Mary Seacole – a summary

This is how the story goes… Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant in 1805, in Kingston, Jamaica to a Jamaican mother and a Scottish soldier: ‘I have good Scots blood coursing through my veins,’ as she wrote on page one of her memoir. Her mother, a freed black woman, kept a home, or a boarding house, for wounded soldiers (many of them British soldiers suffering from yellow fever) and installed in Mary a love of nursing and medicine.

Mary SeacoleA keen traveller, the young Mary journeyed widely with her parents, including two trips to Britain, expanding her medical knowledge.

In 1836, she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, a former guest at her mother’s boarding house. Edwin Seacole was believed, without substance, to have been either an illegitimate offspring of Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton, or Nelson’s godson. A sickly man, he died eight years later in 1844. Despite several offers, Mary never married again. As a couple, the Seacoles had maintained the boarding house established by Mary’s mother and, as a widow, Mary Seacole’s work intensified in 1850 when a cholera epidemic struck Jamaica, killing over 30,000 inhabitants.

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John Brown and the Raid on the Harpers Ferry Armoury

John Brown, the radical abolitionist, ensured his place in US history when on 16 October 1859 he led a group of 21 men on a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The raid failed and Brown, wounded, was tried, convicted and hanged. But by his action, John Brown deepened further still the chasm between the anti and pro-slavery camps and by his death became a martyr for the abolitionist cause.

Pottawatomie Massacre

Brown’s raid on the Harpers Ferry arsenal was not his first. During a spell in Kansas, Brown was involved in more than one attack on pro-slavery supporters. After a group of pro-slavery supporters attacked the anti-slavery town of Lawrence in Kansas, Brown, who believed it was his divine mission to extract revenge, retaliated and led a nighttime attack on a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on 24/25 May 1856.  Among his group of seven men were four of his sons and one son-in-law.  Three pro-slavery supporters were dragged from their homes and hacked to death.  Two more were killed before the sun rose.  Brown escaped the pursuing peace-keeping troops of the US Army.

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Harriet Tubman – a summary

As the concept of banning slavery within the United States grew, so did the number of people who were willing to risk their safety and security to help runaway slaves.  One such person was Harriet Tubman. Here, Kat Smutz summarizes her life.

Harriet Tubman was a fugitive slave with a high price on her head in the American South.  Born Araminta Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman, the eleventh child, was often called Minty. Harriet was a name she chose for herself as an adult.

“I felt like I was in heaven”

In 1844, aged about 25, Harriet sought permission from her owners to marry. She married John Tubman, a freeman, and lived with him in his cabin, but was obliged to continue working for her master. She once confided in her husband her dreams of running away and obtaining freedom. John Tubman threatened to denounce her if she ever tried it.

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W. E. B. Du Bois – a summary

Born 23 February 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was perhaps the most influential African American leader of the first half of the twentieth century. The first black graduate from Harvard, W.E.B. Du Bois believed in protest and activism to advance the rights and conditions of African Americans.

WEB Du BoisHis views were in stark contrast to his fellow campaigner, Booker T Washington, who believed that through education and hard work, blacks could eventually win the respect of whites and thus gain greater equality. Du Bois became increasingly critical of what he considered Booker T Washington’s accommodating approach to racial integration, believing that Washington’s approach undermined the black person’s status in society. Instead, Du Bois believed in a more proactive approach, and strove to achieve greater political representation for blacks. He believed education should do more than merely teach vocational trades; it should teach black people how to live assertively, fighting for equality and to be demanding of their civil rights.

Du Bois was also critical of fellow black campaigner, Marcus Garvey. ‘Without doubt,’ wrote Du Bois of the flamboyant Garvey, ‘he is the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.’


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Frederick Douglass – a summary

The title of Renaissance man would not be inaccurate in describing Frederick Douglass.  Born a slave in about February 1818, Douglass, originally called Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was raised by his grandmother. Denied even the most basic education, Douglass rose beyond life in bondage to a man of intelligence, principles, and influence.

Douglass’ mother was a slave named Harriet Bailey.  The identity of his father is uncertain, but is believed to be his mother’s owner, Anthony Bailey. Like most slave children, Douglass was taken from his mother at birth and fostered by an older slave woman.  He later said that he saw his mother no more than five times in his life.

At the age of 12, he went to live with a relative of his owner whose wife began teaching Douglass to read.  When her husband learned of it, he demanded his wife desist.  Not only was it illegal to educate a slave, but it was believed that if a slave learned to read, he might become dissatisfied with his lot in life and attempt to rise above it.

