Who worked on a slave ship?

Let us look at the crew of a particular ship, called the Jupiter, which left Bristol on a slaving voyage in 1790. Information about the ship and its crew can be found in the ship’s ‘muster rolls’ , which are lists of information relating to the ship. These muster rolls are kept in archives and can be used today to tell us about the ship and its crew. On board the Jupiter were 46 crew. The eldest person on board the ship was the 51 year old captain, John Smith. The youngest were the three thirteen year old cabin boys Henry Powell, Peter Woodland and William Williams. The first mate (the captain’s assistant), Abraham Webber, was 27 years old. The second and third mates were in their late thirties. The rest of the men including the ship’s surgeon, Elliot Arthy, were in their twenties or late teens.

Most of the crew were local, either from Bristol itself or elsewhere in the west of England. About 20 of the crew were reported to have been born in Bristol. Another nine were from elsewhere in the West country and three were from Wales (Cardiff, Welshpool and ‘Swanzy’, or Swansea as it is spelled today). From further afield, there was one man from Cork in southern Ireland, two from Scotland, two men from northern England and one American from the east coast state of Philadelphia. One member of the crew, John Brown, was from Africa and was probably a free black sailor. He was amongst the small number of black people who would have lived in cities such as Bristol at this time.

Slave ships usually had much larger crews than other ships. The crew were needed to sail the ship, and to look after the enslaved Africans, who numbered anywhere between 100 and 700. There were also fears on slaving voyages that the slaves might rise up against the crew. The large number of crew were also there to guard the slaves and prevent any trouble.

Once the enslaved Africans had been sold, fewer men were needed to sail the ship back to Bristol. So some of the sailors were laid off in the Caribbean. Seven of the crew of the Jupiter had died between Bristol and the Caribbean, and two were laid off, or discharged. Only 33 came back to Bristol on the ship.