Kwasi Konadu

Revolt on a Slaving Voyage across the Atlantic

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

Chief surgeon and merchant at the Danish headquarters (Christiansborg) on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), German botanist Paul Erdmann Isert (ca. 1756 – 89) arrived in November 1783 at a time when the Danish forts at Ada, Keta, and at Teshi were being built. Isert stayed on the Gold Coast for three years, leaving in October 1786 by way of a slave ship bound eventually for Copenhagen. After two days at sea, the Gold Coast captives on board revolted, and Isert was attacked and seriously injured, though he would recover two months later. The selection from his account describes this event. Isert reached home in Denmark in the summer of 1787, but the enslaved would never see their homeland again.

In the Caribbean, Isert explored the Danish islands (now the U.S. Virgin Islands), Guadeloupe and Martinique, and perhaps his experience of the revolt on board the slave ship led to his campaign against transatlantic slaving and the establishment of plantations in West Africa. Isert thought plantations on African soil that used paid laborers could be just as profitable as the ones in the Americas. In 1789, soon after reporting on the success of the plantation, Isert and his family were killed. The plantation scheme ultimately failed. 


It was on 7 October last year that I left Africa and boarded the ship “Christiansburg” which sailed that very evening. Picture the tumult in front of a ship of black slaves, a ship which when used in the King’s service would hold no more than 200 people, now holding more than 452 slaves, who have to be kept in check by 36 Europeans. Imagine the sight of such a multitude of miserable people—some who were by chance born to slave parents; some who were captured in war; some who were stolen and innocent of any crime; some who, for other casual reasons, were sold to the Europeans—all of them now about to be transported in heavy chains from their fatherland to another country which they do not know. Their future cannot possibly hold anything good in store for them when the Europeans use such violent means to secure them. In their own country they have themselves heard such dreadful tales of how the slaves are treated in Columbia [i.e. the Americas] that one is appalled when one hears them. I was once asked by a slave, in complete earnest, if the shoes I was wearing had been made of Black skin, since he had observed that they were the same colour as his skin. Others say that we eat the Blacks and make gunpowder of their bones. They cannot imagine that they will be used only for the cultivation of fields and other manual labor, since, in order to sustain themselves here, this kind of work requires so few hands and demands so little time that it would be absolutely superfluous to bring strangers into the land to do it. Furthermore, they give no credence to all the assurances from the Europeans that they are going to be taken to a beautiful country, and other similar cajolery. On the contrary, whenever the opportunity presents itself they take flight or kill themselves, since they fear death far less than slavery in West India. Indeed, all precautions must be taken to prevent their having the opportunity of committing suicide. For this reason on the French ships they are not even allowed a narrow strip of loincloth for fear they will hang themselves by it, which has in fact happened.

This prejudice, and the too strict treatment these unfortunates not infrequently are forced to suffer at the hands of barbaric captains, often results in a conspiracy among them. They conspire at night that, notwithstanding their chains, they will kill the Europeans whom they so greatly outnumber and let the ship drift in to land. Usually this kind of mutiny occurs either while the ship is in the roadstead or during the first day, when the ship is sailing away from the coast. During my stay on the Guinea Coast I have heard of a number of sad examples. In the year 1785 the slaves on a Dutch ship revolted on the very day that the ship was to sail to West India. The Europeans were overpowered and beaten to death, except for a young cabin-boy who had climbed to the top of the main mast. Before the Whites had been completely overpowered, they had shot off several alarm signals which had been heard on land, and a number of canoes manned with armed, free Blacks had been sent out to help. As soon as these approached the ship and the rebellious slaves saw that they had to become the losers, they decided to do away with themselves. With this in mind, one of them ran with a firebrand to the powder magazine and blew it up. The canoes did not fish up more than some thirty Blacks, and the cabin boy as well. The rest, more than 500 in number[s], fell victim to the waves.

Less lucky were the Blacks on an English ship, who also rebelled on the Gold Coast that same year. They had killed all the Europeans, cut the anchor rope, and let the ship drift to land. When it reached the breakers, all the Blacks jumped overboard and swam to shore. But, to their great sorrow, the free Blacks standing along the shore fished them all up and sold them once again to the Europeans. The ship and its cargo were good spoils for the Blacks at the point where it drifted into land.

I report these two examples only from hearsay, but now a word about an uprising of slaves on a ship on which I found myself. A slave ship is equipped amidships with a strong, high, [transverse] wooden partition called the bulwark whose side facing forward must be extremely smooth, without any open grooves in which the slaves might get a fingerhold. On top of this wall there are as many small cannons and guns as there is room for, and these are kept loaded at all times and are shot off every evening in order to keep the slaves in a state of fear. There is always a man on watch near these, who must pay meticulous attention to the movements of the Blacks. In the stern section on the other side of the bulwark, all the women and children are kept, while the men are kept on the forward side of the bulwark where they can neither see the women nor join them. The men are alway[s] chained together, hand and foot, in pairs. Moreover, along the row in which they sit on the deck, a strong chain is drawn between their feet so that they cannot stand up without permission, nor can they move from the spot, except when they come up on deck in the mornings and are locked in the hold in the evenings. But, since their number is so great, they can only enjoy this exercise every second day, having on the other days to stay below, where they are packed together like herrings.

