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The Dunworley Slave Ship.
Paddy O’Sullivan 19 November 2009
The Dunworley Slave Ship: Amity 1701
The history of slavery is probably as old as that of mankind itself. Hundreds of thousands of slaves built such classical civilisations as Greece, Egypt and Rome. Viking Dublin was a major slave trading port in its heyday. However, for the purposes of this story I will deal only with the transatlantic slave trade whereby from twelve to twenty million African slaves were transported to the Americas over a span of four hundred years. Such a human atrocity has yet to be duplicated. Captured slaves were wrenched from their devastated families never to be seen again as they were carried off to the ships and a life of forced labour. Grief and desolation followed.
England’s involvement in the African slave trade harks back to the 1560s where Hawkins and Raleigh sporadically engaged in the practice. However, it wasn’t until the Barbados Sugar Revolution in the 1640s that England became a regular slave trader. The world had discovered sugar and in so doing created an insatiable demand for what it regarded as a ‘must have’ luxury in the West. Various London based companies engaged in the lucrative transatlantic slave trade. However, by far the largest slave trader was the Royal African Company (RAC) which was chartered by King Charles II in 1672. Indeed the King was a major shareholder in the RAC and held its monopoly privilege up to 1698. Over the course of time pressure from other London merchants was brought to bear on the King, also the Plantation owners complained that they could not get enough slaves for their needs. Charles II was forced to forfeit his monopoly and open up the trade to competition. In consequence slave prices fell dramatically setting the RAC into a period of decline. During its heyday the RAC exported an average of seven to eight thousand Africans per year. When the monopoly ended England’s slave trade expanded rapidly to a point where it became the biggest slave trafficker in the Western World. By the first half of the 18th century Britain exported 20,000 slaves per year and by the second half of the century numbers increased to 40,000. With flippant disregard for its macabre status Britain proudly sang:
‘Rule Britannia! Britannia Rule the Waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’
London and Bristol dominated the slave trade up to 1730; however, they were overtaken by Liverpool in 1780 as it became the undisputed slave capital of England. Slavery and colonisation was carried out for the enrichment of the West. Over a four hundred-year period countries of the West relentlessly ransacked Africa and the African people. Millions of Africans were murdered or violently kidnapped and sold into slavery. African women were raped and brutalised without check by their white captors. Europe imposed inferiority of Africans by denying them education and civil rights. England was not the only slave trading nation, Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden, were all participants. Later in the day fledgling nations including United States, Brazil and Cuba joined in.
Initially slaves were taken from all along the coastlines of Western Africa from Senegal in the north to Angola in the south. In time, increasing demand saw African suppliers go deep into the jungles of the Congo and Angola seeking out fresh supplies of human cargo. Captive slaves were then chained by their ankles or tethered by wooden yokes on the neck and brutally force-marched to the coast by the crack of the slave-driver’s whip. On reaching the coast they were incarcerated in damp dungeons of castles or forts to await the arrival of the ships. One such holding station on the coast was Cap Corso (Cape castle) where as many as 1500 slaves were held in appalling conditions of squalor and overcrowding. Cape Castle on the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) was England’s principle holding depot for slaves. A blacksmith shop within the castle reddened branding irons to mark their unfortunate inmates. Here some died from disease or as a result of injuries received during their capture. The groans and cries of the captives, the rattle of chains and the crack of whip were constant sounds in their hellish quarters. Holding time in the dungeons could often run to weeks. Inevitably a forest of ships’ masts would appear on the horizon, sometimes up to hundred ships would converge on the coast, each one flying the flag of its nation and all in search of slaves. Competition for slaves was stiff to say the least as all major maritime nations in Europe engaged in the lucrative slave trade. Slaves were herded aboard the ships with the utmost cruelty and forced onto platforms as though they were books on a shelf. It was impossible for them to stand up; a commentator of the day noted that a man would have more room in a coffin than that allocated to a slave on a cramped ship. To add to the slave’s misery ankle chains would remain in place throughout the voyage, sometimes making the flesh turn raw and fester. Children were allowed the freedom of walking around the stinking hold. Women were granted limited freedom to walk around from time to time.
