Thomas Clarkson.

An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African Translated from a Latin Dissertation, Which Was Honoured with the First Prize in the University of Cambridge, for th online

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tyrants, after the destruction of a village. In short, I am firmly of
opinion, that crimes and war together do not furnish one slave in an
hundred of the numbers introduced into the European colonies. Of
consequence the trade itself, were it possible to suppose convicts or
prisoners of war to be justly sentenced to servitude, is accountable for
ninety-nine in every hundred slaves, whom it supplies. It an insult to
the publick, to attempt to palliate the method of procuring them."]

[Footnote 049: The writer of the letter of which this is a faithful
extract, and who was known to the author of the present Essay, was a
long time on the African coast. He had once the misfortune to be
shipwrecked there, and to be taken by the natives, who conveyed him and
his companions a considerable way up into the country. The hardships
which he underwent in the march, his treatment during his captivity, the
scenes to which he was witness, while he resided among the inland
Africans, as well as while in the African trade, gave occasion to a
series of very interesting letters. These letters were sent to the
author of the present Essay, with liberty to make what use of them he
chose, by the gentleman to whom they were written.]

[Footnote 050: Were this not the case, the government of a country could
have no right to take cognizance of crimes, and punish them, but every
individual, if injured, would have a right to punish the aggressor with
his own hand, which is contrary to the notions of all civilized men,
whether among the ancients or the moderns.]

[Footnote 051: This same notion is entertained even by the African
princes, who do not permit the person injured to revenge his injury, or
to receive the convict as his slave. But if the very person who has been
_injured_, does not possess him, much less ought any other person

[Footnote 052: There are instances on the African continent, of
_parents_ selling their _children_. As the slaves of this
description are so few, and are so irregularly obtained, we did not
think it worth our while to consider them as forming an order; and, as
God never gave the parent a power over his child to make him
_miserable_, we trust that any farther mention of them will be

[Footnote 053: Abbè Raynal, Hist. Phil. vol. 4. P. 154.]

* * * * *


It remains only now to examine by what arguments those, who
_receive_ or _purchase_ their fellow-creatures into slavery,
defend the _commerce_. Their first plea is, "that they receive
those with propriety, who are convicted of crimes, because they are
delivered into their hands by _their own magistrates_." But what is
this to you _receivers_? Have the unfortunate _convicts_ been
guilty of injury to _you_? Have they broken _your_ treaties?
Have they plundered _your_ ships? Have they carried _your_
wives and children into slavery, that _you_ should thus retaliate?
Have they offended _you_ even by word or gesture?

But if the African convicts are innocent with respect to you; if you
have not even the shadow of a claim upon their persons; by what right do
you receive them? "By the laws of the Africans," you will say; "by which
it is positively allowed." - But can _laws_ alter the nature of
vice? They may give it a sanction perhaps: it will still be immutably
the same, and, though dressed in the outward habiliments of
_honour_, will still be _intrinsically base_.

But alas! you do not only attempt to defend yourselves by these
arguments, but even dare to give your actions the appearance of lenity,
and assume _merit_ from your _baseness_! and how first ought
you particularly to blush, when you assert, "that prisoners of war are
only purchased from the hands of their conquerors, _to deliver them
from death_." Ridiculous defence! can the most credulous believe it?
You entice the Africans to war; you foment their quarrels; you supply
them with arms and ammunition, and all - from the _motives of
benevolence_. Does a man set fire to an house, for the purpose of
rescuing the inhabitants from the flames? But if they are only
purchased, to _deliver them from death_; why, when they are
delivered into your hands, as protectors, do you torture them with
hunger? Why do you kill them with fatigue? Why does the whip deform
their bodies, or the knife their limbs? Why do you sentence them to
death? to a death, infinitely more excruciating than that from which you
so kindly saved them? What answer do you make to this? for if you had
not humanely preserved them from the hands of their conquerors, a quick
death perhaps, and that in the space of a moment, had freed them from
their pain: but on account of your _favour_ and _benevolence_,
it is known, that they have lingered years in pain and agony, and have
been sentenced, at last, to a dreadful death for the most insignificant

