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U3A Writing: The Devil's Triangle

...By 1800 Liverpool would send more slave ships to sea than any other port in the world carrying more than 300,000 Africans into slavery...

Derek McQueen writes about the vilest trade in human history.

The day was sunny, sultry and very warm. Too warm to be playing golf, particularly dressed as the two men were: identical white waistcoats, buttoned to the neck with tightly fitting off white breeches.

There was a great view of the course from the first tee and the river beyond. They would have to play the two holes nine times to make up a full round but they were the only ones out there today and time wasn't a problem for either of the two sea captains. Both their vessels were being serviced in the small, purpose built, shipyard on the Sierra Leone River situated close to the fortress. The hulls were to be scrupulously examined for wormholes due to the warm seawater. The men, Captain Wilson and Captain Oswald tossed for 'first to drive' and Wilson hit a remarkable long shot that unfortunately finished in the bushes.

"Dammit Wilson that was a good shot and look where it's bloody landed," Oswald moaned.

"You’ve got another eight tries at it yet Oswald," Wilson said.
Both our boats have full cargos so keep calm and enjoy yourself."

It was true; there were a thousand slaves in the Bance Island fortress, which was just to the left of the golf course. Bance Island was a slave factory, which included a 'great house' for the Chief Agent, a slave yard, watchtowers, the jetty and the fortress and cannons. Escape was impossible. All the slaves were in chains and penned inside ten-foot high walls. Six cannon were positioned, around the perimeter of the fortress, to fend off the French who were always potential invaders. The grass was brown with the almost constant sunshine and a well-trodden path led to the small door of a chapel for the use of British staff. A service was taking place and it appeared to be a common-law marriage between a fortress manager from London, probably already married, and an African woman.

Captains Oswald and Wilson were based in London, one of the three busiest slave ports in Britain after Bristol and Liverpool. By 1800 Liverpool would send more slave ships to sea than any other port in the world carrying more than 300,000 Africans into slavery.

Bance, or Bunce, Island was a key location for slaving activity on the Sierra Leone coast, known as the Rice Coast.

The Island was as far as the seagoing slave ships could navigate. At the same time, it was the ideal rendezvous point for the African traders coming down river from the rice growing fields in the interior. The Africans skilled in working the fields were very much prized as slaves.

A London company, Grant & Sargent, owned and controlled Bance Island and assembled a fleet of smaller vessels searching for slaves along the Rice coast. Rice coast slaves were particularly valued in Charlestown, South Carolina where local rice planters were eager to purchase slaves from Sierra Leone at top prices. The British owners advertised the slaves and sold them at auction. Captains Oswald and Wilson each had a valuable cargo by any reckoning.

The two men were halfway round the golf course. They still had four and a half holes to play and with the sun high in the sky, they were running with sweat. Oswald was two up and neither wanted to end their annual grudge match. Their next meeting could be many months away, probably in the Jamaica Coffee House on St Michael's Alley in London.

Their ships had covered the first leg of the triangle from London in five weeks and fortunately all had gone well with the crew. Slave ship crews were often the scum of the seafaring community. They could be the worse for drink or have run up debts with a pub landlord then lured on to the ships. Fights with officers were commonplace with brutal floggings as a consequence.

The golf was over. It was time to load the valuable cargo. The two friends said goodbye, Wilson's ship would take the jetty first.

The Middle Passage was what all on the ship feared most, from Captain to cabin boy. To the slaves, newly chained and packed so tight, it was impossible to stand or stretch, their future seemed hopeless. Revolts on this leg of the slave run were many and savage. Chained together for months in brutally cramped quarters and sick with misery and hopelessness, the slaves were easy prey to illness and infection. Few voyages were completed without the loss of slaves through sickness. A single journey could have a death toll running into dozens.

It was not in the Captain's interest to lose slaves, however the circumstances. Each loss was lost income as far as he was concerned. The slave ship 'Zong', on route from Africa to Jamaica, went off course and a two month voyage began stretching to four.

The hundreds of slaves below decks became very ill. Captain Collingwood feared that many would be dead or too sick to auction when he reached port so he ordered that 133 of them be thrown overboard still alive. The slave’s lives were insured and Collingwood's plan was to file an insurance claim asserting that they had to be killed or many other lives would be lost because the ship was running out of water. As it turned out, the ship had plenty of water.

Captains Wilson and Oswald met again very shortly after their game of golf on Bance Island. We'll revisit them both next time.

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