Three days at sea after casting off from the coast of Africa, the crew and cargo of Captain Robert Codd's Marlborough were only just settling into a routine. Over three hundred enslaved people from Bonny (in modern day Nigeria) and the Gold Coast were confined aboard the ship, the ninth such voyage for Captain Codd.
It was October 14, 1752. An awning had been stretched over the deck to provide shade to the crew and possibly the enslaved as well. Codd was a slaver and used to the constancy of death among the enslaved, but he knew that his money would be made by delivering as many healthy slaves as possible.
To keep them presentable enough to be sold in the West Indies, Codd ordered that his human cargo be washed. Most of the crew took to the task of washing the enslaved with tubs and swabs on deck. A few were set aside as sentries behind the barricado.
Precisely what happened next is unclear.
The first newspaper reports of the uprising state that "Capt. Codd had indulged 28 Gold Coast Negroes with their Liberty on Deck, for the Sake of their Assistance to navigate the Ship." There are many parts of this initial report that directly contradict the single eyewitness account that survives, and it is clearly unreliable. Codd, with his decade of experience in the slave trade, seems unlikely to have let nearly thirty enslaved men behind the barricado while keeping his sentries facing the opposite direction and the rest of his crew busily employed. It is, however, the only explanation of how the enslaved got to the other side of the barricado that survives. Perhaps there were only a few enslaved men on the quarterdeck behind the barricado, as that same newspaper report mentions that they "behaved, for a considerable Time, in a very Civil manner, and quite unsuspected of any Design of Mischief."
"The Gold Coast slaves rose upon the Quarter Deck," John Harris, a young sailor, later wrote, "and alarm'd the whole Ship, knock'd the Centuries [sentries] down at the Barricado, and toss'd them over board." Given sailors' notorious lack of swimming skill, and the sharks well known to follow slave ships, the sentries were as good as dead.
|"Representation of an Insurrection on board a Slave-Ship," Carl Wadstrom, 1787, |
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and University of Virginia
Captain Codd was the next target. Seizing a blunderbuss, perhaps from one of the sentries now in the ocean, one of the Gold Coast men struck the captain with the butt end. Despite being knocked down, Codd managed to recover and escape into the rigging making his way to the fore top further. How precisely he escaped from the quarterdeck in the stern to the fore top near the bow is unclear, but it could be that he was never actually on the quarterdeck, and in fact was supervising his crew in the washing.
The rest of the crew climbed up onto the awning itself to escape the slaves who rose up on their side of the now useless barricado. Armed with "but an empty Musket and a few Platform Boards," two more of the crew were killed (presumably by the guns the enslaved had secured) before the survivors climbed aloft to the main and mizzen tops.
Unable to easily get at the men aloft, the enslaved turned their attention to the crew left on deck. Two men climbed into the punt and tried to make their escape, but were shot and beaten to death. After killing the crew below, the men in the tops became targets to the enslaved once more. When the third mate was shot through the thigh, he descended the ratlines to the deck "and relied on their Mercy, when four of them cut him Limb from Limb."
The remaining crew crawled to the fore top and cross trees, sheltering there from the incessant fire of the men below. For two hours they endured musket fire, with John Harris himself having taken two musketballs. He later wrote, "I pass'd it off as light as I could; for if I had then behav'd otherwise, they would have thrown me over-board, as they did the rest of the Wounded."
Eventually the firing ceased. Maybe cooler heads prevailed, noting that the crew would be necessary to help sail the ship back to the coast, or that such a heavy rate of fire would exhaust what ammunition they had.
Calling out to the survivors, the Gold Coast slaves promised mercy if they came down. Notably, they called to Harris by name in promising safety. Captain Codd did not descend, either because he didn't trust the promise of mercy, or that it was never offered to him in particular.
Of the thirteen or so surviving crew, four were thrown into the sea, and the rest preserved.
|"Misery," Thomas Rowlandson, 1786, Royal Collection Trust.|
It is easy to see why Harris viewed the revolt as "barbarous" and "cruel." Shot, stabbed, mutilated, beaten, and tossed into the sea, the crew of thirty five were reduced to about a mere nine survivors.
But this shocking violence was not random nor unprovoked. The sentries and ship's officers were the ones specifically targeted, with the greatest violence being brought down on the captain, surgeon, and mates. These were the men most directly responsible for the torture and violence that defined the slave trade, and formed the spear-point of societal efforts to reduce Africans to inhuman commodities.
By contrast, those who were spared are also notable for their position on the ship. Two were common sailors, and likely saved for their ability to reef and steer. The bosun was saved as well, perhaps because it was the bosun who delivered corporal punishment to the crew, and thus established himself as a tool for use against the crew. The cooper and sailmaker were also spared, both roles that would have had less contact with the enslaved than their shipmates. About half of the crew that were spared were boys, and less likely to engage in violence against the enslaved or pitied as children incapable of understanding their actions.
The violence of the revolt was no less than the violence the enslaved suffered in their capture and torture. Indeed, it might well have been more discriminate than the violence they endured. If survival and freedom for yourself and hundreds of others meant beating a man to death, there were few who would not take the opportunity.
Now began the next and uneasy phase of the insurrection: two factions of Africans held the ship, with a small and terrified group of Europeans in their grasp.
Next time: A broken alliance, and the promise of the African shore.
 John Harris, letter to his father, London Evening Post, April 5, 1753, page 4.
 This piece was reprinted word for word in many newspapers from Britain through the colonies, but I took this quote from the Maryland Gazette, May 10, 1753, page 2.
 Harris, Evening Post.
 William Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, 1705, page 281-282.
 Harris, Evening Post.
 Harris, Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, March 24-31, 1753.