1829: The slaves of the Greenup revolt

Add comment November 20th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1829, the Kentucky town of Greenup strung up martyrs to the slave economy.

Our incident begins with a slaver by the name of Gordon who, with the aid of two assistants, was driving 60 blacks “including all sexes and ages” from the flesh markets of Maryland where he bought them west to the Mississippi — likely there to be “sold down the river” into barges bound for still harsher bondage deeper South. Melancholy slave coffles* like this one crisscrossed Kentucky’s highways routinely, columns of chattel lashed two by two to a long chain with a wagon train of provisions alongside. (Source) The awful migrations peaked in the summer months — timed to cotton plantations’ coming labor demands for the autumn harvest.

Despite the frequency and visibility of these transits, Kentucky remained an uneasy northern frontier of the Slave Power; in the coming Civil War it would become a literal battleground claimed by both North and South. Greenup was a river town, and just across the river lay Ohio, an abolitionist state. Kentucky’s proximity to free soil had invited bloody slave revolts in the past; here, the North-South nexus also helped to propagate the story of the Greenup incident.

An editor in nearby Portsmouth, Ohio, which was not merely free territory but a hub of the Underground Railroad, ran a story that soon volleyed around the Republic as newspaper after neighboring newspaper reprinted the remarkable bulletin copied ultimately from Portsmouth’s Western Tiller. This version of it (with line breaks added for readability) comes from the New-Hampshire Sentinel of Sept. 18, 1829. It’s verbatim from what the Western Tiller had reported almost a month before.

Affray and Murder!

A most shocking outrage was committed in Kentucky, about eight miles from this place, on the 14th inst. [14th of August, 1829] A negro driver, by the name of Gordon, who had purchased in Maryland about 60 negroes, including all sexes and ages, was taking them, assisted by an associated named Allen, and the wagoner who conveyed the baggage, to the Mississippi.

The men were handcuffed and chained together in the usual manner for driving those poor wretches, while the women and children were suffered to proceed without incumbrance.

It appears that, by means of a file, the negroes, unobserved, had succeeded in separating the irons which bound their hands, in such a way as to be able to throw them off at any moment. About eight o’clock in the morning, while proceeding on the state road leading from Greenup to Vanceburg, two of them dropped their shackles and commenced a fight, when the wagoner, Petit, rushed in with his whip to compel them to desist. At this moment every negro was found perfectly at liberty; and one of them seizing a club, gave Petit a violent blow on the head, and laid him dead at his feet; and Allen, who had come to his assistance, met a similar fate, from the contents of a pistol fired by another of the gang.

Gordon was then attacked, seized and held by one of the negroes, whilst another fired twice at him with a pistol, the ball of which each time grazed his head, but not proving effectual, he was beaten with clubs and left for dead.

They then commenced pillaging the wagon, and with an axe split open the trunk of Gordon, rifled it of the money, about $2,400, sixteen of the negroes then took to the woods.

Gordon in the mean time, not being materially injured, was enabled by the assistance of one of the [slave] women, to mount his horse and flee; pursued however, by one of the gang, on another horse, with a drawn pistol. Fortunately he escaped with his life, barely arriving at a plantation as the negro came in sight; who then turned about and retreated.

The neighborhood was immediately rallied, and a hot pursuit given — which we understand has resulted in the capture of the whole gang, and the recovery of the greater part of the money.

Seven of the negro men and women, it is said, were engaged in the murders, and will be brought to trial at the next court in Greenupsburg.

There are various reports afoot of the precise number of hangings effected on this date. The Espy file offers five names, but the newspapers of the time give it as four — as in this version from the Essex Gazette of Haverhill, Mass. (Jan. 2, 1830), which is likewise an nth-generation copy of the Western Times‘s initial reportage. The doomed men, that paper remarked, “all maintained to the last, the utmost firmness and resignation to their fate”; in spite of the predictably harsh punishment, it is interesting that they were allowed that traditional privilege of the condemned to expostulate under their hanging-nooses, even here to the point of vindicating the justice of their rebellion which would really have been tantamount to inciting other slaves to follow their example too.**

They severally addressed the assembled multitude, in which they attempted to justify the deed they had committed, on the principle acknowledged by all wise men,

That it is lawful in the sight of God and a principle implanted in the breast of every man by nature, to fight for freedom, and slay the tyrant who dares to deprive them of it.