Neither can we allow the other argument to be true, on which you found
your merit; "that you take them from their country for their own
convenience; because Africa, scorched with incessant heat, and subject
to the most violent rains and tempests, is unwholesome, and unfit to be
inhabited." Preposterous men! do you thus judge from your own feelings?
Do you thus judge from your own constitution and frame? But if you
suppose that the Africans are incapable of enduring their own climate,
because you cannot endure it yourselves; why do you receive them into
slavery? Why do you not measure them here by the same standard? For if
you are unable to bear hunger and thirst, chains and imprisonment,
wounds and torture, why do you not suppose them incapable of enduring
the same treatment? Thus then is your argument turned against
yourselves. But consider the answer which the Scythians gave the
Ægyptians, when they contended about the antiquity of their
original[054], "That nature, when she first distinguished countries by
different degrees of heat and cold, tempered the bodies of animals, at
the same instant, to endure the different situations: that as the
climate of Scythia was severer than that of Ægypt, so were the bodies of
the Scythians harder, and as capable of enduring the severity of their
atmosphere, as the Ægyptians the temperateness of their own."

But you may say perhaps, that, though they are capable of enduring their
own climate, yet their situation is frequently uncomfortable, and even
wretched: that Africa is infested with locusts, and insects of various
kinds; that they settle in swarms upon the trees, destroy the verdure,
consume the fruit, and deprive the inhabitants of their food. But the
same answer may be applied as before; "that the same kind Providence,
who tempered the body of the animal, tempered also the body of the tree;
that he gave it a quality to recover the bite of the locust, which he
sent; and to reassume, in a short interval of time, its former glory."
And that such is the case experience has shewn: for the very trees that
have been infested, and stripped of their bloom and verdure, so
surprizingly quick is vegetation, appear in a few days, as if an insect
had been utterly unknown.

We may add to these observations, from the testimony of those who have
written the History of Africa from their own inspection, that no country
is more luxurious in prospects, none more fruitful, none more rich in
herds and flocks, and none, where the comforts of life, can be gained
with so little trouble.

But you say again, as a confirmation of these your former arguments, (by
which you would have it understood, that the Africans themselves are
sensible of the goodness of your intentions) "that they do not appear to
go with you against their will." Impudent and base assertion! Why then
do you load them with chains? Why keep you your daily and nightly
watches? But alas, as a farther, though a more melancholy proof, of the
falsehood of your assertions, how many, when on board your ships, have
put a period to their existence? How many have leaped into the sea? How
many have pined to death, that, even at the expence of their lives, they
might fly from your _benevolence_?

Do you call them obstinate then, because they refuse your favours? Do
you call them ungrateful, because they make you this return? How much
rather ought you receivers to blush! How much rather ought you receivers
to be considered as abandoned and execrable; who, when you usurp the
dominion over those, who are as free and independent as yourselves,
break the first law of justice, which ordains, "that no person shall do
harm to another, without a previous provocation;" who offend against
the dictates of nature, which commands, "that no just man shall be given
or received into slavery against his own consent;" and who violate the
very laws of the empire that you assume, by consigning your subjects to

Now, as a famous Heathen philosopher observes, from whose mouth you
shall be convicted[055], "there is a considerable difference, whether an
injury is done, during any perturbation of mind, which is generally
short and momentary; or whether it is done with any previous meditation
and design; for, those crimes, which proceed from any sudden commotion
of the mind, are less than those, which are studied and prepared," how
great and enormous are your crimes to be considered, who plan your
African voyages at a time, when your reason is found, and your senses
are awake; who coolly and deliberately equip your vessels; and who spend
years, and even lives, in the traffick of _human liberty_.

