The Journal of a Slaver

The extracts are from slaver John Newton's journal during the 'Middle Passage' voyage across the Atlantic in 1754.
John Newton
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concepts 4 and 5.  

Thursday 16 May 

"...long boat came on board from Grande Bassa. I sent Billinge (second mate) chiefly to satisfy myself of the state and price of slaves. He says the glut we heard so much of is entirely over, the Brittannia and Ranger having met very few. About Settra Crue there is still plenty (upon the account of a war very probably begun with that view) but extravagantly dear....He brought me a sample of the prices in a woman slave he bought at Bassa, which upon costing up the goods I find cost 96 bars, and I ordered him to get one upon any terms for that reason. That I might not think he gave more than usual, he brought me a list of goods he saw Saunders pay for a man which amounts to 102 bars, and the farther to leeward the dearer still. l think I have sufficient reason not to go down, for setting aside the cost, the assortments in demand there would ruin me soon. How others do I cannot conceive, for I think there was hardly any better stocked than myself." 

Wednesday 22 May 

"...At 3am. weighed with a small brease at west, bound (by God's permission) for Antigua. Made but little way by reason of the great head swell and the brease faint, but just at noon freshened a little;...Saw the Carolina schooner at anchor under the land, believe Mr. Smith was coming to trade with me. He said he would if he got any slaves, but as l limited him to 4 days he can't well blame me, it being 9 since I was with him." 

Sunday 26 May 

"...ln the evening, by the favour of Providence, discovered a conspiracy among the men slaves to rise upon us, but a few hours before it was to have been executed. A young man, who has been the whole voyage out of irons, first on account of a large ulcer, and since for his seeming good behaviour, gave them a large marline spike down the gratings, but was happily seen by one of the people. They had it in possession about an hour before I made search for it, in which time they made such good dispatch (being an instrument that made no noise) that this morning I've found near 20 of them had broke their irons. Are at work securing them." 

Monday 27 May 

"...A hard tornado came on so quick that had hardly time to take in a small sail; blew extream hard for 3 hours with heavy rain...At noon little wind....ln the afternoon secured all the men's irons again and punished 6 of the ringleaders of the insurrection." 

Tuesday 28 May 

"...Secured the after bulkhead of the men's room, for they had started almost every stantient. Their plot was exceedingly well laid, and had they been let alone an hour longer, must have occasioned us a good deal of trouble and damage. l have reason to be thankful they did not make attempts upon the coast when we had often 7 or 8 of our best men out of the ship at a time and the rest busy. They still look very gloomy and sullen and have doubtless mischief in their heads if they could find every opportunity to vent it. But I hope (by the Divine Assistance) we are fully able to overawe them now..." 

Wednesday 29 May 

"...At noon a tornado from the eastward...hard rain; filled 4 casks of water. Brought some camwood and the 4 guns from forward to aft, the ship being too much by the head. ...Buryed a boy slave (No 86) of a flux. Had 3 girls taken with fevers this morning. ...The moon was eclipsed about 3/4 ths. Began to be dark at 1/2 past 10 and continued till 40 minutes past one by our glass." 

Saturday 1 June 

"...At 6am departed this life Mr Robert Arthur, our surgeon, of a fever which seized him a few days before we left St John's. l would willingly have persuaded him to stay behind, but could not, as he did not apprehend himself in so much danger (nor indeed any one else) as he really was." 

Wednesday 12 June 

"....Got the slaves up this morn. Washed them all with fresh water. They complained so much that was obliged to let them go down again when the rooms were cleaned. Buryed a man slave (No 84) of a flux, which he has been struggling with near 7 weeks... " 

Thursday 13 June 

"...This morning buryed a woman slave (No 47) Know not what to say she died of for she has not been properly alive since she first came on board." 

Sunday 16 June 

"... In the afternoon we were alarmed with a report that some of the men slaves had found means to poyson the water in the scuttle casks upon the deck, but upon enquiry found they had only conveyed some of their country fetishes, as they call them, or talismans into one of them, which they had the credulity to suppose must inevitably kill all who drank of it. But if it please God they make no worse attempts than to charm us to death, they will not much harm us, but it shews their intentions are not wanting..." 

Tuesday 18 June 

"...The air is so sharp that the slaves cannot stand the deck, not even to mess or wash. In the forenoon passed a few small parcels of gulphweed." 

Saturday 22 June 

"...Being pretty warm, got up the men and washed all the slaves with fresh water. l am much afraid of another ravage from the flux, for we have had 8 taken within these few days. Have seen 2 or 3 tropick birds and a few flying fish." 