This only they had done, and having failed to accomplish the sole object for which they slew their merciless oppressors, traffickers in human flesh, it remained for them to pay the forfeit of that failure with their lives.

One of them while standing upon the cart, just ready to be launched into eternity, exclaimed, several times — “Death! — Death, any time, in preference to slavery!”

During the whole time they stood under the gallows, not a joint was seen to tremble, nor a sigh heard to escape from them.


David Walker, a free-born North Carolina black man who moved to Boston and became a prominent abolitionist, dwells at some length on the story in his magnum opus, Walker’s Appeal. Directed at his African-American fellows, the Appeal here does not pause to justify the self-evident righteousness of slaves revolting against their captors — instead, it addresses the putatively “humane” action of the enslaved woman, who in Walker’s estimation in effect props up slavery as a whole when she rescues the near-murdered slaver Gordon. Indeed, while the sketchy information that survives about this failed revolt does not offer us the particulars of what unfolded in the hours immediately following the slaves’ breakout, the proximity of potential refuge across the sectional border invites one to wonder whether that ounce of compassion was not the difference preventing the slaves from reaching the Ohio River. Walker, at any rate, has no patience for sentiment in this instance.

Here a notorious wretch, with two other confederates had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them like brutes … [until] by the help of God [the slaves] got their chains and hand-cuffs thrown off, and caught two of the wretches and put them to death, and beat the other until they thought he was dead, and left him for dead; however, he deceived them, and rising from the ground, this servile woman helped him upon his horse, and he made his escape.

Brethren, what do you think of this? Was it the natural fine feelings of this woman, to save such a wretch alive? I know that the blacks, take them half enlightened and ignorant, are more humane and merciful than the most enlightened and refined European that can be found in all the earth … there is a solemn awe in the hearts of the blacks, as it respects murdering men: whereas the whites, (though they are great cowards) where they have the advantage, or think that there are any prospects of getting it, they murder all before them, in order to subject men to wretchedness and degradation under them. This is the natural result of pride and avarice.

But I declare, the actions of this black woman are really insupportable. For my own part, I cannot think it was any thing but servile deceit, combined with the most gross ignorance: for we must remember that humanity, kindness and the fear of the Lord, does not consist in protecting devils. Here is a set of wretches, who had SIXTY of them in a gang, driving them around the country like brutes, to dig up gold and silver for them, (which they will get enough of yet.) Should the lives of such creatures be spared? Are God and Mammon in league? … Any person who will save such wretches from destruction, is fighting against the Lord, and will receive his just recompense. The black men acted like blockheads. Why did they not make sure of the wretch? He would have made sure of them, if he could.

Walker died suddenly of tuberculosis a few months after his Appeal hit print. As he forecast elsewhere in that same document, his widow received scant indulgence on her mortgage debt once the husband was out of the picture and the white real estate mogul George Parkman soon compounded the woman’s grief by throwing her out of the house. It was one of the countless little coldnesses Parkman inflicted en route to stacking up his own fortune … and to his years-later star turn as the victim of one of Harvard University’s most sensational murder trials.

* The witness who described this earlier 1822 scene of a 40-strong slave coffle marching perversely under the stars and stripes quotes an apt stanza from popular 18th century poet William Cowper, an ardent hater of slavery:

Ah! me, what wish can prosper, or what prayer,
For merchants rich in cargoes of despair?
Who drive a loathsome traffic, gauge and span,
And buy the muscles and the bones of man!

** Perhaps matters would have been handled differently a couple of years later, after Nat Turner‘s rebellion scared the pantaloons off slaveowners.

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1862: Nathaniel Gordon, slave trader

1 comment February 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1862, the American commercial shipper Nathaniel Gordon was hanged at the Tombs for slave trading.

Importing slaves to the U.S. had been nominally illegal for over half a century, but had never been strongly enforced. In 1820, slaving (regardless of destination) had even been defined as piracy, a capital crime.

Importation of kidnapped Africans into the United States did significantly abate during this period, and that was just fine with U.S. slaveowners ever paranoid of servile rebellion.

But a voracious demand for conscript labor persisted elsewhere whatever the legal situation. About 3 million slaves arrived to Brazil and Cuba, the principal slave shipment destinations, between 1790 and 1860 — even though the traffic was formally illicit for most of this time.

