amazing grace

Imagine taking a cruise through waters filled with deep sea turtles, dolphins and flying fish. Imagine a sky filled with colourful birds by day and the magic of the aurora borealis at night. Imagine a living sea, at once calm and placid and in the next moment heaving, groaning, sighing. Imagine the winds, the squalls, the snow, the storms. Imagine the crashing against your boat’s hull and fog sometimes almost too dense to breathe in.

If I were a PR person, I’d have the glossy brochure ready, complete with scintillating text and full colour photos. I’d sell it as an experience of a lifetime.

Such were the journeys undertaken by John Newton and his crew between 1750 and 1754. Each voyage took them from Liverpool to Africa’s West Coast and then on to Antigua and then back home. The journeys were long, sometimes more than a year in length. Each stage involved the transport of cargo, trading and the exchange of goods, and the building of wealth.

Six months anchored along the African coast. Negotiating good prices for healthy slaves. Examining their bodies for defects. Accounting for age, height, sex, reproductive state, and curiously, breast shape and size. Turning away the seemingly infirm, the blind, those on crutches… Keeping careful accounts of prices and specimens. Assigning numbers to each of them. Folding them under the decks into chambers where they were lined up, in Newton’s words: “in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf…” (Martin, Bernard and Mark Spurrell, eds. The Journal of a Slave Trader (John Newton) 1750-1754 (London: The Epworth Press, 1962), 110)

Books upon a shelf. It’s an arresting image. I had to stop when I read that. I stopped. And I read it again. And I stopped. And then I needed to read it one more time. Even now, at least ten reads in, I’m still confronted by something so provocative that it stops me in my tracks.

Books upon a shelf. It’s an analogy I never would have considered.

Books, to me, are rich treasures filled with delight, imaginings, provocations, wonderment and awe.  Even John Newton’s Journal of a Slave Trader , an ugly, tawdry tale of greed, wealth, power, corruption, and profound inhumanity, has so much to offer.

How could something so precious, so rich – a bookcase filled with words, ideas, voices – be linked to the atrocities of the slave trade?

What was Newton thinking?

There can be no doubt that he chose his words carefully. Linking the cramped, disease-laden misery of the slave quarters with the cozy romance of an overfilled bookcase brings horrors that might otherwise be ignored – easily bypassed as happening far away to foreign people with foreign beliefs, in foreign climes,on foreign shores – into the sanctity of a comfortable, educated, elite British home.

By the time he wrote these words, Newton had had second thoughts about the slave trade. He’d become a staunch abolitionist. He’d petitioned William Wilberforce. (He’d also experienced a spiritual awakening, found his calling as an Anglican priest and composed the hymn, “Amazing Grace”). And he’d written a pamphlet denouncing the evils of the slave trade, declaring: “I know of no method of getting money, not even that of robbing for it upon the highway, which has so direct a tendency to efface the moral sense, and to harden it like steel, against all impressions of sensibility” (Martin and Spurrell, 102-3).

In Newton’s critique, we learn of slaves being tossed overboard, alive, in times of water scarcity – so that the cost of lost slaves could be picked up by the underwriters rather than by the ship’s owners. We learn of insurrections, violence, death. We learn about the extent of human depravity. According to Newton’s account, one quarter of transported slaves and one fifth of crew members perished during these journeys. Newton’s own journals reflect this, with an average of 1-2 slaves dying every week of the voyage:

Tuesday 7th May …. At 10 a.m. went on shoar again. Peter Williams showed me 6 slaves out of which I took 5, 2 men, 1 woman, 1 man boy and 1 boy (4 foot). Bouth likewise a man from young King Cole, and refused 2 others. In the afternoon came off and paid the goods to George and Peter, Mr. Williams’ Deputy’s. Sent them on shoar in the yaul in the evening. Buryed a man slave (No. 105) of a flux. Made a new awning for the quarter deck of the yaul’s sails. Overhailed and reloaded all the arms. A canoo brought us 12 casks of water.

Saturday 11th May … Buryed a man slave (No. 101) of a fever. Saved a french butt of rain water. (52)

Fryday 17th May … Buryed a man slave (No. 34) of a flux and fever. Boatswain at work securing the main rigging (53).

