Diligent%2033

Diligent%2033 - 33 6 HE SOUND OF ACCORDION music flooded...

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Unformatted text preview: 33 6 HE SOUND OF ACCORDION music flooded the deck of the Diligent. It was six o’clock in the evening, and the 248 remaining African captives were all on deck. They had just finished their evening meal, and now it was time for exercise. At the front of the ship, some of the African men were standing on the forecastle while the others found places among the cannons, the pumps, and the longboat on the main deck. The men were shackled two by two, the right foot of one man shackled to the left foot of his partner, an arrangement that made Walking awkward and sometimes painful. At the rear of the ship behind the barricade, the women were on the quarterdeck. They were not shackled, and they moved around freely. We can scarcely imagine how the high—pitched screeches and shrieks of the accordion sounded to the ears of the African captives. Music in the Whydah/Dahomey region was principally vocal music accompanied by drums, rattles, and gongs. The instrumental music came primarily from two—toned trumpets made from elephants’ tusks that were used to an-- nounce the presence of royalty, and from three—holed flutes made from iron or reeds that were held like a clarinet.1 Although the accordion must have sounded shrill to the Africans, it could have been worse; many En—- glish ships used bagpipes. Some slaving captains, aware of the clash of mu— sical tastes, advised their fellow slavers to purchase musical instruments from the captives’ home regions before departing from Africa.2 Nevertheless, accordion players had become standard accoutrements on French slave ships.The reason was explained in Savary des Bruslons’s 295 296 | THE DILIGENT Figure 33.1 Slave irons that bound the right leg of one captive to the left leg of another. Dictionnaire universe] de commerce, published in 1723.. Savary warned that slaves were often seized by sadness and despair because of their love for their homeland. Sadness, he wrote, makes them vulnerable to the diseases that kill a great many captives during the middle passage, and despair leads many of them to attempt suicide. The secret for battling both sad— ness and despair, and keeping the captives alive until the ship landed in the New World, Savary believed, was to play musical instruments such as the hurdy—gurdy or the accordion.3 The Billy brothers had taken this ad— - Vice seriously, paying 195 livres in salary to Noel Magré, the accordion player. Given that a prime slave could sell for over nine hundred livres in Martinique, they had reasoned that the accordion player would more than earn his salary if his music saved even an: captive. The immediate purpose of the music, however, was to animate the evening exercise session in which the slaves were ordered to dance to maintain their health. The exercise partially compensated for the physical The Middle Passage I 297 immobility caused by the crowding below decks, and some Frenchmen even believed that it helped prevent scurvy.4 The problem for the men on the main deck and forecastle is that they were shackled two by two with rigid slave irons, making dancing impossible. Instead, they swayed to the music while crew members prodded the shackled partners to jump up and down in unison. Dancing on the decks of the small ship was not easy in any event, given the constant pitching and rolling of the vessel. Even standing still on a moving ship was a dynamic exercise as muscles tight— ened and relaxed to compensate for the movement.5 The Africans could easily lose their balance if the ship pitched suddenly in the middle of a jump. Those who stood about or moved listlessly to the music were prod— ded or lashed with the short whip. The women on the quarterdeck, in contrast, were unshackled because crew members believed there was little chance that they would stage a re- bellion. Naked under the setting tropical sun, some of the women moved listlessly with signs of depression showing on their faces and their move— ments. Crew members shouted at them or prodded them to move faster and to dance with kicks and leaps. If the prodding didn’t work, they used the short whip or the lash. Other women, wanting to take full advantage of every moment of temporary freedom, moved their limbs gracefully in an effort to forestall the cramps that would build up in their muscles during the long night of imprisonment below the deck, or they writhed and twisted their bodies to give expression to their pain. In their current state of captivity, the dance gave them a rare form of personal expression.6 As the women moved to the music, some of the sailors pointed, leered, and