But if the arguments of those, who _sell_ or _deliver_ men
into slavery, (as we have shewn before) and of those, who _receive_
or _purchase_ them, (as we have now shewn) are wholly false; it is
evident that this _commerce_, is not only beyond the possibility of
defence, but is justly to be accounted wicked, and justly impious, since
it is contrary to the principles of _law_ and _government_,
the dictates of _reason_, the common maxims of _equity_, the
laws of _nature_, the admonitions of _conscience_, and, in
short, the whole doctrine of _natural religion_.

* * * * *


[Footnote 054: Justin, L. 2. C. 1.]

[Footnote 055: Cicero de Officiis. L. 1. C. 8.]

* * * * *






* * * * *

Having confined ourselves wholly, in the second part of this Essay, to
the consideration of the _commerce_, we shall now proceed to the
consideration of the _slavery_ that is founded upon it. As this
slavery will be conspicuous in the _treatment_, which the
unfortunate Africans uniformly undergo, when they are put into the hands
of the _receivers_, we shall describe the manner in which they are
accustomed to be used from this period.

To place this in the clearest, and most conspicuous point of view, we
shall throw a considerable part of our information on this head into the
form of a narrative: we shall suppose ourselves, in short, on the
continent of Africa, and relate a scene, which, from its agreement with
unquestionable facts, might not unreasonably be presumed to have been
presented to our view, had we been really there.

And first, let us turn our eyes to the cloud of dust that is before us.
It seems to advance rapidly, and, accompanied with dismal shrieks and
yellings, to make the very air, that is above it, tremble as it rolls
along. What can possibly be the cause? Let us inquire of that melancholy
African, who seems to walk dejected near the shore; whose eyes are
stedfastly fixed on the approaching object, and whose heart, if we can
judge from the appearance of his countenance, must be greatly agitated.

"Alas!" says the unhappy African, "the cloud that you see approaching,
is a train of wretched slaves. They are going to the ships behind you.
They are destined for the English colonies, and, if you will stay here
but for a little time, you will see them pass. They were last night
drawn up upon the plain which you see before you, where they were
branded upon the breast with an _hot iron_; and when they had
undergone the whole of the treatment which is customary on these
occasions, and which I am informed that you Englishmen at home use to
the _cattle_ which you buy, they were returned to their prison. As
I have some dealings with the members of the factory which you see at a
little distance, (though thanks to the Great Spirit, I never dealt in
the _liberty_ of my fellow creatures) I gained admittance there. I
learned the history of some of the unfortunate people, whom I saw
confined, and will explain to you, if my eye should catch them as they
pass, the real causes of their servitude."

Scarcely were these words spoken, when they came distinctly into sight.
They appeared to advance in a long column, but in a very irregular
manner. There were three only in the front, and these were chained
together. The rest that followed seemed to be chained by pairs, but by
pressing forward, to avoid the lash of the drivers, the breadth of the
column began to be greatly extended, and ten or more were observed

While we were making these remarks, the intelligent African thus resumed
his discourse. "The first three whom you observe, at the head of the
train, to be chained together, are prisoners of war. As soon as the
ships that are behind you arrived, the news was dispatched into the
inland country; when one of the petty kings immediately assembled his
subjects, and attacked a neighbouring tribe. The wretched people, though
they were surprized, made a formidable resistance, as they resolved,
almost all of them, rather to lose their lives, than survive their
liberty. The person whom you see in the middle, is the father of the two
young men, who are chained to him on each side. His wife and two of his
children were killed in the attack, and his father being wounded, and,
on account of his age, _incapable of servitude_, was left bleeding
on the spot where this transaction happened."

"With respect to those who are now passing us, and are immediately
behind the former, I can give you no other intelligence, than that some
of them, to about the number of thirty, were taken in the same skirmish.
Their tribe was said to have been numerous before the attack; these
however are _all that are left alive_. But with respect to the
unhappy man, who is now opposite to us, and whom you may distinguish, as
he is now looking back and wringing his hands in despair, I can inform
you with more precision. He is an unfortunate convict. He lived only
about five days journey from the factory. He went out with his king to
hunt, and was one of his train; but, through too great an anxiety to
afford his royal master diversion, he roused the game from the covert
rather sooner than was expected. The king, exasperated at this
circumstance, immediately sentenced him to slavery. His wife and
children, fearing lest the tyrant should extend the punishment to
themselves, _which is not unusual_, fled directly to the woods,
where they were all devoured."

