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Recovering the Story
CLEARED FOR AFRICA
On a bitter January Monday in 1757, a ship called the Africa came to sail in the harbor of New London, Connecticut. Joshua Hempstead, who had been keeping a daily diary since 1711, wrote that January 17 was "fair & clear & very Cold."
The old man lived a stone's throw from the water, and might even have seen the Africa leave the harbor, but for a port as deeply involved in trade with the British Caribbean as New London, with a dozen or more ships "cleared out" or "enter'd in" from the West Indies every week, a single, Africa-bound ship probably didn't attract more than ordinary notice.
In his tiny cabin aboard the Africa, as the ship neared Long Island's Montauk Point the next afternoon, eighteen-year-old Dudley Saltonstall noted in his pristine new logbook the hour, the wind from the northwest, and the position of his ship on that first, bitter afternoon. It was his first entry.
Fair-haired and stocky, Saltonstall, though still a teenager, was aloof and proud. He was sailing aboard a ship owned by his father Gurdon, the deputy (a kind of mayor) of New London, a merchant of considerable means and the son of one of colonial Connecticut's early governors. The family was related to the Saltonstalls, Dudleys, and Winthrops, ruling families of the Massachusetts colony since its founding. Both Dudley's surname and Christian name were those of governors.
John Easton of Middletown was master of the vessel, and at thirty-nine he had already served as commander on slaving ships for a decade. Dudley was aboard the Africa as Easton's right hand, and to serve as supercargo, a position in which he would watch over the ship's supplies and the labor of the seamen, and protect his father's interests on the voyage.
The two men, both descendants of New England's early settlers, were sailing their fast, two-masted ship on a voyage to Africa, guiding the 110-ton vessel in a long loop across the Atlantic Ocean and down more than 3,000 miles of the lush West African coast. They were sailing to windward, and following the prevailing winds to what was often called the Windward Coast. These winds blew in a clockwise direction, and it was the most natural way to go. Though not an easy voyage — a reliable way to measure longitude was still decades away, and it was hard for mariners to know exactly where they were on the Earth's ocean surface — it was familiar to Easton, and a learning voyage for Saltonstall. (Inside the front cover of his logbook, Saltonstall wrote the rules for figuring course and distance using a trigonometric formula that was standard for the time. He also wrote what appears to be a practice equation.)
Saltonstall and his commander were sailing to West Africa to buy slaves and then to sell them on England's colonial islands in the Caribbean. A small number of their human cargo probably returned with them to New England. Easton and Saltonstall were part of what today we call the Atlantic world of the eighteenth century. Easton was already what the teenaged Saltonstall would become: a full participant in the system of trade that made New England rich and powerful, and made the Caribbean black.
This trade system made America not only dependent on the wealth that derived from slavery, but also a society that held slaves. The two Connecticut men were part of a history that transformed the Western Hemisphere, even as it solidified their own wealth and prosperity. The dark and terrible core of that history, one that has not been integrated into the shared stories of early New England, is told in the logbooks that Dudley Saltonstall began to keep on that January afternoon and continued to keep for three voyages made in the twenty months that followed.
Like the insect that no longer exists anywhere on Earth but is frozen in a fragment of amber, the eighty handwritten pages of Saltonstall's logbooks offer a perfectly detailed glimpse of a now-distant past. They are an emissary from the past, proof of a past that really happened, that had material substance. The logbooks are not just an idea but a powerful form of evidence. They are a history that was lived and then lost, and is our very own.
SHADOWS ON THE WALL
We are who we are because of what we learn and what we remember.
More than twenty years ago, scholar Arna Alexander Bontemps, son of Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps, began to explore an intriguing and troubling aspect of documents surviving from the first two centuries of Southern slavery. He found that in the early personal records of Southern slaveholders, slaves generally appear only in terms of purchases, or as laborers, as in "Mulatto Jack arrived from Fredk With 4 Beeves," or "Colo. Bassetts Abram arrivd with Letters from his Master."
