Life on a slave ship

Boyer Peyreleau describes around 1823 a slave ship: “Imagine human beings piled up like bundles of goods in compartments that barbaric greed has sparingly spared them, where they breathe only a mephitic air that kills them (…) These unfortunates, most emaciated and squatted like brutes, hardly support their heads where one hardly discovers any more expression; young women aged 15 to 16, exhausted from want and misery, hold children to their udders already hanging and withered. The horror of this picture is further heightened by the diseases that unhealthiness and deprivation have produced. A quarter more or less of the cargo is usually harvested during the crossing and those who survive seem insensitive to the death of their companions, the same fate awaits them at any moment. Could we imagine that men who claim to be civilized and Christians thus coldly surrender the executioners of other men whose fault is to be born under other skies and to be of a different color? “

This virtuous indignation takes place at a time when the slave trade is officially abolished in France but, during the three centuries that it has lasted, the considerable profits which were drawn from it have silenced many consciences. Furthermore in 1823, the trade is not finished, it continues in clandestine form in even more cruel conditions, because this trade remains lucrative given the demand for incessant labor on the part of the colonists. Trafficking has drained millions of men across the Atlantic: Morenas who writes around 1828 calculates that, from 1768 to 1827, there were 4,990,000 slaves introduced into the Antilles, if we add 1,500,000 deaths during the crossing, 55 000 in captivity, more than 7 million men were transported from Africa to the Antilles in sixty years! That is to say an annual average of 121,000. According to L. Lacroix, it was estimated at the beginning of the 19th century that the slave trade had removed from the African continent about 32 million slaves and for him this figure is undoubtedly below the truth. Boyer-Peyreleau considers that to transport these millions of men, it took no less than 80,000 crossings and the slave ship is considered to be the emblem of this monstrous traffic. Two questions challenge us: – What is life on a slave ship – Has there been any improvement after the official abolition of the slave trade?

1) Life on the slave ship.

The slave ship, having left Nantes, Bordeaux or La Rochelle, left heavily loaded for a journey that would last several months (eight to twelve). He first went to one of the sixty-six establishments located on the coasts of Africa, between Senegal and Ecuador, to stock up on slaves. Precise instructions were given to the surgeons responsible for examining the captives: “no old man with wrinkled skin, hanging and shriveled testicles. There were no tall, slender negroes, narrow breasts, stray eyes, foolish looks that heralded dispositions for epilepsy. ” Negresses had to have standing breasts and it was a good deal to buy a pregnant slave. The surgeon even had to, like the Portuguese, lick the skin of the captives to possibly detect certain diseases. Above all, it was necessary to eliminate “pianists” (those who have pians) and those carrying the Guinea worm, because they had little value on the market. Father Labat advised to look at the eyes, the mouth, the noble parts, make walk and cough violently by holding the hand in the groin to detect the hernias. Once the slaves were selected, we loaded the provisions for the use of the captives (those of the crew and officers are on board from the start), i.e. twenty-two tonnes of beans, a barrel of rice with corn, chilli , olive oil, cassava, bananas. Then, we proceeded to board the slaves: crowding on board was the rule to make the crossing as profitable as possible.

It is then the departure for the Antilles. Numerous regulations have been published to regulate life on board the slave ship. Article 7 of the regulations of the Portier brothers gives an idea of this: “You must eat in the evening and in the morning taking care that between meals the boiler is well cleaned”. Soup is served at 9 a.m. and 4 a.m. it is a kind of tasteless brouet, thickened with corn flour or rice enhanced with chilli to stimulate appetite, make them less prone to colic and sweating. The surgeon must taste the soup, must ensure that it is not swallowed too hot. We can, on Thursday and Sunday, give them a little shot of brandy; if we are happy and everything is fine, we can give them a cookie pancake and a small piece of beef on Sunday.

If there are those who do not eat or do so with disgust, the surgeon will have to look for the cause, because many do not complain, and if necessary, force-feed them. He will have to visit their mouths, make gargles with lemon juice or vinegar to those who have heated mouths, touch with the vitriol stone the small cankers that may be there. Jacques Savary, in “The perfect merchant” recommended to make the negroes dance and to keep them cheerful all along the way because “the exercise softens the limbs, removes scurvy and boredom and the song gives cheerfulness, true balm health”. So we took drums on board. They also had to be occupied, so we gave them to weave baskets, sandals and put on colored beads …

At the end of the day, we plan to return to the warehouse after checking the irons. They are prohibited from moving overnight and the sailors are also prohibited from half-opening the panels whatever they may hear. Only what is it in reality? All this is only valid if the weather is good and the crossing takes place without bad encounters with the pirates. Otherwise the slaves get stuck in the between decks and it happens that during a crossing, they only climb three times on the bridge!