Terrified young African slave girls suffered the additional horror of being subjected to the sexual demands of their white captors, a refusal would exact a fierce retribution by the lash. The tropical heat and fetid atmosphere in these damp overcrowd quarters proved a fertile breeding ground for a plethora of diseases ranging from smallpox, dysentery, malaria, and various fevers. Sanitary facilities were nonexistent excepting the odd bucket here and there. Seasickness was an ever present grim companion to the captives. Up to a quarter died during the three to four-month voyage to the Americas. Their bodies were unceremoniously heaved overboard to the sharks. On reaching mainland America, the bedraggled slaves were driven off the ships and into the auction houses to be further torn apart from their families at the whim of the buyer. Slave women were forcibly parted from their slave children. They would never meet again in their devastated lives.
One form of misery endured on the voyage was replaced by a different form of misery as slaves were driven onto the sugar cane fields of Barbados or the tobacco fields of Virginia. The demands of the planters were especially brutal. Slaves were forced to work from sixteen to twenty hours per day during the harvesting season. Scorching sun seared their skin by day while fading dusk filed the air with clouds of biting mosquitoes to add to their misery by night. Those who failed to meet their quotas suffered unmerciful beatings by the lash. Some were so badly beaten that they had not the power to groan under their misery. Most had short lives as they were worked to death by exhaustion over an eight to ten year period. As a result a constant supply of slaves was needed to keep up the gruelling pace of work in the cane fields.
Slave ships leaving England and Europe sailed on what came to be known as triangle voyages. Ships departing their home ports, set course for the coast of West Africa laden down with trade goods such as iron, copper bars, worthless glass beads in assorted colours, textiles, brandy, old guns, gunpowder, unusual copper bracelets called manillas, knifes and cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean. These goods were exchanged for slaves, ivory and various hardwoods in Africa. On the second leg of the voyage, slaves were transported to the West Indies to be sold at public auction. On the final leg of the journey, ships departed the Caribbean with sugar, rum, cotton and rice for England or Europe.
Slavery was not confined to Africans. At the close of Cromwell’s war in Ireland, tens of thousands of dispossessed Irish were shipped to the Caribbean to work in the sugar-cane fields. To this day a colony of several hundred Irish slave descendants live in reservation-like conditions on the Northern shore of Barbados. Unfortunately, three-hundred-fifty years of inbreeding, coupled with the excesses of rum and cannabis have reduced them to a pitiful state of degeneration. However, their Irish accents are unmistakable. Yet another group of Irish slaves’ descendants live on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat. Curiously they still celebrate Patrick’s day and fly the Irish flag.
In December 1701 Dunworley (a few miles from Courtmacsherry) received a surprise visit from a slave ship of the Royal African Company. The ship was named The Amity and was bound for London having departed the Guinea coast in Africa. The Amity was heavily laden with ivory and camm-wood (a red hardwood from the African Padauk tree.) A beam of camm-wood stills serves the role of lintel in supporting a chimney-beast in a local cottage. However, destiny had other plans for the unsuspecting Amity. A series of Atlantic storms blew the ship hopelessly off course and onto a submerged reef in Dunworley Bay. In no time the ship was pounded to pieces on the rocks and its cargo scattered in all directions. All hands were drowned save a black slave boy who somehow made it ashore under ferocious conditions. Folklore gleaned from the late Donal Hegarty of Lehina near Dunworley tells us that the following morning Dunworley’s beach was littered with dead bodies, some were Africans, the remainder were white-skinned.
