Gould piloted the Africa from New London to the Cape Verde Islands off the African coast in about 50 days, looping across the Atlantic in a slightly downward curve and working his way from "fresh gales with snow" to "fresh breises and hazey" off the islands. The men caught a sea turtle and hauled it on board, fresh food by that point in the voyage a great luxury, but the turtle was already dead, "and stunke bitterly," Gould wrote.
The ocean crossing reads like the diary of Capt. Jack Aubrey in a Patrick O'Brian novel. The weather was often fierce, the navigator constantly checked his course, and the seamen worked like dogs - the phrase "Men Imploy'd" - appeared almost daily.
As the ship neared Africa, Gould took frequent depth soundings, checking the tallow at the end of the sounding rope for what its sandy debris would tell him. He described the look of the sea and its "colour," shifts in the wind and the deployment of the ship's sails in response to that wind. There were moments of hectic activity that echoed the terse entry I saw in the log of a New London whale ship: "All hands on deck, God damn you!"
The Cape Verde Islands where the Africa first dropped anchor was a slave-trading archipelago belonging to Portugal. It was March when Easton and Gould arrived, and they were racing against a clock because West Africa's rainy season - five months of torrential rain, hurricane weather and diminished trade - would begin in May.
A friendly bribe was sent ashore "for the Govenor" of St. Jago, the largest of the Cape Verde Islands, but the lumber and rum didn't seem to have done the trick, so Easton and his men headed for the Isles de Los, a small group of slave-trading islands north of the Sierra Leone River.
In Gould's highly phonetic style of spelling, the Isles de Los appear as the Edlesses. On some 18th-century maps, they are called The Idols, or Las Idolas, or even, movingly, the Isles of Loss.
At Isles de Los, there was plenty of socializing with other captains, an early form of networking essential for survival.
"At 3 p.m. arriv'd at the Edless & came to anchor off the White Rocks ... at 6 p.m. A Capt. Cassen & Docter Cooper, came abor'd."
The next day, "Blair McAdams came from Dorna in his shallop & Mr. Wallis's shallop from Dimbre But Brought No Trade."
The ship captains in Gould's log needed to know where it was safe to trade, which tribal people were at war, where enemy French ships had been seen, and where there were good supplies of prime slaves. In the most modern way, ships coming onto the African coast needed fresh information.
Given the potential for huge profits, the slave trade in Africa often turned deadly. Captains had to worry about mutiny and desertion, as well as disease and war. Their world was one of extreme, systemic violence, and it engulfed commanders and crewmen as well as their captives.
John Easton bought 10 people, four of them children, but trade was "dull," Gould wrote, and perhaps that prompted his captain to bring the Africa to sail on April 5, "Bound for Serrelone."
Richard Oswald and Bunce Island
Scotsman Richard Oswald would not have been familiar with the term "vertical integration," but he knew that owning related businesses enhanced the bottom line. Bunce Island had been a slave-trading fortress for almost 80 years when he and five business associates in London bought it in 1748, but it hadn't yet made anybody rich, despite its ideal location.
Set in the Sierra Leone River at the precise limit of navigation for all but very small boats, Bunce sits in front of 600 miles of coastline punctuated by rivers that snake deep into the African interior. Black traders from the interior and coast would come to the island's southern side with slaves to sell, while larger ships from Europe and the American colonies sailed to its northern side to buy those slaves. Only 350 feet - about the length of a football field - separated the two sides.
By the mid-1700s, the slave castles were in decline. Virtually all the traffic was carried on by independent traders who would set up short-term trading posts along the West African coast. The thriving complex on Bunce was an anomaly, but a successful one.
Oswald made payments to the local king for the use of Bunce and property on several adjacent islands. On these other islands, Grant, Oswald & Co. built ships, grew food, maintained supplies of fresh water and wood, and conducted trade.
Though slaves were purchased from the African traders who came to Bunce, the Oswald company's men and ships - in what was called "the factory fleet" - also collected slaves from various points along the coast. They didn't wait for business to come to them.