Monday 24 June 

"...Buryed a girl slave (No 92). In the afternoon while we were off the deck, William Cooney seduced a woman slave down into the room and lay with her brutelike in view of the whole quarter deck, for which I put him in irons. l hope this has been the first affair of the kind on board and I am determined to keep them quiet if possible. If anything happens to the woman I shall impute it to him, for she was big with child. Her number is 83..." 

Thursday 27 June 

"...When we were putting the slaves down in the evening, one that was sick jumped overboard. Got him in again but he dyed immediately between his weakness and the salt water he had swallowed, tho I imagine he would have lived but a little while being quite worn out..." 

Friday 28 June 

"...By the favour of Divine Providence made a timely discovery today that the slaves were forming a plot for an insurrection. Surprised 2 of them attempting to get off their irons, and upon farther search in their rooms, upon the information of 3 of the boys, found some knives, stones, shot, etc, and a cold chissel. Upon enquiry there appeared 8 principally concerned to move in projecting the mischief and 4 boys in supplying them with the above instruments. Put the boys in irons and slightly in the thumbscrews to urge them to a full confession. We have already 36 men out of our small number." 

Saturday 29 June 

"...ln the morning examined the men slaves and punished 6 of the principal, put 4 of them in collars." 

Tuesday 2 July 

"...At daylight made Antigua right ahead and very near..." 

Wednesday 3 July 

"...Anchored in Basse-terre road. Had afterwards continual rain. Went on shoar, took horse and waited upon Mr Guichard at Sandy Point." 

Thursday 4 July 

"...He returned with me and it was concluded to run the ship down to Sandy point, which we accordingly did on Thursday; anchored there and moored a little after sunset." 

Friday 5 July 

"...in the morning Mr Guichard went off with me to view the slaves. When came on shore again, after comparing orders and intelligence, he judged it best for the concern to sell here, if I approved it, without which, he was pleased to say, he would do nothing, tho my letters from the owners referred me wholly to his direction. It seems by all I can learn that this is likely to prove as good a market as any of the neighbouring islands; and as for Jamaica or America, I should be extremely loth to venture so far, for we have had the men slaves so long on board that their patience is just worn out, and I am certain they would drop fast had we another passage to make. Monday is appointed for the sale." 

Saturday 6 July 

"...Entered in the custom house at Sandy point. Busy in preparations for landing the slaves." 

Monday 8 July 

"...Landed the slaves. Sold all to about 20." 

Wednesday 10 July 

"...Buryed one of the remaining slaves, a man (No 52)." 

Monday 15 July 

"...Began to take in sugar." 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/slavery/middle_passage/john_newton.aspx.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    How are the Middle Passage conditions of the enslaved people described?
    In several passages, they describe the enslaved as being chained (in irons), susceptible to illness, subject to rape, and other physical punishments.
  2. Question
    In what ways were the enslaved people kept in submission?
    Their physical restraints are mentioned: being kept in “irons,” punishment of an attempted uprising’s ringleaders, put in “thumbscrews to urge them to a full confession,” and put into collars.
  3. Question
    How are the enslaved people described as a commodity/cargo?
    The enslaved people are discussed in terms of their value, considering supply/demand; their deaths are discussed in unemotional terms—reflecting an inventory check; dispassionate discussion of selling the enslaved people, just as he discusses transporting sugar; identification of several enslaved people by numbers.
  4. Question
    How is the enslaved people’s humanity described?
    In these excerpts, the two principle ways enslaved people are discussed is in terms of their attempts at rebellion and deaths. He describes their suffering and “complaining” concerning being washed; describes the enslaved people as looking “gloomy and sullen”; makes note of an enslaved woman’s rape; describes the several uprising plots.
  5. Question
    How may Newton’s description of the enslaved people have provided the captors a justification for harsh treatment?
    Answers may vary: By portraying their actions and thoughts in terms of rebellion, it depicts the enslaved people as inherently violent. Even when Newton says they are “gloomy and sullen,” it is in the context of their failed uprising, followed with stating that they “have doubtless mischief in their heads.” Depicting the enslaved people as always plotting to murder their captors serves to perpetuate enslavement, as they are a threat if not enslaved. Inhumane treatment is thus justified in the captors’ minds, so as to maintain their power.
Reveal Answers
Add to an Existing Learning Plan
    Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

    New Virtual Workshops Are Available Now!

    Registrations are now open for our 90-minute virtual open enrollment workshops. Explore the schedule, and register today—the first workshop begins October 16th and space is limited!

    Sign Up!