jeered. of drill and performance, forced movement and self—expression, slave dances were open to a variety of interpretations.The French slave trader Jean Bar— bot described them as “full of jollity and good humor,” and the captain of the Danish slave ship Fredensborg wrote in his logbook that “the female slaves enjoyed dancing their Negro «dances on the quarterdeck.” A more chilling description was provided in 1789 by the British slave-eship surgeon James Arnold. “It was usual to make them dance in order that they might exercise their limbs and preserve their health,” he wrote. “This was done by means of a Cat of Nine Tails with which they were driven about one 298 I THE DILIGENT They must draw the short straw, Yb decide who will be eaten. The mate who distributes the straws Discovers that the shortest remains. He cries, “Oh Virgin Mary, It is I who will be eaten. "9 The Middle Passage I 299 In an atmosphere charged with brutality and inhumanity, accusations of cannibalism were manifestations of the animosity that the African captives felt for their European jailers. By conjuring up images of white cannibal-- ism, the Africans were saying, in effect, that Europeans did not abide by the normal rules of civilized societieszhey viewed their European jailers as witches and not ordinary humans. Nor were Africans the only ones to spread stories about white cannibalism. Father Labat believed that English, Dutch, and Portuguese slave traders had spread the word that the French Were cannibals. They did it, Labat claimed, because they were jealous of French commercial success.10 There were also rumors circulating among white slave traders about a grisly incident that took place in 1724 on an English slave ship commanded by Captain John Harding. Believing that the slaves onboard his ship were plotting a revolt, Harding ordered the arrest of the man whom he believed to be the ringleader. In front of the other captives, the man’s throat was slit and his heart and liver were cut out. Then Captain Harding ordered the bloody heart and liver to be cut into three hundred pieces, and he forced each of the horrified captives to eat a piece by threatening to do the same thing to them if they refused. The experience so traumatized and disgusted the captives that many of them refused all food after that and gradually starved to death.11 Aware of the implicit and sometimes explicit accusations of White canni— balism, Europeans often retaliated with countercharges that some of the African captives on their slave ships were probably cannibals themselves. William Snelgrave accused King Agaja’s Dahomian soldiers (but not King Agaja) of practicing cannibalism, though he admitted that he had no proof, and Father Labat, who had never been to Africa, made Wild charges that entire countries in Africa maintained butcher shops that sold human flesh.12 The mutual images of cannibalism that were commonplace on slave ships mirrored the kinds of accusations that had long been exchanged be— tween notables and peasants in France. In 1580 rebellious French peasants had frightened the burghers of Romans by marching through the streets announcing,“Before three days are out, Christian flesh will be selling at six deniers a pound.” After the rebellion was crushed, the victors reportedly butchered the peasants “like pigs” and congratulated themselves on eating the poor villagers before they themselves were eaten. Throughout the French wars of religion in the sixteenth century, there were stories of eating slaves occasional gifts of tobacco and brandy. “Above all, wrote Barbot make plenty of friendly gestures toward them and often jest with "15 ' them. But whether the carrot or the stick was used to achieve it, the goal was always the same. V man cargoes, lost over half of captives to disease during his I725 cross— 1ng.Wr1t1ng about that voyage, Father Labat defended Marchais’s reputa— tion by claiming, “Despite the care that that Chevalier Des Marchais gave unceasingly to avoid that catastrophe, he couldn’t escape losing a great many blacks.”16 Even amid the de I ath and brutality of the slaving business, professmnal reputations had to be protected. The Middle Passage | 301 Ordinary crew members, however, had no such incentives. Like the cap— tives, they ate bad food and slept in cramped quarters. So crowded were their quarters in the bow of the ship that many were forced to sleep on deck or even in the longboat. The crew members were the ones who had close physical contact with the captives in the daily battle for control that took place above and below the decks. Such a situation often produced hostility on the part of the crew members, who carried all of the prejudices of their time and were