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The Saga of Eighteenth Century Slave African Sailors, onboard Portuguese Ships

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In recent decades, studies on maritime history and the role of sailors have expandeddramatically. Historians, Emma Christopher, David Richardson and Marcus Rediker, have emphasisedthe diversity within the crews of slave ships, the harsh conditions they faced, and episodes of violence on board. Their studies challenge the idea of a homogeneoussailor identity.

This Blog focuses on slave sailors employed on Portuguese ships leaving Lisbonbetween 1767 and 1832. It addresses the role and place of African sailors during thetransatlantic slave trade. It contributes to the discussion on the circulation ofpeople around the Atlantic world and the employment of slaves onboard slaveships.

The focus of this Blog is the role of slave sailors as maritimeworkers on board slave ships. The work of slave sailors was not limited to rowing,cleaning, setting the poles, or fixing the sails. They were also cooks, guards, and translators,although in crew lists they were simply listed as sailors, neglecting any otheractivities that they performed onboard.

Enslaved seamen were also key agents afterthe captain went ashore, interacting with the local population and commercialagents. These men, although in captivity, blurred cultural boundaries and challengedtheir legal status. And, like other seamen, they mastered several languages as a result oftheir constant trips. Their occupation favoured their multiculturalism, as people whocould speak one or more of the Atlantic languages and circulated in different cultures.

Sailors and slave labour in the South Atlantic

The publication of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database has facilitated our understandingof the slave voyages.

Most of the Africans who forcibly crossed the Atlanticdid so south of the equator, and mostly on board Portuguese and Brazilian vessels. In addition to the slaves crossing the Atlantic in shackles, some enslaved Africans were employed as sailors.

Information on slave sailors is abundant in Portuguese records because legislationdating from the sixteenth century required the identification of enslaved seamen,due to security concerns and the aim of controlling the movement of people.

The Regimentodos Barqueiros, of 1572, declared ‘Moorish, Indians, blacks and mulattoes could only sail with an authorisation from the chamber of Lisbon’.

Later on, as this regulationwas enforced, passports started to be issued for ships and crews. In May 1768,King Joseph I ordered that any ship owner who desired to travel overseas had to register his ship with the Junta do Comercio, the Board of Commerce. The crew had to beidentified and registered with the Junta and the administration of the ports. The Junta do Comercio remained in charge of regulating and examining vessels, and arbitratingconflicts over payments to the free crew members, among other aspects.

Ship licenses offer a window to understand the organisation of a transatlanticslaving voyage. In the process of registering a slave ship, owners had to provide theship’s name and rig. Captains were also registered, and the intended port of embarkationof slaves in Africa and their disembarkation in the Americas declared.

Owners alsohad to register the number of sailors on board. In the case of slave sailors, owners hadto provide their names, place of origin, age, and their master’s name. Captains who didnot comply with the requirements could be severely punished by having their licenceto sail revoked or with degredo, banishment, to Angola.

Thus, the licences are aninvaluable source for investigating the crew of a slave ship and understanding itsmulticultural composition.

Although it is not clear how captains hired sailors, scholars agree that they were not well paid, and were neither well fed nor well treated on board. Captains overlooked seafaring skills and physical conditions. At times,there was a degree of coercion in their recruitment, some sailors hid and avoided slaving voyages.

On Portuguese ships, slave sailors were more highly sought than free white seamen.

In 1777 Felix Jose´ da Costa, the captain of the ship Portilhao, heading to Benguela, inWest Central Africa, received instructions from the Junta do Comercio that he should‘get rid of white sailors [after landing in Benguela] and substitute them with blacksailors, who are more experienced with this kind of trip and dealing with slaves’.

In addition, Captain Costa should ‘recruit freed blacks to be employed as nursesand sailors. These freed blacks can be very useful denouncing conspiracies and patrollingthe slaves, who should remain in shackles during the Atlantic crossing’. Thesestrictures highlight the use of slave sailors as interpreters to inform captains and therest of the crew about any incipient plots.

