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Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World

Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World

by Billy G. Smith

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It is no exaggeration to say that the Hankey, a small British ship that circled the Atlantic in 1792 and 1793, transformed the history of the Atlantic world. This extraordinary book uncovers the long-forgotten story of the Hankey, from its altruistic beginnings to its disastrous end, and describes the ship’s fateful impact upon people from West


It is no exaggeration to say that the Hankey, a small British ship that circled the Atlantic in 1792 and 1793, transformed the history of the Atlantic world. This extraordinary book uncovers the long-forgotten story of the Hankey, from its altruistic beginnings to its disastrous end, and describes the ship’s fateful impact upon people from West Africa to Philadelphia, Haiti to London.   Billy G. Smith chased the story of the Hankey from archive to archive across several continents, and he now brings back to light a saga that continues to haunt the modern world. It began with a group of high-minded British colonists who planned to establish a colony free of slavery in West Africa. With the colony failing, the ship set sail for the Caribbean and then North America, carrying, as it turned out, mosquitoes infected with yellow fever. The resulting pandemic as the Hankey traveled from one port to the next was catastrophic. In the United States, tens of thousands died in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Charleston. The few survivors on the Hankey eventually limped back to London, hopes dashed and numbers decimated. Smith links the voyage and its deadly cargo to some of the most significant events of the era—the success of the Haitian slave revolution, Napoleon’s decision to sell the Louisiana Territory, a change in the geopolitical situation of the new United States—and spins a riveting tale of unintended consequences and the legacy of slavery that will not die.

Editorial Reviews

Gary B. Nash
“This stunning book should catapult to the top of the must-read list for Atlantic basin studies. In this gripping, grisly story of slavery, rebellion and yellow fever holocaust ricocheting around the Atlantic rim, Smith brilliantly shows how stowaway mosquitoes on a single ship reconfigured the societies of Africa, Europe, the West Indies, and North America as well as the armies and navies of Great Britain and other maritime nations.”—Gary B. Nash, UCLA
Marcus Rediker
Ship of Death is an astonishing story, based on an even more astonishing craft of historical detection and reconstruction.  Billy G. Smith has written Atlantic history at its brilliant best.”—Marcus Rediker, author of The Amistad Rebellion
Richard R. Beeman
“Billy Smith’s Ship of Death is a brilliant and entirely original history of the extraordinary voyages of the ‘antislavery’ ship Hankey back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean in 1792-93. It is a remarkable piece of historical detective work and, more important, an inspirational story of one of the earliest efforts by abolitionists to establish a haven of freedom for African workers who might otherwise have been enslaved.”—Richard R. Beeman, author of Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776 
Simon Newman
Ship of Death is a magnificent achievement by a historian at the height of his powers. Bringing all of his considerable knowledge of yellow fever, slavery and anti-slavery to bear, Smith illuminates how social history can transform our understanding of the narratives of imperial and Atlantic World history.”—Simon Newman, University of Glasgow
Times Higher Education - Ruth Richardson
“[An] extraordinary new book about an anti-slavery initiative of the 1790s, which instead of ending slavery ended the lives of thousands of people on both sides of the Atlantic by bringing yellow fever from Africa to the Americas. Fine original scholarship by a top history sleuth – easy to read, eye-opening, heart-rending.”—Ruth Richardson, Times Higher Education

"An excellent work of historical detection...While telling a fascinating story, Smith provides insight into the cultures and ethnocentricities of natives and colonists, and the workings of the slave trade. Essential for early American and Haitian revolution scholars and medical historians. Highly Recommended."—Choice
Pacific Coast Branch American Historical Association - Norris and Carol Hundley Award
Winner of the 2014 Norris and Carol Hundley Award given by the Pacific Coast Branch American Historical Association.
The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography - Jamie Diane Wilson
"Smith has traveled the world to gather an impressive range of sources for this work."—Jamie Diane Wilson, University of South Carolina
"Engaging. . . . Smith constantly connects pieces of the story to world events, making this a good read for those with or without a lot of historical knowledge."—Historian

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Yale University Press
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Ship of Death

A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World



Copyright © 2013 Billy G. Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19452-4


The Hankey

The Hankey, like all wooden vessels of its time, whispered to its inhabitants. In the early morning dawn, its anchor and rigging lines tugged and groaned in the breeze. The timbers of its hull made lulling sounds in the estuary's sometimes slapping roll. The vessel was a fully rigged ship: it contained a foremast in front, the tallest mast, the mainmast, in the center, and a shorter mizzenmast at the back; square sails hung on all three. The Hankey was a relatively large oceangoing vessel for its time, designed to sail across the Atlantic with a 260-ton cargo or the equivalent weight in passengers. When constructed in northern En gland in 1784, it had been remarkably fine and stout. Now its timbers creaked when they moved, beginning to show their age.