When Sam Gould says in the log that his ship was "Lying at Bense, taking in Slaves Wood & Water," he is explaining why Bunce succeeded as a center of trade. He could not only buy slaves there; he could also provision his ship with tangerines, plantains and pineapples, secure fresh water and buy firewood. He could drink brandy with other traders and obtain the latest news of trade. He could read newspapers from England and, if he wished, hire a prostitute.
He probably even had help navigating to Bunce from an African pilot stationed at Cape Sierra, the point of land where the upriver journey began. These pilots were Oswald company employees, too, and their guidance was essential in a river dotted with treacherous sandbars called "the Middle Ground."
There was, of course, a premium to be paid for all this convenience, and because time was money on the coast of Africa, slaves at Bunce were expensive.
Yet the Oswald company's aggressive, full-service approach to the slave trade still might have failed at Bunce - as did the Gambia Adventurers, the Royal African Company and London businessman George Fryer - had the partners not addressed one of the single greatest problems facing Europeans in Africa: The life expectancy of a white worker in West Africa was only six months.
The climate was described as "miasmal" and understood to be dangerous, which is why the company ordered workers to deforest Bunce, believing trees trapped bad air. It's also the reason that the operation's high-level white agents lived on top floors. The source of the danger was not yet recognized as "musketos" carrying malaria and yellow fever.
Oswald's company "Africanized" the operations at Bunce, and although there was a top tier of white managers, they were outnumbered, four and sometimes five to one - later, 10 to one - as Bunce expanded to meet the growing demand for slaves from the American colonies and the West Indian sugar islands.
Free black workers, about 100 of whom lived on the island in small groups, grew food and guarded and tended the captives, but these "gromettos," as they were called, were also coopers, carpenters, shipbuilders, blacksmiths, managers and traders. Hundreds more lived and worked on neighboring islands, protected from the ravages of the slave trade itself because they were part of the operation.
As part of the lease agreement, which included a duty paid to the reigning chief for each slave sold and an education in Europe for the chief's son, the top British workers were required to have black "wives." These women, the daughters of chiefs and leaders, were insiders and kept an eye on trade so that the chief's interests were protected.
An Englishwoman visiting Bunce in 1791 saw these women and was told "one was the woman or mistress of Mr. --, another of Mr. B--, and so on; I then understood that every gentleman on the island had his lady."
Bunce was a model enterprise, one that brilliantly met the needs of a complex, far-reaching system of supply and demand. Oswald, who never visited Bunce, profited handsomely. He had a castle on a river in Scotland. He was an art collector, leaning toward landscapes and paintings with religious themes. He owned Scotland's first greenhouses, where he grew sugarcane and exotic plants, and he had a teahouse designed by Robert Adam, the great Scottish architect.
Connecticut's John Easton also thrived, of course, with his riverfront Middletown home filled with beautiful possessions.
Everyone prospered except for the traumatized men, women and children held behind the high walls of the slave yard at Bunce.
Halfway to Hell
They would have heard unfamiliar languages, shouted commands, tears and prayers. And they would have heard something entirely new to many of them: the pounding of surf.
The people held captive at Bunce were taken from communities 600 miles north and south of the island, and from as far inland as 100 miles. Many were rice farmers, whose ancestors had lived along Sierra Leone's long stretches of river and quiet tidal inlets for centuries.
During the approximately 130 years that Bunce operated as a slave-trading fortress, an estimated 50,000 Africans were sold there. About 12,000 of those were taken to colonial South Carolina and Georgia, representing about 3 percent of the total number of enslaved people brought into the American colonies. The two Southern colonies had begun farming rice in the 1740s, and Sierra Leoneans, with their skill at growing rice, became highly desired as slaves.
These men and women would never have seen anything like the manor house on Bunce Island, the fortress enclosure, and the men with white faces.
They would never have seen anything like the Orange Walk, the elaborately terraced formal gardens that lay behind the great manor house, and the giant British flag snapping from a flagpole on the outer wall of the fortress.
