Some insights into the lives of the crew onboard the slave ship Hannibal

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A 17th Century British ship (not the Hannibal)

An often overlooked but essential element of a slave ship, such as the Hannibal, was the requirement for a large crew in comparison to the number of sailors usually required to man ordinary merchant shipping. Sailors who were to work on slavers would be recruited by any means possible. For example, some men were offered the option by a magistrate or judge of going to prison, transportation, or work as crew on a slave ship. John Newton, author of The Journal of a Slave Trader, described his crew as: ‘[The] refuse and dregs of the Nation. The prisons and glass houses furnish us with large quotas and boys impatient of their parents and masters, or already ruined by some untimely vice and for the most part devoid of all good principles.’[1] Some sailors who ended up as crewing a slave ship may have originally been victims of the press-gangs, being forced to serve in the navy and then deserting their ship to be hired on by slavers.

The slave ship Hannibal of 450 tons and 36 guns set sail from London on 5 September 1693 with a large compliment of 70 crew. At least two sailors deserted the ship during the first days of sailing, while laying over during bad weather at the Downs, off the east Kent coast, before the ship set sail on a foggy evening for the Atlantic Ocean. When a sailor went missing or died it was traditional practice to sell their belongings under the mast. The proceeds raised would be given to the sailors’ families on return to the home port. Captain Thomas Phillips, the commander of the Hannibal, records in his journal of the selling off of dead or missing sailors belongings under the main mast.

Working on a ship was a dangerous occupation and accidents were frequent. Six weeks after leaving London on 23 November 1693 the Hannibal was involved in a six hour sea battle with the French man-of-war the Louis. As a consequence, five crew were killed outright, with 32 others being injured and some probably dying shortly afterwards from their wounds. Following the battle and during the course of the voyage the author has calculated that a further 36 men were to perish from disease before the ship returned home to London in 1695. Earlier in the voyage on the night of a storm that occurred on 1 November sailor John Southern was killed when he fell from the yardarm while he was fixing the sails. Phillips blamed the death on the sailor, ‘being careless of himself, fell off the yard-arm and was drowned.’ It is calculated that at least three further crew deserted while the ship was moored at Barbados during 1694. As far as it is possible to ascertain from Phillips’s written account the death numbers of crew on the Hannibal amounted to 42, or 60% of her original crew. The ship sailed back to England with her captain along with probably only 26 surviving crew. Researchers agree that the average loss of crew on a slaving voyage stood at about 23% during the late seventeenth century, incidentally a similar mortality percentage rate average as slaves dying on a Guineaman slave ship at this time.

Another plight for the crew was to be put on short rations due a shortage of food and water supplies. Onboard the Hannibal arguments broke out between Phillips and his officers after leaving the African coast, probably due to the fact that Phillips had not adequately loaded sufficient stores to feed both his men and captives. The crew were put on short rations for a month after they left St Thomas Island on 25 August 1694 and they complained on returning to England of the great “harshness” they had been subjected to while on the voyage under Phillips.[2]

Sailors were fully aware that their officers were sometimes brutal men, not just towards the enslaved African cargo but their ruthlessness could be directed towards the crew. An insight into the extreme harshness that some crew experienced can be found in the journal of Alexander Falconbridge who was a ships’ surgeon. Nearly a hundred years after the Hannibal sailed, and being on board the Alexander slave ship, Falconbridge wrote about Captain James McTaggart’s treatment of his crew. The 273 ton ship was constructed in Bristol during 1785. McTaggart as captain was part owner along with seven other merchants. The ship departed from Bristol on 28 April 1785 to Bonny, West Africa, departing the African coast on 15 September and arriving in Grenada on 14 November 1785, to sell her enslaved cargo. She finally arrived back in Bristol on 10 February 1786. The voyage took 200 days. The ship carried 49 crew, with 33 men still alive when departing Grenada. Of the 335 enslaved Africans onboard only 307 disembarked on arrival at Grenada. During the voyage only three of the crew escaped being flogged out of a complement of 49. One man, after being flogged every day in desperation decided to jump overboard. He was saved by a passing native canoe and when asked once back on board his ship if he had not feared being eaten by sharks, he replied ‘expected to be, but I preferred that to life on this ship’. McTaggart then struck the man’s head with a tub of water left for the women slaves to wash their hands. ‘If you want drowning, I’ll drown you myself!’[3]

Phillips gives no mention of floggings in his journal of either the enslaved or crew on the Hannibal, however this is not to say these punishments were not carried out. Phillips though does mention in one passage in his journal that ‘having chastised several of them [sailors]’, but what Phillips meant by ‘chastised’ is not made clear. On the other hand Phillips openly admitted that he enthusiastically sanctioned use of the cat-of-nine-tails on his enslaved cargo, thereby establishing that he endorsed cruel punishments onboard his ship.

