take measure of me, but as footpads that survey the goodness of the clothes first, before they grow intimate with the linings." Anyone wanting protection or other privileges had better pay for that as well.
The usual English prison was an old house, medieval dungeon, or some other privately owned structure. The prison in Halifax was owned by the Duke of Leeds, Maccesfield's by Lord Derby, Dunham's by the local bishop, Exeter's belonged to Mr. J. R. Walter, Chesterfield's to the Duke of Portland. Some trading companies maintained dozens of their own lockups, complete with oak doors, manacles, and guards. Even Bristol, the second biggest city in England and one of the greatest places of embarkation for the colonies, lacked its own public prison, except for a small cage erected in 1647, until the eighteenth century. Norwich had only one decaying fourteenth-century structure as its all-purpose prison, bridewell, and gaol.
A London observer of 1649 reported that most persons bound for the colonies were "put up in cook's houses about St. Katherine's," where they were "kept as prisoners until a master fetches them off; and they lie at charges in these places a month or more, before they are taken away. When the ship is ready, the spirits' charges and the cook for dieting paid, they are shipped, and this charge is commonly 3 [pounds]." Press-gangs brought their unwilling recruits to similar houses of detention, called "press-rooms," until the navy could take custody.
Operating such private prisons became a lucrative clandestine trade in many ports. Guards were hired to prevent escapes, lookouts watched for worried relatives searching for missing kin, informers reported bits of intelligence in exchange for rewards, and the manufacturers of leg irons and other hardware of restraint enjoyed a thriving business.
A newspaper writer calling himself the English Rogue described being taken by a spirit to a narrow room so filled with tobacco smoke that he could barely make out the occupants' faces. He wrote that there was
little discourse amongst them, but of the pleasantness of the soil of that continent we were designed for, (out of a design to make us swallow their gilded pills of ruin) and the temperature of the air, the plenty of fowl and fish of all sorts; the little labor that is performed or expected having so little trouble in it, that it rather may be accounted a pastime than anything of punishment; and then to sweeten us the farther, they insisted on the pliant loving natures of the women there; all which they used as baits to catch us silly gudgeons.
Thirty years later, Ned Ward reported peeping into a London gateway, "where we saw three or four blades well dressed, with hawks' countenances, attended with half a dozen raggamuffinly fellows, showing poverty in their wages, and despair in their faces, mixt with a parcel of young wild striplings like run-away prentices." A friend told him that the place was "an office where servants for the plantations bind themselves."
By the early eighteenth century, spiriting and other forms of organized crime were still in full swing. After learning the tricks of his trade while himself imprisoned, Jonathan Wild went on to become a legendary receiver in stolen goods and thief-taker. As one of London's leading spirits, Wild fenced people as well as inanimate property, and his mask of respectability extended to calling his warehouses "offices for the recovery of stolen property." Daniel Defoe, the pioneering London journalist and novelist who had been imprisoned himself for blasphemy and debt, got to know Wild and other underworld characters and wrote about them in several popular accounts. He also devoted part of his highly factual novel, Colonel Jack, to the kidnapping trade.
Shortly after the English Civil War, there had arisen in northern England a radical religious movement comprised of persons who called themselves Friends and whom others called Quakers because they quaked and shook with zeal. Its founder, George Fox, spent much of his time locked up for his beliefs, and it was in prison that he convinced many others to join his sect.
In 1652 a group of Fox's converts, the Valiant Sixty, began to spread his message aggressively, hoping eventually to convince the whole world. Quakerism spread among the middle class with astonishing speed. The convinced met in remote homes or open fields, attracting anywhere from a few dozen to two hundred people. "Their speaker . . . standing, with his hat on," one Puritan eyewitness wrote, "his countenance severe, his face downward, his eyes mostly fixed towards the earth, his hands and fingers expanded, continually [struck] gently on his breast."
By the winter of 1655-56, Friends were meeting in almost every county, despite severe repression. The more they were imprisoned, the stronger their resolve; the stronger their resolve, the more converts they gained; the more members they attracted, the more threatening they were considered and the more of them that were imprisoned; and the more that were imprisoned, the more converts they made. Thus it was that the prisons became their primary meeting places and suppliers of new members. Fox himself was frequently shifted from one prison to another and often released because he was more of a threat inside than out. But the more that he and his supporters were mistreated, the more they seemed to thrive. Thrust into a dank cell among toadstools and rats, young Ann Audland wrote glowingly to another Friend, "This is indeed a place of joy, and my soul doth rejoice in the Lord." Shortly before he died from his own ordeal, William Dewsbury exulted that he had "joyfully entered prisons as palaces, telling mine enemies to hold me there as long as they could; and in the prison house I sung praises to my God and esteemed the bolts and locks put upon me as jewels."
Many Friends found ready converts in prison. They also attracted streams of visitors, some of whom asked for permission to trade places with their captive sisters and brothers. As their deaths in prison mounted, word of their martyrdom spread. Some captives composed reams of writs and testimonies about their sufferings. These tracts were taken out by visitors and passed on, hand to hand, to waiting printers. Fox himself saw published several books that he had dictated in prison.