By the time they got to Bunce, they might have been walking for days or weeks, been sold and re-sold as they passed through various traders' hands.
They might have been beaten and starved, and were almost certainly disoriented and frightened. The slave trade routinely separated spouses and families, so even before reaching the fortress, captive adults and children would have known loneliness and fear in addition to hunger and dislocation.
When they arrived, women and children were herded through a gateway and then into one side of the enclosed slave yard, which had a few small buildings and a small grassy area. On the other side of the wall dividing the slave yard, or "barracoon," the men, who always outnumbered the women, were held in a larger open area with no roof. For the men, wearing chains around their necks and feet, there was no shelter from the harsh sun and lashing rains.
The barracoon comprising these two areas lay below a long row of windows on the back side of the spacious manor house. Traders, guests and their English hosts would look down from the second floor into the barracoon, like zoo visitors watching animals. In large airy rooms designed to catch cool breezes, the whites ate fresh food, drank the best brandies and port and stared down at the captive blacks in the sweltering slave enclosure.
The Englishwoman who visited in 1791 looked down from the upper windows of Bunce Island House where she was about to enjoy a meal with her hosts.
"Judge then what my astonishment and feelings were, at the sight of between two and three hundred victims, chained and parceled out in circles, just satisfying the cravings of nature from a tub of rice placed in the center of each circle," wrote Anna Maria Falconbridge. The wife of Alexander Falconbridge, a former slave ship surgeon who became an abolitionist, she seemed more repelled by the sight of the naked men than sympathetic to their degradation.
Despite her "offended modesty," she did notice that some of the chained men were old, and having trouble eating.
John Atkins, a surgeon in the Royal Navy who visited Bunce Island in the 1720s when it belonged to the Royal African Company, noticed that most of the slaves were "very dejected."
He also saw a man given "an unmerciful Whipping" with a strap made from the rough hide of a manatee for refusing to be examined by a trader. The man was a tribal leader who had already killed two slave traders, Atkins explained, and would have been whipped to death except for his evident strength and courage, which had commercial value.
An Englishman who worked for a firm of slave traders in Sierra Leone during the 1780s described black men and women being examined for purchase: "When a slave is brought to be sold he is first carefully examined, to see that there is no blemish or defect in him," wrote John Matthews.
"If approved, you then agree upon the price at so many bars, and then give the dealer so many flints or stones to count with..." Iron bars were a kind of baseline currency in the slave trade, and their value fluctuated in response to time, location and supply. All commodities were valued in these bars, from rum, tobacco and gold dust to cloth, muskets and human beings.
These Walls Can Talk
The beach on the island's north side, next to the jetty where slaves were taken down to the waiting longboats, is densely littered with bits of flint and the deep blue, green and ruby-colored Venetian glass beads used for trading. Broken bits of white clay pipes, the thick glass of 18th-century wine and gin bottles, and shards of English transferware pottery cover this beach. These dirt-stained traces of the slave trade, fragments representing the lives of both captive and captor, are still thick on the ground two centuries later.
Joseph Opala had said the walls of the fortress tell the story of what happened there, and they do. Dark and rough with age, scabbed here and there with tropical moss and lichen, the stone walls of the barracoon still have the power to frighten.
To enter the slave yard, you step through the double doorway used by black workers when they carried food and water in to the captives, and brought out buckets of human waste. An armed guard, positioned on the wall above these double doors, kept constant watch.
There was no way to make a break for it. Even if a slave managed to escape the barracoon, there was still the outer fortress wall, locked and guarded. The island was surrounded by water swarming with crocodiles, and the nearest land, Tasso Island, was more than a mile away. There is no record of any slave ever escaping from Bunce Island.
The ruins that now stand are what remain of the island's final of perhaps six fortresses, the last completed in 1796. The castle Sam Gould visited in the 1750s was destroyed by the French in 1779 during the American Revolution, and the French also leveled the one that followed it. But drawings from the 18th century show that the fortresses were always rebuilt on the same site and occupied the footprint of their predecessors.