Besides being hugely exploited, sailors in bondage had a series of rights deniedthem. For example, free sailors could sue their employers if aspects of their contractwere not respected, especially non-payment of salary. The legal process could lastseveral months, but resulted in fines and reprimands by Portuguese authorities. Enslaved seamen, however, could not make legal complaints, since by definitionthey were not financially compensated for their work. In the 1790s, the Governor ofBenguela requested from the Governor of Angola, in Luanda, some experiencedsailors who could be used by the pilots of visiting slavers. The Governor of Angolasent enslaved sailors rather than free ones, alleging ‘they were capable of performingthe same task for a cheaper cost’.

Greatly desired by ship owners and Portugueseauthorities, slave sailors could, however, threaten security and social order aboardslavers.

Ship captains feared the involvement of black sailors, free or enslaved, in slaverevolts. Although slave uprisings could happen, captains tried to prevent them byusing several measures, including employing interpreters and loading the ships withweapons and soldiers to prevent revolt and maintain discipline on board.

Historian, EmmaChristopher argues that sailors had a personal interest in repressing revolts, sincecrew members were often a target of uprisings on slave ships, and, in cases wherethe cargo was lost, they were not paid. In order to prevent revolts and impose fearin the slaves locked in the hold, captains travelled with weapons and extra help.

In 1800, Antonio Martins Gomes, the captain of the ship Gloria, bound for Bahia,declared that he had on board rifles, 400 bullets, six howitzers, 800 fuses, and 40barrels of gunpowder. In terms of personnel, he had eight soldiers, one corporaland a sergeant providing security, besides his 80 sailors, a larger crew size than mostslave vessels.

It is not clear if enslaved seamen had access to the weapons onboard. Nonetheless, on some occasions the weapons were not enough, and slavesailors and slaves under the deck joined forces and organised uprisings. In 1812, forexample, slaves revolted on the galley Feliz Eugenia just outside of Benguela. In therevolt, black sailors, free and enslaved, joined the slaves under the deck against thequartermaster and white sailors. The crew was attacked and tied by the slaves, whomanaged to escape using small boats attached to the ship. Many children on boardescaped. The majority, however, were quickly recaptured by troops from Benguelaand the private security forces of local traders. The black sailors were never found.

Such cases were, however, the exception. Conscious alliances were not usuallyformed between enslaved seamen and the slave cargo, despite their shared bondage.In most cases, slave sailors had a greater interest in identifying themselves with thefree crew rather than the slaves in the hold.

The fear of revolt was nonetheless legitimate, especially in cases where enslavedsailors represented most of the crew, as was the case of the brig Bonfim, whose crewof 22 consisted of 13 slaves. In other voyages, slaves represented one third of thecrew, as in the brig General Rego, which sailed to Angola and Benguela twice in1825. Under the care of Captain Marcelino Jose Alcantara, there were 16 menaboard General Rego, including the co-pilot and the master, 8 sailors identified as white, and 6 as black slaves.

In most slave ships, however, the number of slavesailors was limited to one or two, if any. In order to maintain discipline on boardthe slave ship, violence was imperative. Based on episodes of violence suffered byother crew members, slave sailors almost certainly suffered physical abuse. In 1802,for example, the priest Jose Joaquim Pinto was physically attacked by the captain of the ship NossaSenhorado Rosario, PaqueteFeliz, who repeatedly punched him,causing intense bleeding from his nose. Jose Pinto was incapable of continuing thejourney from Benguela to Maranhao, in Brazil, due to his injuries.

Although an isolatedevent of extreme violence, it certainly worked as a warning to the crew who witnessedthe confrontation. Moreover, captains no doubt subjected enslaved crewmembers to even harsher treatment.

Further risks included attack by foreign ships and shipwreck. Captains and pilotsfeared corsair activities, since Portuguese ships were constantly targeted by foreignships. Historian, Manolo Florentino stresses that during the 1820s, corsairs seized more than3,000 African slaves heading to Rio de Janeiro.

