Monday, August 29, 2016

Revolt of the Marlborough: The Toll of Captain Codd

"In the Morning, they seeing the Skirt of his Coat, went to him, cut his Belly open, and tossed him over-board."

Anyone even passingly familiar with the transatlantic trade of the eighteenth century is well aware of the brutality of the Middle Passage. Millions of men, women, and children were shipped from Africa to the Caribbean, South, Central, and North America. Captain Robert Codd and his slaver Marlborough were among the more experienced veterans of this trade. In 1753, Codd was on his ninth voyage to the African coast.[1] The Bristol based Marlborough had even more experience than her captain. Built in 1711, she was a remarkably aged vessel by the mid-eighteenth century, and had sailed from Bristol to Africa then to the Caribbean (and once to Virginia) almost every year since 1728. She most often called in at St. Kitts, but sometimes to Jamaica as well.[2]

Codd was the fourth captain of the Marlborough, and the one who had captained her for the most voyages. Under his watch, approximately 2,600 people were bought in Africa, with about 2,100 surviving the trip across the Atlantic. This places the approximate death toll on Codd's Marlborough at 20%. It is difficult to estimate average mortality on the Middle Passage, but this death toll appears to be on the higher end of average.[3]

To Captain Codd this was perhaps just another voyage around the Atlantic to earn his pay and keep the West Indies sugar plantations working. Joining him was John Harris, a young man who may have been working aboard as a ship's boy, and thirty four other sailors. These men sailed to the Gold Coast and Bonny in West Africa, and embarked over 300 people.[4]

The sight that met the eyes of the enslaved was a one hundred ton ship mounting four guns.[5] Marlborough's quarterdeck was protected by a "barricado," a wooden wall that separated the crew's quarters, weapons, and wheel from the enslaved men and boys further forward. Fear of revolt was a constant for sailors and captains of the slave trade. Perhaps one in every ten slave voyages experienced an insurrection.[6] The threat of violent resistance was so prevalent that slave ships could be identified by these palisades. The sailors had certainly pierced the barricado with slits through which they could fire muskets at their human cargo.

"Vue du Cap Français et du navire La Marie Séraphique de Nantes,"
artist unknown, 1772-1773, Les abolitions de l'esclavage.

Adding to the trauma of the newly enslaved, mariners also used the barricado for an even more sinister reason. The barricado marked the line between male and female slaves. Such a barrier gave European sailors easy access to the enslaved women and girls, enabling the sexual abuse for which the slave trade is notorious.

"Coupe interne de La Marie Séraphique, artist unknown, c.1772-1773,
Les abolitions de l'esclavage.

Harris later described the ethnic divisions between the enslaved people of Bonny and the Gold Coast, one that turned violent at times. With physical and cultural barriers separating the enslaved, a large crew of armed European sailors, and an experienced captain, the crew of Marlborough let their guard down. This was a fatal mistake.

Next time: The enslaved spill blood for their liberty.

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[1] Slave Voyages Database, accessed July 1, 2016. The search function of this website was used to identify the voyages captained by Robert Codd.
[2] Ibid., voyage identification number 26089, accessed July 1, 2016.
[3] Herbert S. Klein, et. al., Transoceanic Mortality: The Slave Trade in Comparative Perspective, Stanford University.
[4] Slave Voyages Database, voyage identification number 17322, accessed July 1, 2016.
[5] Bristol, Africa, and the Eighteenth Century Slave Trade to America, Volume 3: The Years of Decline, ed. Joseph Bettey, Britol Records Society: 1991, page 49.
[6] Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History, Penguin: 2007, page 300.

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