The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were tumultuous times, as European nations vied with each other to conquer the world. In the iconic 1592 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheerhaerts, she is standing atop a globe with her feet resting on a map of England, dominating both land and sea. Even the great Atlantic Ocean, previously considered the impassable barrier to the unknown, flowed meekly by the hem of her dress. Elizabeth I understood the power of advertising and with this single image told an extraordinary story of entitlement and power.
The Strange Trinity
In the Atlantic itself, things were less clear. For the ships’ captains, a voyage was deemed a success if it turned a profit. The privations and potentially fatal encounters with competitors or foreign nationals counted for little with the investors. For the ordinary seamen of European origin, the newly emerging Atlantic world presented possibilities of adventure, wealth and freedom from the chafing strictures of home. For enslaved black mariners, while life on the open ocean did not erase the experience of slavery, it did sometimes offer them the means by which to negotiate improvements to their lot. It was a wild, often dangerous ride for everyone, but particularly so for the enslaved Bermudian sailors whose daily lives required them to maintain the unlikely balancing act of being mariner, merchant and slave.
Exploiting the Loophole
With Bermuda’s limited land resources, the island’s settlers had made an early decision. The Atlantic Ocean would be a gateway, not a barrier to its survival. The Bermuda sloop, legal and illegal trading and privateering were all part of this far-reaching decision. The enslaved Bermudian seaman became inextricably enmeshed in that template. The island was small, and with its limited arable land, not particularly suited to large-scale agriculture. Unlike their counterparts further south, enslaved Bermudian men had to cultivate the field of the ocean. It was not their choice, but they became major contributors to Bermuda’s maritime success. In 1719, a law was passed that curtailed the number of white seamen on a single ship. The law did not place any equivalent restriction on seamen of colour. Enslaved Bermudian seamen understood the subtext of this legislation—that there was a demand for their labour. There was a good reason for this. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, they had already made themselves virtually indispensable.
Sounding the Ocean
Bermuda’s enslaved seamen possessed a such range of skills that they added immense value to any Atlantic expedition. They were exceptional swimmers and free divers whom French-American writer Hector de Crevecoeur described as exhibiting “enough ability, coolness and audacity to attack sharks while swimming.” It was no surprise that they felt so at home on Bermuda sloops. Chances were that they or some family member had built them as, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, the local shipbuilding industry flourished in the hands of skilled slave labour. The deep connection between Bermuda’s slave population and the sea was also shown in the traditional technology that they brought to fishing, creating reservoirs or “crawls” for captured fish, which could be retrieved only when they were needed for the table. These crawls have roots in ancient African and Native American practice and impressed Europeans seeing them for the first time. Shakespeare mentions them in The Tempest when Caliban, the islander of the “still-vex’d Bermoothes,” withdraws the life-sustaining welcome that he first gave to the conqueror, Prospero: “No more dams I’ll make for fish.”
In addition, black seamen developed an unsurpassed knowledge of the waters around their island. Pilots such as James “Jemmy” Darrell, Jacob Pitcarn and Tom Bean sounded the ocean, measuring its depths armed only with their lead lines tied at regular intervals with strips of calico, serge and leather. Their expertise was crucial to the successful completion of the Hurd Survey in 1797. The resulting map of Bermuda, encircled by reefs and nestling in the crater of the extinct volcano, was a triumph that has perhaps been matched by high-tech imaging—but not bettered.
The local skills of the black mariners developed a more international flavour when wind filled the sails of the sloops and they headed out to sea. A new kind of being emerged, one worthy of respect, who was multi-lingual, numerate, literate and who acted as a supercargo. He was the representative of the ship’s owners on board the merchant ship, the one responsible for overseeing the entire cargo and its sale. The writer Hector de Crevecoeur notes, “Their ability as sailors and shipbuilders, their faithfulness as supercargoes, the punctuality with which they direct the business of their masters…is indeed an edifying sight.” The transformational experience of working at this level was a two-edged sword. It gave the mariners a sense of pride in what they could accomplish under the right conditions; but it was also a constant reminder of the world they lived in, in which their expectations could be thwarted at any moment.
