From 1754 to 1755, the slave ship Hare completed a journey from Newport, Rhode Island, to Sierra Leone and back to the United States—a journey that transformed more than seventy Africans into commodities, condemning some to death and the rest to a life of bondage in North America. In this engaging narrative, Sean Kelley painstakingly reconstructs this tumultuous voyage, detailing everything from the identities of the captain and crew to their wild encounters with inclement weather, slave traders, and near-mutiny. But most importantly, Kelley tracks the cohort of slaves aboard the Hare from their purchase in Africa to their sale in South Carolina. In tracing their complete journey, Kelley provides rare insight into the communal lives of slaves and sheds new light on the African diaspora and its influence on the formation of African American culture.
In the following excerpt from The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina (pp. 159-162), Kelley describes how slaves formed communities in America.
Whether on rice and indigo plantations, in Charles Town, or on the isolated savannahs of the backcountry, slavery imposed severe limitations on the Hare captives’ lives in the New World. Yet enslavement did not determine all aspects of existence, and the contours of everyday life were largely in the hands of the Africans and Creoles of the Low Country’s many communities. These communities, or neighborhoods, varied widely as a result of many factors: the particular crop regime or economic activity; the temperament and plantation practices of local whites; the geographic location; the density of the population; the proximity of other polities, such as the Spanish or native groups; and the state of development of the locality. But from the perspective of the Hare captives, no issue loomed larger than the presence of those who spoke the same language and who shared an understanding of the world. The proximity of “countrymen,” in the terminology of the era, was a potential source of comfort at a time of extreme fear and uncertainty. In the first months of New World captivity, a more experienced countryman or countrywoman could explain plantation routines and perhaps even save a new arrival from punishment. A countryman could help with the all-important process of language acquisition. Lastly, someone of a similar background could help introduce the newcomer to the plantation community and to the wider neighborhood. For the newly arrived Hare captives, a great deal depended on the presence of people of similar backgrounds.
It is hard to know exactly how many of the Hare captives lived in clusters that permitted them contact with their countrymen and countrywomen. To start, we do know that forty-four of the fifty-six were purchased along with at least one other Hare captive, while eleven were purchased singly, but even being purchased together did not necessarily mean the captives would stay together. Africans throughout the Americas placed a special importance on the shipmate relationship. Shipmates treated one another as kin, and recognition of the bond might continue into subsequent generations. However, being purchased in company with another Hare captive did not guarantee an enduring, close shipmate relationship. As we have already seen, several purchasers owned multiple properties, and the possibility of separation onto different estates was certainly present, whether immediately or in later years. Horry and Lessesne, for example, bought seven captives between them but never operated a plantation together, which means they probably divided the captives between themselves or resold them immediately.
Separation through death was another distinct possibility. With captives arriving on the plantations weak from their ocean crossing, one in three perished in the first year. Even for those who survived the first year’s “seasoning,” the overall unhealthiness of the Low Country would have continued to claim victims. A smallpox epidemic in 1760, which killed one in ten Charles Town residents, likely boosted the already high mortality rate. The six children from the Hare would have faced the steepest odds of all. Half of all children born on rice plantations did not survive into adulthood, and the percentage was surely much higher for new arrivals. The death of an owner and the subsequent division of his estate could also separate shipmates. At least five purchasers died within ten years of the sale, and one of them, Presbyterian minister Thomas Bell of James Island, died just one year after buying a single man from the Hare. All things considered, it seems probable that more than half of the Hare captives found themselves living without a shipmate within five years of their arrival.
For some of the Hare captives, language differences may have prevented close shipmate relationships. While there is good reason to believe that most of the Hare captives could communicate with each other on at least a basic level, there were certainly some who could not. The problem may have been mitigated while aboard ship, with the multilingual captives translating for the others, but once split into smaller groups on the plantations, those who could not converse in one of the Mande languages may have found themselves unable to speak with their own shipmates. Slaveholder mobility would also have wreaked havoc on the efforts of the Hare captives to form enduring relationships with fellow Upper Guineans. Eight purchasers relocated within five years of the Hare’s arrival. Since these moves involved entire households, including all slaves, they may not have broken relationships within the plantation community, but they would have severed relationships with neighbors, which for many were probably at least as important. In rare instances, a move might have the effect of reuniting shipmates. The eight men and one woman Laurens sent to Wambaw Plantation in 1756 were probably pleased when the man purchased by Paul Douxsaint arrived in the neighborhood a year or two later. And we have already seen that the marriage of Charles Lorimer and Susannah Wedderburn brought their six Hare captives back together (if indeed they had ever been separated). But even so, Lorimer moved to England in 1764, so slaveholder mobility once more put asunder what it had earlier joined together. The structure of captive purchases, geographic mobility, and high mortality rates therefore posed great challenges to the endurance of shipmate relationships. The relationships, while certainly important for those who were fortunate to have them, were fragile, enjoyed over the long term by only a minority of the Hare captives. For many, the only real constant in life was instability.