However, in some instances slavesailors became instrumental in protecting a slave ship. In 1800, the Portuguese shipMinerva was attacked by the French corsair Leclair along the Benguela coast. Theship was saved only because slave sailors fought back against the French, an indicationthat, at least in this case, enslaved seamen had access to weapons. The action of theenslaved men was recognised by the authorities, who reported the incident to theLisbon agents. Prince Pedro III praised the ‘brave behaviour of the slave sailors’, andrequested that the governor of Angola ‘free them and assume responsibilities fortheir manumission, reimbursing their owners’. Pedro III also asked the governor toprovide economic support to the freed, so they had ‘a chance to thrive in freedom’.

Although an isolated case, it demonstrates that enslaved sailors were closer to the restof the crew than the other captives on board. The relationship between transatlanticslavers, sailors and slaves was highly charged, marked by fear of uprisings, but also bytrust, as any sailing expedition required.

When away from the coast, captains, pilots,and sailors had to rely on each other to secure a smooth voyage.

Slaves as crew: the ship licenses

From 1767 to 1832, Portuguese ship owners requested 365 permissions to send theirvessels from Lisbon to different ports on the African coast and, subsequently, acrossthe Atlantic, in most cases to Brazil.

Of the permissions located in the archives, 97 ship owners declared their intent to recruit slave sailors. In a universeof 8,441 crew members identified in the ship licenses, 230 were slaves. Slaveseamen on Portuguese ships represented less than 3 per cent of the total, comparedto the figures of 14 and 24 per cent presented by the studies on slave voyages to Brazil from 1795 to 1811 and the first halfof the nineteenth century, respectively.

There were fewer slaves and freed blacks inPortugal than in Brazil, which may explain the lower number of slaves employed ascrew on ships leaving from Portuguese ports. But although a small number comparedto the total crew, these 230 individuals challenge us to reconsider the middlepassage and analyse slavery from a different perspective.

These seamen visited several ports, where they met people and interacted withdifferent cultures. They possibly learned new languages, even if only a basic knowledge.They recounted the transatlantic slave trade for those who remained on the Africancoast, and they were also able to compare slavery and slave life in different places.Their place as sailors gave them a certain degree of freedom.

In the case of the shiplicenses analysed here, the majority of the slaves belonged to the captain or theowner of the ship, such as Sebastiao Santos and Goncalo Santos, who belonged to Jose Inacio deMendonca, captain of the galleyNossaSenhora da Conceicao e Sao Franciscode Paula.

Mendonca’s plan was to sail from Lisbon to Bissau, in West Africa, inApril 1792, and after that head to Para , in the north of Brazil. It is not clear how longSebastiao and Goncalo had served as sailors or even how long they had beenenslaved. A trip from Lisbon to Bissau lasted an average of 70 days. The Bissau–Para journey lasted an average of 55 days, although it could differ according to the time of year.

Being on board for such a long time forced Sebastiao and Goncaloto negotiate their status ofbondage on board. They interacted with other sailors,they visited Bissau, and they probably brought news from Europe to the Africancoast. After, they sailed from Bissau to Brazil. Their positions as sailors exposedthem to a cosmopolitan Atlantic. Although they were in bondage, they were incloser contact with the crew, and their master, Jose Mendonca, than with the slavesin the hold.

Enslaved seamen could also belong to individuals who lived in Lisbon and rentedthem out as a means to collect income from their labour. Being rented in turn gaveslaves a great amount of time away from their master’s supervision. Such was thecase of the sailor Francisco de Sousa. In 1782, Sousa travelled on board the ship Sao Joao Nepumoceno, heading to Luanda. Francisco de Sousa did not belong to anyoneonboard, he was the property of Maria da GracaBraga, a resident of Lisbon.

