"I Never Have Such a Sickly Ship Before": Diet, Disease, and Mortality in 18th-Century Atlantic Slaving Voyages
Mustakeem, Sowande, The Journal of African American History
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)
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. Yet, particularly absent in conversations about abolitionists, anti-slavery organizations, and captive resistance is any significant attention devoted to the complexities of ill health that was intensified within and throughout the trade. Simply put, we know far less about the realities of death as a result of sickness and disease than we do about rebellions waged at sea.
Much of the scholarship on the transatlantic slave trade has focused on various themes and approaches, including economics, insurgency, maritime culture, and statistical investigations. (6) During the 1980s a small cadre of scholars debated the varying rates of mortality among bondpeople and seamen during the periods of legal and illegal slave trading. (7) Despite these earlier conversations, and the steady growth of scholarship exploring health conditions for enslaved workers on antebellum plantations in the South, comparatively little research has been conducted on the medical problems affecting enslaved people during the Middle Passage. (8) This essay seeks to begin to fill this gap in the scholarly research by exploring some of the diseases and medical agonies African captives underwent at sea. I hope to demonstrate that the often complicated relationship of African-descended people to western medical history began aboard slave ships.
Without a doubt, seamen employed aboard 18th-century slaving vessels experienced extremely high rates of mortality. (9) However, this essay examines "ship health" to reveal how unfavorable conditions common aboard British slaving vessels specifically affected the African captives. (10) By probing the often complicated lives of captives, specific attention is given to the role of diet, epidemiology, medical care, and the causes of deaths within the slave trade. This study also offers an assessment of gender issues within the slave ship experience. Gender is understood and explored here to include the lives of not only bondwomen and young girls, but it also interrogates the varied stories of male captives--adults and boys. A less traditional approach to the study of the Middle Passage is presented here through the use of 18th-century medical records to better understand and explain the various symptoms the captives exhibited as their conditions emerged during the period of the "legal" slave trade. (11) The intention here is not to address the debates regarding African stowage, rates of mortality, or the traumatic experiences of the captives. (12) Rather, this essay sets out to examine the dynamics of bondage at sea in an effort to contextualize the social effects of various ailments for the enslaved.
Fundamentally, the transatlantic slave trade was largely based upon violence. Yet, violent incidents surrounding their enslavement were not the sole cause of death for bondpeople. Sickness and disease similarly prevailed, fostered by the incubation of contagious and often deadly illnesses that circulated and spread in the bowels of slaving vessels. Throughout the duration of the slave trade, bondpeople consistently died from the effects of yellow and bilious fevers, colic, smallpox, epilepsy, scurvy, dropsy, yaws, malaria, apoplexy, pneumonia, flux, consumption, and other diseases. Although this essay does not attempt to address the entire range of deadly diseases, it does focus on several medical ailments that contributed to the deaths of innumerable captive Africans.
The history of diseases and ailments common within the Middle Passage yields important yet personal stories of struggle involving an untold number of women, men, and children who died during the era of legal and illegal slave trading. Recognizing this historical reality, we should not simply contain these human experiences within static numerical formulas. A wealth of information has been and continues to be gleaned from records made available about mortality on slave ships. However, as one scholar reminds us, "overall numbers--and our interpretation of them--correspond only loosely to the ways African captives experienced and understood shipboard mortality." (13) It is only by further broadening our view of the health conditions for those enslaved to include the varying instances of illness and death aboard slave ships that we can begin to gain entrance into the specter of trauma and physical pain bondpeople suffered.
COASTAL HEALTH OF CAPTIVES
Beginning in the middle part of the 15th century, sailors traveled great distances to obtain the "black gold" in the form of African bodies. This mercantile fervor intensified over the years, attracting the broad involvement of the Portuguese, French, Dutch, British, and American merchants, seamen, and planters. More importantly, this phenomenon played a crucial role in shaping the large numbers of men and women forcibly removed from western and central Africa. It has been estimated that during the 16th century 370,000 captives were taken, while the 17th century witnessed two million bondpeople dispersed into New World colonies and plantations. However, the 18th century saw a dramatic boom in slave sales, resulting in the transport of more than 6,130,000 Africans to the Americas. This latter century represented the last period of legal transatlantic slave trading. Yet, what is most striking is that unlike other Atlantic goods being traded, bought, and sold during this time, according to historian Robin Blackburn, the trade in human cargo represented the least regulated branch of commerce. (14)
Merchants maintained a hardy appetite for the purchase of bondpeople and in many cases, prior to final negotiations of sales, medical examinations were conducted to determine their state of health. Historian Richard Sheridan concluded that holding captives for extended periods of time on the African coast was "dangerous both for the health of slaves and their good order" due to increased costs required for their care. These findings suggest that confined captives received meager care during the oftentimes prolonged waiting period on the African coast. Therefore, to secure the most ideally suited captives able to withstand the long sea voyages and the arduous labor anticipated on New World plantations, ship captains and surgeons made queries regarding height, weight, and age. (15) Many specific characteristic sought in procuring certain types of captives stemmed from various demands planters communicated to overseas merchants.
Several factors were emphasized in these medical assessments. The physical strength of a bondperson was one of the fundamental requirements. It was not uncommon to find practices employed "to see that they were sound in wind and limb," in some cases by "making them jump, [and] stretch out their arms swiftly" upon traders' orders. Oral health was another factor pertinent to interested buyers as they looked "in their mouths to judge of their age" and discern if a person had unhealthy gums or possibly any missing teeth. Medical practitioners were also unashamed as they sought to "examine the [private parts] of both men and women," in the hopes of assessing reproductive deficiencies that possibly lied dormant. (16) During this process both bondwomen and bondmen endured extensive and often degrading bodily scrutiny in which they were handled like cattle. (17) In many respects these coastal examinations constituted the first dimension of the "auction block system" that captives were forced to undergo once they were scattered and relocated throughout the Americas. (18)
Despite the efforts used to procure healthy bondpeople, no sea captain or physician could anticipate the diseases capable of wreaking havoc on the bodies and minds of African captives. To counter the possibility of the transmission of infections, during their ship …
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Publication information: Article title: "I Never Have Such a Sickly Ship Before": Diet, Disease, and Mortality in 18th-Century Atlantic Slaving Voyages. Contributors: Mustakeem, Sowande - Author. Journal title: The Journal of African American History. Volume: 93. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2008. Page number: 474+. © 2008 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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