Yesterday I linked to an anecdote about the slave trade that was not for the faint of heart. It came from Marcus Rediker’s excellent book The Slave Ship: A Human History, a book in which he tells another story, this time about a slaver out of Bristol, Rhode Island, named James D’Wolf (or DeWolf or, if you prefer, Captain Jim). On a voyage from the Gold Coast to Cuba, aboard the Polly, D’Wolf learned that one of his cargo, a middle-aged African woman, had come down with smallpox. Rather than risk the infection of his other slaves, D’Wolf had her isolated for two days in the “Main top,” or way up on one of his two masts. He then decided that, although she was still alive, she should be thrown overboard to the sharks. None of his crew would assist, so he did it himself, tying her to a chair and a weight.
Captain Jim was later indicted for murder by authorities in Bristol, and one of his crew testified:
Q: Did you not hear her speak or make any Noises when she was thrown over—or see her struggle?
A: No—a Mask was ty’d round her mouth & Eyes that she could not, & it was done to prevent her making any Noise that the other Slaves might not hear, least they should rise [rebel].
Q: Do you recollect to hear the Capt. say any thing after the scene was ended?
A: All he said was he was sorry he had lost so good a Chair.
In the end, D’Wolf not only was not brought to justice, he was elected to the United States Senate! While a member of that body, he apparently made a speech about his religious beliefs, because the Rhode-Island American General Advertiser, on November 6, 1810, published a short item mocking the man and reminding readers of his sordid history:
The philosopher, James D’Wolf, declared to the House, with no little gravity, that he firmly believed in all the Saints, not excepting, we suppose, the Divine Mahomet. Under which did he acquire his principles of religion and morality? When he cut the fatal rope and sent the suffering African into the sea, did he piously turn his phiz to Mecca, or the Wigwam?
Why, you might ask, are we transfixed these days by the “magnificent drama” of the slave trade (to quote W. E. B. DuBois)? Because we are working on a large section of content devoted to slavery in Virginia and because there are too many (for instance here and also here) who too easily find something other than horror in the South’s peculiar institution.
AFTER THE JUMP: Watch Marcus Rediker compellingly recount the story in a lecture at Vanderbilt University. He begins talking about DeWolf and the Polly at about the 18:30 mark.
IMAGES: U.S. Senator James DeWolf; a detail from page three of the Rhode-Island American General Advertiser (November 6, 1810; full page here [pdf]