- Historic Sites
Packed like animals in the holds of slave ships, Negroes bound for America were prey to disease, brutal masters, and their own suicidal melancholy.
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
At three or four in the afternoon the slaves were fed their second meal, often a repetition of the first. Sometimes, instead of African food, they were given horse beans, the cheapest provender from Europe. The beans were boiled to a pulp, then covered with a mixture of palm oil, flour, water, and red pepper, which the sailors called “slabber sauce.” Most of the slaves detested horse beans, especially if they were used to eating yams or manioc. Instead of eating the pulp, they would, unless carefully watched, pick it up by handfuls and throw it in each other’s faces.
That second meal was the end of their day. As soon as it was finished they were sent below, under the guard of sailors charged with stowing them away on their bare floors and platforms. The tallest men were placed amidships, where the vessel was widest; the shorter ones were tumbled into the stern. Usually there was only room for them to sleep on their sides, “spoon fashion.” Captain William Littleton told Parliament that slaves in the ships on which he sailed might lie on their backs if they wished—“though perhaps,” he conceded, “it might be difficult all at the same time.”
After stowing their cargo, the sailors climbed out of the hatchway, each clutching his cat-o’-nine-tails; then the hatchway gratings were closed and barred. Sometimes in the night, as the sailors lay on deck and tried to sleep, they heard from below “an howling melancholy noise, expressive of extreme anguish.” When Dr. Trotter told his interpreter, a slave woman, to inquire about the cause of the noise, “she discovered it to be owing to their having dreamt they were in their own country, and finding themselves when awake, in the hold of a slave ship.”
More often the noise heard by the sailors was that of quarreling among the slaves. The usual occasion for quarrels was their problem of reaching the latrines. These were inadequate in size and number, and hard to find in the darkness of the crowded hold, especially by men who were ironed together in pairs.
In squalls or rainy weather, the slaves were never brought on deck. They were served their two meals in the hold, where the air became too thick and poisonous to breathe. Dr. Falconbridge writes: For the purpose of admitting fresh air, most of the ships in the slave-trade are provided, between the decks, with five or six air-ports on each side of the ship, of about six inches in length and four in breadth; in addition to which, some few ships, but not one in twenty, have what they denominate wind-sails [funnels made of canvas and so placed as to direct a current of air into the hold]. But whenever the sea is rough and the rain heavy, it becomes necessary to shut these and every other conveyance by which the air is admitted. … The negroes’ rooms very soon become intolerably hot. The onfined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies and by being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and fluxes which generally carry off great numbers of them.
Dr. Trotter says that when tarpaulins were thrown over the gratings, the slaves would cry, “Kickeraboo, kickeraboo, we are dying, we are dying.” Falconbridge gives one instance of their sufferings: Some wet and blowing weather having occasioned the portholes to be shut and the grating to be covered, fluxes and fevers among the negroes ensued. While they were in this situation, I frequently went down among them till at length their rooms became so extremely hot as to be only bearable for a very short time. But the excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered their situation intolerable. The deck, that is, the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughter-house.
While the slaves were on deck they had to be watched at all times to keep them from committing suicide. Says Captain Phillips of the Hannibal , “We had about 12 negroes did wilfully drown themselves, and others starv’d themselves to death; for,” he explained,” ‘tis their belief that when they die they return home to their own country and friends again.”
This belief was reported from various regions, at various periods of the trade, but it seems to have been especially strong among the Ibos of eastern Nigeria. In 1788, nearly a hundred years after the Hannibal ’s voyage, Dr. Ecroide Claxton was the surgeon who attended a shipload of Ibos. Some, he testified, wished to die on an idea that they should then get back to their own country. The captain in order to obviate this idea, thought of an expedient viz. to cut off the heads of those who died intimating to them that if determined to go, they must return without heads. The slaves were accordingly brought up to witness the operation. One of them by a violent exertion got loose and flying to the place where the nettings had been unloosed in order to empty the tubs, he darted overboard. The ship brought to, a man was placed in the main chains to catch him which he perceiving, made signs which words cannot express expressive of his happiness in escaping. He then went down and was seen no more.