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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · May 13, 2015

From Port to Plantation

WMQ 9 min read

In today’s post, WMQ author Nick Radburn writes about the process he used to trace the journeys of several enslaved Africans in the Americas using the papers of slave traders. Nick writes:

I ended my recent WMQ piece on slave trader John Tailyour with the stories of Simon, John and Taylor, three of the 17,295 Africans who Tailyour sold into Jamaican slavery. In my article, I was not able to describe how studying Tailyour enabled me to recover the histories of these men. I want to use this post to expand on that point, and describe how historians can use the records of slave traders like Tailyour to follow individual enslaved people from slave ships to plantations and, in doing so, broaden our understanding of how Africans experienced the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The task of tracing individual captive Africans during their enslavement has vexed historians because of the limitations of primary sources. The records of slave ships almost universally record captives only as numbers embarked in Africa, and disembarked in the Americas. Invoices of American slave sales also reduce people to numbers, albeit with a description of the captives’ age and gender, and the date on which they were sold. Lists of enslaved people on plantations detail the new names of purchased Africans, and sometimes their age, occupation, and “country”—the supposed region of Africa from which the slaves originated—but give little information on when and where the prisoners were bought. This documentary trail rarely contains sufficient information to follow Africans from the plantation, back to the ship on which they arrived, and then to the African coast, making it difficult to follow people through the entire process of their enslavement.

As I worked with Tailyour’s papers, I was excited to find that I could trace surprisingly large numbers of captives to slave ships by cross-referencing the papers of slave factors and American planters with a modified version of Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (TASTD). The TASTD provides data for every slave ship known to have arrived in Jamaica in the period of Tailyour’s career, but gives no information on the subsequent sale of the captives. I therefore downloaded the TASTD into a database program, and then added fields that detailed the sale of the enslaved Africans: the names of the factor to whom the slave ship was consigned; the date the ship arrived; an image of the slave sale advertisement; and any descriptive information from the advertisement. Using a wide variety of primary sources (principally newspapers and the papers of slave traders), I added data to approximately ninety percent of the voyages recorded in the TASTD that landed captives in Jamaica, c.1785-1796. Using my database, I recovered the history of Tailyour and his fellow slave factors, but also obtained information that is crucial to link plantation slaves like John, Simon and Taylor to the slave ships that had disembarked them in Jamaica.

Take, for example, the entry that Jamaican planter Nathaniel Phillips scribbled in his diary on January 9, 1786: “Bot of Alexander Lindo 20 P[rivilige] Men 4 d[itt]o Cargo.” Searching my database for Lindo in the “slave factor” field, and January 9, 1786, in the “sale opened” field—neither of which are in the published version of the TASTD—revealed that Phillips bought the captives from the Brooks, captained by Clement Noble. Phillips had thus bought the twenty-four men from the same voyage that the abolitionists depicted in their famous diagram, which showed hundreds of Africans packed into the vessel’s hold on its Middle Passage.

Phillips’ personal papers allows us to follow the Brooks’ captives after their sale. On January 12—after three days recuperation in Kingston—Phillips recorded in his diary that he sent the twenty-four African men to his Pleasant Hill plantation accompanied by Stafford and Quaw, the drivers for his estate, while he remained in town. The newly purchased Africans would have trudged thirty-five miles from Kingston to Pleasant Hill over hilly terrain and bad roads, a journey of at least two days. A 1789 inventory of the enslaved people on Pleasant Hill shows that Phillips assigned the men to his plantation’s field gang, where they were forced to the exhausting and sometimes deadly work of growing and processing sugar.

The same inventory gives some idea of the subsequent fates of the Africans: “Brooks,” a thirty-five year old man, who was no doubt named after the ship that had forcibly transported him and his shipmates to Jamaica, was noted to be “sickly” when the inventory was taken, but had been subsequently been crossed out, having died during his seasoning; “Noble,” who was likely named after the infamous captain of the Brooks, was also noted as being sickly, but seems to have recovered, as he was still toiling in the field gang in 1791. Many of Brook’s and Noble’s shipmates, all of whom were also assigned to the field gang, were described as “weakly,” “sickly,” or “low,” while others were noted simply as “dead,” giving some sense of the miseries of the three year “seasoning” process in Jamaica. By following Africans like Brooks and Noble from slave ships to plantations, we thus see that enslavement through the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a traumatic and several-year process of which the six to eight week Middle Passage was but a small part.

As this example shows—and I could provide many others—we can expand our vision of the slave trade beyond the Middle Passage by using the rich documentary record of American slavery in combination with the TASTD. One of the criticisms of the TASTD has been that it reduces captive Africans to statistics, and therefore ignores the terrible human story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Some have therefore urged us to resist the urge to quantify the trade, and direct our scholarly energies to uncovering the stories of people dragged into the slave trade. As I hope I have demonstrated, we can tell the human histories of many of the Africans who were enslaved through the trans-Atlantic slave trade by creatively using the papers of slave traders alongside the quantitative data provided by the TASTD.


Amazing article. Can you point me to the WMQ article and the findings of Simon, John and Taylor.
David Williams  •  February 05, 2018
I am researching a family that were slaves on the Omohundro Plantation in Weastmoreland County VA. Can you provide any information?
Rahamah Ami  •  August 08, 2015

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