Great Britain was endeavoring to strangle the Atlantic slave trade, but the diplomatic weight she had to throw around Europe didn’t play in the U.S. Washington’s adamant refusal to permit the Royal Navy to board and search U.S.-flagged ships made the stars and stripes the banner of choice for human traffickers profitably plying the African coast. “As late as 1859 there were seven slavers regularly fitted out in New York, and many more in all the larger ports,” one history avers.

Hanging crime? No slave-runner had ever gone to the gallows as a “pirate” — not until Nathaniel Gordon.

The U.S. Navy did mount its own anti-slaving patrols, but the odd seizure of human cargo was more in the line of costs of doing business than a legal terror for merchants.

So Gordon, son of triangle trade port Portland, Maine and a veteran of several known slaving runs, didn’t necessarily think much of it on August 8, 1860, when the Mohican brought Gordon’s ship to bear 50 miles from the Congo with 897 naked Africans stuffed in the hold, bound for Havana. Half of his slaves were children.

“The stench from the hold was fearful, and the filth and dirt upon their persons indescribably offensive,” Harpers reported.

Gordon chilled in very loose confinement in the Tombs, even enjoying family leave furloughs as he readied for the customary slap on the wrist.

But with Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, Gordon was promoted to demonstration case.

After a hung jury in June 1861, the feds won a conviction and death sentence on those long-unused piracy laws in November 1861.

Many New Yorkers were shocked at the prospect of such draconian punishment.

Abraham Lincoln found himself besieged by appeals public and private against the unprecedented judgment. “For more than forty years the statute under which he has been convicted has been a dead letter, because the moral sense of the community revolted at the penalty of death imposed on an act when done between Africa and Cuba which the law sanctioned between Maryland and Carolina,” Gordon’s counsel Judge Gilbert Dean wrote in an open letter to the President* — an argument that could hardly be more poorly calibrated to impress in 1862.

Despite Lincoln’s famous proclivity for the humanitarian pardon, he stood absolutely firm on the precedent Gordon’s hanging would set — especially in the midst of a bloody civil war driven by the very legal sanction Dean had cited so approvingly. As Lincoln wrote on February 4, 1862,

I think I would personally prefer to let this man live in confinement and let him meditate on his deeds, yet in the name of justice and the majesty of law, there ought to be one case, at least one specific instance, of a professional slave-trader, a Northern white man, given the exact penalty of death because of the incalculable number of deaths he and his kind inflicted upon black men amid the horror of the sea-voyage from Africa.

Gordon’s hanging was the one case — the only one ever.

* New York Times, Feb. 21, 1862.

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1790: Thomas Bird, the first federal execution under the U.S. constitution

3 comments June 25th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1790 saw the first federal execution under the auspices of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution, when English mariner Thomas Bird hanged in Portland, Maine. (At the time, still part of Massachusetts.)

This book is also available here, and via the author’s Portland, Me., History Blog, or on order from any bookstore.

Today, we’re pleased to interview author Jerry Genesio, whose Portland Neck: The Hanging of Thomas Bird compellingly reconstructs this once-forgotten story — a small British slave ship making landfall in a North American city only recently torched by the British, where it is found that its violent captain has been murdered at sea in unclear circumstances.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the one man to pay life for John Connor’s life was the one British sailor aboard the ship.

Besides a captivating account of an 18th century American capital trial, Portland Neck features biographies of all the principal characters. Portlanders will also especially enjoy a 25-page appendix on the topography of the town at the dawn of the American Republic.

This was a British subject who killed a British victim on a British ship in international waters. Was there any question of whether a U.S. court had jurisdiction?

The people who were on the vessel when it was captured — one was British, one was Norwegian, one was American, and there was a 12- or 14-year-old African boy named Cuffey.

They came under U.S. jurisdiction because in the constitutional convention (article 3, section 2), the federal courts were given jurisdiction of admiralty and maritime cases.

The Supreme judicial court in Massachusetts — Maine was part of Massachusetts then — apparently considered bringing the case before its judges, but then the constitution overruled that when it was ratified.

And then they had to wait for the federal courts to be organized, because they didn’t exist yet. They languished in jail for almost a year while the courts were being organized.