Yet perhaps the most important thing to know is that 58 percent of all Africans entering the colony between 1751 and 1775 came from Upper Guinea, making it statistically probable that the Hare captives would have encountered not merely the odd countryman here and there, but many individuals from the same part of the continent. The thin documentary record makes it impossible to recover the African origins of all the captives on the plantations where the Hare captives lived, but a few sources afford a glimpse. The most suggestive information comes from the slave-sale records of the firm of Austin & Laurens, which can be supplemented by information from other sources, like runaway advertisements. Henry Laurens and George Austin were the era’s most prolific slave factors, handling over three thousand captive sales between 1753 and 1758, approximately 20 percent of all of the Africans imported into South Carolina over that five-year period. Of the twenty-six purchasers (twenty-four if the two partnerships are merged together), thirteen purchased additional captives from ships handled by Austin & Laurens. It should be emphasized that an appearance in the Austin & Laurens records does not mean that the person never purchased captives from another dealer. The firm handled only 20 percent of incoming captives, so many planters bought additional captives from other factors. To get a rough estimate of the actual numbers, it would be necessary to multiply the Austin & Laurens totals by five. In short, the Austin & Laurens records are the best surviving source on who purchased captives from which part of Africa, but they are far from complete and therefore present an extreme worst-case scenario for the existence of cultural and linguistic clusters.
Of the thirteen Hare purchasers who also bought from Austin & Laurens, eight purchased captives from the Upper Guinea regions of Senegambia, Sierra Leone, and the Windward Coast (see table 7 in appendix 3). In other words, the documentary record reveals that no fewer than twenty-one of the fifty-six Hare captives went to masters who bought other Upper Guineans at roughly the same time. All of the caveats mentioned earlier apply: not all people from Upper Guinea shared linguistic ties, one in three probably died within a year, and there is no way to know whether the captives were separated onto scattered holdings or simply sold off at a later date. On the other hand, the figures in the table inevitably understate the number of captives from Upper Guinea present on the purchasers’ slaveholdings, especially in the case of the larger planters, such as James Parsons, Alexander Fraser, and Elias Horry, who almost certainly had Upper Guineans on their plantations. In some instances, it is quite clear that the Hare captives entered plantation communities with many people of similar backgrounds. The man purchased by Lachlan McIntosh, for example, would have found himself among quite a few people from the Windward Coast, the slave trade for which drew for the most part on the same routes as did that of Sierra Leone. In other cases, the Hare captives would have been culturally and linguistically isolated within a small household; this was likely so for the man who worked with at least two Central Africans at Alexander Chisholme’s coffee house. The individual slaveholdings on which the Hare captives found themselves housed widely varying proportions of Creoles and Africans of all backgrounds, but there is good reason to suppose that many, perhaps even a sizable majority, lived among others from Upper Guinea.
Neither rural plantations nor urban households were isolated entities. Any meaningful definition of “community” must take into account the fact that relationships among the enslaved could encompass multiple slaveholdings. These larger neighborhoods were the most important units of African culture in South Carolina, all the more so given the insecure nature of the shipmate relationships in the New World and the small pool of “countrymen” on the lesser slaveholdings. South Carolina’s slaves were, in the words of Philip D. Morgan, “remarkably mobile.” Whether exercising their customary right to Sunday visits, running errands, going into town to sell produce in the market, or running away to visit friends and kin, Low Country slaves could journey fifteen miles or more in a single day. Not all were equally mobile, of course. Boatmen, carters, and artisans traveled the most, while women and children were far less likely to. With the sparse documentary record precluding the reconstruction of the ethnic makeup of individual plantations, doing so for entire neighborhoods is, to say the least, a bridge too far. However, an incomplete set of records for one neighborhood, one in which a large number of Hare captives eventually came to reside, suggests that the chances for the formation of enclaves of Mande speakers from Upper Guinea were quite good.
From The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina, by Sean M. Kelley. Copyright © 2016 The University of North Carolina Press.
Sean M. Kelley is senior lecturer in history at the University of Essex.
- On mortality among newly arrived Africans, see Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 445. For mortality on the plantations and during the 1760 smallpox epidemic, see McCandless, Slavery, Disease, and Suffering, 128–29, 213–24.↩
- For specific information on the mobility and mortality of the Hare purchasers, see table 6.↩
- http://slavevoyages.org/tast/assessment/estimates.faces?yearFrom=1751&yearTo=1775 (accessed June 4, 2015).↩
- For example, of the British vessels that purchased most of their captives on the “Windward Coast” between 1751 and 1776, and for which the specific ports of purchase are known, more than half bought their captives at Cape Mount and points north. Several of these “Windward Coast” vessels purchased their captives as far north as the Rio Pongo and Gambia. See Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Version 2, ed. Eltis and Halbert, http://slavevoyages.org/tast/database/search.faces?yearFrom=1751&yearTo=1775&mjbyptimp=60300&natinimp=7 (accessed June 11, 2012). See also Jones and Johnson, “Slaves from the Windward Coast.”↩
- Kaye, Joining Places, esp. at 4, 10. See also Walsh, From Calabar to Carter’s Grove.↩
- Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 524. See also Morgan, “Colonial South Carolina Runaways,” 78n59.↩