Anna Maria Falconbridge, the woman scandalized by the sight of the naked men in the barracoon, left cinematically precise descriptions of the fortress she saw in 1791, a fortress that probably did not differ radically from the one in ruins today.
The young Mrs. Falconbridge, who tartly described her alcoholic husband as "naturally irritable," said Bunce Island House had a "formidable" appearance. "I suppose it is about one hundred feet in length, and thirty in breadth," she wrote in her memoir, "and contains nine rooms, on one floor, under which are commodious cellars and store rooms; to the right is the kitchen, forge, &c, and to the left other necessary buildings, all of country stone, and surrounded with a prodigious thick lofty wall."
That thick lofty wall would have been mounted with small cannons on swivel posts, used for repelling attackers or quelling slaves bent on rebellion.
Bunce still feels like what it was, a fortress that embodied violence. The encroaching jungle hasn't yet pulled down all the walls of the ruins, which are still 40 feet high in some places and, even centuries later, convey a feeling of suffocation. Everywhere there are gun ports, windows to spy from, and cannons.
These heavy cannons, positioned to guard the deep-water side of the island, once rested on wooden carriages that have long since rotted away. Still bearing the elaborately curling monogram of England's mad King George III, the cannons poke through their embrasures, waiting for an enemy.
Bunce is a tiny island, and the ruins, open to the sky and occupying just a piece of the island, dominate the landscape. From wherever you are, they are right behind you.
Opala has brought other visitors into the barracoon over the years, ambassadors, African dignitaries and even former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He says they always fall silent.
Disease Stalks The Good Hope
For reasons he doesn't explain, but with Captain Easton's permission, Samuel Gould left the Africa on April 11, 1757, and joined Commander Alexander Urquhart on board the sloop Good Hope, anchored at Bunce Island. They were soon to take a cargo of 169 Africans, some of them purchased at Bunce, to the Caribbean island of St. Christopher's, more commonly known today as St. Kitts.
Gould might have been in severe pain from an injured jaw - he noted weeks earlier that he had "put [his] right jaw out" during what sounds like a seizure - and skilled medical attention would have been more available on St. Kitts than at Bunce.
In addition, many more ships from the American colonies would have been traveling through the Caribbean than past Bunce, making it easier for Gould to get a lift home to New London.
St. Kitts had a significant trade relationship with New London; of all the sugar islands, only Barbados saw more New London ships than little St. Kitts. (St. Kitts was, in fact, John Easton's original destination on the 1757 voyage in the Africa, though he was months getting there, and appears to have sold most of his cargo in Jamaica that December.) Whatever his reasons for changing ships, Gould settled in aboard the Good Hope.
He was about to enter a nightmare.
The Good Hope left Bunce and sailed back down to the mouth of the Sierra Leone River and Frenchman's Bay before heading a few days north toward the Isles de Los. Gould noted that some of the slaves were "Not Very Well."
The week before, he'd heard from the commander of a Rhode Island slave ship that a Captain Alexander Dondass, who was headed from the coast of Africa to the West Indies "with 150 Prime Slaves on Board," had been "cut of[f]," and he and his crew murdered. The only ones who had survived were the carpenter and the cabin boy. Maybe the news felt like a bad omen.
Gould wrote that the vessel had been run ashore, but didn't say where, nor did he explain who attacked the ship, though a likely guess would be that Captain Dondass had cheated or in some way angered a powerful black trader or chief. He might have "panyar'd" an African trader - that is, bought the trader's slaves and then grabbed the trader, too.
Urquhart and Gould, however, had more immediate problems than wondering what befell Captain Dondass. Only days into their voyage, one of the most lethal and contagious diseases of the Middle Passage - the transatlantic voyage into enslavement - had broken out.
The causes of the "bloody flux" would not be understood for a century and half, but Gould would have recognized the symptoms instantly. Amoebic dysentery was the scourge of a time when contaminated food and water were commonplace.