In Chapter II, you describe Thomas Bird’s ship, the Mary, operating on the Guinea coast. It’s a small ship basically working the coast and rivers, making small sales of one or two slaves to the large slavers waiting to cross the Atlantic. There must have been whole niches of the slavery industry occupied by these sorts of small-timers.

Oh, yes. The large slave ships that carried several hundred, three, four hundred in their hold — they were too large to get too close to the coast of Africa. So they would anchor perhaps a mile offshore, and they would wait for these smaller ships, like the sloop Mary — Captain Connor was in business with people in London who sent him down there just to go up the rivers to various villages where they knew there were wars going on, and when there were wars, the captives would be sold to slavers. (They also traded ivory and gold.)

When they got slaves, crews like the Mary‘s would go to the ships who had been there the longest, because they knew they would get the best price. They were known to have been there as long as a year trying to fill their cargo, and the slaves they held were liable to die while they waited. Slave ships couldn’t even allow the slaves topside because they would jump overboard if they could and try to swim for shore.

Incidentally, the Google book project has many slave captain logs online. I was able to read about the ports that Captain Connor and Thomas Bird actually visited, and it gave me such a wealth of information, and I could practically see where they were.

Ed. note: here are a few from Genesio’s bibliography, all free at Google books:

You’ve compiled this book despite a paucity of primary trial data, and there are some spots where you’re clearly reading between the lines. How difficult was the historiography on Portland Neck?

There’s not a complete trial record. Even the examination before the court — the scribe tried, apparently, to write down all of their answers, but he did not write down the questions.

My concern is more around the scribe. Was the scribe hearing these answers properly? Was the scribe hard of hearing? One of them was replaced in the process. Was the scribe able to keep up? He was writing with a quill pen, after all.

And then, on top of all of that, they did not indicate on the court record who was the scribe, who did the questioning, and who wrote the answers down. And the prisoner never signed it!

And you felt that at some level, they targeted the Englishman out of this multinational crew.

I believe that people are so influenced by the events of their times — look at World War II and how we viewed the Japanese and the Germans, or the people involved in the war in Vietnam.

These people on the jury, the foreman on the grand jury, many of them were Portland residents whose homes had been burned by the British just 14 years earlier. The war had just ended seven years earlier.

Every one of the court officials on the prosecutors’ side were all officers in the Revolutionary War. [Notably, the U.S. marshal who actually carried out Bird’s hanging, Henry Dearborn. He took part in the decisive Battle of Yorktown and would go on to become Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of War, as well as the namesake of the city of Dearborn, Michigan. -ed.]

All of these things influence what was going on. And the fact that they acquitted the Norwegian kid and executed the Englishman makes me feel, certainly, that there was a strong influence there that was hostile to Thomas Bird. But what actually happened and how people felt, we’re just too far away — but I suspect that played a role.

Thomas Bird claimed in his dying statement, knowing that he was to be hung in a couple of hours, that he did not kill John Connor. The lawyers desperately tried to get then-President Washington to give him a commutation, and Washington refused to do it.


Information wants to be free, y’all. The newspaper editor tried to sell a broadside with the condemned man’s final narrative, but public pressure eventually forced him to put it in the July 26, 1790 Cumberland Gazette.

How did you come by this story?

When I was working at Portland Public Library and I ran into a couple of lines referring to a Thomas Bird in books by William Willis and William Goold.

In Goold’s book, Portland in the Past, he actually interviewed a fellow named Charles Motley who was in his 90s, and this interview took place in the 1880s. Motley was the youngest child of the jailer who held Thomas Bird, and Charles Motley, and he describes being five years old and being allowed into the cell where Thomas Bird would carve them little toy boats. With a knife! Then when Thomas Bird was executed, there was a note about the jailer’s wife, Emma Motley, taking all seven children away, to the other side of the land from Portland, so that they wouldn’t know what was going on. They were probably playing with Thomas’s boats as he was being hanged. So it was obvious that the Motley family held this Thomas Bird in high regard, and I got to thinking, I want to know more about this guy.

He (Motley) was five years old at the time, and, with his older brother Edward, at the request of Bird, was often admitted by his father to the cell and spent much time there. The prisoner made them toy ships and boats … At the time of the execution, Mrs. Motley, the mother of the boys, took them over back of the Neck to be out of sight of the gallows, as the whole family had become interested in the fate of Bird.