convinced that their African captives would slit their throats in an instant if they got the chance. That latent hostility of the crew members explains why ship owners gave repeated instructions that ordinary sailors were never to strike the slaves.17 Instead, sailors were ordered to re— port any problems they had with the slaves to the officers, who would de— cide on the appropriate punishments. Such rules were undoubtedly hon— ored more in the breach than in the application, but they nevertheless reflected the view of the ship owners that ordinary sailors were brutish fel- lows who could not be trusted to maintain control in a calculated manner. The key to getting a cargo of slaves across the Atlantic with a minimum loss of life, slaving captains agreed, was to make the crossing as quickly as possible. Because Sio Tome was located on the equator, Captain Mary had been worried about getting becalmed in the equatorial doldrums. A for— mer employee of the Nantes outfitter Montaudoin, he had heard stories about Montaudoin’s ship the Maréchal d’Estre'es, which fell becalmed near the equator and spent fourteen weeks on the middle passage instead of the expected ten. The ship ran out of food and 202 out of 525 captives died, for a mortality rate of 38 percent.18 But the Diligent was lucky. Although the winds near the equator were light and variable, the ship had been able to drop down to nearly three degrees south latitude with the aid of a south—flowing current. The Diligent was bound for the French island of Martinique. Having signed a subcontracting agreement with the Company of the Indies, it was legally bound to deliver its slaves to one of France’s Caribbean colonies. The most popular destination for French slave ships in 1732 was Saint Domingue, which received two—thirds of all slaves carried on French ships. Thirty percent went to Martinique.19 Pierre Mary had experience in both places, as did Robert Durand, but the Billy brothers had chosen Mar— tinique because all of the direct trade from Vannes had gone there and Saint Domingue was unfamiliar to them. 302 I THE DILIGENT The standard strategy for crossing the Atlantic fi'om Sic Tomé to Mar— tinique called for dropping down to three and a half degrees south of the equator to catch the southeast trade winds that would carry them across the Atlantic. " ‘ ‘ ' ' ‘ " make the. Vcrossmgwin _ 30 But the winds they were encountering on this voyage were coming from the south—southwest, impeding their west- ward progress. Unlike ships with triangular sails, square—riggers such as the Diligent were not very good at sailing against the wind, and eighty degrees from windward was as close as they could get. Bracing the sails to go as close to the wind as possible, the Diligent was able to hold a westward course at between two and three degrees south latitude despite the southwest vvinds.21 The ship was helped somewhat by the west~flowing south equatorial cur— rent, but progress was nevertheless slower than expected. It was not until January 3r—three weeks out from 350 Tome—that the winds turned around and began to blow from the southeast. These were the southeast trade winds that they had been looking for. Now they could begin to make better time. With steady winds, the ship could go for days with almost no changes in the set of the sails. From January 20 to Jan— uary 29 the Wind had blown steadily from the south—southwest, and from January 31 to February 11 it would blow from the southeast. With few ad— justments to be made to the rigging, the crew members busied themselves with guarding and managing the African captives. Now recovered from his illness, Robert Durand carefully recorded the ship’s position, the weather, and any unusual events in his journal. Here is how he described the last day of January, when he first recorded southeast , winds, and the beginning of February: Thursday, January 31. Lat. 2° 47" S. Long. 9° 56”. Since yesterday noon the winds from the S. and SSE. Pretty seas. We steered to WI I/ 4 NW Under full sail. Friday, February I. Lat. 2° 39" 8. Long. 8° 11”. Since yesterday the winds from the SSE and SE. The sea pretty. Under filll sail. Studding sails high and low. We steered NW In the morning we sighted a ship behind us following the same route and gaining on us. Saturday, February 2. Lat. 2° 13” S. Long. 5° 56”. Since yesterday noon the winds from the SE. The sea pretty. Under full sail.We steered The Middle Passage i 303 W I / 3 NW At two o’clock in the afternoon the ship we had spotted in the morning came alongside to windward. They said that they had left 850 Tomé one day after us. Good sailing ship and interloper with 22. cannons going to Europe. Because they had caught a lot of fish, they