Ms Braga also rented out another slave, Antonio Luis, a 33 year-old man, originally from Mozambique, to the captain of the slave ship NossaSenhora de Nazare, sailing to Bissau and Maranhao in November 1784.

Renting out slave sailors was, probably,an economic venture for Lisbon residents, such as dona Maria de Souza and TeresaGomes.

Of the 230 slave sailors listed, 95 belonged to crew members or the proprietorof the ship. Others were rented out by Lisbon residents, including women like dona Maria de Souza, Maria da Graca, and Maria da Luz, who saw the use of sailors as a wayto complement their income.

All of the slaves employed on board the Portuguese ships analysed here were peoplesailing from Lisbon, not recruited in the middle of the voyages, after the death of acrew member, for example.

For some, this was their first voyage. For most, sailingacross the Atlantic was not new. The age of most slave sailors ranged from 16 to 40.Among the youngest ones were Francisco Fernandes and Manoel Marques, whowere 7 and 9 years old, respectively, when embarked as apprentices.

Some slavescould be recruited at a very young age to be trained for a career as sailors, as Fernandesand Marques seem to demonstrate. Both belonged to the captain of the ship, who wasprobably training them to serve him. Among the oldest sailors located in the Portugueselicenses was CaetanoSilva, an Angolan slave, who was around 60 years old inthe 1770s. Caetano embarked on two different trips in the 1780s. In the first, in1783, he served as a sailor on the brig Jupiter, going to Angola. Four years later, inthe registry of the ship Americano heading to Bissau, Caetano Silva was still registeredas 60 years old.

Sailing was an activity for young men. Although there are cases ofslaves above 40 years old, they are the exception. The long journeys and the violenceon board probably resulted in a captains’ preference for young sailors.

As with other crew members, slave sailors were not an anonymous, nameless mass ofcaptives. In a very few instances they were described as ‘Pedro, Francisco and Domingo, black enslaved sailors who belonged to the owner of the galley’, or ‘Antonio, black man, slave of the captain, who was 20 years old, and sailed for the past 8 years asapprentice’.

In most cases, however, slave sailors were identified by their first andlast names. On the ship Santa Rosa e Senhor do Bonfim, which left Lisbon for Luandain June 1767, there were four slaves among the 59 crew members. Antonio Rodriguesde Faria was identified as mulatto, belonging to the Captain of the ship. He was 24 yearsold and was able to sign his registration, showing some level of literacy. The slave sailorJoaquim Gomes da Silva was described as a black man, who was 18 at the time of hisregistration. The other two slave sailors were Manoel Ramos, a caulker, was 25 years old and had been employed as a sailor for three years; and Damiao da Silva, from Benguela, employed as a grumete, who was40 years old and had been sailing for the past 20 years. This was Damiao’s seventhvoyage on board the Santa Rosa e Senhor do Bonfim, and before he had been employedas a grumete on nine other trips.Damiaowas a seasoned sailor.Manoel Francisco wasthe fifth slave registered as a sailor by Captain Manoel Gomes Silva. Manoel Franciscowas declared from Costa da Mina, 15 or 16 years old. Unlike Antonio, the otherenslaved seamen signed their registration with a cross. Illiteracy was common amongthe lower ranked crew. The five slave men travelled side by side with 52 free sailorsfrom Lisbon, Braga, the island of Sao Miguel, in the Azores, and Porto. Also, theseslaves, in contrast to those who would be acquired in Africa, were all identified witha Christian and a family name.

Portuguese slave ship crews were multicultural. African enslaved seamen workedalongside people from different parts of the Lusophone world. Slave labour onboard slave ships was frequently African in origin. Portuguese merchants relied onAfrican know-how and recognised them as ‘brother tars’.

Enslaved sailors camefrom different backgrounds. As Table below shows, most of the enslaved seamen onboard Portuguese slave ships were identified as from Angola, followed by Benguela, Costa da Mina and Cacheu.