We do not know how many lost their lives on that fateful night but we can assume around fifty people including captain Phaxton, the average slave-ship engaged a fifty-man crew to work their vessels, Donal Hegarty’s lore gives us an insight into the sectarian attitudes of the day. The African corpses on Dunworley Strand were presumed to be heathens and therefore buried in shallow graves in the sands where they lay. However, white skinned corpses were presumed to be Christians and carted off to be buried in hallowed ground. The broken remains of the Amity were reported to be in two fathoms of water, which no doubt facilitated the recovery of much of her cargo over the following months. The RAC took active steps to recover their goods from the sunken ship. They engaged local man Robert Travers, and two others, Morgan Bernard, and Peter Renue a Cork merchant. Further accounts of the welfare of the slave boy fade from the record. Unfortunately, all correspondence from Travers to the RAC appears to have been lost. The slave boy does not appear to have made it back to London. Did he die of pneumonia as a result of his long immersion in the storm-tossed Atlantic on that fateful night in December 1701? Could he have died as a result of injuries inflicted on him when his ship broke up on the foaming reef? We do not know! Brief snippets from the original RAC letters to Travers suggest that he was somebody of importance to them. On 23 December 1701 the RAC wrote a letter to Peter Renue urging him to:
We require you to take care of the negroe salved from out of the ship and take such attentions as are for our service, let him be supplied with warm clothes and other necessaries and send him to us by the first ship bound for the river Thames
The letter goes on to instruct Travers and Bernard on arrangements for the recovery and transport of salvaged tusks and camm-wood. Another letter to Peter Renue urges him to put recovered ship papers on boat bound for England. On 23 January 1702 the RAC wrote to Peter Renue to confirm that the Amity’s papers had arrived. We have advice the box of writing has arrived at Bristol but not the black, the Company pray great care be taken of him. Yet another letter of 20 January 1702 to a Captain Watson urges:
be sure to bring home carefully a negroe that was miraculously saved out of the Amity
Throughout the Amity saga, it seems the locals were busy spiriting away tusks and camm wood washed up on the shores. The RAC again wrote to their appointed salvors urging them to recover their [imbezled] cargo from the locals. Another letter by the RAC urges legal action against the [embezollers]. Search warrants were proposed to investigate suspected smugglers. Amity tusks can still be seen in some local gardens near Dunworley.
However, they have long since lost their ivory lustre to be replaced with a chalk-like coating. Shaw’s mill in Cork had two Amity tusks assembled cross-sword like and mounted on a wooden plaque in the main office. The RAC ordered Travers to put a watch on the wreck to counteract the ‘embezollers’ the watch was called off in mid August 1702 as it was believed that any future salvage attempts would not be economically viable. However, winter storms in Dunworley threw up glass beads annually on the beach at Dunworley, especially the Yellow Cove. By mid 1850s these curious beads attracted the attention of the Church of Ireland rector and clergyman for St. Mary’s in Shandon, Doctor Neligan, a graduate to T.C.D. Others like Lord Londesborough, a Mr Akerman, secretary of the Society of Antiquarians in London, and Mr. Vaux of the British Museum were also curious. Neligan was a regular visitor to Dunworley as his wife’s relatives who lived in the area. Whenever the opportunity arose Neligan scoured the beach at Dunworley for glass beads. He was ably assisted by hoards of local children whom he bribed with pennies. Best results were obtained by targeting low spring tides and foraging along the gravel at the waterline. Within one year Neligan, an avid collector had accumulated over six-hundred beads. He subsequently gave a talk on the beads to the Cork Cuverian Society and published a booklet on the matter. In his book he enclosed a lithograph of a few beads he assembled necklace style. Despite Neligan’s death in 1887 the Amity story had not yet closed. The restless slave ship was inadvertently plunged centre stage in 1898 as a result of a freak accident in the bay.
On 5th August 1898 the four-masted ship: Ecclefechan, heavily laden with 4,000 tons of corn, was stranded on the rocks inside Bird Island near Dunworley. Despite being badly holed and taking water, tugs managed to tow her off her rocky bed and ashore to Dunworley strand for beaching and repair. Suddenly the bay was a hive of activity. Two Cork corn merchants, T.R.. Holland and John Mulcahy arrived to supervise the unloading of the corn on the crippled ship. The Cobh salvage company of Ensor arrived with their steam tugs and salvage gear. Two helmet divers, the Collins brothers, formed part of the team. Myriads of small boats swarmed around the crippled grain ship to assist in the operation. The Collins brothers did Trojan work to patch and save the Ecclefechen which was re-floated. However, there was much talk in the air by the locals regarding a fabled chest of gold that went down with the Amity. These stories dangled tantalising bait to the Collins brothers and perhaps the Ensor salvage company; it was decided to investigate the sunken slave ship before departing the area. The divers easily found the shipwreck based on accurate information from local fishermen. Twelve cannons were subsequently raised and brought into Cork; two still decorate the front lawn of a stately home in the Cork area. The Collins duo also recovered glass beads, ivory and English silver crowns. Inscriptions on the crowns linked them to the reign of King William and Mary. The chest of gold story most likely belongs in the realm of fable and fantasy, nothing to indicate its existence was found.
