Havana & slaves

Friday 29th June – when for the first time the weather being very fine, I stayed up to see our entrance into Havana. The wind being foul, we were obliged to come to anchor immediately behind the Morro Castle, instead of in front of the Town. I then remained on deck all day – & amused myself with the varied contents of the bum-boats alongside, & the Jewish-like rapacity of their owners.

Visit to a Slaver at Havana

Saturday 30th – I had no intention of going on shore at all – and better would it have been for me had I adhered to my purpose. But the Captain on his return last night, told me that he had been on board a slave vessel, & described the scene as being well worth being visited by one who had never witnessed it. My Curiosity was excited, and I became very anxious to go but prudence for a long time withheld me. However I thought to myself that I was strong enough & besides that I should not have to go on shore at all – and accordingly I determined to hazard the experience. Well in the afternoon I dressed myself & repaired along with the Master & Mate & M.Snell on board the Slaver. We were there received by the midshipman who had charge of her with great civility & he willingly acceded to our wish of seeing the vessel. What a sight was presented to us on our ascending the sides.

The class of the vessel was a very small schooner, hardly capable of affording comfortable accommodation to ten or twelve individuals, if you except the hold, and yet she now carried 100 slaves and six or eight Englishmen composing the crew. The decks were literally crammed with human beings, of all ages and sexes. The man & boys went about eodem modo quo natura eos fecerat – whilst the pullae ra aidoia celaverunt disclouto sols circum medum. The bodily appearance of the slaves was very good & I witnessed none of that despair & despondency which I had conceived to be inseparable from the condition of slavery. On the contrary all seemed perfectly contented & happy & no doubt better satisfied with the treatment they received from us than from their former Masters. They were also very cleanly – no thanks to themselves, for every morning & evening they were compelled to wash themselves – a ceremony which was conducted by dashing over them several buckets of salt water.

They all belonged, I believe, to one nation – and certainly their features were exactly similar, which would not have been the case had they been of different tribes of negroes. In their own country they had been either hereditary slaves, or prisoners taken in war – reduced to that state & then sold to the white traffickers in human flesh. It is therefore a false cry of some that they are deprived of their natural liberty & subjected to greater hardships from Whites than from their own countrymen. No such thing. Their treatment at home is a thousand times worse than with us [?] & the exchange of masters is therefore a benefit to them. Besides they have a chance of being instructed in the Christian religion & consequently of being eternally saved – a point which ought to be attentively considered by would be philanthropists.

All the men and boys in the schooner slept in the hold – all the girls in the cabin aft. I went down into the hold to inspect their accommodations. It was very low and extended nearly the length of the vessel. You could not sit up in it but were obliged to crouch down. In order to stow away so many human beings, the poor wretches were forced to double themselves up so that the [posteriors] of the one were shipped between the knees & belly of the next behind – a most uncomfortable position but unavoidable. The Cabin again was very small & filled with a very miscellaneous collection – as bales[?] full of Indian corn or rice – coats – swords – pistols & guns, & was withal excessively hot & close.

The slaves are fed three times a day with rice or Indian corn prepared with butter – no meat is allowed. There are several messes & each must keep to his own. The food is contained in large wooden bowls, & each being furnished with a long wooden spoon, dips it in as fast as he can & bolts almost without chewing whatever he brings up. The slaves had much rather use their fingers but this is forbidden. As soon as the dinner is on the table – I mean on the deck – the whole assembly, previous to falling to, clap their hands & uttered an odd sound with their mouths, expressive I suppose, of their satisfaction and thankfulness.

Condition of Captured slaves in Hanvana

The occasion which called me to visit the slave ship, seems to lead very properly to mention the condition of the slaves brought into Havanna & some particulars which I learned respecting the Speedwell, [6] the English schooner which captured the Slave ship.

There are two descriptions of slaves at Havana – the first, those who are brought in by Spanish vessels and the second those who have been captured by our schooners. The former are really and bona fide slaves in the strictest sense of the word, being the property for life of the Master. They are put up in the market & fetch a good price. The latter, when they arrive in port, are delivered up to English & Spanish Commissioners, whose duty it is to look after them & provide for them according to the laws on that head. Formerly our sailors used to receive £10 for every slave they captured, but at present no more than £5 is given. As soon as the slaves are delivered over to the Commissioners, they are bound to maintain them, till they are disposed of – which may be done in the following way.

If you wish to have a certain number of servants, they address a petition to the Commissioners, stating their wish & in general they meet with little or no difficulty. A certain sum – much below what you would pay for the absolute property of a slave – is paid down, & certain writings are drawn out to secure the good treatment & proper support of the Negro, and to provide for his being emancipated after a service of ten years – & the required number is doled out to you. This system looks well but does not work well. The soft term of a servant only conceals the evil one of slave – as if we could arrive at the truth not one in 50 is ever so fortunate as to be emancipated.

