The ships surgeons account

This is an extract from a journal written by a ship’s surgeon from Bristol called James Arnold. He wrote the journal so that it could be used as evidence against the slave trade. It was presented to the House of Lords Committee investigating the slave trade.

James Arnold was the surgeon on the Bristol slave ship the Ruby, under Captain Joseph Williams, on a voyage in 1787. It was his third slaving voyage, and he disliked the trade. On this voyage, 105 enslaved Africans were bought at the coast of Cameroon in West Africa. Of these, 95 survived the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and were sold at the Caribbean island of Grenada. Arnold kept a journal of this voyage for Thomas Clarkson (Clarkson was the leader of the Abolition movement, which was campaigning to end the slave trade). This journal was the basis for his evidence to the House of Lords Committee. Part of his evidence related to the capture and transport of slaves in Africa. Arnold had drawn a diagram to illustrate his description of the way slaves were tied to march them to the canoes (which took them to the town of Bimbe). The pole fastened to their necks made it difficult, if not impossible, to run away from their captors. This method of shackling slaves with a wooden pole is similar to the one shown in the detail from a painting called A View of the Jason Privateer by Nicholas Pocock, c. 1760. This picture can be seen here. James Arnold wrote:

‘Manner of bringing Slaves to the Vessel, and examining them there.

The Slaves who thus came into our power were all of them brought from the opposite continent (the mainland of Cameroon). The traders of Bimbe island were accustomed to go for them in their canoes. They attended fairs that were held at Bunje; and it is worthy of remark, that more were universally brought down at the full moon than at any other time.

When the traders had bargained for their Slaves on the continent, they led or drove them down to their canoes. This was done in the following manner: The arms of some of the Slaves were tied behind them, and made fast with a kind of ivy, which is used there as a rope; round their necks was a collar made of roots or twigs, and to this was fastened a pole of about three inches in diameter, and three yards long.

Confined in this manner, they were placed in the bottom of the canoes, generally about five in each, and conveyed to Bimbe. The traders, having first prepared them there for sale, brought them on board the Ruby; many of them were in a shocking situation, but particularly those whose arms were tied behind them; for the twisted ropes before mentioned had been drawn so tight across the wrist and other parts, that their arms were much swelled, and the deep marks occasioned by them were not erased for some time.

The Slaves who are thus brought down by the traders from Bunje, and other places on the continent, are not all of them natives of those parts; for a female on board the Ruby had come a considerable way from the interior country; no one on board could understand her language. Having learnt a little English in the course of her voyage, she gave them to understand that she had been purchased for a few beads: That in travelling down, she was sold to a trader for some beads and manillas [brass currency]; who, conducting her still further, sold her for beads, manillas and some cloth. In this way she travelled on, increasing her value, and came at last to the vessel; she was much frightened on the firing of a gun, and said that she had seen no such instrument in her country; she said also, that she had travelled six moons.

In the manner then before mentioned the Slaves were received on board the Ruby. It was Mr. Arnold’s business to examine them before they were purchased for the vessel. If a man was ruptured, or a woman had a fallen breast, they never bought them. If they did not exceed four feet, they were refused; much also depended on the goodness of their eyes and teeth. Mr Arnold believes that they refused full as many as they bought.’