Negro Bess and the Red Silk Petticoat
The DNA of Bermudians, black and white, seems to include a strong business acumen. The black mariners who sailed the Atlantic and Caribbean at their masters’ bidding also did business of their own. In her slave narrative The History of Mary Prince, she talks of her own commercial activities with mariners in Antigua: “When my master and mistress went from home…I took in washing and sold coffee and yams to the captains of ships…Sometimes I bought a hog cheap on board ship and sold it for double the money.”
In the Wild West of the Caribbean, black sailors were able to establish relationships with “wharf negroes” and enslaved mariners from other islands and, while not neglecting their duties to their ships’ owners, they engaged in independent trading ventures, especially with the turbulent island of Saint Domingue. They brought the fruits of this networking back to Bermuda, sometimes in the form of goods, sometimes in the form of news. Both of these caused unease among government officials in St. George’s. The incipient slave uprising in Saint Domingue sent shock waves throughout the whole slave-owning Atlantic world. White Bermudian merchant mariners were known to have traded with French plantation owners in Saint Domingue; they had plundered their goods but had also carried out at least one act of rescue as the planters fled the wrath of the revolution. The idea of Bermudian slaves in contact with slaves in full revolt must have been terrifying for Bermuda’s slave owners.
As well as the importation of notions of freedom, black Bermudian seamen brought back tangible results of their private enterprise. In the case of “Negro Bess” versus the Crown, Bess, the wife of an enslaved sailor, was tried for allegedly stealing shirts from her owner, Captain Anthony Atwood. Following an investigation, it was found that Bess and her husband had an impressive hoard of goods, proving her husband’s abilities as a successful Atlantic merchant. They ranged from silver spoons, gold buttons, a red silk petticoat, a silk jacket, damask table napkins, yards of lace and many shirts of Dutch linen and cotton. When it was established that not one of the shirts belonged to Captain Atwood, Bess was found not guilty. It is not known whether she ever wore the petticoat.
On the Wrong and Right Sides of the Law
Bermuda’s legislature took a dim view of what appeared to be the absence of control over the commercial exploits of their black sailors. There was push-back in 1779, with a law aimed at preventing “Negroes, Mulattoes and Mustees, bond and free” from “hawking and retailing Goods, Wares and Merchandize…illegally imported to the great Detriment and Prejudice of the fair Trader.” It is unclear how effective a deterrent this law was, especially in light of the widespread, unregulated smuggling in Bermuda as a whole. While both black and white Bermudians participated in the “second economy,” for the enslaved, the spheres and conditions of their operations were quite specific. Most transactions took place in the waterfront taverns that proliferated in the region. These were curiously democratic spaces frequented by the ragged people—soldiers, slaves, sailors, indentured servants and apprentices—all there with contraband, all there to make a deal. The long hand of Bermuda’s law did not extend to these disreputable but profitable watering holes.
On the other hand, Bermuda’s slave sailors were expected to defend the rights of their ships’ owners and often faced deadly violence at sea. In the War of Jenkins’ Ear and the Revolutionary War, enslaved seamen distinguished themselves as fierce fighters, discharging pistols and muskets and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with boarding pikes and cutlasses, much to the horror of slave-owners in other parts of British America. Once again, Bermuda’s brand of slavery seemed at odds with the established models.
For black seamen, the law was a constantly shifting entity. It forbade them from trading, required them to fight and, when their captains were accused of smuggling, the law prevented them from testifying. There could have been no doubt in the minds of enslaved seafarers that the law was not made for them.