"The people, whom you see close behind the unhappy convict, form a
numerous body, and reach a considerable way. They speak a language,
which no person in this part of Africa can understand, and their
features, as you perceive, are so different from those of the rest, that
they almost appear a distinct race of men. From this circumstance I
recollect them. They are the subjects of a very distant prince, who
agreed with the _slave merchants, for a quantity of spirituous
liquors_, to furnish him with a stipulated number of slaves. He
accordingly surrounded, and set fire to one of his own villages in the
night, and seized these people, who were unfortunately the inhabitants,
as they were escaping from the flames. I first saw them as the merchants
were driving them in, about two days ago. They came in a large body, and
were tied together at the neck with leather thongs, which permitted
them to walk at the distance of about a yard from one another. Many of
them were loaden with elephants teeth, which had been purchased at the
same time. All of them had bags, made of skin, upon their shoulders; for
as they were to travel, in their way from the great mountains, through
barren sands and inhospitable woods for many days together, they were
obliged to carry water and provisions with them. Notwithstanding this,
many of them perished, some by hunger, but the greatest number by
fatigue, as the place from whence they came, is at such an amazing
distance from this, and the obstacles, from the nature of the country,
so great, that the journey could scarcely be completed in seven moons."

When this relation was finished, and we had been looking stedfastly for
some time on the croud that was going by, we lost sight of that
peculiarity of feature, which we had before remarked. We then discovered
that the inhabitants of the depopulated village had all of them passed
us, and that the part of the train, to which we were now opposite, was a
numerous body of kidnapped people. Here we indulged our imagination. We
thought we beheld in one of them a father, in another an husband, and in
another a son, each of whom was forced from his various and tender
connections, and without even the opportunity of bidding them adieu.
While we were engaged in these and other melancholy reflections, the
whole body of slaves had entirely passed us. We turned almost insensibly
to look at them again, when we discovered an unhappy man at the end of
the train, who could scarcely keep pace with the rest. His feet seemed
to have suffered much from long and constant travelling, for he was
limping painfully along.

"This man," resumes the African. "has travelled a considerable way. He
lived at a great distance from hence, and had a large family, for whom
he was daily to provide. As he went out one night to a neighbouring
spring, to procure water for his thirsty children, he was kidnapped by
two _slave hunters_, who sold him in the morning to some country
merchants for a _bar of iron_. These drove him with other slaves,
procured almost in the same manner, to the nearest market, where the
English merchants, to whom the train that has just now passed us
belongs, purchased him and two others, by means of their travelling
agents, for a _pistol_. His wife and children have been long
waiting for his return. But he is gone for ever from their sight: and
they must be now disconsolate, as they must be certain by his delay,
that he has fallen into the hands of the _Christians_".

"And now, as I have mentioned the name of _Christians_, a name, by
which the Europeans distinguish themselves from us, I could wish to be
informed of the meaning which such an appellation may convey. They
consider themselves as _men_, but us unfortunate Africans, whom
they term _Heathens_, as the _beasts_ that serve us. But ah!
how different is the fact! What is _Christianity_, but a system
of _murder_ and _oppression_? The cries and yells of the
unfortunate people, who are now soon to embark for the regions of
servitude, have already pierced my heart. Have you not heard me sigh,
while we have been talking? Do you not see the tears that now trickle
down my cheeks? and yet these hardened _Christians_ are unable to
be moved at all: nay, they will scourge them amidst their groans, and
even smile, while they are torturing them to death. Happy, happy
Heathenism! which can detest the vices of Christianity, and feel for
the distresses of mankind."

