New London Towards Africa

The island greeted me with its stillness, the tropical air so hot and thick it felt like a weight on my body. I waded ashore in water as warm as a bath, and looked up.

Behind the trees where the shoreline ends, I could see patches of a stone wall, mottled gray and looming. Nothing moved, and even the tall canopy palms were motionless in the dead air. Insects buzzed, breaking the silence, and green monkeys screamed in the treetops.

I knew without being told that no one lives on Bunce Island, that no one has lived here for centuries.

On the gravel jetty that curves down to the water, the jetty where, more than 200 years ago, slaves were forced down to the waiting ships, an ancient cannon still rests on the stones.

On the little rise above the jetty and only partially obscured by trees stand the ruins of a slave fortress, long walls of stone and broken mortar. Empty doorways open onto walled-in yards, and tall windows frame views of sky. In the remains of a room where African people were once traded for rum and muskets and beads of Venetian glass, a mantelpiece is mounted on a wall, exposed to sun and rain.

I thought the fortress would be hard to envision after two centuries of abandonment, but it wasn't. The walls still told the story, and even in bright equatorial sunlight, the ruins were thick with menace and sorrow. In the slave yard where hundreds of naked men were held, chained together, speech was impossible. The ground was rough and uneven, broken by roots and hard to walk on. I looked at the tall walls and felt them look back at me.

The 18-mile trip upriver from Freetown had felt like an outing, the wind cool on my face. I admired the deeply forested Sierra Leone coast, sloping hillsides that reminded the early Portuguese traders of lions at rest.

But I forgot that azure West African coast as I slipped down from the side of our speedboat and walked into the slave trade's Pompeii. The past surrounded me, echoing from the broken walls.

The people who live on neighboring islands will not stay here overnight, nor even as daylight fades. They believe this place is haunted by a devil, and that on a small cluster of rocks off the northeastern end of the island the devil sits, watching. Sometimes, they believe, he moves across the water and comes ashore.

The day before, on a hill high above Freetown, our guide reached over my shoulder and pointed to a group of islands in the distance. In the blue haze, one tiny island seemed to hide in the curve of a much bigger one. ``Bunce,'' he said.

I had traveled 9,000 miles to step into a ghost story.

The Log

A Journey Begins

On January 18, 1757, a two-masted ship caught a northwest wind and sailed out of New London Harbor into Long Island Sound. The day was clear and bitterly cold. So began a voyage whose details were recorded in a ship's log I found late last spring in the Connecticut State Library.

``Thought this might interest you,'' read a friend's Post-it note attached to a nearly 80-year-old news article from the Hartford Times. The story described the ship's log, which the library had acquired from a collector in 1920.

The well-preserved but brittle pages were slightly rough to the touch, and smelled like old books from an attic. Underneath that musty smell was a sharper one, like old cloth. The man who kept the log wrote in black ink that has faded to brown with age, and he often made a long dash, or flourish, after the last word in each entry, as if to clear his quill of ink.

Sitting in the stuffy basement library nearly 250 years later, I began to see the world he knew, the bad weather and evil food. I imagined eating mutton that had been salted and stored in a barrel for two months, and ``ship's bread,'' blue with mold and alive with weevils.

Suddenly, I saw the seamen clearing a space between decks for people who would be chained there, and heard the captain's anger when precious rum -- essential for slave trading -- leaked from some of the barrels.

I began to hear the writer's voice in my head, and to understand his shorthand. He kept track of the ship's provisions, repairs, and the men's daily tasks. He noted changing weather and wind conditions throughout each day, as well as latitude and -- using the primitive methods of the era -- longitude. In rough weather, his handwriting was choppy and I imagined a sloping deck and vertical seas. Much of the log would have been written by the light of a candle.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when I read that a ship -- named the Africa -- was at ``Bense Island,'' in Sierra Leone, buying slaves at the ``factory.''

But I was surprised. I was holding the log of a Connecticut slave trader.

* * *

``Where did you get these? What is this from?'' Joseph Opala demanded, looking up from the copies of pages from the log I'd brought to Yale.

A history professor at James Madison University in Virginia, Opala has been researching the story of Bunce Island for 30 years, since serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone during the mid-1970s. But he'd never seen this ship's log nor any reference to it.

Opala is bearded and has the ruddy skin of a farmer, but he turned pale when he saw the pages from the log.

He explained that Bunce Island, at various times called Bance or Bense Island, was a major English slave fortress from the 1670s until the end of the legal slave trade in 1807. Tens of thousands of Africans were funneled through the fortress into slavery in the West Indies and the American colonies.