It was on the second day of our sailing, when most of the Krepees [Ewe] were on deck, that they started to rebel. At that moment I found myself alone among the Blacks, and since I understand the language of the Akras [Gã] I was exchanging pleasantries with some of them and with some Dunkos [peoples from present-day northern Ghana] (a most well-mannered nation). Because there is always a great tumult with such a number of people, I noticed that it had suddenly become extremely quiet. Since most of the crew were below, eating, I decided to go to the bow of the ship to see if everyone was at his post, in case the Blacks had some kind of rebellion in mind. When I had reached about mid-ships the door of the bulwark was opened, because the first mate intended to come out to join me. But at that same moment there arose from all the male slaves a shriek of the most horrifying tone that one can imagine. It resembled the one I had heard, at an earlier time, when they were going to attack in battle. Hearing this cry, all the men, who were usually seated, stood up. Some of them hit me on the head with the hand-irons with which they were chained together, so that I immediately fell to the deck. But since they were also chained at the feet I was able to crawl away from them, and I reached the bulwark door. Here I now battered in vain, because, when the crew tried to let me in, such a number of Blacks seized the door that the crew had great difficulty in closing it. Furthermore, it is established policy that it is better to let a European be killed than to allow the Blacks to gain control of that door, since they could then make their way to the stern of the ship, which is full of weapons hanging there. It would then be a simple task for them to become masters of the ship. Meanwhile I was not left idle at the door for long, but was immediately forced to seek the deck as before. When the Europeans in the stern of the ship realized what was happening on the other side, they tried to keep the bulwark free from attack, by stabbing with bayonets from above. In order to be able to kill me more easily, the slaves pulled me by the foot to the bow of the ship, where one of them, using a razor he had seized from another who was in the process of shaving him when the rebellion began, made a slash across my forehead and temple, through my ear to deep down as far as my neck. But while he was working on my neck, not being able immediately to achieve his purpose due to the thick silk scarf I was wearing, I was delivered by a shot from the bulwark which went through his chest. This made him fall backwards and the other slaves who were holding me released me. Thus I was free again. More musket shots were fired, and there was also firing from two three-pound cannons loaded with grape-shot, so that the Blacks withdrew as far as possible towards the bow to avoid the shots. As a result, the door of the bulwark was left free and I had just enough strength to crawl to it, leaving a trail of blood marking my path, since my right temple artery had been severed. The mate, too, had a number of wounds, but not as serious as mine, and since he was a better sailor than I was, he had saved himself by leaving the deck through the cannon port and then climbing up again on the other side of the bulwark. From the bulwark an attempt was now made, using either kindness or force, to bring the Blacks to their quarters below. Some of them had, in the meanwhile, hammered off their irons, but when prodded by guns, those who had not been party to the conspiracy went to their quarters without any further resistance. The others, however, when they saw that they could not succeed all sprang overboard into the sea. Some boys from the same nation as the rebels but lacking the courage to take such a drastic step were deliberately pushed over by the older ones. The slaves below deck were secured, and with great haste small boats were launched. As many slaves as possible were fished up, some living, some dead. It was astounding how some pairs, although they each had only one hand and one foot free (because they were chained together by the other hand and foot), were very adept at staying above water. Some were stubborn even in the face of death, defiantly casting away the rope which had been thrown around their bodies from the ship in order to draw them up, and diving under with force. Among the others there was a pair who had a difference of opinion, the one demanding that he be saved, the other, on the contrary, so desirous of drowning that he pulled the first one under water with him, with great force. The first one cried piteously and was pulled up with his comrade who, however, had already given up the ghost.

The uprising, before it could be completely quelled, lasted for two hours. Upon counting our men, we found that we had lost 34 Blacks in the action, all of whom had drowned. None of the Europeans, however, had died, but two, as mentioned before, had been wounded.

As for me, I was only in a very moderate condition. Since I had lost so much blood my strength ebbed away so quickly that I could not even bandage myself, but could only wrap some handkerchiefs around my head to try, if possible, to prevent further loss of blood. Because of this effort the weakness got the upper hand and I fell full length to the deck in a faint, from which I recovered only after a few hours. By the Captain’s orders I had been taken immediately to a proper bed and my head moistened with warm wine. When I awoke the whole episode seemed to me to have happened in a dream. I was surprised to find where I was lying and to see the Black women who were sitting around me, crying tears of sympathy. I tried to get up but then I received the message. My head, which was as heavy as a hundredweight, partly because of the fomentation, partly because of the blood seeping through which had soaked all the cloths, reminded me of the cause. Due to the many blows from hand-irons, some of which had fractured my skull, my head was violently inflamed, so that when I awoke after 24 hours the wounds gaped to a width of two fingers, and since my temple muscle was completely severed I could not get my teeth apart but was forced to live on purely fluid nourishment. As serious as this condition seemed at first, still I recovered from it, happily enough, so that on the day we arrived in West India the wounds were healed, a process which had taken precisely two months.

