First hand accounts: Robert Barker

Robert Barker’s account, entitled The Unfortunate Shipwright or Cruel Captain, details the life of another sailor who claims to have suffered at the hands of a Bristol slaving captain. The book was first published in 1760. We know that Barker sailed on board the slaving ship the Thetis as a carpenter in 1754. The master of the Thetis, Captain Fitzharding, had died in Africa. The ship was then taken over by the Chief Mate Robert Wapshutt. According to Barker, Wapshutt had poisoned Captain Fitzharding. The new captain then victimised Barker along with the Africans enslaved on board. Certainly the muster roll (the ship’s crew list) confirms that Barker, along with three other men, was charged with piracy whilst on board the Thetis. Other records back up Barker’s claim that he went blind as a result of ‘a distemper [diarrhoea] raging amongst the Slaves’ on board the Thetis. Because of his blindness, he was initially allowed a pension of 3s 6d per week (17 and a half pence today). This was given to him by the Merchant Seamen’s Hospital in Bristol, which helped ill or injured sailors who were unable to work. The hospital was run by the ‘Society of Merchant Venturers’, a merchants’ organisation in Bristol. But his pension was cut off by the Society of Merchant Venturers when he was bold enough to write a pamphlet about the abuse he said he suffered at the hands of Robert Wapshutt. Pictured here is the letter from Barker asking the Society of Merchant Venturers for his pension back.

The following extract tells of the punishments he received after being accused by Wapshutt of piracy. Barker was stripped and kept naked on deck in all weathers as part of the punishment:

‘In this naked condition I remained till the ship arrived at Antigua, and during all that time was obliged to go on the Quarter Deck to drink water there, when Wabshutt [Barker’s spelling of the captain’s name] and the doctor for their beastly diversion, would frequently order the negroe women and girls to haul me backwards and forwards by the privities.’

This and the other extracts above are personal stories recorded by individual sailors who were involved in the slave trade. They are important records of the way in which sailors were treated and the type of situations they met on slaving voyages. Along with the records relating to the experiences of enslaved Africans, these help to paint a picture of the people involved and their experiences.