Goold

For a couple of years, I couldn’t find much of anything. Finally, I took the time to go down to the federal archives in Waltham, Mass., I found a little manila folder that was like a bar of gold. It had 12 little sheets written in quill, and it’s as much of a record of the trial as exists.

The other question in my mind is, why has nobody written about this before? I think maybe it’s because it’s something of an embarrassment, which reinforces my belief that maybe this hanging should not have taken place.

Thomas Bird, if they really suspected he was a participant, should have been punished, but probably shouldn’t have been hung. Unfortunately in those days, captains were like gods on their little wooden worlds. Even though, based on the testimony, [the victim] John Connor was a brutal drunk who beat his men mercilessly. Connor murdered his first mate on that voyage.

It’s sad because Bird probably saw America as some sort of refuge — he probably didn’t expect that he might be hanged for this crime. He’d been at sea since age eight, and all through the [American] Revolution he had been on both American and British ships. The British navy kept impressing him and making him serve on British warships, and he kept deserting and signing up for American ships instead.

One other interesting aspect of this story is that when Thomas Bird was looking for a ship to sign on with and signed on with the Mary, he might just have signed up on the HMS Bounty, because the Bounty was tied up at Wapping before its voyage to Tahiti. Had he signed on with the Bounty, he wouldn’t have fallen into American hands, but he might not have fared any better.

How thick on the ground were slaves and slavers in New England at this time?

There were a lot of slave captains, a lot of owners. Their home ports were in Boston or in Portland. Normally, when they came back to their home port, the product they were carrying was rum and molasses. Slaves would be delivered in the South or in the West Indies, separate legs in the triangle trade.

What’s your next project?

I’m working on a family genealogy.

After that, maybe something about Captain John Lovewell. He was a bounty hunter who went hunting for Indian scalps. In 1725 he was living in Massachusetts, and he got the court to authorize 10 pounds per scalp, and he recruited a small army and took off looking for Indians and found the Pequawket here in Fryeburg, Maine. They were not warriors, they were farmers.

Lovewell and a Scaticook named Paugus ended up killing each other at a battle at a pond now called Lovewell’s Pond.

Lovewell is the namesake of the town of Lovell. A couple of people have written Lovewell’s story, but I wanted to write it from the perspective of the Indians. And not only the Indians, but the true perspective — because John Lovewell was a bounty hunter, not a hero. He was willing to kill farmers who hadn’t killed anyone for their scalps.

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1781: The slaves of the Zong, for the insurance

5 comments November 29th, 2009 Headsman

Beginning this day in 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong began throwing his cargo overboard in a still-notorious case combining the horrors of the Middle Passage with the cruel rapacity of capital.

The Liverpool-based ship was en route from Africa to Jamaica, there to exchange its human chattel for New World produce bound for the European market.

Characteristically for slave ships, it was inhumanly packed: more economical for a slaver to overcrowd its captives and write off the ones who died than to maximize slaves’ chances of survival. And on this particular ship, malnutrition and disease claimed more than 60 slaves (as well as seven crew members).


Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.

With many more in danger of expiring, Captain Luke Collingwood reasoned that the cargo would be a loss if it succumbed, but that shippers’ insurance would reimburse the firm “when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection.” Over a three-day span beginning Nov. 29, 1781, Collingwood had 133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard;* “the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.” (Source)

This gave the ship’s owners — the good captain himself was not among them — the chance to attempt an insurance scam.

This historical-philosophical book (review, a pdf) analyzes the Zong affair as the emblematic “inauguration of a long twentieth century underwritten by the development of an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation.”

When the Zong landed having lost in total more than half of its original 440 slaves (and Collingwood himself, that fastidious servant of his shareholders), its owners did indeed attempt to recoup the many who had been intentionally killed. Smelling fraud, the insurer refused to pay.

There followed the signal case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a dry insurance trial that also became a beacon of the slave system’s blood-chilling jurisprudential logic.

After a jury sided with the claimant shippers against the insurers, the matter hit a wide public on appeal before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield when abolitionist activists Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano seized upon its conscience-shocking quality.

While Sharp and Equiano agitated unavailingly for a homicide investigation, the insurer — which was itself in the very same business of human bondage as the shipper — self-righteously posed “as counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general.” (Source) Its interests, after all, would be served by the least possible indemnity for slaves murdered in passage.

