Personal stories: Sailors

Information can be gathered from many sources about the sailors who lived and worked on the slave ships. Today, we can find out about the crew of slave ships that went from Bristol to Africa by looking at old records that are in the archives. ‘Muster rolls’, for example, list all the crew on ships leaving Bristol. The muster rolls for 1754 to 1794 are held in the archives of the Society of Merchant Venturers (a local organisation of merchants dating back to the 15th century). These lists of crew- members, like the one pictured here, give details of the position, age, and home town of each crew-member.

Record offices hold a huge number of documents about the slave trade. The business papers of the slave trader James Rogers of Bristol are today held at the Public Record Office at Kew near London. These papers hold all sorts of information, helping us to find out more about the slave trade. For example, there are all the bills for each voyage. There are also letters of appeal from the families of sailors for the payment of wages owed to them by the company. Other libraries and archives hold other documents about the slave trade, such as business papers from other companies and ships’ logbooks. A few sailors wrote about their life at sea. The high-ranking sailors, such as officers, were most likely to be able to read and write, but some of the ordinary seamen were literate and could tell their own stories. But only a few accounts of life in the slave trade written by ordinary sailors have survived.