We only have one account in Phillips’s journal of a punishment ordered to be carried out on a sailor known by the name of William Lord. Phillips records in his journal during November 1694 that after the ship had left the island of St. Thomas, off the west African coast, and now bound for Barbados, that many of his crew went down sick. This he blamed on the crew purchasing black rum while on shore leave. ‘…of which they drank in punch to great excess, and which it was not in my power to hinder, having chastised several of them, and slung over-board what rum and sugar I could find’. As punishment he ordered William Lord, who he blamed for the outbreak of sickness, and for being drunk and attacking the boatswain, to be put in irons and held on the poop deck with no shade ’but the heavens’ for the duration of the sailing to Barbados which would have taken about 70 days. ‘For his being the promoter of their unseasonable carousing bouts, and going in one of his drunken fits with his knife to kill the boatswain in his bed, and committing other enormities’. How Lord escaped dying of exposure can only be explained by the probability that some of his fellow sailors looked after him. To put a man in irons and open to the elements while crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the duration of the middle passage would surely have been a death sentence. It goes without saying that Lord deserted as soon as the Hannibal arrived in Barbados. Phillips writes that he was extremely annoyed with Lord as he had intended to hand him over to the navy for further punishment writing that the navy ‘…knew how to handle such refractory sparks.’

Punishments for crew who carried out crimes onboard ship, or deserted ship, were very harsh for ordinary seamen. There are examples of punishments to be found among reports of courts martial held on board the Vanguard. At Rochester on 8 September 1694 George Buck was accused of cutting a cable and the main gear and durrick rope of a smack belonging to the Romney. He was found guilty and was sentenced to be taken from ship to ship at the Nore, with a halter around his neck and at each ship’s company his crime read out with the beat of the drum. Then he was to receive seven lashes on his naked back with the cat-of-nine-tails. James Hulson at Hayes was accused of desertion from the Drake, by running away in a Waterman’s ferry and taken on board the Blackman frigate merchant ship, that was outward bound. The court found him guilty, and he was sentenced to be hanged.[4]

As crew on slave ships became sick, injured, and died, the fear of a slave insurrection grew among the surviving sailors especially before departing for the middle passage. Slave uprisings were more frequent while the shoreline of Africa was in sight. This was also the time during the voyage that many sailors became ill with tropical diseases. There was a fear that if the enslaved African captives realised that crew numbers were decreasing, they would seize on this opportunity and rise-up to take over the ship and gain freedom. Mariner Samuel Robinson wrote this first-hand experience while working onboard the slaver Lady Nelson in 1800:

[We conceal] ye death of ye Sailors from ye Negros by throwing them overboard in ye night, less it might give them a temptation to rise upon us, seeing us so much weaken by ye death of 8, & most of ye rest sick but myself, we now being but 12 in all, that were left.[5]

As a consequence of high crew mortality rates slave ships would sometimes not have enough surviving crew to safely sail a ship back to England. With a shortage of sailors, men were by some reports able to demand £30 in wages to work the six week passage back to England, and not unsurprisingly they demanded that they be discharged at the first port in England that the ship put into. Phillips wrote ‘that an ordinary fellow would demand thirty pounds pay for the voyage thence to England’. If the sum of £30 that Phillips records was correct this has a comparable income value of £73,000 or RPI value £4,660 in 2020. Whether any ordinary sailors were ever paid this sum or near to it is not known. Captain Thomas Sherman, commander of the English man-of-war the Tyger, had been posted in the West Indies for two years. He told Phillips that he had lost 600 men to sickness during that time and although he currently had 220 men this was only due to acquiring pressed sailors from visiting merchant ships to replace his men that were still dying daily. The unrelenting impressment of men by the navy also accounts for why so many merchant ships were short of crew at this time in the West Indies. Owners of merchant ships frequently protested to Parliament and the King about the dangerous predicament their vessels were being placed in.

