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Friday, September 2, 2016

Revolt of the Marlborough: Return to Africa

This is a continuation of the "Revolt of the Marlborough." Follow the links to find Part 1 and Part 2.

High aloft Captain Robert Codd hid in the fore top, over the bloodied deck where the few surviving crewmen of the Marlborough and hundreds of armed former slaves gathered. Codd could do nothing but helplessly watch as his sailors were put to work turning the Marlborough about and heading for the unseen shore.

Two tense days passed in peace while the Marlborough plowed toward the African coast.

"A Liverpool Slave Ship," William Jackson, 18th century,
Merseyside Maritime Museum.

Two days without food or water must have taken their toll on Captain Codd. His crew must have known they were close to the African shore. If they could hide him closer to the deck, where they might give him sustenance and care for any wounds he may have sustained, there was the chance he could survive. Convincing the former slaves that they needed to tend to the sails on the foremast, the sailors climbed aloft and remarkably rescued the captain from the top, hiding him in the forestay.

According to Harris' account, the very next morning the African coast rose on the horizon. That same morning, the former slaves also spotted Captain Codd's coat skirt peeking out of the sail in which he was hidden. Codd's punishment for killing hundreds and enslaving thousands was a swift one. "They...went to him, cut his belly open, and toss'd him over-board."

With the highest symbol of European oppression gone over the side, the Africans turned to reaching shore and their freedom.

Detail from "A Launch of Spaniards weighing an Anchor at Teneriff,"
Gabriel Bray, 1775, National Maritime Museum.

Though some distance from a windward shore, the "Gold Coast slaves" ordered the boats loaded so they could make for the coast. While Harris was dismissive of the idea of making the run in the small yawl and long boat, the coast was home to a number of slavers, and if those ships found the Africans in possession of the Marlborough, they would surely try to take it back, claiming the ship and her human cargo as salvage. Small boats might slip by undetected, or could be passed off as the legitimate possessions of the Africans.

Loading up the boats "as deep with Goods and small Slaves as she could swim," the Gold Coast Africans prepared to put in to shore. Now, seemingly safe from European intervention, the old cultural divisions came to the surface. The Bonny Africans refused to remain on the Marlborough, perhaps fearing the boats would not come back for them once ashore. When the Gold Coast Africans tried to prevent them from getting into the boats, a panic broke out, and the boats were sunk under the weight of panicked people.

Harris later stated that the Gold Coast Africans refused to let the drowning Bonny Africans back onto the boat, "which drown'd upwards of an hundred of them." Even allowing for the likely exaggeration, there was clearly a significant loss of life. Anger boiled over, and the two factions ignored their common goal to fight. Harris records that they fought all through that night, stopping only in the morning to eat before fighting again.

Somehow, peace was regained. The two sides clearly despised each other, but it must have been obvious that unless they worked together, none of them would return home. Once the fighting had stopped, the Marlborough was brought in close to shore. Though made nervous by the sight of gathered slave ships, the Africans decided to risk going ashore.

The punt, possibly the only surviving boat of the Marlborough, was put to work ferrying the Bonny Africans ashore. It is possible that this was part of a truce between the factions: the Bonny Africans would be put ashore as soon as possible to assuage their fears and allow for the Gold Coast Africans to make sail for their own home without any further, fruitless conflict. After some debate, Harris was loaded into the punt to help guide it to shore.[1]

Harris makes no mention of a daring escape, or that the Africans on the Marlborough expected him to return. It may be that as a white man, Harris was a tool used to cover the movement of former slaves under a veil of legitimacy right under the spyglasses of gathered slave ships, and then released. About eight sailors were kept aboard the Marlborough, likely to guide it to the Gold Coast.[2]

For a few days the Marlborough lay at anchor within sight of the slavers, though it is unclear why. The remaining Gold Coast Africans had command of the Marlborough now, and were about to face their next great challenge.

Next time: A sea battle between slavers and the Africans of the Marlborough.

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[1] John Harris, letter to his father, London Evening Post, April 5, 1753, page 4.
[2] John Harris, letter to his father, Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, March 24-31, 1753.

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