Dozens of slave-trade castles once lined the western coast of Africa. England, France, Portugal, the Netherlands and Denmark all owned coastal ``factories'' where slaves were collected and traded for manufactured goods, rum and agricultural products. Bunce may be the most significant one for African Americans because of the large number of slaves it sent to the American South.

Bunce Island is situated at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River, which empties into Freetown Harbor, the third-largest harbor in the world. After two centuries, the slave trade ended in the area and the island was swallowed up by jungle. Used briefly as a sawmill, then engulfed by dense vegetation, the fortress on Bunce slipped from the world's memory.

But this ship's log meant that Connecticut men were trading at an important slave castle during its heyday in the mid-18th century, when it was owned by a consortium of London businessmen who grew staggeringly rich from the transatlantic slave trade. The fragile, 250-year-old log, which details three slaving voyages, brings to light a new piece of America's story.

Opala's scholarship linking Sierra Leone and the Gullah culture of the American South -- work that began on Bunce Island -- has made him a national figure in that West African nation.

After finishing graduate school, he returned to Africa in the early 1980s and lived there until forced to flee Sierra Leone in 1997 during the country's protracted and bloody civil war.

Opala's manner is usually genial and teasing. He likes to joke and says things for shock value, often speaking rudely of Republicans and his hometown, Oklahoma City. But that day at Yale he was serious, and emphatic. He said I needed to go to New London and find evidence of other Connecticut ships in Africa. If there were any.

Secrets

Looking for New London

The only place I didn't find slaves, or evidence of slavery, was in the massive city history written in 1852 by Frances Manwaring Caulkins. One of America's first social histories and still a standard reference, Caulkins' ``History of New London'' devotes none of its 700 densely written pages to the city's involvement with the Africa trade, though the author goes on at grinding length about the region's troublesome Indians and the brave colonials who tamed them.

Miss Caulkins was an abolitionist, but doesn't mention that during the second half of the 18th century, New London had an enslaved population that was startlingly larger than those of Connecticut's other major cities.

In 1774, for example, the year before America's War of Independence, the enslaved population of New London was 10 percent, while Hartford, which was comparable in size to New London, had a black population of only 3 percent. By a generous margin, New London had the largest black population in the colony.

Putting aside Miss Caulkins, I felt closer to the port city's true story when I read issues of the New-London Summary & Weekly Advertiser, with its cheerful and confident slogan, ``The Freshest Advices Foreign & Domestick.'' The newspaper was founded in 1758, making it the same age as the ship's log.

A culture enmeshed in slavery breathes up from the pages of the Summary. New London merchants sell molasses, spices and ``Muscovado sugar,'' all products of the Caribbean islands where enslaved black people were worked, often to death, in a plantation system described even then as ``a kinde of Hell.''

The names of local ships headed for and returning from the West Indies are listed in every week's edition. Slaves are for sale and slaves run away. These slave sales, spices, ships and sugars all appear as separate news items, but they are part of a single narrative: the story of 12 million people bought and sold in the transatlantic slave trade.

This commerce was an integral part of the Triangle Trade involving Europe, the Americas and Africa -- a trade that actually had a few more corners than a triangle does. Ships left Europe and North America carrying manufactured goods, which were then traded for slaves and raw materials in Africa. Slaves were carried to North America, the Caribbean and Brazil, where they were traded for sugar and other products. These products went to the New England states and back to Europe in an intricate web.

In the Summary, I found advertisements for ``fat shipping horses.'' Horses were critical to the sugarcane-growing operations that blanketed the islands of the Caribbean. During just one 5-year period -- and this was in the waning days of the Triangle Trade -- an estimated 30,000 horses and cattle were shipped from New London to the West Indies.

The trade made fortunes in Europe, the Caribbean and in America, where the labor of slaves helped transform a handful of colonies into a nation.

At mid-18th century, New London had everything it needed to succeed in this triangle of trade, beginning with a population of seasoned mariners, skilled shipbuilders and eager entrepreneurs. It also had one of the deepest natural harbors in the colony and a necklace of farming communities producing ample food, lumber and livestock for export.

For a city as fully engaged in provisioning West Indies plantations as New London, Africa was the logical next step, and the pages of the Summary provide testimony to that, too. ``To be sold, A Negro Wench Just arrived from the Coast of Africa,'' read an advertisement in July 1761. That same month: ``a parcel of likely young windward SLAVES'' also were advertised for sale.

And under the headline ``Custom-House, New-London'':

``Brig Pompey, John Easton, for Africa'';

``Sloop Rainbow, Capt. Waterman, for Africa'';

``Brig Hope, Thomas Goold, for Africa.''

Even as I began to learn about New London's slaving voyages, Middletown emerged as part of that story. Men from that thriving Connecticut River port often sailed from New London. Though not a deep-water port like New London, Middletown was a city that also drew its lifeblood from trade, and was a vivid and bustling center of maritime commerce with wharfs, rope-makers and merchants all dependent on the Caribbean trade.