But Douglass had already obtained the rudimentary skills of reading and continued to teach himself using the Bible and newspapers.

Slave breaker

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Paul Cuffee – a summary

The story of how Paul Cuffee made his way from farmer’s son to wealthy ship owner might not sound unique unless you consider that he was African American.  In his lifetime, free African Americans were not entitled to vote in most states and slavery was still a common practice.

Cuffee’s father, Kofi, was born in Africa, a member of the Ashanti tribe, and was transported to the colonies as a slave.  His owner, a Quaker, felt that slave ownership and his religion were in conflict, and so, freed Kofi who, having gained his freedom, worked to support his family, eventually acquiring a 116-acre Massachusetts farm which Cuffee and his siblings inherited. Cuffee’s mother, Ruth Moses, was a Native America of the Wampanoag tribe.

Cuffee the shipbulider

Born 17 January 1759, Paul Cuffee was one of ten children. As a youngster, Cuffee worked on whaling ships and learnt the art of navigation sailing out from the ports of Massachusetts. Spurred on, he built his own ship which he used to trade locally before venturing out to Nantucket. Soon he made enough of a profit to purchase another ship, eventually owning a whole fleet and, in the process, becoming one of the richest African Americans in the US.

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The Zong Massacre – a summary

On 29 November 1781, Captain Luke Collingwood of the British ship, Zong, ordered one-third of his cargo to be thrown overboard. That cargo was human – 133 African slaves bound for Jamaica. His motive – to collect the insurance. The case was brought to court – not for murder, but against the insurers who refused to pay up. This is the cruel story of the Zong Massacre.

The slave ship, Zong

On 6 September 1781, the Zong, a slave ship, left the island of São Tomé, off the west coast of Africa, bound for Jamaica. The ship was cruelly overcrowded, carrying 442 Africans, destined to become slaves, accompanied by 17 crew. The human cargo was manacled and packed so tightly, to have no room to move. But for the captain, Luke Collingwood, the more Africans he could squeeze in, the greater the margin of profit for both the ship’s owners and himself.

For Collingwood, previously a ship’s surgeon, this was his first and last assignment as captain. Planning to retire, he hoped for a generous bounty to help him in his retirement. The greater the number of fit slaves he delivered to Jamaica, the greater his share.

Captain Collingwood’s decision

But by mid-November, the inexperienced Collingwood found himself in the mid-Atlantic, unable to navigate out of the calm winds of the Doldrums. The slaves, suffering from malnutrition, dysentery, scurvy and disease, began to die. By 28 November, 60 had died, along with seven crew members. Many more were falling sick. Collingwood began to panic – the delivery of dead slaves would earn the shipowners nothing. If, however, the Africans were somehow lost at sea, then the shipowners’ insurance would cover the loss at £30 per head.

So Collingwood, himself suffering from fever, had an idea. Having discussed it with his crew, he made an unimaginably cruel, but to his mind, logical decision. Rather than allow the sick slaves to die on board and be rendered worthless, he would throw them overboard – and hence claim on the insurance. First Mate, James Kelsall, protested but was overruled.  At some point during the trip, Kelsall had been suspended from duty but we do not know whether or not it was for this act of protestation (on arrival in Jamaica, the ship’s log had conveniently disappeared).

Thus, on 29 November, 54 sick slaves, mainly women and children, were dragged from below deck, unshackled (after all, why waste good manacles?) and heaved from the ship into the ocean. The following day, more were murdered. In the end, Collingwood had thrown 133 slaves to their deaths. Many struggled and the crew had to tie iron balls to their ankles. Another ten slaves threw themselves overboard and in what Collingwood described as an act of defiance.

The ship finally arrived at its destination on 22 December 1781 – a trip that normally took 60 days had taken Collingwood 108. There were still 208 slaves on board, sold for an average of £36 each.

The Zong Massacre was depicted by the artist, JMW Turner, in his 1840 painting, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On). Click to enlarge.

Horrid brutality

On arriving back in Liverpool, the ship’s owner, James Gregson, duly made his claim – £4,000 for the loss of jettisoned ‘cargo’. The case went to court – not for the murder of 133 helpless Africans, but over who was liable for the costs. Collingwood made the devious claim that his actions had been necessitated by his concerns over the lack of water. He claimed to have had insufficient water to maintain the lives of his crew and the healthier slaves. First Mate Kelsall, who described the episode as a ‘horrid brutality’, spoke out against this falsehood, and sure enough it transpired that on arrival in Jamaica there were still some 430 gallons of water to spare on board the ship. Therefore, the insurers argued, it was for Gregson to stump the bill, not them. The decision, however, went Gregson’s way.

