The History of American Slavery

The Anatomy of a Slave Ship

As told by a young abolitionist.

J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840.
J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840.

Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 Excerpted from The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker. Published by Viking Penguin.

This article supplements Episode 2 of The History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit

John Riland read the letter from his father with rising horror. The year was 1801, and it was time for the young man to return to the family plantation in Jamaica after his studies at Christ Church, Oxford. His father gave him precise instructions: He would journey from Oxford to Liverpool, where he would take a berth as a passenger aboard a slave ship. From there he would sail to the Windward Coast of Africa, observe the purchase and loading of a “living cargo” of slaves, and travel with them across the Atlantic to Port Royal, Jamaica. Young Riland had been exposed to anti-slavery ideas and now had serious misgivings about the commerce in human flesh; he had, he noted, no desire to be “imprisoned in a floating lazar-house, with a crowd of diseased and wretched slaves.” He took comfort from a classmate’s comment that recent abolitionist accounts of the Middle Passage and the slave ship had been “villainously exaggerated.” 1

It so happened that the senior Riland, like the son, had begun to entertain doubts about slavery. His Christian conscience apparently told him that the young man who would inherit the family estate should see firsthand what the slave trade was all about. The dutiful son did as the patriarch commanded. He went to Liverpool and sailed as a privileged passenger with a “Captain Y——” aboard his ship, the Liberty. Riland used the experience to write one of the most detailed accounts of a slave ship ever penned.2

When Riland stepped aboard the vessel he would take to Africa and across the Atlantic, the captain apparently knew that he was no friend of the slave trade. The man in charge of the wooden world was determined, therefore, to present the ship and its practices in the best possible light. He tried, wrote Riland, to “soften the revolting circumstances which he saw would develop themselves on our landing [in Africa]; during also our stay on the coast, and in our subsequent voyage to Jamaica.” He referred to the purchase of more than 200 captives, the close crowding, the inevitable sickness and death. The captain also undertook to educate his young passenger. He sat with him night after night in the captain’s cabin (where Riland slept and ate), conversing with him by the dim light of swaying lamps, explaining patiently how “the children of Ham” benefited by being sent to American plantations such as the one the senior Riland owned.

Soon after the captain had secured his “living cargo” on the African coast, he informed Riland that now he would see that “a slave-ship was a very different thing from what it had been represented.” He referred to the abolitionist propaganda that had changed public opinion in England and abroad. Against all that he would show his passenger “the slaves rejoicing in their happy state.” To illustrate the point, he approached the enslaved women on board and said a few words, “to which they replied with three cheers and a loud laugh.” He then went forward on the main deck and “spoke the same words to the men, who made the same reply.” Turning triumphantly to Riland, the captain said, “Now, are you not convinced that Mr. Wilberforce has conceived very improperly of slave-ships?” He referred to the parliamentary leader who had trumpeted the horrors of slave transportation. Riland was not convinced. But he was intrigued, and he was eager to learn whether the captain might be telling the truth. He therefore observed closely “the economy of this slave ship.”3

In describing a medium-size vessel, apparently a bark or ship of approximately 140 tons, Riland began with the lower deck, the quarters where 240 enslaved people (170 males, 70 females) were incarcerated for 16 hours a day and sometimes longer. Riland saw the vessel’s dungeonlike qualities. The men, shackled together two by two at the wrists and ankles and roughly 140 in number, were stowed immediately below the main deck in an apartment that extended from the mainmast all the way forward. The distance between the lower deck and the beams above was 4½ feet, so most men would not have been able to stand up straight. Riland did not mention platforms, which were routinely built on the lower deck of slavers, from the edge of the ship inward about 6 feet, to increase the number of slaves to be carried. The vessel was probably stowed to its maximum number of slaves according to the Dolben Act of 1788, which permitted slave ships to carry five slaves per three tons of carrying capacity.