English prisons continued to be generally used to detain offenders, not to punish them. "Real" punishments were intentionally painful, and the criminal law of the period often required the death penalty for minor property offenses. Beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing into the eighteenth, more and more crimes were made punishable, at least in statute, by hanging. The system of penalties became known as the Bloody Code, and the threat of execution was held over a large portion of the criminal population. With the passage of the Black Act in 1723, an already voluminous list of capital offenses was expanded to no less than fifty, to include such crimes as poaching fish, damaging trees, stealing a silver spoon, and appearing disguised in a game preserve. (As before, kidnapping was not among them.)
Outcries against such policies were surprisingly rare, except on the part of Quakers, and support for the death penalty may actually have been just as strong or stronger among the lower classes than it was among the rich. Public executions remained immensely popular with the masses--too much so, according to some officials.
In London a hanging day began with the somber toll of buffeted churchbells. Visitors streamed in for the occasion, drawing pickpockets from miles around, and hawkers sold the day's "last dying confessions" to throngs who lined the winding route to the gallows. Newgate's doomed convicts were brought out of the condemned hold to the prison chapel, where the prison ordinary prepared them as best he could. Then they were taken to the press-yard, where a procession was formed. Then the carts went out the gate, surrounded by soldiers and ministers and undertakers, the latter usually eliciting scattered hoots and jeers from the crowd. The cavalcade clattered along the city's busiest street at Smithfield and crossed the Fleet River Bridge, then moved slowly up Holborn Hill, where patrons often rushed from taverns to get a look and sometimes give a final swig of wine to a condemned wretch.
Bernard de Mandeville's description was typical of a gentleman's distaste, not so much for the event itself, as for the mob that invariably turned out to watch. "All the way, from Newgate to Tyburn, is one continual fair, for whores and rogues of the meaner sort," he wrote.
The arriving carts were backed up beneath Albion's fatal tree. Spectators stretched to get a view of the prisoners, gaping wide-eyed and bewildered, as the executioner, moving like a cat, got into position. Some executioners were themselves convicted criminals, and in time a few of them would be put to death by means of the very apparatus they had used against others.
Capital punishment might have been viewed differently if the government strictly enforced the capital laws. But it did not. Seventeenth-century courts continued to recognize benefit of clergy, so that a convicted felon was entitled to "call the book"--if he was able to read a passage from the Bible, he might escape death and have his thumb branded instead. Some illiterates abused the privilege by simply dropping to their knees and reciting the "neck verse," usually the first verse of the Fifty-first Psalm. Accordingly, in 1705 Parliament removed the literacy requirement and substituted a list of twenty-five felonies not subject to clerical intervention, including murder, piracy, treason, arson, burglary, highway robbery, and theft of goods valued at more than one shilling. In addition, royal pardons replaced benefit of clergy as the preferred instrument of mercy.
Both devices were an ingenious legal legerdemain, since without them banishment might have been illegal. The Magna Carta and the Habeas Corpus Act may have forbidden the government from imposing exile or transportation. But it was not illegal for an offender to be exiled "voluntarily." The courts could not be faulted for allowing a condemned felon to be pardoned by the Crown on the condition that he or she leave the country for a specified term. Criminals were not likely to want to go to America on their own, but facing death they might agree to anything to save their lives. This arrangement also allowed the Crown to show mercy, thereby boosting its image and eliciting compliance.
Thus, while Parliament kept adding to the list of capital crimes the number of persons executed actually decreased over time. (Between 1607 and 1616 the average annual volume of hangings in London and Middlesex was 140, but between 1749 and 1799 it had dropped to 33.) In fact, most of those condemned to death during the eighteenth century did not go to the gallows; they were pardoned. As a result, the prerogative of mercy was made to appear as much a feature of the administration of justice as blind severity seemed the keystone of law.
The workings of this process of "mercy" could be extremely complex and mysterious, occurring behind closed doors. Above all it was a system of discretion. Loyalty, patronage, and influence were integral, as a man without them discovered with his demise. For without a person of consequence to speak in his behalf, a condemned felon's doom could be quickly and irrevocably sealed. With such backing, he or she might look forward to fourteen years' servitude on a foreign plantation.
The code established mandatory death sentences for a wide array of offenses and was seemingly blind to class distinctions. The spectacle of public trials riveted attention on individual transgression and appeared to treat every defendant impartially. Pomp and solemnity filled the air. Everyone in the hushed courtroom sprang up as the judges, bedecked in wigs and robes, paraded in, and everyone sat after the judges had ascended to their perch. Great pains were taken to make the law seem magisterial and the courts incorruptible, impartial, and venerable. Knowing that judges held the power of life or death in their hands, defendants strained to appear cooperative, penitent, and even thankful during the proceedings. They clung to etiquette even as they were being sentenced to death, in the hope that their good behavior would ultimately help to spare their lives, which it usually--but not always--did. Thus, the system maintained the loyalty and obedience of its subjects.
Judges welcomed this process as a means of ameliorating the harsh sentences that law required them to dispense, and they were grateful that it also protected them from cries of excessive leniency. Technically judges were not empowered to grant pardons; they simply recommended clemency. A pardon had to be sealed with the Great Seal and issued by authority of the king or the Privy Council. If a judge was not disposed to recommend a pardon, his conscience could always be eased by the knowledge that a convict might still petition to higher authority up to the moment of execution. In this way neither the lawmakers, the judges, the king or Privy Council, nor any other authority was forced to accept personal accountability for an execution. Judges also had discretion to stay an execution by granting a reprieve. If a female convict pleaded her belly and a jury of matrons concluded that she was quick with child, the court might order her held in prison until she delivered, whereupon the woman would be called down to her former judgment and her child turned over to the house of orphans. Occasionally a judge was dissuaded by the prison ordinary, but not even he could always be counted on to plead for mercy, since an ordinary's reputation and livelihood might depend upon his ability to extract penitent dying confessions.