Waiting to depart on the Hankey this morning in March 1792 were 120 British residents of varying social stations, their ages ranging from infancy to late middle age. With its bottom sheathed with copper to protect it against the boring worms common in the tropics (the ship's regular destination), the Hankey stood ready to transport these pioneers to an unknown land on the West African coast. A grand experiment was about to begin. The same spirit that animated abolitionists from Manchester to Massachusetts and would lead to the ending of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 by Britain and in 1808 by the United States moved these future colonists.

Two other ships awaited the expedition's departure in Gravesend, where the river Thames flows into the sea. The Calypso was a slightly larger, 290-ton vessel, and the Beggar's Benison was a small, slow, 34-ton cutter, designed merely to ferry people and goods from the London docks down the river to the port of Gravesend. As its name suggested, after leaving Gravesend anyone who died aboard would be committed to the ocean rather than given a grave on land. That would become the final destination for all too many of the 275 colonists spread among the three ships.

All three ships were laden with the possessions of the colonists, along with "British merchandise, to a very considerable amount," meant to pay native Africans for their land and labor. Each vessel—in the description of papers presented that day to Henry Dundas, His Majesty's secretary of state for the Home Department—also carried British subjects who expected to travel to the island of Bolama, on the western coast of Africa, to "lay the foundation of a permanent settlement on the said coast, there to cultivate sugar, cotton, indigo, and other productions of the torrid zone."

According to their group's charter, the colonists were determined to accomplish this goal by hiring rather than enslaving Africans—a rare concept at the time. This was a central thrust of the expedition. By demonstrating that Africans could work more effectively as free people than as bound laborers, the colonists expected to show their home nation that Africans could be "civilized" in the manner of Europeans. "Civilizing Africa," one colonial supporter claimed, was "the most effectual means for abolishing the slave trade." The colony would thus illustrate that the buying and selling of human beings was unnecessary to the success of colonial ventures—a model that might overturn the overseas slave trade. Halting the raging tide of slaves across the Atlantic Ocean, the colonists hoped, would abolish slavery itself.

Even though they possessed scant resources, at least half a dozen women contributed a portion of the capital needed for this expedition, reflecting the enthusiasm displayed by late-eighteenth-century British women in the opposition to the slave trade and slavery. Mrs. Sarah Duppa donated fifteen pounds, as did Charlotte Walker, an unmarried woman in Manchester. In 1787 abolitionists had targeted women's support in that city, appealing in the Manchester Mercury for "female aid" based on the "Humanity, Benevolence, and Compassion" that were "expected in and particularly possessed by that most amiable Part of the Creation." C. B. Wadstrom, one of the Bolama expedition's organizers, admired the women for their fiscal donations, which were all "the more remarkable as, in general, their property is not so much at their own immediate disposal as that of the Gentlemen." The Swedish abolitionist declared, "This is one instance among many to show how warmly the Ladies interest themselves in liberal and humane enterprises. To what sublime degrees of humane feeling and heroic virtue might not mankind arrive if, in union with the sex, they would always set before them the amiable pattern of female goodness?"

Many Manchester female and male workers were already dissatisfied with the region's nascent factory system, and while they did not have money to contribute to the subscription for founding the colony, they could apply to join as workers. Other than the "dark Satanic Mills" memorialized by William Blake, they had few options available to them. The venture also drew interest in London's Old Bailey court house. In this era criminals might be sentenced to transportation out of En gland for committing major or even minor crimes, including the theft of a loaf of bread. So many men and women applied from Manchester and London to join the expedition that the organizers cut off applications and hired an additional ship.