On the main deck above, a large wooden grating covered the entrance to the men’s quarters, the open latticework was designed to permit a “sufficiency of air” to enter. For the same purpose, two or three small scuttles, holes for admitting air, had been cut in the side of the vessel, although these were not always open. At the rear of the apartment was a “very strong bulkhead,” constructed by the ship’s carpenter in a way that would not obstruct the circulation of air through the lower deck. Still, Riland considered ventilation to be poor down below, which meant that men were subjected to a “most impure and stifling atmosphere.” Worse, they had too little room: The space allotted was “far too small, either for comfort or health.” Riland saw that the men, when brought up from below, looked “quite livid and ghastly as well as gloomy and dejected.” Having been kept in darkness for many hours on end, they would emerge each morning blinking hard against the sunlight.4

The midsection of the lower deck, from near the mainmast back to the mizzenmast, was the women’s apartment, for the Liberty, unlike most slavers, did not have a separate area for boys. To separate the men and women, therefore, a space of about 10 feet was left between the men’s and women’s quarters as a passageway for the crew to get into the hold, where they stowed trading goods, naval stores, and provisions (food and water, probably in oversize “Guinea casks”). Fore and aft, the women’s room was enclosed by sturdy bulkheads. The women, most of whom were not in irons, had more room and freedom of movement than the men, as only about 45 of them slept here. The grating lay, boxlike, about 3 feet above the main deck and “admitted a good deal of air,” thought Riland. Those down below might have begged to differ.5

Two additional apartments were created beneath the quarterdeck, which was raised about 7 feet above the main deck and extended to the stern of the vessel. The aftermost of these was the cabin, where hung the cots of the captain and Riland himself. But even these two most privileged people shared their sleeping space as every night 25 little African girls gathered to sleep beneath them. The captain warned his cabinmate that “the smell would be unpleasant for a few days,” but reassured him that “when we got into the trade winds it would no longer be perceived.” Riland’s gentlemanly sensibilities apparently never recovered, for he later wrote, “During the night I hung over a crowd of slaves huddled together on the floor, whose stench at times was almost beyond endurance.”

Riland emphasized another feature that was literally central to the social organization of the main deck—the barricado, a strong wooden barrier 10 feet high that bisected the ship near the mainmast and extended about 2 feet over each side of the vessel. This structure, built to turn any vessel into a slaver, separated the bonded men from the women and served as a defensive barrier behind which the crew could retreat (to the women’s side) in moments of slave insurrection, but it was also a military installation of sorts from which the crew guarded and controlled the enslaved people on board. Built into the barricade, noted Riland, was a small door, through which might pass only one person at a time, slowly. Whenever the male slaves were on the main deck, two armed sentinels protected the door while “four more were placed, with loaded blunderbusses in their hands, on top of the barricade, above the head of the slaves: and two cannons, loaded with small shot, were pointed toward the main deck through holes cut in the barricade to receive them.”

The threat of insurrection was ever present. The captain assured a nervous Riland that he “kept such a guard on the slaves as would baffle all their efforts, should they attempt to rise.” They had already tried once while on the coast of Africa and failed. When the slaves were brought above, the main deck became a closely guarded prison yard. One feature of the slave ship, on which Riland did not remark, was the netting, a fencelike assemblage of ropes that would be stretched by the crew around the ship to prevent slaves from jumping overboard.6

By the time the Liberty sailed in 1801, some of the larger slave ships used windsails to enhance ventilation and improve the health of the enslaved belowdecks. The windsail was a funnel tube, made of canvas and open at the top, hooped at various descending sections, and attached to the hatches to “convey a stream of fresh air downward into the lower apartments of a ship.” The windsail had been devised for use on men-of-war, to preserve the health of the sailors, and had now been applied to the slave trade, although inconsistently. One observer noted a few years earlier that only 1 in 20 slavers had windsails, and the Liberty was almost certainly among the vast majority without.7

Riland also noted the chains used to bind the male slaves aboard the Liberty, and here he touched upon another essential part of a prison ship: the hardware of bondage. These would have included manacles and shackles, neck irons, chains of various kinds, and perhaps a branding iron. Many slave ships carried thumbscrews, a medieval instrument of torture in which the thumbs of a rebellious slave would be inserted into a viselike contraption and slowly crushed, sometimes to force a confession. A sale on board the slave ship John announced by the Connecticut Centinel on Aug. 2, 1804, featured “300 pair of well made Shackles” and “150 Iron Collars together with a number of Ring-Bolts Chains &c. In suitable order for the confinement of slaves.”8