Wages for Slaves
Slave wages: there can be no stranger concept. Slaves are human beings made into commodities, whose bodies exist solely to provide free labour for other human beings who claim to own them. For the owners to benefit from that labour, they had to ensure that the slaves had food and shelter. In her description of her life as a slave in the Turks Islands after she left Bermuda, Mary Prince writes, “We slept in a long shed, like the stalls used for cattle.” As for food, she adds that on Sundays, “Our master gave us each our allowance of raw Indian corn which we pounded in a mortar and boiled in water for our suppers.” As the trade in salt prospered, slave owners introduced salt fish into the slave diet and encouraged the consumption of breadfruit, the nutritious Tahitian fruit brought to the Caribbean specifically as slave food. In addition, the slaves were allocated plots of poor quality land where they grew the “ground provisions” of sweet potatoes, yams, dasheen, eddos and cassava to supplement their diet.
Slave food and slave wages had much in common. The fundamental truth was that the enslaved person owned nothing, neither food nor a pay packet. The problem for the owners was that in order for slaves to work, they had to eat. The minimal kind of food described by Mary Prince suggested that the death of a slave through malnutrition was not a major problem. That slave could be easily replaced. The importation of salt fish and breadfruit and the allocation of “grounds” for the enslaved to cultivate indicated a longer term view whose goal was to maintain a sustainable slave population. In order for the plantation to thrive and not be dependent on a ceaseless flow of newly enslaved Africans, the bondsmen and women had to be given access to better quality food. It dawned on at least some slave owners that a starving slave with nothing to lose was more likely to dream of insurrection than one who was well fed. As Bob Marley said, “A hungry man is a hangry man.”
The notion of “wages” for enslaved mariners was part of a similar thought process. Unlike a field hand on a Caribbean sugar estate, a highly skilled, enslaved Bermudian seaman would have been difficult to replace. He was a “jobbing slave” and had the expectation or at least the hope of being recompensed at the end of a successful voyage. The owners of trading and privateering sloops bore this in mind when the prizes were to be divvied up. The government treasury first took its share, and the rest belonged to the ship’s owner. Over the course of time, it became common practice for owners to “pay” their enslaved crew once their own profits were fully secured.
This unauthorized but pervasive practice served the owners’ interests. While the black seamen anticipated the journey’s end and its promise of payment, it was entirely up to the owner whether or not he paid. Nothing in law or custom required him to do so. Often he did, to create or consolidate a stable and compliant workforce; but sometimes he didn’t, if the profit margins were insufficient or if he felt the need to remind his crew of the absolute power he wielded. Wages for slaves acted as an incentive, if given, and a punishment, if withheld. Bermuda’s enslaved mariners had travelled enough to know about the extreme physical brutality meted out to their counterparts in places like Jamaica and Saint Domingue. But Bermuda’s slave system was no less corrosive, based as it was on psychological coercion, with the carrot and the stick held simultaneously over the heads of the enslaved.
It does not come as a surprise that the last and most significant slave plot, known as the Bermuda Conspiracy of 1761, involved the overheard words of a pilot named Peter, who allegedly vowed that “if any White body shou’d take any cloths” from him he would be avenged. It may be assumed that Peter’s life at sea had given him the sense that it was his right to be paid. In the absence of this payment—or in the appropriation of his “cloths”—he was ready to take action.
Part of the trade of Bermuda sloops was the transport of newly enslaved Africans between their initial ports of arrival in the Caribbean and their final destinations in the American colonies. In a period of about 30 years, for instance, Bermudian vessels delivered over 300 Africans to New York and New Jersey, while they shipped even more African captives between the Caribbean and the plantations of Virginia and South Carolina. At one level, the slaves were seen simply as cargo, but the fact that the sloops never carried more than two slaves at a time suggested that this cargo was more dangerous than a crate of explosives. When sloop owner Henry Laurens was giving instructions to his new captain about an impending voyage to Jamaica to purchase slaves, he warned, “Never put your Life in their power a moment. For a moment is sufficient to deprive you of it.” With the fresh wounds of their capture and their desire for escape, retribution and return, the “deepwater Africans” struck fear in the hearts of investors, ships’ owners and captains alike.
