The Middle Passage

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Oil painting of a ship at sea

The Watt by William Jackson. image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

This Saturday, 23 August, is Slavery Remembrance Day which I have been involved in since its inception in 1999. It is a very popular and moving occasion which involves commemorations including a church service, lecture, drama, music and dancing.

The transatlantic slave trade involved the notorious Middle Passage between Africa and the New World when many enslaved Africans died in horrific conditions on board ships. Journeys took five weeks or more and the slaves were held in cramped, airless spaces below decks. Food and water were limited, with no fresh provisions available.

An exhibit in the new International Slavery Museum, in the Merseyside Maritime Museum building, represents the journeys of three slave ships called the Brooks, the Bud and the Rose which all sailed out of Liverpool in 1788. It is based on a chilling document called “Printed dimensions and names of ships in Liverpool employed in the slave trade with the details of provisions and mortality rate etc 1788."

The Brooks (297 tons) sailed from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to the West Indies with 609 slaves on board. The journey took 49 days and 19 Africans died on the voyage. The daily food ration was about 1.5 lbs of beans, 2 oz of bread, 8 oz of yams, 1 oz of dried fish and eight pints of water.There were 351 captive men on the Brooks, confined to a hold measuring about 46 ft by 25 ft. Women and children were held separately in similar conditions.

Disease, brutality and suicide led to between one quarter and one tenth of slaves dying during the Middle Passage voyage. Crew members also died.

The displays also feature exhibits linked to the Watt family who had plantations in Jamaica. As a boy, Richard Watt drove a one-horse carriage around Liverpool. He later went to Jamaica to seek his fortune and when he retired in 1772 he was a wealthy plantation owner. Displays include a fine builder’s model of the sailing ship Watt dating from 1797 along with a painting by William Jackson (shown here). Richard Watt bought Speke Hall, Liverpool, in 1795. His descendant Adelaide Watt was the last member of the family to live at the Hall, which is now cared for by the National Trust.

Next week we look at slave trader James Penny of Penny Lane. In the meantime there is more on the history of the slave ship in a fascinating lecture by Marcus Rediker, available to listen to on our main site. In it he talks about the Brooks and conditions on it and other slave ships.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from (£1.50 p&p UK).