Monday 20th May … In the night 2 slaves that have been long ill of a flux dyed. A man (No. 113) and a girl (No. 129) (53)

Wednesday 29th May … Buryed a boy slave (No. 86) of a flux. Had 3 girls taken with fevers this morning… The moon was eclipsed about 3/4ths (55).

The numbers are stark. Uncompromising, they reflect the dehumanization of the slave. Reduced to numbers – 105, 101, 34, 113, 86 – these slaves were not accorded the dignity that accompanied the death of ship crew members.

Saturday 17th August …. At 6 a.m. departed this life Mr Robert Arthur, our surgeon, of a fever which seized him a few days before we left St. John’s [Antigua]. I would willing have persuaded him to stay behind, but could not, as he did not apprehend himself in so much danger (nor indeed anyone else) as he really was. (59)

Like cattle, sheep, pigs… slaves were precious commodities whose value needed to be protected, at least while on the voyage.  Insurrections needed to be quickly quashed.

So, too, however, did Newton have to pay close attention to his own crew:

Wednesday 31st January …. Buryed a girl slave (No. 92). In the afternoon while we were off the deck, William Cooney seduced a woman slave seduced a woman slave down into the room and lay with her brutelinke in view of the whole quarter deck, for which I put him in irons (75)

[as an aside, I’ve never seen rape worded quite this way … except in the aptly named bodice rippers]

Lest you, dear reader,  labour under the assumption that Newton was interested in his slave’s well being, I’ll continue Newton’s retelling:

I hope this has been the first affair of the kind on board and I am determined to keep them quiet if possible. If anything happens to the woman I shall impute it to him, for she was big with child. Her number is 83… (75)

Rape was a crime, not against the woman in question, but rather, against Newton’s investment. According to his later pamphlet against the slave trade, the threat of rape was constantly present. Women, herded naked onto a ship, are subject to the proprietary and predatory gaze of white crewmen:

In imagination, the prey is divided, upon he spot, and only reserved till opportunity offers. Where resistance or refusal, would be utterly in vain, even the solicitation of consent is seldom thought of…. (105)

And yet for all the horrors of the Middle Passage, their lives would only get worse upon their arrival in the Carribbean. For plantation owners, just as for slave traders, the bottom line was the most important consideration.

If there is one thing that comes out of reading Newton’s journal and later pamphlet, the trade  was about money and little else. For slave traders such as John Newton, this meant keeping a close eye on their cargo in order to ensure its safe arrival in Antigua. In all instances, he had to maximize his profit; this is why he inspected the slaves so closely; this is why he negotiated so carefully.

Plantation owners, too, undertook calculations on how most efficiently to manage slaves:

One thing I cannot omit, which was told me by the gentleman to whom my ship was consigned, at Antigua, in the year 1751, and who was himself a planter. He said, that calculations had been made, with all possible exactness, to determine which was the preferable, that is the more saving method of managing slaves:

‘Whether, to appoint them moderate work, plenty of provision, and such treatment as might enable them to protract their lives to old age?’

Or,

‘By rigorously straining their strength to the utmost, with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless, and unable to do service; and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places?’

He farther said, that these skilful calculators had determined in favour of the latter mode, as much the cheaper; and that he could mention several estates, in the island of Antigua, on which it was it was seldom known that a slave had lived above nine years. – Ex pede Herculem! [Newton, John. Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (London: J. Buckland; J. Johnson, 1788), 38-39].

Imagine taking a cruise through waters filled with deep sea turtles, dolphins and flying fish. Imagine a sky filled with colourful birds by day and the magic of the aurora borealis at night. Imagine a living sea, at once calm and placid and in the next moment heaving, groaning, sighing. Imagine the winds, the squalls, the snow, the storms. Imagine the crashing against your boat’s hull and fog sometimes almost too dense to breathe in.

Imagine… an experience of a lifetime.

For the 468 slaves and 84 crew who sailed Newton’s three Atlantic cruises, it most certainly was.

newtoncover

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