Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Revolt of the Marlborough: Underestimating the Enslaved

This is the conclusion of the "Revolt of the Marlborough," another in the "Race, Revolt, and Piracy" series. You can find parts one, two, three, and four by following the links provided.

The story of the Marlborough is one of mariners consistently underestimating the agency of their enslaved human cargo. Captain Robert Codd brought some of the men onto the quarterdeck behind the barricado to help sail the ship, Captain Thomas Jones was cocky enough to try boarding even when he held an advantageous position to disable the Marlborough by his great guns with little risk, and John Harris assumed that they must surely be lost to the sea after sailing away from the Hawk's defeat.

Today we might congratulate ourselves on properly esteeming the newly enslaved as technically capable. They could sail, they could work muskets and cannon, and they could row. What the Marlborough reminds us is that despite their horrifying condition, the enslaved were also thinkers.

Of the thirty five crew members that sailed the Marlborough, the captain, mates, armed sentries, and surgeon were the subjects of the most violence. The ship's boys, cooper, sailmaker, two common sailors, and the boatswain were spared. Given the boatswain's position as disciplinarian of the crew, it is possible that the slaves viewed him as necessary for keeping the remaining white sailors in line, or that they saw him as the only one to lay a hand on white men during the voyage, earning some degree of respect. The cooper and sailmaker possessed skills that kept them off watch and therefore less likely to abuse the enslaved, which may have ensured their survival. The ship's boys offered little threat to the enslaved. When offering mercy to the sailors hiding in the tops, they called to Harris by name.

Not numbered among the surviving crew by Harris is the cook. There are two mentions of the cook in Harris' account: when the Africans retrieve his mall to beat the wounded and dying surgeon to death, and when the cook convinces the enslaved to let Harris lead the boat ashore. It is possible that the cook was of African descent himself, otherwise it is difficult to see how he would have had any sway. In any case, he too was spared despite Harris' omission of the very man who saved his life from his account.[1]  

Those the formerly enslaved chose to spare demonstrate their understanding of shipboard hierarchy. Not only did they understand which crew members were most responsible for their suffering, but they also knew which were useful for their survival.

At that, the Africans were reversing the seemingly immutable formula of the slave trade: a relatively few European sailors would restrain a great number of Africans and choose who would live and who would be put to death. Now a great number of Africans would restrain a few Europeans. These sailors might be spared, they might be thrown overboard for the sharks, or they might be killed outright.

All of this illustrates what is well known to students of the Middle Passage: enslaved Africans were not obedient cattle to be herded into slave ships and resigned to their fate. They were skilled, they were smart, and they resisted.

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[1]  John Harris, letter to his father, London Evening Post, April 5, 1753, page 4.

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