An anti-slavery ancestor…

This post continues the story of James Hubsdell, my great-great-great-grandfather who enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1821. He served on three ships during his 10-year service – the Chanticleer, the Atholl and the Blonde. My previous post told of his time with the Chanticleer.

This time I will describe his action-packed time on the Atholl.

hms athollThe Atholl-class corvettes were a series of fourteen Royal Navy sixth-rate post ships built to an 1817 design by the Surveyors of the Navy. HMS Atholl, the first of the type, was built at Woolwich Dockyard. Ordered on 27 October 1816, she was laid down in November 1818, launched on 23 November 1820 and entered service on 9 February 1821.

When James Hubsdell joined her, as a sail-maker, on 6 Oct 1824 she was at Portsmouth.

From there she set off to join the West Africa Squadron based out of Freetown Sierra Leone.

So what was the West Africa Squadron?
In 1807 the British Parliament passed a bill prohibiting the slave trade. The act did nothing to end slavery within the nation’s borders, but did prohibit the overseas transportation and trade in slaves. To enforce the law, Britain patrolled the seas off the coast of Africa, stopping suspected slave traders and confiscating the ship when slaves were found. The human cargo was then transported back to Africa.

By 1818 the squadron had grown to six ships with a naval station established in 1819 at what is now Freetown and a supply base at Ascension Island, later moved to Cape Town in 1832.

The resources were further increased; in the middle of the 19th century there were around 25 vessels and 2,000 personnel with a further 1,000 local sailors. Between 1808 and 1860 the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans.

Intercepting Slavers…

When the Atholl arrived on station off the West African Coast she immediately began to intercept suspected slave ships and the record of some of these actions survives in detail:

“7 Mar 1825, detained in lat. 5° 21′ N., long. 13° 13′ W., in the River Gallinas, the Spanish slave schooner Espanola, Francisco Ramon Roderiguez, Master, 270 slaves on board when detained, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Spanish Mixed Court of Justice, Sierra Leone, and sentenced to be condemned.

1 Sep 1825, detained in lat. 4° 12′ N. long. 5° 33′ W., off Cape Formosa, when bound from St. Thomas in the West Indies to the West Coast of Africa the Dutch slave schooner Venus, Andre Desbarbes, Master, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Netherlands Mixed Court of Justice, Sierra Leone and on 23 Sep 1825 sentenced to be condemned.

9 Sep 1825 the when in company with the Esk and Redwing, detained in lat. 2° 23′ N. long. 4° 17′ E., the Portuguese slave schooner Uniao, Jozé Ramos Gomis, Master, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission, Sierra Leone, and 21 Oct 1825 sentenced to be condemned.”

The Uniao was a notorious slaver that had made numerous runs across the Atlantic. After interception, the slaves being carried aboard were all listed and the first page of the list from the Uniao comprises entirely children.

uniao roster

The Atholl’s busy time on the African coast continued:

“15 Sep 1825 departed Prince’s Island in company with the Maidstone, Esk, Redwing and Conflict, who departed in execution of their various orders.

17 Oct 1825, detained off Whydah, the slave brig George and James, whch was sent for adjudication to the Vice-Admiralty Court and sentenced to be condemned.

11 Nov 1825 boarded the Activo off Elmina.

12 Nov 1825, detained off Elmina Castle, the Dutch slave schooner Amable Claudina, Claudio Picaluga, Master, with 36 slaves on board when detained, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Netherlands Mixed Court of Justice, Sierra Leone and sentenced to be condemned.

25 Nov 1825, detained in lat. 3° 31′ N. long. 0° 54′ E., when bound from Lagos to Bahia the Brazilian slave brigantine San Joao Segunda Rosalia, the late Amara Joze da Silva, Master, with 258 slaves on board when detained, 72 of whom died on the passage up to Sierra Leone. Was sent for adjudication to the British and Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission, Sierra Leone, and was condemned on 9 Feb 1826.”

As an indication of the type of experience these bare facts describe, I thought I would include a couple of illustrations.