Are you asking why the Blacks were so inflamed precisely against me since in those few days I could not have done them any harm? I found out later that since I boarded the ship so late they had concluded that I was the owner of all the slaves, and that it would be best to send me into the other world first, after which the Europeans, like mercenaries, would surrender all the sooner. After this, however, they treated me very well during the rest of the voyage, so that when I went down to them in the morning they received me with loud applause, which to the unpolished nations is as much a sign of approval as it is in our theatres.

One of the ringleaders of the conspiracy was a Black who had already been in West India and in England, and had come back to the Coast from there—I know not why—as boatswain in the service of our establishment. He had fallen deeply into debt, so in order to get rid of him they had sent him on our ship to West India. This villain had persuaded the Krepees that they should beat the Whites to death, then he would bring the ship back to land, since they were fairly far out to sea. Moreover he told them much of both truth and falsehood about West India: that it is a land of torment where they would be given little to eat but much work and many beatings. This was indeed a dangerous man, and it was certainly necessary, after the uprising, to isolate him completely from the others. Therefore he was given residence in the pigsty where, neither by his tongue nor any other parts of his body, could he be dangerous any longer.

Had it not been for that unhappy uprising, we would have made a very favorable journey, since we had no more than seven dead on the crossing, which, for such a great multitude of people, and in such conditions, is a very small number. There are examples of ships having brought to the West Indies not more than half of the slaves they had bought on the African coast. The length of the journey and especially the treatment of the Blacks are to a great extent the factors which give rise to the high mortality so common on slave ships. On this ship the greatest care was taken to maintain cleanliness, and the slaves had to exercise on deck every second day, as well as they could in the space they had. They were provided with as much fresh air as possible by means of ventilators which were, admittedly, not of the best sort—being made only of sacks of sailcloth whose upper ends were positioned above deck with open wings to catch the wind, and whose lower ends were placed below deck in the hold. In the evenings, before the slaves were allowed to go down again, all the chambers were well fumigated with dampened gunpowder. Their food consisted for the most part of products from their own land, such as maize, rice and yams. They seemed to find our pearl barley very tasty. On the other hand, the so-called “horse beans” which are the usual provision on slave ships were not at all to their taste. We were lucky enough to catch great numbers of dorado [dolphinfish or mahi-mahi] every day, so that not only was our entire ship’s company well provided, but a considerable amount was dried for future use. Some of these fish weigh 150 pounds. When they are fully grown, they are called halbe Kurte. It is common knowledge that this variety is more numerous the closer one is to the equator.

Water, on the other hand, is a very precious item. A man is given not more than three quarters of a kanne, or 24 ounces, daily. This is very little considering that according to medical dietary rules one’s intake should be four pounds of fluid every 24 hours, and that here in this torrid area it is so much more imperative to pay attention to this. The slaves’ food is always cooked dry, so they cannot relieve their thirst in this way. Therefore it is not strange that one hears of the high mortality which often occurs on slave ships. On the other hand, it is incomprehensible when one hears of the great number of sailors who die on warships after a short cruise. They have been provided with all the necessities in abundance; their number does not begin to approach the number on a slave ship; their spirit is not tormented with fears of the future, as are the slaves. Would not the cause of the high mortality, then, lie in incidental things? How much would it not be to the benefit of mankind to find the causes and prevent them! Then one would not see the unwillingness and the desertion which are now so usual when the sailor has been drafted into military service!

A few days after our arrival here the fate of our Blacks was decided. They had been brought ashore, adorned according to the best of their country’s custom, allowed great freedom of movement, treated with the delicacies of their own land, so that they were convinced that they had come to a paradise. But appearances were deceptive. The day of their sale had come. They were arranged in rank and file and none of the buyers was allowed to see them on that day until the predetermined moment. Then the door was opened. An army of buyers stormed in and like madmen grabbed the particular Black men and women they had decided upon the day before when the Blacks had been exhibited for inspection, and they took them to the seller to agree on a price. Since the entire business was conducted in such a frenzy that I myself soon became alarmed, one can easily imagine what the Blacks’ reaction must have been. Before four hours had passed most of them had been sold. The rest, numbering 48, were for the most part frail or ageing Blacks who were sold wholesale the next day, through the bank, for 200 thalers apiece.[1] The sum for all the Blacks sold came to 97,000 and a couple of hundred thalers.


Sources: Paul Erdmann Isert, Reise nach Guinea und den Caribäischen Inseln in Columbien: in Briefen an seine Freunde beschrieben (Copenhagen: Gedrukt bey J. F. Morthorst, 1788), 305-321; see also Selena Axelrod Winsnes, trans. and ed., Letters on West Africa and the Slave Trade: Paul Erdmann Isert's Journey to Guinea and the Caribbean Islands in Columbia (1788) (London: British Academy, 1992), 175-181.

[1] thaler – a German silver coin used all throughout Europe into the late nineteenth century