"I Never Have Such a Sickly Ship Before": Diet, Disease, and Mortality in 18th-Century Atlantic Slaving Voyages

Article excerpt

On 11 August 1750, British ship captain John Newton departed Liverpool aboard the vessel, Duke of Argyle, setting sail for the Windward Coast of Africa. After docking close to a month later, he entered into business negotiations with local merchants for the procurement of various goods--both human and non-human. Much to his satisfaction, the number of captives he boarded on his ship increased. However, as he traveled the waters venturing into different coastal areas, he confronted several instances of declining health among purchased bondpeople and several crew members. Following his arrival in a region referred to as "Rio Junque," West Africa, the unhealthy environment aboard ship appeared to hinder Newton's future trading voyages and forced him to declare, "Having so many sick, am afraid [we] shall not be able to keep our boats going," presumably to conclude any of his immediate slaving endeavors. (1)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As sickness continued to advance, Newton chose to draw upon available coastal resources in hopes of restoring the health of some of those enslaved. Prior to his departure to the neighboring locale of Grand Bassa, on 12 January 1751, he discharged several seamen to "put a boy on [shore], No. 27, being very bad with a flux." (2) Three weeks after the young male's removal, his designated caretaker, Andrew Ross, shared with Newton that treatment notwithstanding, the bonded child's health deteriorated and he died. All too often, the physical and psychological traumas captives underwent during their final moments of life remain unrecorded. Despite the financial loss incurred by the boy's death, Newton intimated it was "indeed what I expected." (3)

Three months later, while attempting to finalize slave sales in preparation for his Atlantic departure, Newton faced yet another medical episode. This concerned an enslaved girl referred to as "No. 92," who also became enfeebled by the flux. Similar to her male shipmate, Newton sent the young female captive on shore, this time to an individual named Peter Freeman. Upon her transfer, Newton concluded it was "not so much in hopes of recovery (for I fear she is past it)," but instead as he professed, "to free the ship of a nuisance." In many respects his actions can be perceived as cold and indifferent to the girl's condition. Yet, the primary concern for Newton, as with many slaving captains, rested on maximizing profits through the importation of healthy bondpeople. His financial intentions aside, on Wednesday morning, the next day following her relocation ashore, the young "No. 92" died. (4)

Ill health was a common aspect of the transatlantic slave trade. Thus given the wider terrain of sickness and death that claimed the lives of countless other enslaved Africans, the loss of the two above-mentioned captives is not entirely unique. Ship captains carefully sought healthy Africans in their coastal negotiations. The proliferation of dangerous maladies, however, often weakened captives' valuable bodies, in some cases reducing the numbers of those transported to New World ports. Regardless of race or gender, individuals traveling across the Atlantic were never granted immunity to various seaborne ailments or spared from subsequent death. Even more importantly, medical complaints and treatment required for restoration played out much differently at sea than on land.

In 1896 the young historian W. E. B. Du Bois distinguished himself as a leading scholar on the transatlantic slave trade through publication of his Harvard dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870. (5) Owing greatly to Du Bois's early influence, a large number of studies continue to emerge, further unearthing various aspects of this gruesome chapter in human history. Bicentennial anniversaries of the abolition of the slave trade by the British and the Americans have also helped to revive many of these important discussions. …