Below is a drawing of a slave ship detained in 1822, around the time of the Atholl’s patrols, showing how the slaves were housed:

slave ship vigilante 1822

The following excerpts are from an account by the Reverend Robert Walsh who served aboard one of the ships assigned to intercept the slavers off the African coast. On the morning of May 22, 1829, a suspected slaver was sighted and the naval vessel gave chase. The next day, a favorable wind allowed the interceptor to gain on its quarry and approach close enough to fire two shots across her bow. The slaver heaved to and an armed party from the interceptor scrambled aboard her. We join Reverend Walsh’s account as he boards the slave ship:

“When we mounted her decks we found her full of slaves. She was called the Feloz, commanded by Captain Jose’ Barbosa, bound to Bahia. She had taken in, on the coast of Africa, 336 males and 226 females, making in all 562, and had been out seventeen days, during which she had thrown overboard 55. The slaves were all enclosed under grated hatchways between decks. The space was so low that they sat between each other’s legs and were stowed so close together that there was no possibility of their lying down or at all changing their position by night or day. As they belonged to and were shipped on account of different individuals, they were all branded like sheep with the owner’s marks of different forms. These were impressed under their breasts or on their arms, and, as the mate informed me with perfect indifference ‘burnt with the red-hot iron’…

But the circumstance which struck us most forcibly was how it was possible for such a number of human beings to exist, packed up and wedged together as tight as they could cram, in low cells three feet high, the greater part of which, except that immediately under the grated hatchways, was shut out from light or air, and this when the thermometer, exposed to the open sky, was standing in the shade, on our deck, at 89 degrees. The space between decks was divided into two compartments 3 feet 3 inches high; the size of one was 16 feet by 18 and of the other 40 by 21; into the first were crammed the women and girls, into the second the men and boys: 226 fellow creatures were thus thrust into one space 288 feet square and 336 into another space 800 feet square, giving to the whole an average Of 23 inches and to each of the women not more than 13 inches…

It was not surprising that they should have endured much sickness and loss of life in their short passage. They had sailed from the coast of Africa on the 7th of May and had been out but seventeen days, and they had thrown overboard no less than fifty-five, who had died of dysentery and other complaints in that space of time, though they had left the coast in good health. Indeed, many of the survivors were seen lying about the decks in the last stage of emaciation and in a state of filth and misery not to be looked at…
While expressing my horror at what I saw and exclaiming against the state of this vessel for conveying human beings, I was informed by my friends, who had passed so long a time on the coast of Africa and visited so many ships, that this was one of the best they had seen. The height sometimes between decks was only eighteen inches, so that the unfortunate beings could not turn round or even on their sides, the elevation being less than the breadth of their shoulders; and here they are usually chained to the decks by the neck and legs. In such a place the sense of misery and suffocation is so great that the Negroes, like the English in the Black Hole at Calcutta, are driven to a frenzy…”

But even if such vessels were intercepted, their fate was still not certain as the last example from the Atholl’s log shows.

“1 Feb 1826, detained in Lat. 4° 24′ S. Long. 9° 37’ W., en route from Badagry to Pernambuco, the Brazilian slave brig Activo, 149 tons, José Pinto de Araujo, Master, with 166 slaves on board when detained, 2 of whom died on the passage up to Sierra Leone, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission, Sierra Leone on 17 Feb 1826 which was subsequently restored to her master, having been detained south of the Equator, despite the fact that the slaves were embarked north of that line.”

This last case shows how ridiculously complicated the rules were around slave trading during this period when different countries were gradually tightening their rules on the trade – the trade south of the equator was deemed still to be legitimate as Brazil had not signed up to any agreements and their trade was off limits to the Navy’s blockade. As a result of the inquiry into the capture of the Activo, Captain Murray of HMS Atholl was ordered by the court to pay the slavers over £11,000 compensation, the equivalent of  £1.2m today.

Shortly after this episode, the Atholl was detached from the West Africa Squadron and sent to the East Indies on diplomatic and anti-piracy duties. She was recorded as being in Madras on 29 May 1826 before departing for Rangoon on 14 June. It wasn’t until early 1827 that she set sail for home.

James Hubsdell left the ship in October 1827 and joined HMS Blonde the following year. But that is for another post.

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A pact with the devil…?

On 12 January 2010 an earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation of Haiti resulting in the death of over a quarter of a million people. The following day, on his TV show, sitting comfortably in his armchair, the conservative US evangelist, Pat Robertson, pronounced that the tragedy could be blamed on something that “happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.” This abject apology for a human being then went on to describe how the Haitians “were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever [sic]. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ ”

Apart from knowing nothing about history, assuming anyone called Napoleon must be the same guy, this half-wit chose glibly to ignore the fact that the Haitian revolution led to the creation of Haiti as an independent country as a result of the only successful slave revolt in history. For the purpose of my post I will choose to ignore the Old Testament story of the Israelites being delivered from slavery in Egypt by Yahweh under the leadership of Moses – no doubt Pat Robertson wouldn’t be happy.