As human beings with varied personalities, as participants in the household, as people with diverse skills, captives were rarely part of the record. Bontemps found many examples, including that of a plantation owner whose account of a fierce lightning stormthat struck his mansion emphasized the fear it aroused and its awesome power, rather than the three enslaved men who were struck by the lightning and nearly killed. Slaves appeared in the record as a reflection of wealth, or as workers. Otherwise, they were a shadowy presence, "seldom unseen," Bontemps writes, "but judged by the way in which they were most often portrayed, they were virtually invisible as subjects." As captives, their real selves could not be lived openly.
This reality pervaded a culture where enslaved labor was already essential. Essential, and yet not seen. When I began to study New England slavery in the spring of 2002, I was baffled. Despite a wealth of books documenting the extent, character, importance, and influence of slavery in America, as well as a vast archive of original documents substantiating its nature, slavery is rarely taught in schools, and our understanding of its scope is barely rudimentary. The mainstream of American thought still does not contain a shared body of information on slavery even though the facts about American enslavement are widely available. Several years after that first spring, when I began to speak publicly about the book that had come forward from a newspaper project on slavery in the North (Complicity), I was asked the same question over and over, by audiences around the country: "Why don't we know about this?"
I thought that something else had to be at work for this narrative failure, something that touched on shame and reluctance but was larger than those, something that was also involuntary. Decisions get made about what gets remembered, but they are not all conscious ones. Scholars cautioned me to "contextualize" slavery, but I couldn't see what its context was. The truth I was trying to get at had a frayed, eroded quality, as if its damage had begun a long time ago.
The problem is not one of material but of memory, and not only of the history we have, but of how that history was made. What is missing from our history of slavery is the context for integrating, in a broad way, what we were thinking and how we were thinking when we made ourselves not just a nation that held slaves, but the largest slaveholding nation that had ever existed. And the questions that are right behind "Why don't we know about this?" are as important: "Why does it matter for today, and what would such knowledge change?"
The incomplete narrative of American slavery cannot be made whole without a reframing of our early history. The black "invisibility" that Bontemps found in Southern records permeates Northern documents as well; there too, black men and women appear mainly as possessions and as workers. Essential yet held in the shadows.
Adam mowed the Little pasture before the Door & Stacked the oats.
Adm Carted 3 hhd [hogs head barrels] for a west India man from Colln Saltonstalls to Ms. Shackmaples.
The year before I began to explore the story of slavery in New England, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, an illness that causes the brain to forget what it holds, and that makes even the deeply familiar unrecognizable. As I looked for ways to help my mother, we stumbled together over the terrible terrain of her last years. There was a moment when I realized, with the force of a blow, that she would never recover, never get her memory back, never return to me and be my mother. But the story of those Connecticut slave ships and their captains, that story, I could recover.
CREATING A RECORD
In the pages of his atlas-shaped logbook, Dudley Saltonstall carefully ruled off spaces for the information he was to record every two hours. In a flowing and legible hand, he wrote the name of his ship, his commander, their home port, and their destination across the top of every set of facing pages. He noted the day, the hour, the speed at which the ship was traveling and its course, as well as the direction of the wind and the nautical miles traveled. Under "Transactions," Saltonstall described the weather and made a few notes on what happened aboard the ship each day.
Later commissioned one of the first captains in the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War, the young ship's officer kept track of how much food and water was brought aboard the ship and when the barrels of food and water were "broacht." The men ate beef, pork, mackerel, and mutton, all salted, as well as a hard cracker called "ship's bread," and potatoes.
The crew would have been small, probably not more than eight men. Saltonstall noted in his log the tasks at which the men were employed throughout the day. Subject to the worst hardships of ship-board life as well as the dangers of the slave trade, these seamen were from the lowest ranks of colonial life, and they were driven hard. A neighbor of mine who was an expert on maritime history read the logbooks and said, "You wouldn't have wanted to give these men too much time to think." On the coast of Africa, a seaman named Denis Bryan would try to desert but was captured on shore and brought back to the ship in chains.