But tenderheartedness was not the only factor accounting for the frequent use of pardons, any more than simple cruelty explained why there were so many capital crime laws. Above all, the system supplied workers to the colonies, providing labor that the government could get very cheaply and sell at a fat profit to private contractors; labor that otherwise would not have been forthcoming; labor that was worth more abroad than at home; labor that the mother country was glad to be rid of and the colonial merchants were eager to traffic; labor that could be easily regulated in volume, since the government could always decrease or increase the number of pardons; captive labor that nevertheless pleaded for the chance to go to America rather than to the gallows; white labor to lighten the rising tide of black slaves and thus reduce the difficulties of control on the plantations; labor that could be enormously profitable to transfer as well as to use.
In 1717 Parliament passed an act empowering courts to sentence offenders directly to transportation. Persons convicted of clergyable felonies or petty larceny could now be sent to American plantations for seven years instead of being whipped or burnt on the hand. This meant that a large portion of England's offenders were eligible to be shipped abroad and sold as servants for seven-year terms. Felons convicted of capital crimes could, with royal consent, be commuted to a term of fourteen years' transportation or, in some cases, life. Anyone who returned before her or his term expired or who helped a convict to escape was liable to be hanged.
Jonathan Forward, a young London merchant with extensive contacts in Maryland, obtained a lucrative subsidy of three pounds for every Newgate felon and five pounds for every convict taken from the provinces. In exchange, he agreed to ship any and all criminals sentenced to transportation, and to pay all costs, including gaol fees, for their conveyance. Forward was experienced in the African slave trade and had recently shipped two vessels with 171 convicts to Maryland. Operating out of his Cheapside house on Fenchurch Street, London, he collaborated with Jonathan Wild, who helped to provide "felons" for shipment abroad.
On April 26, 1718, 29 malefactors at the Old Bailey were ordered to be transported. Four months later the Historical Register reported that 106 convicts "that were ordered for transportation, were taken out of Newgate and put on board a lighter at Blackwall Stairs, from whence they were carried through the Bridge to Long Reach, and there shipped on board the Eagle galley, Captain Staples commander, bound for Virginia and Maryland." (The Eagle was a well-known slave ship that had sailed for the Royal African Company for more than a decade, so the transport of prisoners to America was nothing new for her.)
Forward retained his monopoly for over twenty years until April 1739, when Andrew Reid was added to the payroll. Although Forward continued to transport felons from provincial gaols until the late 1740s, Reid assumed main control of the convict trade. He had several partners, including Andrew Armour of London and James Stewart of Scotland. Reid held the Treasury contract until March 1757, when Stewart succeeded him. Stewart described his predecessor as a "person against whom almost every species of complaint was made" and observed that the transporting of felons was carried on by the "most corruptible class" of traders. Stewart himself remained in the trade until his death in February 1772; he was followed by his partner, Duncan Campbell, also of Scotland. From 1771 to 1775 the Scottish commission for the contract trade to Maryland and Virginia was held by Patrick Colquhoun, a young Glasgow trader and future police reformer.
France pursued a similar policy. John Law, a Scottish entrepreneur and gambler who had sought refuge on the Continent for killing a man in London, had won access to the inner circle of the French court through the gaming table. Law used his contacts to gain permission to try out some of his banking schemes, and in August 1717 he was granted approval to attempt the development of the vast Louisiana territory in America. Using a gang called the Mississippi Bandits, he scoured French jails and hospitals, picking up inmates to serve as his first colonists. One observer said these recruits included "beyond such small-fry as a few drunkards, confirmed blasphemers, dangerous intriguers and procuresses--chiefly murderesses, prostitutes, thieves, knife experts, and female criminals branded on the shoulder with the fleur-de-lys, associates of coiners or of the bands of brigands infesting the forest of St. Germain." A few of the women apparently "scratched the faces of the children in charge of them" and vanished into nearby fields, but most prisoners were not so lucky.
By the April 1718 session of the Old Bailey, more than half of the convicted felons--twenty-seven of fifty-one--were ordered transported. From then until 1769, more than two-thirds (69.5 percent) were banished to America, making transportation the leading punishment for serious crime in Great Britain. The list of "serious crimes" also kept growing; from 1720 to 1765, Parliament passed sixteen acts establishing transportation as a penalty for additional crimes ranging from perjury to poaching. In addition to these "seven-year passengers" and capital convicts sentenced to fourteen years abroad, during the 1730s an estimated ten thousand debtors were released from British prisons to settle the new colony of Georgia. The man who organized the project was General James Edward Oglethorpe, deputy governor of the Royal African Company.
Based upon his analysis of many official records regarding convict transportation, the historian Abbot Emerson Smith figured that the total number of convicts reaching Virginia and Maryland during the eighteenth century was slightly more than twenty thousand from England and about half that from Ireland, making a total of roughly thirty thousand convicts transported to America. His estimate is generally lower than those of other historians.