The Amity still attracts sports divers during the summer season. However, three hundred-hundred-and-ten years in the open Atlantic has taken its toll on the remains. Its hull is now reduced to a skeletal keelson with broken ribs protruding from its sides; measurements taken in 2003 would indicate a ship of ninety feet in length. Several cannon scattered about the ship are in an advanced state of decay. Two mounds of admiralty-link chain are situated quite near the wreck. However, the chains were abandoned ground tackle dating back to the Ecclefechan salvage and bear no connection to the Amity.
Slavery has long since been abolished by all civilised countries world-wide. The long drawn out abolition campaign threw up some unusual characters especially John Brown. Brown saw slavery as a moral issue. Of all America’s passionate abolitionists, he was the most passionate, and the most violent. John Brown saw himself as a sword wielded by the Almighty Ð he justified killing slave owners for the cause he so passionately espoused. Brown was a Connecticut-born Puritan who knew the bible cover to cover; he was deemed by some to be psychotic and regarded as ‘the saintly fanatic’. Brown saw justification in both old and new testaments for the violent overthrow of slavery. In quoting St. Paul he noted that ‘without blood there is no remission of sins’. In Kansas in 1854 Brown led four of his sons and three others to the houses of five pro-slavery suspects whom he then dragged from their homes and hacked to death. In a more daring assault Brown and his twenty followers set out to raid the Government Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, located fifty miles from Washington. He planned to storm the Government Armoury and capture a huge hoard of rifles to spark off a slave rebellion in the South. Initially John Brown cut the telegraph wires as a prelude to his break-in. However, his botched plan backfired seeing ten of his men killed by Colonel Robert E. Lee’s forces, Brown’s two sons were among the ten dead. John Brown was captured and hanged by Lees soldiers in December 1859 in a field near Charlestown. Brown was unrepentant to the end. After his death his murderous deeds and eccentricities were soon forgotten to be replaced by his glorification. Soon he was seen by the abolitionists as a Moses-like figure who would lead the black man to freedom. In their eyes he achieved martyrdom status – today he is immortalised in that rousing American ballad, The Battle Hymn of the Republic – as the song tells us ‘his soul goes marching on’.
Curiously Britain, Europe’s biggest slave trading nation was to the fore when it abolished slavery in 1807. Sadly the legacy of slavery still lives on; Africa today wallows in genocide, famine, corruption, bad government and endless war as a result of the actions of ruling despots. Analysts conclude that Africa’s plight today is a result of its slave past.
Another unusual character thrown up in the slave era was Captain John Newton. Newton made several slave voyages between 1749-1755. He had a loving wife back in England on whom he doted; during the long months at sea he wrote streams of love-letters to her as he poured out his emotions and love. Newton’s diary has survived to the present day and gives the researcher a wonderful insight into the mind of a slave captain. However, there was a darker side to Newton, when seafaring with his human cargos; he had no qualms about using the lash on his unfortunate victims. He regularly summoned young slave girls to his cabin to sate his adulterous lust. A refusal would precipitate a beating with the cat-o-nine tails. In his diary he makes several references to his ‘brutish lusts’ and notes from time to time that he is still living ‘in the grip of sin’. He was also a swearer and blasphemer and found it necessary to invent new swear words to express his temper fully. However, a near-death experience caused Newton to reform his wicked ways. On one occasion a ship on which he was sailing was cast up on the rocks in a storm. As the broken ship slipped off the rocks and into deep water Newton uttered a final prayer in the face of death ‘God please save me’ – miraculously his life was spared when all others were drowned. Newton had a revelation after his experience; God had answered his prayer and spared his life. Newton reflected on his own past life and realised that in fact he was a tyrant, a serial rapist and a cheating husband. There and then Newton decided to follow the path of God by becoming a clergyman; he devoted the rest of his life in atonement for his sins. He wrote captivating sermons and packed churches in North London with his gift of oratory in delivering them to an awe-struck congregation. Newton’s legacy lives on today in that lovely hymn: Amazing Grace which he wrote in 1770. The words of the hymn reflect his own confession and plea for God’s mercy.
- Bury the Chains,
- Captive Passage,
- History of Slavery,
- Transatlantic Slavery.
- The Black Joke.
- To Hell or Barbados.
- Slave Captain.
- Doctor Neligan account of beads and lithograph.
- Calendar of State Papers Ireland.
- The National Library.
- Letters of the Royal African Company.
- Kew Archives.
- Boole Library.