English commander John Newton, who served as master on three slaving voyages to the same stretch of African coastline and during the same decade as Easton and Saltonstall, wrote that the world of the slave ship was one governed by harsh practice, and that "a savageness of spirit, not easily conceived, infuses itself into those who exercise power on board an African slave-ship." A slave ship was, in every sense and for nearly all on board, an oceangoing prison.
The ocean crossing could have been narrated by Captain Jack Aubrey, the hero of Patrick O'Brian's maritime novels. The Africa weathered wild seas, blizzards, and gale winds. The heavy longboat, to be used for trading ashore, tipped over in its chocks and had to be righted; that same January day, a seaman named Waterman got his hand caught in the mainsail's block and tackle, and his fingernails were torn off.
But by the second week of March, Saltonstall was recording visits to slaving outposts on islands near the African coast. He sent ashore 187 feet of New England white oak and eight casks of rum to the governor of St. Jago, the largest of the Cape Verde Islands and a major center for the slave trade. This gift was a gesture of generosity, one designed to open the way for trading. Like enslavement itself, the slave trade rested on a system of extreme violence, but it had its social conventions, and successful traders observed them.
Captain Easton went ashore with the gifts but returned, discouraged, and reported that trade was not to be had on terms he regarded as reasonable. An Irish trader who lived on the coast of Sierra Leone and knew Easton during the 1750s said the Middletown man grew impatient if a deal couldn't be made quickly.
The Africa, a ten-year-old Connecticut-built ship of Dutch design called a snow, was a slaving ship at the very height of the international slave trade, which lasted from the late fifteenth century until the last decades of the nineteenth — nearly 400 years. Of the estimated 12.5 million Africans sold into slavery in the Americas, more than half were sold between 1701 and 1800, and of that 52.4 percent, tens of thousands more were sold during the second half of the eighteenth century than during the first.
The slaving fortresses south and east of Sierra Leone, in what today is Ghana, have become more famous than the stretch of coastline where Easton and Saltonstall began their trading voyage aboard the Africa, but the Windward Coast was the one that slave ships would encounter first in their voyage, so it appears often in narratives of mariners and other visitors.
Research on the demographics of slavery — how many people were taken from which region, in what time period, and where they were sent — has made significant advances in the past few decades, and a database of the transatlantic slave trade has been built by scholars from England and the United States. Constantly updated with information from museums, university scholars, and period documents that come to light, the database contained in mid-2013 approximately 35,000 voyages, which its creators estimate may be 80 percent of all voyages made. From the Sierra Leone region, which in Easton and Saltonstall's day included parts of what are now Liberia, Senegal, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 captives were taken.
Between 1751 and 1775 — almost precisely the span of John Easton's career as a slave ship captain — more Africans were sold into slavery than during any other period of the entire transatlantic slave trade. The accepted estimate is that during those twenty-four years, 63,000 people were sold out of Africa every year, or, to use the slavers' expression, "sent off from the coast."
The competition to buy healthy men, women, and children was fierce, and the literature of the slave trade is full of the bitter complaints of captains who felt they were being cheated by the black traders and English agents, although the captains also were trying to get the most for the least. On this first voyage in the logbooks, John Easton was assembling a human cargo destined for sugar plantations on St. Kitts, a Caribbean island with rich soil, heavy rainfalls, and cool temperatures. Sugar had been, at that point, cultivated on the island for more than a century.
As was customary for many slave ship captains of that time, Easton "slaved" his ship in a very deliberate way, but not from any single source. Saltonstall noted slaves being rowed out to the Africa for inspection and possible purchase, and the captain going ashore at the beachfront outposts of black traders where groups of potential slaves had been brought for sale and were held in filthy pens.