A more recent study by A. Roger Ekirch concluded that well over 30,000 convicts were transported from England to America between 1718 and 1775; he set the total number sent here from England at 36,000. Adding more than 13,000 shipped from Ireland and another 700 sent from Scotland during the same period, Ekirch put the number transported from Britain at 50,000 and concluded: "Convicts represented as much as a quarter of all British emigrants to colonial America during the 18th century." But even these numbers appear low, since they may underestimate the numbers sent from Britain before 1718, ignore debtors, and do not include criminals transported by the French, Spanish, and Dutch.
In any event, the convict trade to America was big business. Some of the larger convict traders also dealt in indentured servants, sometimes carrying them and dry goods in the same ships. On their return voyages, convict vessels often brought colonial exports like tobacco, wheat, and pig iron back to Britain. Some ships were also engaged in the African slave trade. Jonathan Forward's Anne and Eagle carried slaves, servants, and convicts during the same period. So did some of Samuel Sedgley's ships out of Bristol and James Gildart's from Liverpool. Profits sometimes exceeded 30 percent. One leading convict trader wrote to his partner that their business "if properly managed will in a few years make Us very genteel fortunes."
PENAL SLAVERY MADE FASHIONABLE
PENAL slavery became fashionable due in part to one of the most influential essays ever written, the brief but elegant On Crimes and Punishments, attributed to a young Milanese aristocrat and economist, Cesare Bonesana, Marchese di Beccaria. Hailed by Voltaire as le code de l'humanite, and embraced by many of Europe's royal courts, Beccaria's work gained fame as the definitive plea for "humane" treatment of criminals. To this day it remains a classic work in criminology and penology.
Beccaria thought punishments should deal only with lawbreakers, and carry "only that degree of severity which is sufficient to deter others." Urging an end to torture and secret trials, he wanted every accused person to enjoy both humane treatment and the legal rights to defend himself. He considered swift and certain punishments as more effective deterrents than severe penalties. He also thought they should be carefully measured out to be the least possible given the circumstances and proportionate to the offense.
Just as important, he favored imprisonment, not only for detaining the accused until his case was decided but also as a punishment for crime. In fact, Beccaria recommended penal slavery as the appropriate punishment for robbery, and he advocated corporal punishment on top of it if violence had accompanied the stealing. In place of capital punishment, he preferred "perpetual slavery," saying it offered "all that is necessary to deter the most hardened and determined, as much as the punishment of death." His arguments constituted a "humanitarian" justification for penal slavery--one that helped ensure its adoption by Enlightenment thinkers.
After a convict had been pardoned and the transportation order signed, he might languish in prison for as long as three or four months until a ship was ready to carry him away. When that time finally came, the inmate was brought out into the prison yard, in irons, and chained to a line of fellow transports. Soldiers with fixed bayonets ensured there were no shenanigans. Coffles of as many as a hundred men and women were prodded out through the gate, clanking over the cobblestones in a wretched-looking train, heading toward a waiting ship at Gravesend. All along the narrow route, curious crowds formed to watch them pass, dogs barked, and boys tossed mud and stones.
Among one such group were Anthony Carnes, convicted of stealing goods valued at forty shillings; Timothy Featherstonehaugh Scutt, convicted of taking two letters from the post office; Henry Porte, imprisoned for taking ten pence worth of goods; and Edward Coleman, who had ripped a lead pipe from a house belonging to the East India Company. Shabbily dressed, often looking haggard and sick, with sullen or contemptuous expressions, most transports were young men, although as many as a fifth were women; nearly all of them had been convicted of small-time theft. Very few were professional criminals from London's underworld or persons of consequence.
Most vessels used in the prisoner trade weighed less than two hundred tons. Though not Britain's largest commercial carriers, they could haul substantial loads, typically holding ninety or more passengers, who sometimes included a mix of convicts and indentured servants.
Common convicts were marched aboard and transferred to the custody of the shipmaster, who recorded their names in a log and put them under the hatches in the hold. A visitor touring one of John Stewart's convict vessels wrote, "I went on board, and . . . saw this poor man . . . chained to a board in a hole not above 16 feet long, more than 50 with him; a collar and padlock about his neck, and chained to five of the most dreadful creatures I ever looked upon."
THE MIDDLE PASSAGE
The next shock in the ordeal of the kidnapped Africans began when the prison door was opened and they were pulled out, naked and afraid, into the bright light. Men, women, and children were herded into separate groups. It all happened so quickly that the men barely had time to recover before guards bound their necks and ankles with heavy iron chains and started pushing them toward the beach. Many inlanders had never seen the sea and they were filled with wonder. Astonishment turned to terror as the white guards shoved them into boats and pushed off from the shore, heading toward a huge vessel with tall masts waiting in the harbor. In a few minutes they were being hoisted aboard.
Thirty years later, the former slave Equiano remembered thinking at the time that he was entering a "world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me." Many feared being eaten. When he saw water boiling in a large copper kettle and a "multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow," he was so horror stricken that he fainted on the deck.
Slavers considered boarding particularly dangerous; their prisoners were not only terrified but close to shore, and some were not yet aware of the extraordinary precautions that had been taken to prevent their escape. Those trying to get away were beaten back or shot. Some jumped overboard only to become tangled like flies in a spider's web, the slavers having hung nets around the ship. Others who made it into the water sank under the weight of their fetters.
