Where did the barrels come from?

Whilst researching something completely different I discovered that in 1673 Bideford town was so ‘filthy’ it came to the notice of the Privy Council in London. ‘This Court taking into consideration the great danger that the inhabitants of this town may be in, command that a certain number of Tobacco hogsheads or some other fit vessel without heads be provided for the convenience of the inhabitants. . . When the aforesaid are filled the scavenger of the town or some in his behalf shall sell or dispose of  the same’.

My immediate thought was, where did the tobacco barrels come from? I then remembered that Bideford was part of the third side of the slave trade triangle; tobacco came from plantations in the West Indies or the Americas and the barrels would have been packed by slaves.

In the 16th & 17th centuries merchants from Bristol and Liverpool sent ships laden with poor quality firearms, gunpowder, axes, alcohol, metal bowls, beads, mirrors, cotton cloth, etc, to trade with tribes around the African coast. Later the soft woollen cloth woven in Bideford was a popular item. These items, some known as ‘Brumagen Ware’, were to be bartered for the prisoners or political enemies of local chiefs. In 1699 James Barbot reported ‘King Bonny of Nigeria demands two copper rings for every slave!’ Eventually, to satisfy the slaver captains’ demands, peaceful villages were raided. By the mid 18th century British ships were transporting 50,000 slaves a year to the Americas.

So profitable was the trade,  that ships were specially built to accommodate as many as possible. Some had removable slatted decks on which the slaves would lie but also allow the maximum load of Brumagem Ware on the outward journey. Very soon it became a specialist trade, one captain  only shipped young girls because he could cram more into a given space; laying on their sides like spoons in a drawer. Ten per cent of the slaves would die en route, but with  poetic justice, twenty per cent of the crews died; they had no cure for tropical diseases.

One can begin to appreciate the horrific conditions aboard slave ships when one reads that they could be smelt ten miles downwind. After 1807 the Royal Navy began to intercept and set the slaves free but some recorded instances are almost too dreadful. After a long chase, a British frigate prepared to board a slaver but being dusk it was thought wise to delay the operation until the next morning. During the night cries were heard from the slaver but after boarding at first light, there were no slaves nor was there an anchor! Approximately three hundred poor souls had been manacled to the anchor chain and thrown overboard. Another instance was when a slaver captain became so concerned at the death rate of his cargo that he locked himself in his cabin to study his insurance policy. Having made sure that he would be fully compensated for the loss of his cargo he threw the remaining slaves overboard.

Those slaves that survived soon discovered that their problems were not over. After a hosing down they were sold to dealers, branded on the right shoulder and auctioned off to the various plantation owners. A red hot iron sticks to the flesh and produces an ugly and often illegible scar but it was discovered that silver could be heated to a sufficient degree and provide a legible brand because it did not stick to the flesh.

Slaves were put to work growing cotton, tobacco, sugar cane and their own food. In Brazil they were used in the mines. Discipline was rigorously enforced and photographs of whipped backs have to be seen to be believed. Female slaves were regularly abused and often raped. Some plantation owners believed in breeding their own ‘herd’ and many respectable gentlemen had black mistresses; George Washington for one.

In 1807 the British government declared the buying and transportation of slaves illegal –  but it was not against the law to own slaves until 1834. In 1807 West Indies slave children aged five and below were granted their freedom, but older ones were declared to be apprentices for a further six years. Celebrations were held on every plantation but many went without pay until it was declared to be against the law in 1838. The British government compensated the planters for their dreadful loss of freedom by granting them a total of £20,000,000.

Robin Sugar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.