‘The same as if wood had been thrown overboard’

The insurers appealed and the case came before the court for a second time. By now, in May 1783, Collingwood had died (he died only three days after the ship had arrived in Jamaica) and the case had become a scandal of epic proportions in Britain. Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who had bought his freedom and settled in London, brought the case to the attention of leading English abolitionist, Granville Sharp. Sharp wanted to bring forward a case of murder but the judge, Lord Mansfield, brushed aside his attempt, asserting:

‘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 judgement 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 wood had been thrown overboard.’

Sharp may have failed in his attempts to seek justice but over the coming years he used it to lobby Parliament and the church, and it certainly increased the call for abolition. The Abolition Society, founded in 1787, used the Zong Massacre as the prime example of the slave trade’s depravity. Finally, in 1807, Great Britain abolished the slave trade.

But, as a cruel postscript to the Zong Massacre, the practice of throwing slaves overboard did not end with the abolition of the slave trade. British seamen who persisted with the now illegal trade were, if caught, liable to a fine of £100 for every slave found aboard ship. The Royal Navy set up a squadron whose task was to patrol the coast of West Africa capturing ships carrying slaves. Captains on the slave ships, realising they were about to be caught, would throw slaves overboard to reduce the fines they had to pay.

Rupert Colley

See also The ‘first slave’ – the case of John Casor and Nat Turner – the slave that killed for God 

Read more in American Slavery: History In An Hour and Black History: History In An Hour both published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formatsBlack History is also available as audio.

Rupert Colley’s novella, My Brother the Enemy, set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, is now available.

Nat Turner – the Slave Who Killed For God

There were as many as 250 slave revolts in the American South during the antebellum period before the American Civil War. But it was the uprising in Southampton County, Virginia, led by Nat Turner that, by the scale of its ferocity, caused the greatest shock.

Born a slave on 2 October 1800, the young Nat delighted and astounded his fellow slaves by describing events from before he was born. He was given the surname, Turner, from his original owner. The boy, his parents exclaimed, was a prophet. The son of Nat’s master taught the young Nat to read, and he grew up a pious, God-fearing man, influenced by visions or messages from God. He devoured the bible, prayed and fasted and became convinced that God had chosen him to lead his fellow slaves out of servitude.

Listening to God

Aged 21, Turner ran away from his master but voluntarily returned after a month having received God’s instruction to ‘return to the service of my earthly master’.

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The 16th Street Baptist church bombing

During the first two weeks of September 1963 the Civil Rights movement in the US was feeling confident – they had hope, hope that change, real change, was in the air. They had on their side President Kennedy; the Civil Rights bill had every chance of becoming law and, in Dr Martin Luther King, Jnr, they had a leader capable of stirring the conscience within every strata of society, from government to the common man.

The March on Washington

Only days before, on 28 August, 250,000 Americans had demonstrated their solidarity for the movement by taking part in the March on Washington. Black and white, rich and poor, young and old, swayed in time as Bob Dylan sung Blowin’ In The Wind and Joan Baez led the singing of We Shall Overcome. Then they intently listened as King, surrounded by a bank of microphones, spoke of his dream.

The bombing

But then on Sunday morning, the 15 September 1963, four white men, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted a bomb consisting of dynamite beneath a Baptist church on Sixteenth Street in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Marcus Garvey – a summary

On May 18, 1940, Marcus Garvey, the once ostentatious and extravagant Black Nationalist, read an obituary of himself in the Chicago Defender. Garvey, who had been living in London since 1935 and residing in Talgarth Road, W14, was recovering from a stroke when he read,

Marcus Garvey“Alone, deserted by his followers, broke and unpopular, Marcus Garvey, once leader of the greatest mass organization ever assembled by a member of the Race, died here during the last week in April.”

The shock was so much that he did indeed die – a month later on June 10th.

Born in Jamaica on 17 August 1887, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914. Its purpose, according to its 1929 constitution, was “to do the utmost to work for the general uplift of the people of African ancestry of the world”. But frustrated by the lack of progress in Jamaica, Garvey left his homeland, travelled around Central America, moved to London, where he preached on Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner, before finally settling in New York in 1916.

Black Is Beautiful

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