The men were prodded down the ladder to the upper hold, where the guards pushed them onto a long shelf and fastened each in place by wrist and ankle. Equiano recalled that when he was thrust between the decks he received "such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathesomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had the least desire to taste anything." Some captives passed out, or gagged and vomited in the suffocating heat. As many as 300 to 400 persons might be crowded into the ship's belly, each occupying a space only 5 or 6 feet long by as little as 16 inches wide by 3 or 4 feet high. The only air and light inside seeped through the iron gratings over the hatches. The only way to dispose of body waste was for it to leak through the cracks between the unplaned boards on which the captives lay, dripping upon those below.
Sometimes they stayed in the hold for as long as the ship was in port (which could be as long as three to ten months), the master of a slave ship usually considering it too risky to let his prisoners on deck except for feeding. Once the men were secured below, the women and children were brought aboard. From the moment of their arrival, a former slaver wrote, the women and girls were "often exposed to the wanton rudeness of white savages. . . . In imagination the prey is divided on the spot, and only reserved till opportunity offers." From the hold Equiano could hear their shrieks, but like all of the men he was powerless to help. Only the shipmaster could decide how the women would be treated, and as one master explained it, "Perhaps some hard-hearted pleader may suggest that such treatment would indeed be cruel in Europe; but the African women are negroes, savages, who have no idea of the nicer sensations which obtain among civilized people."
The hold contained prisoners of many tribes and backgrounds, which complicated communication. It was also a perfect incubator for all sorts of diseases. Many contracted measles, smallpox, gonorrhea, or syphilis from their European captors, and some transmitted in return various tropical ills. Yellow fever, malaria, and amoebic dysentery were common disorders on the slave ships. Perhaps the worst, however, was the flux, which began with intermittent fevers, chills, and dizziness, and then racked the bowels with a bloody, grayish mucous discharge that left such a stink that even barrels of vinegar poured over the decks could not remove it.
A slave ship's crew suffered from some of the same perils and privations as its prisoners. Some seamen had themselves been coaxed or kidnapped into the voyage; regardless of how they had entered, once aboard ship they were prisoners too, relinquishing all liberty to the shipmaster and officers. Wayward crewmen faced severe floggings, keelhauling, and even summary execution, virtually without legal rights.
Outranked by the master and officers, vastly outnumbered by the blacks, the common seamen worked in a state of constant tension, mortally vulnerable to attack from above and from below. To survive, the guards tried to use conflict to their own advantage. Unlike the master, whose profit depended on delivering the maximum number of slaves to market, the crew were simply engaged in a job and interested only in their own survival. Generally it made no difference to them whether the slaves were kept healthy or alive; all that mattered was that they--the guards--lasted long enough to get paid or jump ship. Besides having to operate the vessel, their duties included the custody and care of the prisoners, and they were not inclined to want to take needless risks, though they did have to obey the master's commands or face the consequences.
Some slaves saw no difference between the master or his officers and the crew, viewing them all as white oppressors. The crew, on the other hand, often considered themselves in the middle. In order to be protected from the master, they had to make him realize that they were all that stood between him and the prisoners. Thus the guards were quick to remind those in authority of the dangerousness of the blacks and of their own importance in maintaining order and control on the vessel. Mutinies by the crew were rare, but the guards often tried to use other, more subtle methods to increase their power. If some guards had their way, the prisoners never would have been allowed to leave the hold. But they were not in command, so they had to go along as ordered. This usually entailed allowing the male slaves to be brought onto the main deck or forecastle to be fed. Ordinarily this was done twice a day, in the morning and late afternoon. Very tight security was maintained during these feedings, with the crew either distributing victuals or standing by with loaded firearms, "some with lighted matches at their great guns that yawn upon them, loaded with partridge, till they have done and gone to their kennels between decks."
Prisoners who refused to eat were whipped. If they still refused, the guards held them down and inserted metal bars between their teeth. The device was screwed until their jaws were pried open, sometimes crunching teeth in the process, and food was jammed down their throats.
Few slaving captains described their experiences in public print, but those who did invariably depicted themselves as compassionate fellows. As proof, one second-generation slaver with more than twenty years' experience in the Guinea trade cited his practices of allowing the blacks' irons to be removed soon after the ship was at sea, providing two tasty meals a day, permitting the slaves to remain on deck all day if they wished, and providing them with pipes of tobacco one day per week. Another captain described himself as a liberal among slave traders because he did not resort to cutting off the legs and arms of the "most wilful" captives in order to "terrify the rest." A third said: "We often at sea in the evenings would let the slaves come up into the sun to air themselves, and make them jump and dance for an hour or two to our bag-pipes, harp, and fiddle, by which exercise to preserve them in health; but not withstanding all our endeavour, 'twas my hard fortune to have great sickness and mortality among them."
Slavers used informers and other surreptitious means to defuse possible conspiracies. Captain Phillips appointed thirty or forty Gold Coast blacks to oversee his Wydah captives. Ottobah Cugono, a kidnapped Fantee who later escaped to tell his story, reported a plot among the women and boy slaves to destroy their ship in a mass suicide, but said they were betrayed by one of their countrywomen. Even if the prisoners managed to overcome their captors, they faced the problem of having to operate the ship. As a result, slave mutinies seldom succeeded.
The human cost of the slave trade was incalculable. Besides those killed during capture, or who succumbed en route to the holding pens, or who died in prison, the Middle Passage alone probably claimed from 10 to 55 percent of those who were shipped. Records of the Royal African Company's purchases and deliveries for the period 1680-88 indicate an average loss in transit of about 23.4 percent. Captain Phillips, whose vessel the Hannibal left the Guinea coast in 1693 with 700 slaves, delivered only 372 alive to Barbados. The identities of those who perished will forever remain a mystery.