Solicitor-General John Lee — “the learned advocate for Liverpool iniquity,” in Sharp’s estimation — successfully insisted upon limiting the case to its commercial considerations.

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgment of an experienced, well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. (Quoted here; Wikipedia has it “as if wood had been thrown overboard.”)

Lord Mansfield agreed, “(though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as … horses,” and simply found with the insurers that no liability attached them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary.

Nobody was ever prosecuted.


The disturbing 1840 Turner seascape “Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typon [sic] coming on”, also known simply as “The Slave Ship”, is widely thought to have been inspired by the Zong episode. The allusion would have been well-known to his contemporaries.

* One of the 133 survived by climbing back aboard the ship.

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1795: Tula, Curacao’s Nat Turner

1 comment October 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1795, the slave whose rebellion had shaken the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curaçao was publicly tortured to death with his chief confederates.

The Landhuis Knip commands the plantation where Tula’s revolt began — the dark history behind the Dutch Antilles’ charming facade.

On August 17, 1795 Tula (English Wikipedia page | Dutch) launched a well-planned insurrection on the island, one of the major transit points in the Atlantic slave trade.

Inspired by the Haitian Revolution — and reasoning that, since France occupied the Netherlands, that whole Declaration of the Rights of Man thing ought to be trickling down to Dutch colonies — the rebels freed slaves plantation to plantation and quickly swelled near 1,000.

Of course, Jean-Jacques Rousseau aside, the slaves were also irate that they were damn slaves.

Although the outside forces of international geopolitics played a role in inspiring the 1795 revolt, slaves could find sufficient justification for insurrection in the domestic policies that Dutch planters employed to keep their slaves laboring in Curacao. The planters maintained a harsh regime in which many privileges that had traditionally been bestowed upon slaves had been removed in order to heighten productivity and increase plantation profitability. By 1795, most slaves were being forced to work on Sundays, which had generally been a day of rest in the past, and many planters hired their slaves out to maximize profits by exploiting their labor. It had also become customary for all of the slaves on a plantation to be punished in response to the offense that an individual slave among them had committed. (Source)

A priest was sent as envoy from the worried white community to the rebel encampment, with an offer of amnesty for submission.

Tula (sometimes surnamed as Tula Rigaud) and fellow leaders Bastiaan Karpata (or Carpata), Pedro Wakao (or Wacao) and Louis Mercier received him politely, hosted him overnight, and told him to get lost. This is Tula:

Father, do not all the persons spring from Adam and Eve? Was I wrong in liberating twenty-two of my brothers who were unjustly imprisoned? Father, French liberty was a disaster for us. Each time one of us is punished, we are told: “Are you also looking for your freedom?” One day I was arrested, and I begged mercy for a poor slave; when I was liberated, my mouth was bleeding. I fell on my knees and I cried to God: “O Divine Majesty, O Most Pure Spirit, is it Your will that we are ill-treated? Father, they take better care of an animal.”

And subhuman was the torture Tula, Karpata and Wakao* bore for their insistence on freedom when a fellow slave finally — inevitably? — betrayed them.

At a spot now commemorated by a beachfront monument, the three had their bones systematically shattered with an iron rod, their heads lopped off, and their bodies tossed into the sea. (Despite the metadata on this post, it wasn’t precisely “breaking on the wheel” — but the bone-shattering was pretty much the same idea.)

Curacao remains today a Dutch possession; slavery was abolished there in 1863. August 17, the dawn of these Dutch slaves’ inspiring and fatal revolt for freedom, is now honored on the island — and off it.

* It’s unclear to me whether Mercier, who was captured earlier, was also executed with the others, or whether Mercier’s sentence had already been carried out by this time.

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1726: William Fly, unrepentant pirate

July 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1726, an obscure boatswain who had mutinied for the liberty of piracy succumbed but did not submit on the gallows in Boston.

Fly overthrew (figuratively and literally — they both ended up in the drink) a tyrannous captain and first mate on a British slave ship in May, reconstituting it Fame’s Revenge, and in a northward journey from North Carolina to New England captured a few less-than-lucrative ships in a month and change.

A minor character in the annals of seaborne pillage. So why should historian Marcus Rediker devote the opening chapter to his Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (review) to this man?