These distinctive characteristics made Guineamen easy to identify after a catastrophe, when, for example, a brig without masts was “driven ashore upon a reef” in Grand Caicos in the Bahama Islands in 1790. It was known to be “an old Guineaman, from the number of handcuffs found in her.”9 A few years later, in 1800, Capt. Dalton of the Mary-Ann found another ghost ship on the coast of Florida. It was a large vessel lying on its side, without sails, full of water, with no crew members in sight. It turned out to be the Greyhound, of Portland, Maine, recognizable to the captain as a slaver “by the gratings fore and aft.” John Riland suffered no such disaster, but he was well aware that he had boarded a peculiar sort of machine. Its capacity to incarcerate and transport African bodies had helped to bring into existence a new Atlantic world of labor, plantations, trade, empire, and capitalism.10

From The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker, reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Marcus Rediker, 2007.

1 The Rev. John Riland, Memoirs of a West-India Planter, Published From an Original MS. With a Preface and Additional Details (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1827). Riland was born in Jamaica in 1778 and sent as a youth to England for schooling. Adam Hochschild has pointed out that the editors of this posthumously published volume included plagiarized passages from an account of a slaving voyage by the abolitionist Zachary Macaulay, which had been published in the Christian Observer in 1804. It was republished in Viscountess Knutsford, ed., Life and Letters of Zachary Macaulay (London: Edward Arnold, 1900), 86–89. See Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 253–55, 398. Readers should keep in mind that the evidence presented in this section comes from not one but two distinct voyages and sources.

2 I have discovered two vessels named Liberty, although neither comports with Riland’s timeline. The first sailed in 1795–96, probably from London to an unidentified port in Africa and from there to Barbados. The second sailed from Liverpool to Angola to St. Kitts in 1806–07. Macaulay sailed on the Ann Phillipa from Liverpool to Sierra Leone to Kingston in 1794–95. For more information about each, see TSTD, #82252, #82254, #80291.

3 When Riland sailed on the slaver he was a person of mixed allegiances. He had sympathy for the anti-slavery cause, but he also had a strong vested interest in the slave system as he himself readily acknowledged. Once aboard the ship, he began to feel that his “fortunes [were] identified with the commercial prosperity of the colonies,” which included the slave trade. He was also conscious that his voyage “was a very favorable specimen of such adventures.”

4 I have inferred the tonnage of Riland’s vessel from the number of slaves brought on board, using a ratio created by the Dolben Act of 1788—roughly 1.8 slaves per one ton carrying capacity. Macaulay’s vessel (144 tons) loaded 244 enslaved Africans and delivered 225 alive in Kingston.

5 According to William Falconer’s Universal Dictionary of the Marine (London: T. Cadell, 1769; revised edition, 1784), gratings were “a sort of open covers for the hatches, formed by several small laths or battens of wood, which cross each other at right angles, leaving a square interval between. They are formed to admit the air and light from above into the lower apartments of the ship, particularly when the turbulence of the sea or weather renders it necessary to shut the ports between decks.”

6 Thomas Clarkson noted that “the Stern Part of the Vessel is the place, first, where the Arm Chest stands, and secondly, where the Vessel is principally worked. Hence the weakest [captives, often little girls] are put into Stern Division.” See Clarkson to Comte de Mirabeau, Nov. 17, 1789, ff. 3–4, Papers of Thomas Clarkson, Huntington Library, San Marino, California. For a public auction of “Four large IRON BOILERS, suitable for a guineaman or vessel of war,” see South-Carolina State Gazette and Timothy’s Daily Adviser, June 14, 1799. On “Guinea casks,” see William B. Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England, 1620–1789 (New York: Hillary House Publishers, Ltd., 1963), vol. II, 458.

7 Falconer, Universal Dictionary of the Marine, s.v. “windsail.”

8 Connecticut Centinel, Aug. 2, 1804.

9 Providence Gazette and Country Journal, Aug. 5, 1790.

10 Providence Gazette, July 19, 1800.