“They Were Seen by Our Vessel to Throw Their Slaves Overboard”: Antislavery Myth and Death in the Middle Passage

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:40 AM
Delaware Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Ben Wright, University of Texas at Dallas
A warm fire, a comfortable seat, and the latest reports of unspeakable atrocities. Reform-oriented readers all across the North Atlantic passed many evenings in this manner, paging through the numerous periodicals that condemned the injustice of the slave trade. Among the most noble of heroes in these narratives were the men of the Royal Navy who pursued and prosecuted slave ships, liberating their human cargo. Slaving captions, on the other hand, were ghoulish villains, willing to forsake all decency in violating the laws of God and man in the pursuit of profit. The publishers of these periodicals knew what their audience wanted, and few articles did more to confirm the prejudices of the reform-minded public than the reports of captains deliberately throwing enslaved Africans overboard to evade capture.

A close look at the documentary record, however, reveals that the two most commonly cited cases of this practice, that of the Rapido and Le Jeune Estelle, are both based on abolitionist fabrications. Drawing displaced truths of mass murder from the Zong and others, abolitionists concocted stories of death in the middle passage to argue for the inadequacy of Royal Navy slaving suppression efforts. These myths bounced back and forth across the Atlantic through evangelical and Quaker periodicals before reaching their widest audience in a footnote appended to an 1840 reprinting of the Journal of John Woolman. But the story of this fabrication nonetheless reveals important truths about Atlantic slaving and the international movement dedicated to its extinction. In understanding the development of antislavery sentiment in the North Atlantic, truth can be far less important than fiction.

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