Slaves directly from Africa were sold in both cities. I found advertisements in the Summary for slave sales at the homes of Middletown men who traded so regularly they are identified on an old map as slave dealers.

The ship's log was showing me that my home state had a secret life.

* * * Traitor

Arnold's Path of Destruction

America's most infamous traitor made the story of Connecticut in Africa a hard one to find, and he did it in one day: September 6, 1781.

Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, a thriving port just a few miles up the Thames River from New London. His father, also named Benedict, was a prominent sea captain felled by personal tragedy, business losses and a blistering addiction to drink.

Success and controversy followed the younger Arnold through a career in West Indies trading and then the colonial military before and during the Revolutionary War. He had become a turncoat and joined the British Army two years before he returned to his home territory and, at the head of 800 men, attacked New London.

Arnold's goal was to take Fort Griswold on the Groton side of the Thames River and Fort Trumbull on the New London side. But gunpowder was stored in buildings along the New London side of the waterfront and what ensued that September day sounds more like the Great Fire of London than a military encounter.

Amid the battle between British and colonial soldiers, the hidden gunpowder exploded, shooting fire in every direction as a rising wind spread the conflagration. Within hours, wharves, shops, homes, the court and jailhouse, piles of lumber for shipbuilding, taverns and municipal buildings all were engulfed in huge walls of fire and smoke.

Flaming ships burned through their tow lines and blew across the harbor, while the gutters ran with melted Irish butter and locally distilled rum. A block from the harbor, New London's Customs House and decades of shipping records lay smoldering in ruins.

The damage from the fires was so widespread that Arnold's commanding officer expressed regret in a report home to England, describing New London as ``unfortunately destroyed.''

Arnold explained that he hadn't known how much gunpowder was hidden among the enemy's ``stores.'' In any event, that long-ago action of war and the destruction of the Customs House made it hard to assemble the history of mariners crucial to the story of the log.

The Captains

'A Noted Sea Commander'

The author of the log was a mystery. ``Sam Gould'' is written in the lower right-hand corner of one of the log's first pages, a page with notes on navigation. With no other evidence about its authorship -- though there's a reference to Gould family slaves during one of the three voyages -- that name seemed to me like the place to start.

In 1726, a Samuel Gould was born in Killingly to a man with a lot of children and not enough land to divide among them. A farming community on the border of Rhode Island, Killingly had been part of New London County until several years earlier. If this is the Gould who wrote the log, he would have been 30 at the time of the first voyage, an appropriate age for a second-in-command or even captain of a ship.

This Killingly Sam also had a brother named Thomas, born in 1736. While researching old records, I found references to a Captain Thomas Goold who died in Africa in 1764 aboard a New London-based slave ship. Might the two brothers have seen the sea as their opportunity and decided to take their chances in a lethal, yet legal trade? (At that time, the names Gould, Goold and Gold were spelled so interchangeably that many of the records for these are filed together in the state archives.)

I found a will for a Samuel Gould who died in Fairfield County in 1769. It caught my eye because the man who kept the log in the 1750s twice recorded having ``fitts,'' one so severe he dislocated or broke his jaw, another that made him temporarily blind. Perhaps he had a neurological illness that killed him in his 40s.

The handwriting in the will made me shiver. It was eerily like looking at pages in the log written when the ship was at anchor, the letters smooth and neatly shaped, the spaces between words and lines uniform. There were distinctive similarities between the letters in the two, but I also had a powerful sense of having seen this handwriting before. I knew the shape of it.

There was another coincidence. The Fairfield will listed four children among Samuel's survivors, including a son named Daniel and a daughter, Abigail. My Killingly Sam had had a brother, Daniel, and a sister, Abigail, both close to him in age. They would have grown up together. Might he not have passed on those names to his children?

He left his wife Esther most of his estate and ``my Negroe boy named Lively.''

Sam Gould's familiarity with the customs and everyday horrors of the slave trade, as detailed in the log, suggest that he was not a novice. His commander on the Africa, however, was the Connecticut slave trade's man in full.

John Easton of Middletown was 39 when he and Gould sailed, and he had been at the helm of slave ships for at least a decade. He had built an imposing house on the Connecticut River in Middletown and filled it with the English-made furnishings beloved by wealthy colonists of the day. Sarah Ward Easton must not have seen much of her successful husband, because even incomplete documentation shows that he was often at sea.

Between 1762 and 1765, for instance, Easton made four separate African slaving voyages, three of them aboard the Pompey, a newly built New London-registered brig. He carried slaves to South Carolina and Virginia, as well as to the Caribbean islands.