lowered their skiff and rowed over to our ship to get some salt. Mr. Mary wrote a letter to send to France with that ship. This morning we spotted it ahead of us. Curiously, Durand mentioned the African captives only twice during the entire sixty—six days of the middle passage, and then only to record deaths. One of the deaths was recorded with nothing more than a skull and cross— bones drawn in the margin of the page. Neither did he record any of his own thoughts or feelings about being on ofi‘icer on such a ship.Was he try— ing to pretend that this was an ordinary voyage of an ordinary merchant ship? Had the daily routines of a slave ship become so familiar to him that he felt them hardly worth recording? Was he in denial? Was he becoming hardened? The English slaving captain John Newton would note later in the century that participation in the slave trade “gradually brings a numb— ' ness upon the heart, and renders most of those who are engaged in it too indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow creatures.”22 Was that why Robert Durand didn’t write about conditions onboard the Diligent? In any case, we will have to depend on other documents from the pe— riod to give us hints about how life was most likely lived on this floating and victims alike were inclined to suppress it or gloss over it. What emerges from the surviving accounts (many of them written by slaving captains trying to justify the slave trade or by abolitionists trying to stir up the public against it) is a general agreement on how slaves should ideally be treated in order to deliver them alive to the New World and then the wide variations in actual practices aboard different ships. The hierarchical command structure on ships meant that much depended upon the will, personality, competence, and sanity of the captain. 304 I THE DILIGENT By all appearances, Captain Mary was certainly sane, at least in compar- ison to his fellow captain Jean Bonneau, whose mad follies he would en— counter in Martinique. None of Mary’s crew—not even those who would later testify against him at his trial inVannes——ever accused him of cruel or sadistic behavior toward them. Mary was corrupt, but in a calculating sort of way that sought to maximize his personal profits. He could be hard or he could be kind, but he was unlikely to engage in any kind of behavior that would undermine the order of the ship or the profits of the voyage. Each African captive was worth up to a thousand livres if delivered to Martinique in healthy condition. Pierre Mary was well aware of that figure because twenty—six of the captives onboard‘ the Diligent were his own per- sonal property. Given these considerations, we can speculate that his ship probably ran pretty much according to its owners’ instructions. 34 Jénn EVENING DANCE PERIOD over, the Africans were ordered to return to the slave deck for the night. First carpenter Joseph Colinbert and first surgeon Devigne had just finished inspecting the slave quarters to make sure that nobody had hidden 3 potential tool or weapon, and they gave the signal that all was in order. After the captives had de— scended to the lower deck amid shouts, shoves, and blows fiom the crew, they twisted and maneuvered as well as they could (given the confines of their irons) to slip into the tiny spaces on or below the platforms where they were to spend the night. Sometimes fights broke out as captives strug— gled for ther'best spots.I Sleeping in such a space was difficult. The captives had to lie on their side on the hard planks because there wasn’t even enough space to lie on their back or stomach. The British called such packing “spooning” because it resembled the stacking of spoons.The rock— ing and pitching of the ship made people periodically slide or tumble into one another. , The discomfort of lying in awkward positions on the rough boards of the horribly overcrowded lower deck was matched or exceeded by the problems from the heat and lack of air. The only air in the lower deck went through hatches in the main deck. Because the Diligent had been built as a grain ship, its hatches were smaller than those on ships built for carrying slaves, and its lower deck was stifling. The heat that built up under the equatorial sun was oppressive, and the deck was so tightly packed that the captives sucked the oxygen out of the air at night. The French slave 305 ...
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This note was uploaded on 04/27/2010 for the course HIST 142 taught by Professor Burns during the Fall '08 term at UNC.

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Diligent%2033 - 33 6 HE SOUND OF ACCORDION music flooded...

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