But how did the enslaved members of the crew feel about the human cargo whose black skins so closely resembled theirs? There is no definitive way of knowing, but it is more than likely that there was no single response to the situation. Perhaps there were some who were completely detached and for whom the delivery of the Africans was simply a job. For others, there might have been the additional burden of being associated with the African “savage” from whose image they were trying to flee. Still others may have felt an empathy for the plight of their charges, but not enough to establish a sense of common interest. Their empathy would not have been enough to risk the known entity of being a slave in Bermuda for some vague notion of solidarity. There is only one instance of a slave mutiny on a Bermuda vessel. In this uprising, when an African slave murdered the white captain, he was in turn cut down by two Bermudian slave sailors.
Sally Bassett’s Poison
The Bermuda Conspiracy of 1761 was preceded by a number of other slave plots dating as far back as 1656. These conspiracies were always stymied by traitors, with the ringleaders either executed or expelled from the island. More difficult to control were the poisoning plots that burgeoned between 1720 and 1730. Slave men and women had a sophisticated understanding of the properties of plants, to heal and destroy. Even if they did not identify with “deepwater Africans,” this African knowledge was part of their ancestral memory. They knew about substances like rats-bane, white toad and manchineel root and, once roused to seek a way out of servitude, they were well placed to administer the poisons to their masters in the intimacy of their homes. Herein lay the great fear of the white population—to be surrounded and served by bland and apparently foolish people who were quietly trying to kill them.
The rash of poisoning plots came to a head in 1730 when Sarah “Sally” Bassett was accused of trying to poison her owners, was tried and found guilty. An example was made of Sally Bassett and she was sentenced to death by fire. She was made to walk to the place of execution where she was burned at the stake. Although Bassett met her death that hot summer day, the poison that she left lived on.
It was not only Bermudians who were rattled by the poisoning plots. Every indication was that Bermuda’s trading status would suffer if the poisonings attempts did not cease. A petition signed by merchants trading to and from Bermuda was sent to King George II, entreating him to provide them with greater military protection against the island’s slave plotters and poisoners, who, if left unchecked, would “prove of the most fatal and dangerous consequences to the whole trade of the King’s Dominion in America.”
The Disposable Slave Mariner
John Graisberry was an 18-year-old slave sailor on Hezekiah Frith’s sloop, the Hezekiah, in 1797 when it was attacked by a Spanish vessel and taken to Havana, where all those aboard were arrested. Frith himself was captaining the ship and was able to obtain his own release and that of the white crew members. The black sailors remained in custody. On his return to Bermuda, Frith attempted but failed to secure the release of the black crew. Because they were slaves, they remained in irons for the next 22 years.
Graisberry alone found his way back to Bermuda after spending a further 25 years in hard labour. He was an old man then, and it was a miserable homecoming. The other black crew members had either died in Cuba or had escaped to America. Because of his 47 year absence, Bermuda had forgotten Graisberry too.
Ambrosia Bank and the Price of Freedom
The salvage of the Spanish vessel Concepción, wrecked on Ambrosia Bank, yielded the most spectacular body of treasure of any Bermudian expedition at any time, bestowing great wealth on American William Phipps, who originally found it, and the Bermudian captains, Adderley and Davis, who joined forces with Phipps. The discovery of the wreck was a singular event, with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of gold and silver and tens of thousands of pounds worth of money and plate delivered over first to Phipps, Adderley and Davis and later to the fleet of vessels that converged upon the Bank, like bees round a honey pot. Most of these were Bermudians, many of them enslaved. All profited, some handsomely.
Standing in sharp relief to this orgy of salvage, looting and personal enrichment was James Locke. It is thought that he had been a free diver in the initial salvage. With the monies that he earned, he invested in the future. He purchased his own freedom and that of his sister, Betty, and a boy named Jethro. Perhaps he was Betty’s son. Or perhaps he was his own.