[T]he early-eighteenth-century pirate ship was a world turned upside down, made so by the articles of agreement that established the rules and customs of the pirates’ alternative social order. Pirates “distributed justice,” elected their officers, divided their loot equally, and established a different discipline. They limited the authority of the captain, resisted many of the practices of capitalist merchant shipping industry, and maintained a multicultural, multiracial, and multinational social order. They demonstrated quite clearly — and subversively — that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal Navy.

Rediker’s sympathetic but unromantic work treats the radical, doomed sphere of resistance pirates offered to the enormous cruelty of the developing Atlantic economy: grinding exploitation of white sailors in the service of the black slave trade under the iron hand of the empire (British, in this case, but hardly exclusive to Old Blighty.)

It bears the trace of Hakim Bey‘s treatment of Temporary Autonomous Zones:

Fleeing from hideous “benefits” of Imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance, from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the plantations, the Buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted to the “state of Nature.” Having declared themselves “at war with all the world,” they sailed forth to plunder under mutual contracts called “Articles” which were so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the Captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares. Flogging and punishments were forbidden — quarrels were settled by vote or by the code duello.

Certainly many men (and women) turned to piracy for many different reasons. Rediker’s work on the systematic brutality in the guts of the imperial economy and the pressures of resistance and coercion they spawned finds an outstanding individual exponent in this day’s victim.

Fly walked indifferently to the gallows; to the astonishment of the spectators, he upbraided the hangman’s poor knot and remade with his own hands the instrument for his own neck — one last use of his seaman’s proficiency with ropes.

On Fly’s turn upon that fatal stage, he would not read from the classics — not cower before his executioners, not salute the majesty of the crown that hung him, not enjoin the mob to straighten up and sail right, and certainly not be cowed on the cusp of the eternal by officious colonial holy roller Cotton Mather’s vain personal bid to convert the corsair:

When the time came for last words on that awful occasion, Mather wanted Fly and his fellow pirates to act as preachers — that is, he wanted them to provide examples and warnings to those who were assembled to watch the execution. They all complied. Samuel Cole, Henry Greenville, and George Condick [three of Fly’s crew], perhaps hoping for a last-minute pardon, stood penitently before the crowd and warned all to obey their parents and superiors and not to curse, drink, whore, or profane the Lord’s day. These three pirates acknowledged the justice of the proceedings against them, and they thanked the ministers for their assistance. Fly, however, did not ask for forgiveness, did not praise the authorities, and did not affirm the values of Christianity, as he was supposed to do, but he did issue a warning. Addressing the port-city crowd thick with ship captains and sailors, he proclaimed his final, fondest wish: that “all Masters of Vessels might take Warning by the Fate of the Captain (meaning Captain Green) that he had murder’d, and to pay Sailors their Wages when due, and to treat them better; saying, that their Barbarity to them made so many turn Pyrates.” Fly thus used his last breath to protest the conditions of work at sea, what he called “Bad Usage.” He would be launched into eternity with the brash threat of mutiny on his lips.

“Bad Usage.” Rediker later defines it as “the violent disciplinary regime of the eighteenth-century deep-sea sailing ship, the ordinary and pervasive violence of labor discipline as practiced by the ship captain as he moved the commodities that were the lifeblood of the capitalist world economy.”

The resistance to a pattern of savage floggings, cheated wages, and the whole spectrum of rough and arbitrary authority on a shipboard dictatorship might be spontaneous and individual in the instant … but it was thick with the stuff of solidarity, and the fraternity of outlawry could make people equal across the boundaries of national rivalry and institutional racism — “Villains of all Nations,” as the title goes.

And the obdurate, like Fly, could every now and then move the pastors who were sent to thunder hellfire at them rather than the other way around.

As it happened, the “stupid” and “impenitent” pirate [Mather uses these words to describe Fly elsewhere] was able to convince the self-righteous minister of at least one primary cause of piracy. During his execution sermon, Mather made it a point to address the ship captains in the crowd, telling them in no uncertain terms that they must hereafter avoid being “too like the Devil in their Barbarous Usage of the Men that are under them and lay them under Tempations to do Desperate Things.”

After the hanging, William Fly’s body was gibbeted as a warning on Nixes Mate, a barely-there speck of an island at the mouth of Boston Harbor. For Rediker, this date marks the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Although the full book is worth the buy, a paper Rediker wrote on the subject prior the book’s publication is available free online.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Notable Participants,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,USA

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