The family of the crew

The families of sailors were often poor and depended on the wages of their father, son, husband or brother. There were no means of communicating with ships as there are today, and the families might go for months or even years without any news. They were dependant on the slave ship owners to give them news and pay money owing to them. Sailors would often die at sea, which would mean certain poverty for the dependant family. If the sailor died at sea, the personal belongings and any wages were supposed to be returned to the family. The family might have to write to the owners of the ship asking for the money to be sent to them.

In the letter below, Mrs Mary Holman asks James Rogers, the owner of a slave ship, for the 20 pounds owing to her husband, who was a sailor on Roger’s ship. Rogers was one of Bristol’s most prominent slave traders. The captain of his ship the Recovery was John Kimber, who was tried for the murder of an enslaved African girl on board the Recovery in 1791.

To James Rogers from Mary Holman of Devon.
Bidiford 2 Febrary [all spelling is as in the original letter]

I have taken the Liberty to wright to you to beag the fa[v]our of you to be so obleagging as to remit me tuntey pounds by Captn Kimber as I dar[e] say he will be so kind as to you now but my Husbant thought it much better for me to draw on you when I arrived in bidiford then to bring aney som of money with me. And Should be very glad if you will Let me now if you have herd from by Husban in so doing you will obleadg you humble servent
Mary Holman

The letter below was also written to the slave trader James Rogers. It was written on behalf of Jane Dineley, the wife of William Dineley. William Dineley was the surgeon on Roger’s ship the Fame, which had left Bristol in November 1790, bound for Africa and then the Caribbean islands. William Dinely seems to have fallen out with the captain of the ship, and was left on the island of Jamaica, in the Caribbean. Dinely, stuck in Jamaica with little money or surgical equipment, had to fend for himself and find his own way home. As in Silas Told’s case mentioned earlier, crew members were often ‘discharged’ in the Caribbean islands, in other words they were made redundant. This was because, the ships leaving Africa for the Caribbean needed large crews to look after the enslaved Africans. When they arrived in the Caribbean, the enslaved Africans were sold. Fewer sailors were needed to sail the ship and its cargo of sugar back to its home port (such as Bristol). William Dineley was one of the thirteen crew from the slave ship the Fame, who were left in Jamaica. Yet nine new men were taken on for the voyage home.

‘Dumfries 28 November 1791
Sir I beg leave to adress you in the name of mrs. Dinely the wife of Mr. William dinley late surgeon or doctor of the Fame of bristol. It apears that mr. Dinely was maliciously put and left onshore in the Island of jamaica by james Williams Master of the Fame on the 31rst of July last.
What reason mr. Williams is able to gve for this extraordianry conduct I know not, but as I have no doubt he would represent the matter in the most favourable light for himself, I take this opportunity of sending you a copy of a letter wrote by Mr. Dinley to his wife together with an Affidavit by Mr. Sinclair late Chief Mate of the fame who will throw some light on the matter and convince you that Mr. Dinely has been hardly used by Captain Williams, after you have perused which i beg to hear from you and hope by your assistance the affair may be fairly invesigated and amicably and speeidily settled as Mrs. Dinley has a family to maintain and depends upon the money of her husbands in the hands of Mr. Williams or you for her support… I am sir
Your mo: Obed. Serv
Samuel Clark jr.
Writer Dumfires.’

Other records about the sailors in the slave trade refer to the insurance fund, which was run for sailors. The Society of Merchant Venturers in Bristol is an organisation for sailors and merchants, which has existed since the fifteenth century. The Society ran the sailors’ insurance fund in the port of Bristol. By Act of Parliament in 1747, all sailors had to pay 6d (2 and a half pence) a month from their wages into an insurance fund. If they later became sick or disabled the sailors could apply for money from the fund to help. Should sailors die, their families would be able to use money from the fund.

In 1758, the sailor William Victor was Quarter Master (the Quarter Master deals with signals and helps to steer the ship) on the slave ship the Black Prince. The ship was sailing from Bristol to Angola, in West Africa, and then to the southern state of Virginia, in America. At Virginia, William Victor was setting up a tent or awning on the deck of the ship. This was in preparation for the sale of the 500 enslaved Africans on the ship to American traders. The tent Victor was putting up collapsed and he fell, breaking both legs. The Captain and his Chief Mate were witnesses to the incident and had to sign Victor’s request for assistance from the sailor’s insurance fund. This is what the Captain and his Chief Mate signed:

‘We William Miller Commander & Anthony Halsell Chief Mate of the Ship or Vessel called the Black Prince of & belonging to the Port of Bristol DO hereby certify that William Victor late Quarter Master of the said Ship did enter on board the said Ship at the Port of Bristol aforesaid sometime in the month of November one thousand seven hundred & fifty eight bound on a Voyage from the Port of Bristol aforesaid to Africa & Virginia & back again & proceeded in the said Ship on such Voyage & we do further certify that during such Voyage & whilst the said Ship lay in the James River in Virginia aforesaid he the said William Victor being employed in raising a Tent for the Sale of the Slaves, the frame of such Tent fell down & the said William Victor being upon the top of such Frame fell with it, by which fall he had the misfortune to break both his legs, & is rendered incapable of the Sea Service In witness whereof we have hereunto set our hand & seals the seventh day of february 1760
William Miller
Anthony Halsell
Sworn before me James Laroche’

William Victor, the injured sailor, was then awarded three shillings a week (worth about 6 pounds today) from the sailors’ insurance fund. The money would have given Victor something to live on whilst he was recovering from his injury of two broken legs.