The flux first manifested itself as a kind of malaise, rapidly progressing to high fever, wracking abdominal cramps and bloody bowel movements. Those afflicted could have as many as 40 bowel movements in 24 hours, sometimes suffering for several days before dying. It was a ferocious disease, and nearly always fatal.
At the time, physicians believed it came from stagnant, swampy air or various "humours," or even from eating too much fruit. They called it a fever in the bowels, and knew they were helpless against it.
Amoebic dysentery is caused by ingesting food or water contaminated by feces or fecal bacteria. This form of dysentery is also spread by contact with the feces of a sufferer, and on a slave ship, such contact was almost inevitable, given how the captives were packed in together.
The slaves were "frequently stowed so close, as to admit of no other posture than lying on their sides," wrote Alexander Falconbridge, whose four voyages aboard British slave ships had set him against slavery. He thought it was the air in the slave cabins that "by being repeatedly breathed soon produces fever and fluxes."
The disease probably came aboard the Good Hope with a few slaves who were infected after their capture. Amoebic dysentery has an incubation period of between 15 and 90 days, and the sloop was still on the African coast when some of the slaves began to fall ill.
Below decks, it would have been suffocatingly hot, and the smell from the sick captives would have been terrible. Seasickness, which was epidemic among slaves at the beginning of a voyage, would have added another element to the horror. Slave ship commanders should not have "dainty fingers or dainty noses," said one English captain, in a masterful understatement.
Five days after beginning the Atlantic crossing, Gould noted again, cryptically, "Slaves Not Very Well." Two days later, a man died. A day after that, three children.
"This 24 hours Died 3 Small Slaves with the Flux," he wrote in the log, without noting their gender. In the first 20 days of the crossing, 12 captives died, 10 of them children.
Anything that would have eased their suffering - family, the sounds of home, even fresh air - would have been denied to them. The adults, both men, died of heart failure, exhaustion or a perforated bowel. The children died, most probably, of dehydration and exhaustion.
Thirty years later, a French slave dealer in Bordeaux found that lots of clean food and water helped combat the flux, but at mid-century, Gould would have had no medicines and no idea how to prevent the spread of the disease. Neither the children - who were particularly susceptible to dehydration - nor the adults would have been given the large amounts of fresh water and food they needed. The prevailing remedy then was to starve the sufferer and, almost unbelievably, administer an enema.
The virulence of the dysentery would have made it impossible for the sick people to stand and get to the tubs that were used as latrines. They would have suffered raging thirst and stabbing pains in the stomach. They would have been in too much agony to sleep. As they lay in their own blood and excrement, they would have been conscious of their misery because delirium did not occur until the very end.
As a ship's surgeon, Falconbridge tended slaves with the flux on several voyages. He said the floors of their communal cabins were "so covered with blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux, that it resembled a slaughter-house." After 15 minutes below deck, Falconbridge said he was so overcome by the heat, stench and foul air that he almost fainted, and had to be helped up on deck.
The Good Hope reached St. Kitts with 151 slaves. Two adults and four more children had died, bringing the total loss of life to 18, about 11 percent of the original cargo. This was a standard figure for the time, though casualties were often much higher, and mortality rates of 25 percent were not uncommon.
There is no way to know how many of the survivors were infected or about to manifest symptoms of the disease when they were put ashore on St. Kitts and sold into permanent bondage. Amoebic dysentery was a leading cause of death among slaves newly arrived in the Caribbean, but by then, it was a problem for the planter rather than the shipper. It was not uncommon for a dysentery-stricken captive to be sold with his anus plugged with a cork to disguise the disease.
Gould offers no commentary on the outbreak, nor on what must have been scenes from Hell. A Scottish physician who treated a servant girl dying of the bloody flux a year later said he never saw anyone suffer more violently.
At St. Kitts, Gould went ashore to see a doctor about his jaw. The physician said the jawbone was too stiff to be re-set, and gave him an ointment to relax it.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times