Described in the contemporary New London Gazette as ``a very noted sea commander,'' Easton's numerous voyages before and after the journey in the Africa prove that he understood the many dangers and risks of the slave trade, and navigated them successfully.

The Africa would scarcely drop anchor on the coast before Easton climbed into the longboat and headed ashore to let the locals know he had arrived and was ready to begin trade. Like the other Connecticut sea captains he would have known -- men such as William Wignall, Jedediah Waterman, Timothy and Joseph Miller, Benjamin Gleason and William Taylor -- Easton was a ``Guineaman,'' a seasoned hand in the Africa trade.

Estimates vary, but between one-quarter and one-third of the 3 million African people forced into labor on the sugar islands died during the first three years of their captivity. Of those who died, half did so during the first year. Poorly fed, forced to work as much as 12 hours a day, and subject to as much illness, injury and abuse as the enslaved men, only one-half the women slaves bore children. It was cheaper to buy a black life than to maintain one, so the re-supplying of slaves to the Caribbean was constant.

For Easton and his fellow captains, the brutally short life expectancy of an African slave in the West Indies was not a problem, but an opportunity.

Easton died at age 57 in 1774 of an illness described only as ``short but painful,'' and his will contained -- in addition to a prayer for mercy -- a closely written 20-page inventory of his property. Easton's worldly estate included lavish clothes, ``creamware chocolate bowles,'' a sword with a silver hilt, fine linens and pewter, furniture, farm equipment, land on the waterfront and a ``whorfe.'' Also listed among his possessions, after the horse, cow, yoke of oxen and ``746 swine,'' are two Negro men with African names: Accrow, valued at 100 pounds, and Gambo, valued at 25 pounds.

Reading about Easton, I remembered a historian in Essex saying to me that Connecticut's relationship with the slave trade was largely confined to the West Indies. ``Well,'' she conceded, ``you might find one ship going to Africa.''

The Children

Sam's 'Small Slaves'

In New London in 1751, a 6-year-old girl named Zeno was beaten to death by her owners on a Saturday night.

In August 1760, Benedict Arnold of Norwich advertised an 11-year-old for sale. This ``Likely Negro Boy,'' as the advertisement said, understood housework and was to be sold cheap or on short credit.

In Middletown a few years later, Captain Timothy Miller had two little African girls for sale -- one 10 and one 11.

Everywhere I looked in researching this story, I saw children, or ``small slaves,'' as Sam Gould called them. Kidnapped from Africa, taken from their parents or, often, orphaned along the way, these children inhabited a landscape defined by deprivation, harsh labor and profound loss.

I had known that children were sold into slavery, but did not really understand this until I read the log. Then I saw children being handed up from the longboat into the Africa and seamen reaching down to grasp small brown arms. When a bloody dysentery broke out on the log's middle voyage, the children died first.

And then there was the child who was deliberately drowned in the Connecticut River, near my home.

Timothy Miller was at the helm of his New London ship the Speedwell, just returned from Africa and heading up the Connecticut River toward Middletown in 1763 when, in what must have taken no more than a second or two, it happened.

A crewman rushed forward, grabbed a small slave girl and jumped over the side of the schooner. ``The vessel being under Sail they were both drowned,'' the New London Summary reported. ``The Body of the Man was taken up on Tuesday.''

There was no mention of the little girl, who had managed to survive her capture in Africa, months in captivity and the hellish suffering that always characterized the Middle Passage only to die in the Connecticut River, thousands of miles from her home.

Already haunted by these kidnapped children, I was beginning to understand that Sam Gould's log, filled with questions I could not answer, was a manuscript of rarity and importance. In documenting three separate voyages, it illuminates what was typical of the trade in a way no single voyage could.

Gould was at sea during the Seven Years' War between England and France, and at one point he described how he and his captain were prisoners of the French. He related the hazards that befell other slaving ships and saw the horrors of the Middle Passage at close hand. ``We have Now on Board 160 Slaves but Some Very Sick.'' Calmly and telegraphically, he described being cheated by other slave traders, ships being lost and the day-to-day of his now vanished world.

His 80-page log is a thin slice of the slave trade, but it is a rich one and it casts a spell.

At the state library one morning, I began to count the children as they died, and the pages swam before me. A woman also working at the research table said sympathetically, ``Researching your history?''

``Not my own,'' I said, knowing suddenly that that wasn't true. This story had become my own, and mattered more to me than my ancestors from County Mayo and the Black Forest. These children showed me my own true country, and they led me to Africa.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • VIDEO GALLERY
    VIDEO GALLERY

    Bunce Island Video Map (Alan Chaniewski) Additional Video Segments (Alan Chaniewski)

  • LINKS

    The Bloody Flux

Comments
Loading