The end of the voyage was marked by sudden attention to the slaves' condition. Whenever possible, rations were increased and exercise was extended. Each slave was physically examined, hair was cut, bodies were washed. Wounds were disguised by cosmetics, and skin chafed raw was rubbed with oil until it glistened. After permission was received for the ship to dock, the final count was taken and the cargo was appraised. Spectators watched, heard, and smelled the chained Africans step hesitantly onto the wharf.
Convicts and indentured servants experienced a comparable ordeal. Once a ship had set sail, a passenger's overriding concern was to survive the voyage. This was no easy task. Some ships leaving Ireland or England suffered higher mortality rates than warring armies sustained in whole campaigns. During the seventeenth century, losses of over 50 percent were not unusual, and occasional records indicate that as many as 100 or 130 of 150 were lost. The 300-ton vessel, Welcome (which often served as a slave ship), that took Quaker William Penn to America in 1682 lost 30 of 100 passengers to smallpox.
Shipboard losses among convicts probably averaged 15 to 30 percent during the seventeenth century, dropping to as low as 3 percent by the last quarter of the eighteenth. All told, 5,000 or so convicts may have perished en route to America, many of them from smallpox and typhus. A ship sailing from Ireland to Philadelphia in 1729 lost 100 of its 190 passengers and crew to starvation. The sloop Sea-Flower left Belfast in 1741 with 106 passengers; 46 of them starved to death. On the Owners Goodwill out of London in 1721, 19 of 50 convicts died before reaching America. In 1726, as many as 48 of the 108 felons aboard the Rappahanock never made it to Virginia.
"As I am grieved so many healthy young People die in the voyage," Andrew Reid, the convict contractor, wrote in 1742, "I would do all in my power to prevent it." After twenty years in the convict trade, Duncan Campbell said more than a seventh of the transports died on the voyage. He figured that a death rate of 10 percent during the crossing was considered a "moderate Loss," and he counted a total of more than 14 percent of transports as dying somewhere between British prisons and American soil.
Not all convict traders evinced such concern. In 1743 the commander of the Justitia, Barnet Bond, left London for Maryland with 170 felons aboard. Despite having ample water reserves, Bond allotted each transport only one pint a day, enforcing his will by keelhauling and flogging. By voyage's end, nearly 50 convicts had expired.
There were other dangers as well. The threat of piracy was real--anyone who went to sea faced the threat of being taken prisoner and held indefinitely. Fierce Atlantic tempests sent many ships to the bottom with all hands aboard, or marooned like some woebegone survivor on a Caribbean deserted island. Passengers who had spent their whole lives on solid ground quickly learned that the relentless waves that made men sick could also suddenly rise like mountains and smash a hapless craft into match sticks. The racing wind that threw a weight of five hundred tons across the water for more than one hundred miles a day might suddenly stop, leaving a vessel motionless and adrift for days or even weeks while supplies ran out.
Given the slim chances of surviving an escape attempt at sea, insurrections were relatively rare. Servant mutinies were so unusual that few shipmasters were very concerned with security unless they had felons aboard. Convict insurrections were much more frequent, even in the face of the extra precautions. In 1735 forty Irish convicts ran their vessel aground off Nova Scotia, killed the crew, and escaped onto land. Off the North Carolina coast in 1751, convicts from Liverpool seized control, shot the captain, imprisoned the crew, and escaped onto land. The same year, another shipmaster was killed by convicts before the crew could regain control. Consequently, many captains followed the same security procedures adopted for slave ships. But if the vessel was attacked at sea, even convicts might be turned loose to join the fight.
A petition to Parliament in 1659 described how 72 servants were locked belowdecks during an entire voyage of over five weeks "amongst horses, [so] that their souls, through heat and steam under the tropic, fainted in them." Crowding was often at its worst at night, when the servants in the hold were often so numerous that they had to sleep in shifts and in pairs, sometimes one on top of another. On Gottlieb Mittelberger's journey to Philadelphia in 1750, passengers were packed so tightly that one "person receives a place of scarcely 2 feet width and 6 feet length in a bedstead, while many a ship carries 4 to 600 souls; not to mention the innumerable implements, tools, provisions, water-barrels, and other things which likewise occupy much space."
Philadelphia eventually passed an ordinance requiring a legal limit of at least six feet square for every four whole "freights" (persons)--children being considered only a fraction of a freight, based on their age--but even that minimum was regularly exceeded. Overcrowding produced an environment that was extremely noisy, smelly, and unhygienic. Besides having to endure a lack of privacy and constant scrutiny by their keepers, passengers experienced enforced intimacy with strangers. Most distasteful for some was that they had to live in close quarters with persons not of their own choosing. Friction among passengers was commonplace. Travel accounts by "persons of quality" bristle with indignation over the insolent behavior of commoners. Writing of his crossing in 1686, Durand the Huguenot complained about the lewd conduct of the twelve prostitutes aboard his vessel, saying he "saw those wenches behave so shockingly with the sailors and others, in addition to the distress caused by their songs and dances, that it awakened within me so intense a hatred of such persons that I shall never overcome it." Some adults, especially crewmen, resented having children aboard, claiming the little ones got in their way and disrupted the normal operations of the ship.