At the end of the 18th century Saint Domingue, as Haiti was then known, was France’s most profitable colony and half a million enslaved Africans were forced to toil on spectacularly bountiful plantations, which produced 60 per cent of all coffee and 40 per cent of all sugar consumed in Europe, more than all of Britain’s Caribbean colonies combined.

slaves

Historically, conditions for the slaves in Saint Domingue had been the harshest in the Caribbean. They were worked so hard by French plantation owners that half died within a few years; it was cheaper to import new slaves than to improve working conditions enough to increase survival and to sustain the slave workforce 30,000 slaves a year were being transported from Africa. The rate of death of slaves in Saint Domingue was higher than anywhere else in the western hemisphere. It was legal for a slaveholder to kill a slave. Torture of slaves was routine; they were whipped, mutilated and raped. The favoured form of execution was burning at the stake.

The Catholic Church condoned slavery and the practices used in the French colony, viewing the institution as a way to convert Africans to Christianity! (Pat wouldn’t be appreciative of that either.)

With the coming of the French Revolution, and the promotion of universal ideals of liberty and equality, the status quo became increasingly difficult to maintain in Saint Domingue. Plantation owners in Haiti tried to block the “dangerous” ideas coming from Paris, but the ideas spread among the slaves through smuggled pamphlets and by word of mouth.

The tinderbox ignited on the night of 21 August 1791, when the slaves of Saint Domingue rose in revolt. Within weeks, the number of slaves who joined the revolt reached some 100,000. Within the next two months, as the violence escalated, the slaves killed 4,000 whites and destroyed hundreds plantations.

By 1792, slave rebels controlled a third of the island and the following year events took a dramatic turn when the new French Republic found itself at war with Britain and Spain. Britain sent an expeditionary force to Hispaniola and, with Spain, who controlled the rest of the island, invaded Saint Domingue and were joined by the slave forces. To prevent military disaster, and secure the colony for republican France, the French political commissioners freed the slaves in Saint Domingue.

Général_Toussaint_Louverture

Toussaint L’Ouverture

The promise of emancipation persuaded the leader of the slave forces, Toussaint L’Ouverture, to switch sides and stop collaborating with the Spanish who refused to take steps to end slavery.

Toussaint L’Ouverture, a self-educated former domestic slave, was very intelligent, organized and articulate. A charismatic military leader, he essentially restored control of Saint-Domingue to France. Having made himself master of the island, however, Toussaint did not wish to surrender too much power to France. He began to rule the country as an effectively autonomous entity. Toussaint defeated a British expeditionary force in 1798. In addition, he led an invasion of neighbouring Santo Domingo (December 1800), and freed the slaves there in January, 1801.

In 1801, L’Ouverture issued a constitution for Saint Domingue which provided for autonomy and decreed that he would be governor-for-life, calling for black autonomy and a sovereign black state.

Général_CHARLES-EMMANUEL_LECLERC_(1772-1802)

Charles LeClerc

This was a step too far for Napoleon Bonaparte. Lobbied by plantation owning interests and craving the tax wealth brought in from the colony Napoleon dispatched a force of 80,000 French troops to the island, led by his brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, to restore French rule. They were under secret instructions to restore slavery, at least in the formerly Spanish-held part of the island. L’Ouverture, deceived, was seized by the French and shipped to France. He died months later in prison at Fort-de-Joux.

For a few months, the island was quiet under Napoleonic rule. But when it became apparent that the French intended to re-establish slavery, black forces revolted in the summer of 1802.

dessalines

Jean Jacques Dessalines

Jean Jacques Dessalines, a former lieutenant of  L’Ouverture,  led the fresh rebellion. In November, Leclerc died of yellow fever, like much of his army. His successor, the Vicomte de Rochambeau, fought an even more brutal campaign. His atrocities helped rally many former French loyalists to the rebel cause. The French were further weakened by a British naval blockade, and by Napoleon’s inability to send the requested massive reinforcements after war with England resumed in the spring of 1803. Having sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in April 1803, Napoleon began to lose interest in his failing ventures in the Western Hemisphere. He was more concerned about France’s European mainland enemies. Consequently, he withdrew a majority of the French forces in Haiti to counter the possibility of an attack from Prussia, Britain, and Spain. Dessalines led the rebellion until its completion, when the French forces were finally defeated in November 1803.

On 1 January 1804, Dessalines officially declared the former colony’s independence, renaming it “Haiti” after the indigenous Arawak name. Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.

It has been estimated that the brutal Haitian Revolution from 1791 to 1804 resulted in the deaths of 350,000 black and mulatto Haitians and over 50,000 European troops. To cement his control Dessalines ordered one final massacre; the virtual eradication of the remaining white population of Haiti. Between February and April of 1804 almost 5000 remaining white French Creole inhabitants were murdered. The 1804 massacre had a long-lasting effect on the view of the Haitian Revolution and helped to create a legacy of racial hostility in Haitian society.