Sunday, September 4, 2016

Revolt of the Marlborough: Battle at Sea

This is the fourth part of The Revolt of the Marlborough. Follow these links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The Bonny Africans, formerly enslaved by the Europeans, had been put ashore, as had John Harris and possibly the rest of the ship's boys. Behind them death permeated the Marlborough, where most of her European crew was killed, and certainly a significant number of Africans. Bullet scars marked the tops, where the former slaves had kept up a heavy fire for hours on the first day of the revolt.

Captain Thomas Jones had just steered the Hawk to the Bonny coast, and it was immediately evident that something was not right on the Marlborough.[1] Captain Jones was on his second voyage as commander of the Hawk, which was making her fourth voyage to Africa.[2] He'd had enough time at sea to know how other vessels ought to look, and in particular how a fellow Bristol slaver should appear. Jones ordered his men to sail to the Marlborough.

Captain Jones may have had the well being of the European crew in mind, but there was a further motivation to retake the Marlborough. If she could be retaken, he and his crew could be rewarded with salvage rights. It was, after all, legally cargo that had risen up and taken the ship. He could take possession of those slaves and the ship, selling them to double his profits for the voyage.

John Harris was safe ashore for the fight, but related the events after the fact. Jones steered the Hawk under Marlborough's stern, the point of the ship most vulnerable to cannon fire. When sizing up the ships, the scales were tipped in favor of the Hawk. She mounted two more guns than the Marlborough, and came in somewhat heavier than her potential opponent.[3]

Hailing the Marlborough, the Hawk was told the captain and much of the crew were ashore, and that she was filled with a sick crew. Jones didn't believe the lie, and sent over a yawl to investigate. When his sailors could clearly see that the Gold Coast Africans had taken possession of the ship, the Hawk leapt into action.

Detail from "The Engagement between The Arethusa and La Belle Poule, 17 June 1778," 
Francis Swaine, c.1778-82, Royal Collection Trust.

Jones could have laid on their stern and pumped the Marlborough full of shot until the Africans aboard surrendered, but such a strategy would have doubtless killed many of them, damaged the ship, and further reduced his profit. Not to mention the likelihood of killing Europeans in the mix. Instead, he opted to board her in the night.[4]

As later related in newspapers across the British empire, "the Negroes were so expert at the Great Guns and Small Arms, that they soon repelled them."[5] The Hawk, despite having superior guns, was outmatched by the perhaps 150 former slaves who were fighting not for profit but for their very lives. At that, many enslaved men were taken in wars, and as such would have been trained soldiers with experience in handling small arms. Jones severely underestimated his prey.

The next morning the Marlborough's boatswain leapt over the side and swam to the Hawk, just before the Gold Coast Africans cut their cable and raised sail, leaving behind the humiliated Hawk and the now free Bonny Africans. Months later, the Gentleman's Magazine would commemorate the victory of the former slaves, relating that after the battle they "boldly put to sea, in order to regain their own country. How sweet is liberty!"[6]

This is the last sighting that Europeans had of the Marlborough, though Harris supposed them lost. It was inconceivable to him that they might attain their goal and regain their freedom. Unfortunately, we don't know whether they ever made it back to their homes, or if they were "lost or drove to Sea," as Harris thought.[7]

Next time: some final thoughts on the Marlborough.

[1] John Harris, letter to his father, The London Evening Post, April 5, 1753, page 4.
[2] Slave Voyages Database, accessed July 3, 2016.
[3] Bristol, Africa, and the Eighteenth Century Slave Trade to America, Volume 3: The Years of Decline, ed. Joseph Bettey, Britol Records Society: 1991, pages 49, 70.
[4] Harris, London Evening Post.
[5] The Maryland Gazette, May 10, 1753, page 2.
[6] Gentleman's Magazine, February 1, 1753.
[7] Harris, London Evening Post.

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