Some of the middle-and upper-class supporters left records of their ideas about the venture and its potential role in abolishing the slave trade. To Philip Beaver, a leader of the new colony, the trip was "an experiment to ascertain whether those Africans, already free, are capable or not of being drawn by industry, cultivation, and commerce from their present debased situation to hold a responsible rank among the nations of the earth. If we fail, they will be just where they were." However, the optimistic Beaver noted, "If we succeed, it promises happiness to myriads of living and millions of unborn people." Like Christopher Columbus, these adventurers hoped to change the world. The voyage of the Hankey did change the world, but not in the way Beaver imagined.

The leaders of this British humanitarian experiment had met regularly in London's coffee houses and pubs since the previous November. They hired the two larger ships and purchased the Beggar's Benison outright. They made the other arrangements with great haste, leading to oversights they would subsequently regret. Excited by the possibilities of their adventure, they felt that they were now ready to sail. The old hands among the sailors were more cautious, since they knew about the dangers that lay ahead, if only through rumors circulating among seamen. As a ditty common among British mariners who sailed to Africa held:

Beware and take care
Of the Bight of Benin.
For the one that comes out,
There are forty go in.

The rhyme was sadly predictive: few sailors on the expedition to Bolama ever returned home.

The would-be colonists had written a democratic constitution, radical for its time, as well as agreements setting out regulations for behavior. They likewise had divided up the land they planned to purchase and had engaged the ser vices of people with necessary skills, including a doctor, a surveyor, and a tailor, to see to their needs. On its voyage from the London docks, the Hankey paused briefly at Greenwich so the ship's clocks could be set to the exact time, which would enable the sailors to calculate the ship's longitude during the voyage. Yet when they arrived at Gravesend, they received disappointing news. Home Secretary Henry Dundas had not approved the colony's constitution, ostensibly because the enterprise did not have sufficient funding. Dundas sympathized with the proslavery lobby, and he proposed to phase out the slave trade so gradually that it would never actually end. Against the background of the ongoing French Revolution, protests in Britain, and the objections of proslavery West Indian planters in En gland, the government did not want to encourage a wild-eyed group of radicals to plant a colony in Africa.

The government's disapproval, Philip Beaver noted, cast "a considerable gloom over all our minds." Britain's endorsement would legitimate land claims and contracts in the colony as well as the authority of Bolama's leaders over the settlers. In addition, the powerful British navy might provide occasional assistance. The expedition's organizers appealed the decision, presenting petitions to the home secretary describing their personnel, their honorable intentions, and a final argument about how the venture would benefit their homeland. They also asked their prominent supporters, including the future mayor of London, to pull strings with the Privy Council. As they waited for a response, they decided to move all three ships to the Isle of Wight, on the southern coast, to "wait the issue of our Memorial."

In the late eighteenth century, an era of fervent British colonial optimism had dawned, despite the recent loss of most of En gland's American colonies. The British people, especially merchants and officials, determined to explore far-flung locales and exert their command over the peoples there. Britons increasingly turned a covetous eye from west to east, especially toward India and China, to increase their wealth.

They likewise cast their gaze south, toward Africa, which was considerably closer and seemingly ripe for exploitation. Since the middle of the eighteenth century, prominent Britons had advocated the extension of trade through the settlement of Africa. During the Seven Years' War, in 1758 British troops took Saint-Louis, an island off Senegal, from the French. Britain subsequently claimed a wide swath of African hinterland, called it Senegambia, and created the first crown colony on the continent. The British went on to establish a colony in Sierra Leone in the late 1780s, and in 1795 they seized South Africa from the Dutch. A new era of empire was unfolding, one that would become known as Britain's imperial century. Before World War II and the resistance movements by indigenous peoples finally eroded the British Empire, the Union Jack flew above the heads (whether they liked it or not) of one in four people around the world.

The British built their empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, following the examples of Portugal and Spain, which in the previous centuries had built powerful overseas holdings. They made commercial and political inroads in South Asia with the East India Company. In East Africa, they established colonies that would eventually stretch the length of the continent, from South Africa all the way to Cairo. In the Pacific, the crown sent Captain James Cook to stake claims on the Australian continent and New Zealand, while also establishing footholds in Indonesia, Malaysia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Singapore and Hong Kong fell to British control, while Japan's leaders decided to accept British trade rather than submit to the likelihood of colonial occupation. Across the vast, sparsely populated plains of Central Asia, British imperial agents and operatives of the Russian tsars played the imperial Great Game for local tribal loyalties. The British feared that Russia was looking for a land route to invade India, the jewel in Britain's imperial crown.