Also, death harvests very widely among them or they become extremely thin. It is then planned for them to look good in the slave markets to make one or two refreshment stops in Prince Island or San Tomé. This stopover then lasts from one to six weeks. The slaves are parked in large enclosures. In 1801, a health officer on board the Atalante ship described this stopover: – “Two slave ships that we found on Prince Island had put their cargo on the ground to refresh them. Never did suffering humanity present a more dreadful picture than women with their children at the breast, the young girls from fifteen to eighteen years, and the young negroes who accompanied them, all resembled walking skeletons covered with a hideous and wrinkled skin. The nurses’ breasts were thinned skins that hung over their breasts like empty purses. Those of the young girls who offered only the most disgusting nudity to the eyes, were glued to their breasts like withered skins through which the ribs were counted. The children with the udder were in such a state of emaciation and their emaciation was so great that one could not imagine how they still lived! I found myself at a distribution of food made to these unfortunate slaves for their supper. I remember that the portions of a nurse about thirty years old were two half – shaped green corn on the cob “.

Should we generalize from this testimony? I do not think so, because we must take into account the fact that, on the one hand, this traffic must bring in (we still have an interest in taking care a little more of the slaves) on the other hand, we are approaching the end of the trafficking and opinion is not very favorable.

A second stop may be necessary before arriving at the islands. But malnutrition is not the only cause, the journey continues with its procession of diseases that decimate both the slaves and the crew: scurvy, dysentery, smallpox, fevers of all kinds, especially yellow fever. Also the mortality is great on board. Take the example of L ‘Iris, a boat which left La Rochelle in 1784. It loaded 280 slaves and lost 125. Some died in Porto Novo, port of embarkation, others during the crossing or at the stopover in San Thome. Mortality is due to scurvy (62 deaths), putrid fevers and dysentery. Yellow fever can destroy an entire shipment; it would have been necessary, as for smallpox, to isolate the sick but this is not possible given the crowding on board. Others have severe ophthalmia. Added to this are filariasis, not to mention the frequent suicides on board: many are aroused by fear. Some even believe that they were removed to eat them, so it was forbidden to practice bloodletting on board. At the beginning of the 19th century, vaccination was proposed on board slave ships to prevent the spread of smallpox. However with the development of clandestine trafficking, we can no longer exercise control.

2) During illegal trafficking.

The slave trade was abolished by England in 1807. On February 8, 1815, the Congress of Vienna ratified the fact. However, it was on April 15, 1818 that France definitively prohibited it. However, illegal trafficking continues to supply the Antilles, because the benefits are exorbitant despite the risks involved. In 1824, on a two-month cruise, English ships visited 19 slave ships, ten of which were French. They were granted international access rights in 1831 and 1833, but despite the controls, trafficking continued until 1865. It seems that almost 540 French ships were intercepted and had to interrupt their operations. It must be said that we have few details because many ships destroy their papers so as not to incur convictions and the information comes from private letters. 126 Nantes ships are considered suspect between 1824 and 1826.

Travel conditions are even more painful: the Vigilant de Nantes took 361 slaves: – 106 women are put in the rear bedroom in 7 rows; – 28 in the rear bedroom on 2 rows; – 104 men are put to starboard and to port on planks of the false flying bridge; – 123 traveled crouching on the false fixed bridge. On other boats, they were lying on their sides, the knees of one fitting the hocks of the other. According to Morénas, “it is less space than a dead man occupies in a coffin. There are many where they are forced to stay on the folded sides without being able to lie down. The space is therefore reduced, the supplies in less quantity, the water is most often lacking.

Thus on a brig that left Havre on January 24, 1819, there was only half a glass per person per day. Diseases continue to wipe out a large number of captives, often one-sixth and even half. There is rarely a doctor on board; if there are fewer deaths it is because the crossing is shorter since there is no longer a cooling stop. But smallpox, fevers, vomiting, not to mention cases of suffocation due to the foul atmosphere prevailing on board, remain frequent. When they are too affected, they are given laudanum which puts them to sleep forever. Louis Lacroix recounts the odyssey of the brig that left Le Havre on January 24, 1819: he embarked 160 slaves. On June 21, he arrived in Guadeloupe: 39 blind blacks were thrown into the sea, 12 are blind, 14 have very serious corneal damage. Shipowners have been compensated for damaged goods!