Easton also pursued the more dangerous slave-gathering method of going ashore in the longboat and navigating the crocodile-filled African rivers that were lined with independent traders who were black, white, and mulatto. "Boating," as it was called, exposed the captain and the seamen who accompanied him to being cut off from the ship, killed, and having their trade goods stolen. English muskets were a prime article of trade, and at this point in the commerce of slavery, both the traders from ships and the traders onshore were armed.
More than thirty years earlier, in 1726, British cartographer William Smith was commissioned to make a full report of the slaving operations, people, wildlife, and trade on the Sierra Leone coast, and he saw an armed Africa up close. "No sooner had [the chief mate] left me, and got out of Sight, and Call, but I was quickly surrounded by the savage Natives, who were all arm'd, either with Javelins, Bows, or Poison'd Arrows, or European Guns."
Easton had acquired twelve captives, five of them children, but trade was still slow when Saltonstall noted on the sixth day of April that they were "under Sail bound for Serrelone."
Sierra Leone, a country on the upper western coast of Africa, had been known as a center friendly to ships and trade since the mid-sixteenth century, when Englishman John Hawkins, a dashing adventurer and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, stopped there to trade for captives — also taking them by force from foreign vessels where they were already held — and to fill his casks with the fresh water that flowed out of the mountainsides.
By the mid-1750s, Europeans had been trading in Sierra Leone steadily for a century, and since the 1670s, there had been a slaving fortress on a small island situated near the mouth of the Sierra Leone River. The island had different names at different times, but was always a slaving enterprise. On old French maps, it sometimes appears as a tiny dot with the words "Fort Anglais," or English fort. Because I first saw the name as Bence Island, that is what I call it, though it was called Bance Island during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and today is called Bunce Island.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Logbooks"
Copyright © 2014 Anne Farrow.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents<P>Preface<BR>RECOVERING THE STORY<BR>Cleared for Africa<BR>Shadows on the Wall<BR>Creating a Record<BR>"How Did You Find Me?"<BR>THE HAUNTED LAND<BR>Meeting the Slave Traders<BR>Another Century, Not My Own<BR>The Past in Dreams<BR>History for an Abandoned Place<BR>The Screaming Man<BR>The Story of a Stone<BR>The Slaughterhouse<BR>TROUBLE IN MIND<BR>A Book with Many Bookmarks<BR>A Platform for Memory<BR>The Pain That Survives<BR>The Fragile Power<BR>History That Won't End<BR>A HISTORY THAT DOESN'T "FIT"<BR>Back to Africa<BR>To Live in Peril on the Sea<BR>Not a Word but a World<BR>The Slave Trade's Men in Full<BR>SEPARATIONS<BR>A Visit to Madina<BR>This Far, and No Further<BR>Legacy<BR>Lost and Found<BR>Our Choice Is the Truth or Nothing<BR>Afterword<BR>Acknowledgments<BR>Notes<BR>Selected Bibliography<BR>Reading Guide</P>
What People are Saying About This
“Anne Farrow has been on a remarkable journey over the past several years, and this book is a record of that sojourn. In a sense, it is itself a logbook. Farrow’s strong and passionate voice, her deep, even fierce empathy, comes through powerfully as she leads the reader along the path that she took toward a personal engagement with Connecticut’s involvement with slavery—and the slave trade—challenging the reader to really see this aspect of our history as ‘not a chapter but the book itself.’”
“Anne Farrow’s book is courageous, captivating, and necessary. Once again, Farrow has demonstrated that she is a masterful historian, educator, and storyteller, guiding readers through yesterday’s hard truths and making connections to today.”
“A powerful story, heartbreaking, revealing, and redemptive. The Logbooks invites us to join a voyage of discovery into the ‘triangles’ of the trans-Atlantic slave trade—a deeply personal and empathetic exploration of history, memory, and identity. To lose our grasp on the past, Farrow reminds us, is to become unmoored from our selves.”