Colonization, many Britons reasoned, led to both a more robust national economy and increased personal wealth. In private meetings and public forums across Great Britain, speculators weighed the commercial possibilities of colonizing different areas of the globe. Numerous groups lobbied government officials to establish colonies and extend the empire.

In this acquisitive environment, a group of six former British naval and military men—friends who had mustered against the Dutch in 1787, the Spanish in 1790, and the Russians in 1791—first met at Old Slaughter's Coffee house just off High Holborn in central London. The coffee house had long been a hangout for radicals, from William Hogarth, the engraver of lower-class life, to Benjamin Franklin and his deist club. Currently, Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft often worked there, writing their tracts on the rights of men and women.

On November 2, 1791, the half dozen former officers formed a society to establish themselves as colonists of a potential location on the western coast of Africa. Before long, the group—comprising Henry Hew Dalrymple, John Young, Sir William Halton, John King, Robert Dobbin, and Philip Beaver—had identified the island of Bolama off what today is the nation of Guinea-Bissau, "in the 11th degree of north latitude" as "the spot ... the best adapted to the commencement of our undertaking." They quickly outlined their goals, which included a proposal to hire rather than enslave the native peoples in Africa and to "publish to the world" their plan.

Enthusiasm ran high at the initial meeting. The men decided to hire rooms to meet on subsequent occasions, and to convene again on November 9, when they would draw up their proposals. At that meeting they determined to make their colonizing aspirations known to the prime minister and issue a call for subscriptions from people in London and Manchester to support their adventure. (Appealing for subscriptions was a popular eighteenth-century strategy to raise money for public or private enterprises, such as building hospitals or libraries or even selling books.) They would "sail the moment our subscriptions would enable us, and take possession of the island."

The plan sounded so easy. The noble idea of non-enslavement as the foundation for colonization in West Africa spread like a fire driven on the wind. The British movement to end the slave trade was still young, but it had attracted a great deal of attention. Ordinary people and public officials alike soon were offering broad support. On November 19, the group of six met again and appointed a secretary.

The group had already endorsed universal adult male suffrage, even for men without property—a radical position at the time. At a meeting three days later, however, came the first proof that their commitment to equality had limits. Philip Beaver noted in his diary of this meeting: "It was resolved that no female should be admitted as a settler on her own account." Even had they read them, Wollstonecraft's feminist arguments would have carried little weight for this group of antislavery males.

By November 28, the group had taken on more subscribers, disbanding and reconstituting itself as nine principal colonists instead of six. At the meeting on January 13, 1792, the number of subscribers to the colony rose to thirteen. Three weeks later, it was twenty. Acting almost purely on faith, each man put up money in return for a promise of real estate in a faraway place. As one critic at the time observed caustically, the Bolama organization was peddling land in a colony whose whereabouts was uncertain and whose ownership was unclear. The total funds collected from subscribers ideally would be sufficient "to charter one ship, and purchase a sloop together with the necessary provisions, ammunition, etc. for the maintenance of forty families."

The planners calculated that establishing the colony would require forty paying subscribers in addition to a host of servants and laborers who pledged their work in return for transportation and the promise of land. Speculative fever for the settlement of Bolama rose quickly, faster than the organization could make the necessary arrangements for a colony of this magnitude. Money from subscribers and applications to join as servants and laborers poured in from the newly industrializing city of Manchester; nearly half the subscribers came from that city. The Bolama organizers soon had more volunteers and funds than they needed.

With their personnel in place, the nascent colonists fitted out the ships with a new suite of sails. They loaded their provisions aboard, and they set sail. With an amazing lack of foresight, however, they had neglected to bring any carpenters' tools or to include people who knew how to build houses. The leaders had a general idea of where they were going but did not know precisely how to locate Bolama. Once they found it, the plan was to purchase the island rather than seize it. For this they would require a local pi lot to steer them to Bolama as well as to help find the current owners. They would also need someone with local knowledge and the linguistic and political skills to negotiate the purchase of the land. Apparently these requirements did not occur to the leaders until after the ships had crossed the ocean.

Excerpted from Ship of Death by BILLY G. SMITH. Copyright © 2013 Billy G. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Billy G. Smith is Distinguished Professor of Letters and Science in the History Department of Montana State University, where he has won every major teaching and research award offered. He is the author or editor of eight books and dozens of articles. He lives in Bozeman, MT.

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