For most passengers, though, the problem was not so much distraction as helplessness, idleness, and monotony--the common fate of prisoners. A passenger was powerless to affect either the course or the outcome of the voyage. Some whimpered, sighed, and cried piteously for their homes. Those who perished were cast into the sea, leaving their relatives and others who had persuaded them to undertake the journey in such despair that it was almost impossible to pacify and console them. "In a word, the sighing and crying and lamenting on board the ship continues night and day, so as to cause the hearts even of the most hardened to bleed when they hear it."
When land was finally sighted and the ship approached shore, the servants' bodies were washed and their hair was trimmed. Clothes were mended, and some convicts were given wigs to make them appear more respectable to prospective buyers. The survivors were gathered on deck and their names and other information about them was logged. James Revel, one of the few transported convicts to leave a written account of his experience, wrote:
We were wash'd and cleaned,
That to our buyers we might better seem;
Our things were gave to each they did belong,
And they that had clean linnen put it on.
Our faces shav'd, com'd out our wigs and hair,
That we in decent order might appear,
Against the planters did come down to view,
How well they lik'd this fresh transported crew.
By the early eighteenth century, a ship's arrival was announced by a local newspaper, which advertised the kind and quality of incoming cargoes, the scheduled date and place of landing, and other particulars about the merchandise for sale. The American Weekly Mercury of February 18, 1729, declared: "Lately arrived from London, a parcel of very likely English servants, men and women, several of the men tradesmen; to be sold reasonable and time allowed for payment. By Chades Read of Philadelphia, or Captain John Ball, on board his ship, at Anthony Milkinson's Wharf." A notice in the Maryland Gazette of June 29, 1758, reported: "Last week arrived here from Bristol, the Snow Eugene, Capt. Jonathan Tallimay, with 69 of His Majesty's Seven Years' Passengers, 51 men and 18 women." Noteworthy ads were picked up by editors in other colonies.
Most convict ships arrived in late spring and summer, and the Chesapeake convict trade was more regularized than the trade in slaves or indentured servants. Slave ship arrivals were announced in the same way, and the tearsheets were tacked up beside the servants' notices on the walls of merchants' coffeehouses in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Annapolis, Newport, New London, and other towns. When the Martha put into Philadelphia from South Carolina in 1737, the Gazette informed its readers of "A PARCEL of likely young Negro boys and girls, to be sold by Robert Ellis in Water-Street."
Residents of Charleston were notified of the sale of wine, slaves, and indentured servants:
TO BE SOLD on board the ship Bance Island, on Tuesday the 6th of May next, at Ashley-Ferry; a choice cargo of about 250 fine healthy NEGROES just arrived from the Windward & Rice Coast. The utmost care has already been taken, and shall be continued, to keep them free from the least danger of being infected with the SMALL-POX, no boat having been on board, and all other communication with people from Charleston prevented. Austin, Laurens & Appleby. N.B. Full one half of the above Negroes have had the SMALL-POX in their own country.
Henry Laurens (of Austin, Laurens & Appleby) had pursued the slave trade to become the richest man and leading citizen in South Carolina. As a partner in Charleston's largest and most successful slave-trading firms, he was the biggest slave trafficker in America.
Laurens personally involved himself in every aspect of the business, complaining on one occasion to his Rhode Island associates: "God knows what we shall do with what remain, they are a most scabby flock, all of them full of crockeraws--several have extreme sore eyes, three very puny children and add to this the worst infirmity of all others with which 6 or 8 are attended (vizt) Old Age."
Some of the concern about incoming passengers stemmed from fears that they would transmit disease, and there was good reason to worry. In 1741 a ship carrying servants and convicts from Dublin was blamed as the source of a fatal fever epidemic in Philadelphia. In Virginia, a wealthy Northern Neck planter reported that his household was "much alarmed . . . about a Jail disorder brought into the Neighbourhood by Col. Frank Lee's servant bought of Somervill." In 1767 the deaths of a widow and more than twenty of her slaves on Maryland's Eastern Shore were attributed to jail fever, throwing residents into a panic and prompting Governor Horatio Sharpe to write back to London: "That scores of People have been destroyed here by the Jail Fever first communicated by Servants from on board crowded infectious Ships is notorious.
Slave imports were especially suspect. Dr. James Killpatrick reported that in 1738 "Charleston, the unfortunate capital of this province, was visited . . . with a bilious fever, which was probably imported from Africa, or the Caribee-Islands." Although Africans appeared less susceptible than American Indians to smallpox, and suffered a lower mortality rate from malaria and yellow fever than European slavers, they were by no means immune to the viruses they encountered during their passage and entry into America. Smallpox, pestilential fever, flux, pleurisies, influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis claimed thousands of lives. Thus the colonists' tendency to blame newcomers, especially slaves and convicts, for outbreaks of disease was especially ironic.
Nor were prisoners ever credited for their part in bringing cures. During the spring of 1721, for instance, Boston was struck by a smallpox epidemic that infected half the city's ten thousand residents and claimed more than eight hundred lives. Some attributed the malady to a Negro slave who had recently arrived from the Caribbean, but there was really no way to determine its cause. What was worse, there was no known effective treatment. Then Cotton Mather, the Puritan preacher and scientist, recounted an old tale he had heard from African slaves. Some Negroes had said that in their homeland the disease was prevented by cutting open a healthy person's skin and administering some of the pox's secretion into the wound. Mather's story horrified many of his fellow Puritans. But on June 26, 1721, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston took the risk and inoculated two of his slaves and his own young son with smallpox. The treatment worked. But the incident created a furor in Boston, since many elders argued that it was sinful to employ "pagan" methods, even if they seemed successful. Better to just accept the epidemic as a judgment from God.