"But" we reply, "You are totally mistaken: _Christianity_ is the
most perfect and lovely of moral systems. It blesses even the hand of
persecution itself, and returns good for evil. But the people against
whom you so justly declaim; are not _Christians_. They are
_infidels_. They are _monsters_. They are out of the common
course of nature. Their countrymen at home are generous and brave. They
support the sick, the lame, and the blind. They fly to the succour of
the distressed. They have noble and stately buildings for the sole
purpose of benevolence. They are in short, of all nations, the most
remarkable for humanity and justice."

"But why then," replies the honest African, "do they suffer this? Why is
Africa a scene of blood and desolation? Why are her children wrested
from her, to administer to the luxuries and greatness of those whom they
never offended? And why are these dismal cries in vain?"

"Alas!" we reply again, "can the cries and groans, with which the air
now trembles, be heard across this extensive continent? Can the southern
winds convey them to the ear of Britain? If they could reach the
generous Englishman at home, they would pierce his heart, as they have
already pierced your own. He would sympathize with you in your distress.
He would be enraged at the conduct of his countrymen, and resist their
tyranny." -

But here a shriek unusually loud, accompanied with a dreadful rattling
of chains, interrupted the discourse. The wretched Africans were just
about to embark: they had turned their face to their country, as if to
take a last adieu, and, with arms uplifted to the sky, were making the
very atmosphere resound with their prayers and imprecations.

* * * * *


The foregoing scene, though it may be said to be imaginary, is strictly
consistent with fact. It is a scene, to which the reader himself may
have been witness, if he has ever visited the place, where it is
supposed to lie; as no circumstance whatever has been inserted in it,
for which the fullest and most undeniable evidence cannot be produced.
We shall proceed now to describe, in general terms, the treatment which
the wretched Africans undergo, from the time of their embarkation.

When the African slaves, who are collected from various quarters, for
the purposes of sale, are delivered over to the _receivers_, they
are conducted in the manner above described to the ships. Their
situation on board is beyond all description: for here they are crouded,
hundreds of them together, into such a small compass, as would scarcely
be thought sufficient to accommodate twenty, if considered as _free
men_. This confinement soon produces an effect, that may be easily
imagined. It generates a pestilential air, which, co-operating with, bad
provisions, occasions such a sickness and mortality among them, that not
less than _twenty thousand_[056] are generally taken off in every
yearly transportation.

Thus confined in a pestilential prison, and almost entirely excluded
from the chearful face of day, it remains for the sickly survivors to
linger out a miserable existence, till the voyage is finished. But are
no farther evils to be expected in the interim particularly if we add to
their already wretched situation the indignities that are daily offered
them, and the regret which they must constantly feel, at being for ever
forced from their connexions? These evils are but too apparent. Some of
them have resolved, and, notwithstanding the threats of the
_receivers_, have carried their resolves into execution, to starve
themselves to death. Others, when they have been brought upon deck for
air, if the least opportunity has offered, have leaped into the sea, and
terminated their miseries at once. Others, in a fit of despair, have
attempted to rise, and regain their liberty. But here what a scene of
barbarity has constantly ensued. Some of them have been instantly killed
upon the spot; some have been taken from the hold, have been bruised and
mutilated in the most barbarous and shocking manner, and have been
returned bleeding to their companions, as a sad example of resistance;
while others, tied to the ropes of the ship, and mangled alternately
with the whip and knife, have been left in that horrid situation, till
they have expired.

But this is not the only inhuman treatment which they are frequently
obliged to undergo; for if there should be any necessity, from
tempestuous weather, for lightening the ship; or if it should be
presumed on the voyage, that the provisions will fall short before the
port can be made, they are, many of them, thrown into the sea, without
any compunction of mind on the part of the _receivers_, and without
any other regret for their loss, than that which _avarice_
inspires. Wretched survivors! what must be their feelings at such a
sight! how must they tremble to think of that servitude which is
approaching, when the very _dogs_ of the _receivers_ have been
retained on board, and preferred to their unoffending countrymen. But

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Online LibraryThomas ClarksonAn Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African Translated from a Latin Dissertation, Which Was Honoured with the First Prize in the University of Cambridge, for th → online text (page 7 of 13)