Phillips wrote that he had overheard Captain Sinclair, commander of the Leere frigate, offering to pay captain Thomas Sherman, commander of naval ship Tyger.

..under whose convoy he was to come home, the sum of one hundred pounds down presently, upon condition he would lend him ten of the worst men he had to help to sail his ship home, and likewise pay the men what wages they should demand; which captain Sherman absolutely refused upon any terms whatsoever.

Despite the above the RAC validated a policy of maintaining crew costs at the lowest possible rate to increase profits despite the fact that crewing a slave ship was labour intensive. For example, in the case of the Hannibal over 700 enslaved Africans were forcibly boarded on the west African coast. The people had to be fed, hydrated, and exercised twice each day which required huge resources to keep them alive. There was also, of which Phillips was warned about in his orders, the constant fear of the enslaved captives rising up to escape, requiring them to be constantly guarded day and night, with crew manning guns positioned on the decks. However, once the enslaved had disembarked at the destination port and sold, fewer men were needed onboard because they were no longer required to act as guards. To lower wage costs it was not unknown to discharge ‘surplus’ crew at the earliest possible opportunity before returning to England because sailors were paid at the end of the voyage. Robin Pearson writes that even though crew faced a high mortality rate the muster rolls show that it was still commonplace for captains to forcibly discharge a few crew in the colonies, thereby retaining a skeleton crew to sail the ship home and saving on sailors’ monthly salaries.[6]

However, it must be pointed out that Phillips was already in a weak and precarious position by the time he was sailing the middle passage, having lost now about a quarter of his crew. He was therefore completely reliant on his remaining men, and most importantly their co-operation, to sail the ship and her cargo safely to Barbados. Crew mutinies were on the rise at this time.

The surviving crew of the Hannibal disembarked at Spithead, Portsmouth, at the end of their nightmare voyage during June 1695. There they complained to the Royal African Company agent that they had not been paid. An officer who had been sent down to Spithead to tow the now damaged ship into port sent a request to London for payment owed to the crew, and also requested an extra allowance to be added in compensation. Captain John Beverley at Spithead wrote that ‘the men are now returned, and complain they had a harsh voyage and were on short allowance for a month.’ He went on to request that Mr. Brandon, the agent at Portsmouth, be ordered to pay these men an extra allowance.[7]

Our only insight into the lives of some of the crew when onboard and on shore can be found in their wills, some of which have survived. Many of the surviving wills were made by the crew on their death beds. For example, William Gordon, the ship’s surgeon lived in London and had a wife named Mary. As recorded in the journal Gordon died of plague while in Barbados with his will being written on 20 December 1694. He stated that he desired ‘to be buried in the ground in a decent manner.[8] (as opposed to being thrown overboard). Phillips was one of the executors that Gordon had put his trust in to carry out his burial wishes. Gordon’s first mate George Hisrosf(?) was gifted a Guiney ring that he would receive on his return to England.

Sailor William Carter made his will on or about the day of departing England on 9 September 1693. He resided in St Martins-in-the-Field, London and left his estate to his wife Mary Carter.[9]

David Lammer, who was from Sandstrast, Rotterdam, Holland, declared in his will that he was currently a mariner residing in London. His will was written before departing London on 20 August 1693 and states ‘I David Lammer at present a mariner onboard ship Hannibal…bound out on a voyage to Guinea and onto the West Indies. Considering the shortness of life, and the great danger I may be exposed to’. He left any wages earned and all his worldly goods to his mother living in Rotterdam.[10]

William Walker, made a will on his death bed while he lay in crew quarters while riding at anchor in the Bay of Carlise, Barbados. He left £10 to his mother Dorothy Walker ‘to buy a mourning suit’ from his remaining wages owed after payment of his debts. He also gifted Joseph Thompson 30 shillings per week ‘as satisfaction for his diligent care over me while residing in his house [in Barbados] as agreed’. He describes another sailor, John Prichard, as ’my loving shipmate’, to whom he left all his clothing and the sum of £4. Two other men, who are named as witnesses, and were probably fellow crew members, are named as Andrew Flemming and Stephen Elliot.[11]

Thomas Mead was to die while at sea. On his death bed he made his will during September 1694 during the early part of the middle passage after departing St Thomas island, probably suffering with the dysentery that was sweeping through the ship at this time. He left behind a wife named Elizabeth Mead living in London. A full list of names of known sailors who sailed on the Hannibal can be found in the author’s forthcoming book, The Journal of Captain Thomas Phillips of Brecon, the Slave Ship Hannibal, and all who Sailed on Her (1693-1695).