Suicides are numerous and sometimes collective. A speculum oris is used to spread the jaws of those who refuse to eat. Some do not hesitate to throw their cargo into the sea when they are chased by the English or they abandon it in makeshift boats while they flee. According to Louis Lacroix, life on board is organized as follows: – Raised half an hour after the appearance of the sun, the slaves go up on deck four by four. Those who have expressed the will to commit suicide are hampered. – They wash in water-filled bails, one for eight. – Their mouth is examined, carefully brushed with a small piece of flattened and crushed sugar cane. – They pass them six centilitres of palm oil on the body. – They drink acidulated water, contained in a calabash, to fight scurvy. The infernal stone is used for those who have canker sores and mucous ulcers. – They are entitled to 400 grams per day of a porridge made of beans, corn, millet, meat or fish. It is served in bowls of 10 rations and they plunged the spoon into the command. Water circulates in measures of 35 centilitres. Those who have no appetite are fed the “speculum oris”. Sometimes it is thrown into the sea when there is a fear of running out of supplies. A petition from French traders in 1826 assures that captains of slave ships throw over 1,500 living slaves into the sea each year because they are too ill to be sold with advantage.

But this emaciated, exhausted herd that Boyer Peyreleau presented to us, still has enough spring to rebel. In 1820, The Industry of Nantes was kidnapped by slaves who mutilate the sailors who remained on board. A letter from Louis Garneray speaks of a revolt on the Doris that resulted in the death or disappearance of 90 men. It sometimes happens that the sailors themselves assassinate the officers on board and try to sell the cargo for their own profit, as was the case with the Céron de Bordeaux in 1825. Although the English made the police of the seas, many were those who escaped, as shown by the letter from the owner of the Success: “We have learned of the happy arrival of several slave traders in the Antilles, which proves that the French government always turn a blind eye to this traffic and that the English no longer exercise very strict surveillance ”. Morenas adds in 1827: “Since 1815, the government deceived by guilty subordinates has not ceased to show its reluctance to use rigor against slave traders”. But, in spite of these assertions, many are the traffickers seized, and the trials for the fact of slave trade multiply from 1827. It is besides this year there that the Navarrois coming from Bordeaux has its rudder carried by a blow of wind: it was seized at Céron Cove at Prêcheur. The captain had time to land 127 blacks who were caught up at Couleuvre Cove. But trading ships like La Jeune Orine, l’Hermione, Philémon and Les Amis continue to land clandestinely in La Trinité or in François by many Africans who are then sold on other dwellings.

In April 1830, a slave ship broke on the rocks of the Diamond, we find the bodies of 46 blacks and 4 whites on the beach. The following days, 49 corpses came to the coast. The others are saved at the cost of enormous difficulties. The 80 survivors were mostly women because they are free on board while the men are chained two by two in the hold. We note the extreme thinness of the corpses. Most of the survivors are collected from the Latournelle dwelling (6 are in a state of weakness such that they are left behind by a colored man called Borromée), then taken to Fort Royal.

We then learn that it is a slave ship, started from Paimbeuf and ridden by French, that they stayed more than four months at sea. The captain and a large number of sailors perished during the crossing. 70 blacks also died from illness and thrown overboard. There were 260 left when they got lost on the Diamond coast. What is surprising is that one wonders if, in the confusion that followed the sinking, negroes would not have been removed to be transported to other dwellings! The noose tightens after international visitation rights were granted to the English on November 30, 1831 and March 22, 1833 (France signed around 1840).

It was in June 1838 that the Baron de Mackau issued a decree releasing the 204 blacks seized for trading and working on the estate. A few days later, he released 38 more. The last one was in 1845, it has been forgotten! Thus, the slave ship has drained millions of Africans across the Atlantic, thus helping to depopulate the western coasts of Africa. By poor hygienic conditions, crowding, it resulted in the death of a large part of its human cargo. It has also been the vector of many diseases and the resulting microbial shock has been the source of many epidemics that have decimated populations across the Atlantic. The blacks thus paid a heavy price to the colonization of America and the Antilles in particular, under the only pretext that they were more apt to work in the fields, under a tropical climate considered dangerous “for the too rich blood of Europeans “

In 1848, in Martinique, following the abolition of slavery and the growing need for labor for planters, another type of importation of labor from India began. . Is this not a new form of trafficking which is thus established?

Geneviève Léti

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