Those negroes who live in the town have the best chance, because they are almost sure to learn the terms on which they may be free & if they please, when they have fulfilled them, they can go before a magistrate & insist upon their just rights. But those in the country, are not so blessed, not having the necessary information which is most carefully concealed from them. They are truly slaves & exposed to all the caprices & tasks of a cruel master without remeed.[7] Many of these poor wretches die from over-fatigue or harsh treatment – nor is any enquiry ever instituted after them. Their Masters come again into town & purchases more servants, whose loss is again to be replaced by others – whilst the honest Commissioners pocket large sums for a nominal trust, & provided scenes of Barbary & cruelty are not before their eyes, they care little whether they are transacted elsewhere on the naked & bleeding bodies of those very slaves whom they are paid to protect. Alas for poor human nature – alas for the wisest institutions.

Thus my dear Jacob you will perceive that our vaunted humanity shewn at an enormous expense, but very little betters the helpless conditions of the poor negro. Some good I admit may be accomplished by these measures – but still more would accrue if the Commissioners were more strict & impartial in their duties. But sooth to say, I am prouder of my Christian country thus trying tho’ not quite effectually, to ameliorate the condition of our black brethren, than if one ten times more powerful & illustrious than we really are as a nation. I had almost forgot in favour of our system that it may eventually suppress the slave trade by ruining the merchants, whose vessels are captured by our schooners. This expectation is I confess rather distant, but courage, it may succeed. I have been told that if the merchants save one out of every three cargoes, still their losses will be covered & they will besides realise a handsome profit.

Eagle and the Speedwell [8]

Vessels for the slave trade are openly and professedly so, fitted at Havana, even when they [there] are English schooners there. Close to the one I was in, there was a large schooner, in which many were busy preparing her for the Coast of Africa. This rather looks as if they laughed at us – tho’ truly they sometimes laugh on the wrong side of the face, when the finest vessels & finest cargoes are taken by us. A great deal of money is often made by these captures and in the case of the Speedwell now here, each common sailor became entitled to upwards of £100 prize money, within three months. They Captured two schooners & a large brig. With regard to the brig, I was told some interesting particulars. She was called by a Spanish [name] signifying the Eagle, she carried 18 thirty-two pounders & was manned by 70 men. When she was fitting up in Havana, the Speedwell was laying there – and the Captain of the Eagle was often heard to declare that if he met her or any other schooner – he would blow her out of the water, & that he would not yield even to an English Brig. This vain-glorious boast was applauded by many, & the Commander of the Speedwell was often taunted on the subject. About the time when the Eagle was expected home the Speedwell left the Harbour to go in search of her to the surprise of all & the chagrin of some. After sailing about for some time, in the most probable track, one day a suspicious looking brig was descried at a distance, for which the Speedwell bore up.

No attempt was made by the brig to get away. On the contrary she hauled up her courses & backed her topsails with the evident intention of laying to. Nay more, he cut away his quarter-boat & disclosed a large gilt eagle with its wings spread & its talons ready to pounce upon its prey – then ran out his 38 pounders from the ports. He knew the Speedwell as well as the latter knew him. From this shew of deliberate preparation one would have expected a most bloody & murderous conflict – but you shall hear.

The two vessels slowly approached each other, the wind being very light. The great object of the slaver was to bring his guns to bear upon the poor little schooner, by which he expected to blow her out of the water at the first broadside. But the Capt.of the Speedwell, knew better than to give him that advantage. Availing himself of the superior sailing qualities of his vessel, he kept on her bows, where she could not much hurt him, and when at 1½ miles she fired six shots with her long swivel placed amidships, five of which (thanks to good marksmanship) struck the Eagle – wounded three men severely. The rest seized with sudden panic abandoned their guns & fled for safety into the hold, so that the Captain was compelled to yield. Oh shame to manhood & your country, those vain boasters, thus with 18 guns & 70 men to submit thus disgracefully to a little cockle boat with 30 men & four guns & a swivel. True it is that the greater boaster of personal courage is often the greatest coward.

Well satisfied with her prize the Speedwell sailed for Havana in Company with her & entered the Harbour in triumph – a triumph how great for our men & how mortifying to the Spaniards – Success to Speedwell for ever !!!

You may be sure that the preceding notes were not written at the time at Havana. I was too ill then to write and for some days I had much reason to regret, on several accounts, my visit to the slaver. While there I smoked continually – & the heat & smell were almost intolerable. Soon after I arrived it began to rain, when I sought shelter in the cabin where every one was. There I perspired most profusely & became faint & sick, so that I was glad when the rain having ceased allowed me again to come on deck. Still I was sick & exceedingly weak & longed to be off on board. In compliance with my desire we set off – & oh what did I not suffer in our passage to the Duke. I was nearly insensible & turned in the moment I arrived. In bed I became very sick & vomited – fever threatened me anew & I heartily repented of my rashness. Three days elapsed ere I could trust myself to get up – & fortunately I had no farther relapse.

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