Mark Steeds writes about crew conditions and mortality rates in his pamphlet ‘Cry Freedom Cry Seven Stars’ where he recounts how abolitionist Thomas Clarkson recorded his observations of crew conditions in the Port of Bristol during 1787. Steeds writes:

…just like their counterparts in the Navy, slave ship owners used any means available to recruit sailors aboard their vessels. Getting their victims blind drunk, in debt or by just cracking them over the head, was all fair game to these ruthless individuals…of 940 men who served on Bristol slave ships in 1786, 239 deserted and 216 died at sea.[12]

In other words only just over a half of the crew returned to their home port, which also meant that only half of the expected wages were to be paid out. Clarkson’s observational research is supported by the records of John Newton who wrote that crew were victims of an unjust system to recruit men for the navy.

Life onboard a slave ship for the crew was dangerous, unhealthy, and precarious, offering only a threatening environment in which to live and work. To be any sailor employed on a slave ship was an occupation that most did not readily choose, with many recruits recognising that they probably only had a 50 percent chance of arriving home.[13] It is believed from the reading of wills that the majority of those ordinary sailors who had survived a first voyage did not sign up again to serve on slave ships. The exceptions being those of the lower ranks whose fathers were merchants, or who were apprenticed to become officers such as captain Thomas Phillips had been. But, for the officers and captains who survived, most would go on to undertake future ventures in the slave trade because they were financially well rewarded for a successful and profitable voyage.

[1] Martain, Bernard. and Spurrell, Mark. (Eds). The Journal of a Slaver Trader. John Newton. 1750-1754. London: Epworth Press. 1962.

[2] Letter detailing Hannibal crew discontent and failure to be paid. ADM 106/428/398. Folio 398

[3] Mannix, Daniel P. and Cowley, Malcom. Black Cargoes. p.144

[4] TNA. ADM 106/472/47 Folio 47. 8 Sept. 1694.

[5] In Rediker, Marcus. Voyage to Guinea, Antego, Bay of Campeachy, Cuba, Barbadoes. &c. (1714-1723). pp.12-13. And see Robinson, Samuel. The Sailor Boy’s Experience aboard a Slaveship. G.C. Book Publishers. 1996. p.92.

[6] Pearson, Robin and Richardson, David. Insuring the Transatlantic Slave trade. Journal of Economic History. 79(2). pp.417-446. 2019.

[7] ADM 106/428/398. Folio 398

[8] TNA PROB 11/427/50

[9] TNA PROB 11/426/337

[10] TNA PROB. 11/427/32

[11] TNA PROB 11/426/345

[12] Steeds, Mark. Cry Freedom, Cry Seven Stars. Thomas Clarkson In Bristol, 1787. Bristol Radical Pamphleteer #1. 2012. pp.10-11

[13] Based on extracts in sailors wills.

Journal extracts taken from: Phillips, Thomas. A Journal of a Voyage made in the Hannibal of London, Ann. 1693, 1694, From England to Cape Monseradoe, in Africa, and thence along the Coast of Guiney to Whidaw, the Island of St. Thomas, and so forward to Barbadoes. With a Cursory Account of the Country, the People, their Manners, Forts, Trade, etc. within a Collection of Voyages and Travels. Churchill. 1732. Vol.VI.

By Rosemary L. Caldicott


  1. An interesting and informative account of conditions for crews on slave ships. What a brutal set up, with unspeakable horror below decks and bullying authority above. Makes me realise you could be an unwilling crew member, in some cases, and still be compelled to carry out your dreadful role.

    • Steven, my understanding is that flogging has never been removed as a punishment in the Royal Navy. Brutal punishment has been suspended since 1879 in the navy. In the army flogging was abolished in 1881 after a long political campaign that argued it was inhuman and discouraged recruiting.(Although the death sentence was carried out on soldiers during WWl). Incidentally whipping as a punishment for females was abolished in Britain in 1821; in state schools beatings were outlawed in 1987, and in private schools as late as 1998. It is also worth mentioning that at the time of the Hannibal’s voyage whipping was a common punishment handed out by magistrates, and usually carried out in public at the whipping-post. Reviewing the court records makes for very grim reading.

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