About the same time, the disease hit London, resulting in many deaths. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu convinced the Princess of Wales to support inoculation experiments, and she in turn convinced the king to pardon several convicts on the condition that they submit to infection. Six condemned Newgate felons were accordingly inoculated on August 9 by Dr. Charles Maitland. Again, the treatment apparently worked. And again, prisoners received no credit for originating a cure or for serving as human guinea pigs.
By the 1760s, several colonies had enacted quarantine laws that threatened to penalize any captain who brought in diseased convicts. As a result, convict contractors were encouraged to improve the design of their vessels to make them more hygienic, and their ships began to feature gratings, portals, and ventilators.
PRISONERS FOR SALE
Being sold was a common experience of white convicts, indentured servants, redemptioners, and black slaves. Most prisoners had become articles of trade before their arrival in America, and some would change hands several times before they ended up working on American soil. Those who indentured themselves might have been bound to a merchant in England, who in turn had sold them to a shipmaster or agent for conveyance to the colonies. Convicts had moved from the sheriff to the gaoler to the hands of contractors like Jonathan Forward and on to agents abroad. Africans, too, had often passed through the clutches of so many manstealers, cages, and ships that many had lost count.
A good number of persons were sold on the ship that had transported them. Once they had been cleaned up, convicts or other servants were brought up on deck and displayed. Males were separated from females and other groupings were formed--rows of pale gaunt faces, pocked cheeks, intent expressions, lean bodies, worn shoes, filthy stockings, torn petticoats, stained shirts, coughs, wheezes, clinks, and mutters. Prospective customers passed among them to inspect the goods. Look them over, ask questions. James Revel, the convict, later wrote:
Examining like Horses, if we're sound,
What trade are you, my Lad, says one to me,
A Tin-man, Sir, that will not do, says he.
Some felt our hands and view'd our legs and feet,
And made us walk, to see we were compleat;
Some view'd our teeth, to see if they were good,
Or fit to chew our hard and homely Food.
If any like our look, our limbs, our trade,
The Captain then a good advantage made.
On land, servant and convict sales often resembled slave auctions. A London weaver who was new to Williamsburg noted in 1758:
They all was sett in a row, near a hundred man & women & the planter come down the cuntry to buy. . . . I never see such pasels of pore raches [wretches] in my life some all most naked and what had cloths was as black as chimney swipers, and all most starved by the ill usidge in ther pasedge by the capn, for they are used no bater than so many negro slaves that are brought in hare and sold in the same manner as horss or cows in our market or fair.
Another colonist that year reported: "[They] are Brought in hare and sold in the same maner as horses or Cows in our market or fair." From Philadelphia in 1773, a British officer wrote home to his father in Dublin: "They sell the servants here as they do their horses, and advertise them as they do their beef and oatmeal."
William Green, a convict, noted: "They search us there as the dealers in horses do those animals in this country, by looking at our teeth, viewing our limbs, to see if they are sound and fit for their labour." Another reported: "He asked My Trade, My Name, and whence I came, And, what vile Fact had brought Me to this Shore."
Servants were exchanged for all kinds of goods. Most favored were bills payable on demand from reputable British firms, but agents also accepted gold or other precious metals, tobacco, sugar, livestock, turpentine, wine, or rum. In Pennsylvania in 1683, indentured servants were bought for six pounds sterling and sixhundredweight of beef, "with the hide and tallow."
Many masters naturally preferred indentured servants over convicts. However, labor was often in such short supply that landowners could not be choosy. An anxious Maryland planter, Turbutt Wright, wrote to James Cheston on April 11, 1773: "[I] would chuse an indented servant in preference to a convict, but rather than not have one some [time] this summer or next autumn, would consent to take a convict."
Convicts usually were cheaper than slaves. In the late colonial period, an adult male slave in the Chesapeake sold for about 35-44 [pounds sterling] sterling, whereas convicts fetched less than 13 [pounds sterling. Slaves served for life, compared to seven or fourteen years for convicts. And slave progeny also belonged to the master. But slaves had to be supported for life, regardless of age or condition, whereas convicts and other servants served limited terms. Like slaves, and unlike regular indentured servants, convict servants generally were not entitled to receive freedom dues (severance pay).
Yet, distinctions could be blurred. Many convict transporters and sellers simply referred to "servants" for sale, without specifying whether they were felons. A surveyor of customs at Annapolis observed that Marylanders "too generally conceive an opinion that the difference is merely nominal between the indented servant and the convicted felon; nor will they readily believe that people, who had the least experience in life, and whose characters were unexceptionable, would abandon their friends and families, and their ancient connexions, for a servile situation in a remote appendage to the British empire." In fact, he added that he thought the colonists "rather consider the convict as the more profitable servant, his term being for seven, the [indentured servant's] only for five years."
Through it all the buyers complained that they were getting the short end of the deal. "You have no idea of the plague we have with servants on this side of the water," a colonist wrote from Philadelphia in 1769. "If you bring over a good one he is spoilt in a month. Those born in the country are insolent and extravagant. The imported Dutch are to the last degree ignorant and awkward. The Irish . . . are generally thieves, and particularly drunkards; and the Negroes stupid and sulky, and stink damnably."
Return to Main Page