There were few slave sailors identified as originally from Brazil. The number ofenslaved seamen from Portugal was larger, and not surprisingly, most of them werefrom Lisbon, the largest Portuguese urban centre. There were slavesfromMozambiqueand India. Twelve of the listed slaves did not have their place of origin specified in theship licences.

Place of Origin of the Slave Sailors

West Africa

Bissau 11


Cabo Verde 2



Costa da Mina 14

West Central Africa


Angola 86


Cabinda 2


Congo 4

Rebolo 1




Pernambuco 3

Rio de Janeiro 2

Santos 1


Braga 1



Lisboa 7

Vila do Conde 1



India 2

East Africa

Mozambique 9

Non identified 12


In most cases, there was a connection between the place of origin of the recruitedslave sailors and the intended direction of the vessel along the African coast. Theseaman Joaquim Pereira, from Cape Verde, was the only enslaved crew memberonboard the ship Sao Luiz, which sailed from Lisbon in August 1776 towards CapeVerde and Bissau. Joaquim Pereira’s place of origin was the destination of theship, and his familiarity with the island might account for his presence.

A similarcase is the story of Rafael Cabinda, who travelled on the galley Nova Amazonas,which sailed to the port of Cabinda in West Central Africa in the early nineteenthcentury. Rafael probably could communicate with people after landing in Cabinda.

He could help the Captain, Manoel Luiz de Paiva, with basic communication. In addition, people from Cabinda were known for their sailing skills. Althoughfrom a later period, Francisco Valdez reported a conversation with a Cabinda sailor,who stated he not only sailed in fresh water but also ‘far, very far away on saltwater’. Perhaps Rafael Cabinda had seafaring skills that made him a useful sailorto have onboard.

The Kru, from Sierra Leone, the Fante, from Gold Coast, and theCabindas had a reputation as good sailors, and were employed aboard differentslave vessels.

African sailors, free and slave, acted as help on board and as translators. They providedinformation and technical advice about the middle passage. This expertiseexplains the concentration of certain areas of origin within specific routes. Nevertheless,the fate of African translators is unclear. At the end of the fifteenth century, Africans used as lınguas, or interpreters, were freed after a certain amount of time working. But such an outcome does not seem to apply to the data analysed in the studies.

In April 1778, Jose´ Antonio Pereira requested permission to sail between Lisbonand Luanda. Among the 29 crew members, there were 9 slave sailors from Angola,including Gaspar Mendes, who was a caulker, and who was travelling on board forthe first time. The other slave sailors, Sebastiao, Antonio Francisco, Jose´ Andre´,Manoel Francisco, Paulo Jose´, Miguel Pedro and Manuel Garcia, were also fromAngola. All were employed as servants. Only Francisco Jose´ was from Benguela.

These men certainly could speak Kimbundu, and their skills exceeded sailors’ tasks.They probably helped the captain in commercial transactions along the coast. Portugueseexplorers had used African translators since the beginning of the maritimeexpansion. In the sixteenth century, Portuguese ships carried interpreters to facilitatecommercial contacts in Africa. To overcome the language barrier, the PortugueseCrown established grammar schools in Luanda and at Mbanza Congo in the seventeenthcentury.Apparently, this solution failed to solve the problem, since theJunta do Comercio reaffirmed the importance of African sailors as translators by the end of the eighteenth century.

Seafaring required the establishment of a maritime language, where sailors had to learn new vocabulary to express naval and technicalobservations. New sailors also had to adjust to the social order on board ship. Thesame applies to African sailors, who had to learn Portuguese, in addition to navaljargon, essential for their communication with the rest of the crew.

On the slave ship NossaSenhora do Carmo e Sao Pedro, going to Angola and Benguela,there were 6 slave sailors, all of whom were from Angola, and were between the ages of 15 and 24.

Slave sailors would have been helpful in transmitting ordersand translating information. Captains carefully selected which slaves to bring onboard. If going to Benguela, for example, slaves originally from Benguela wererecruited. Captains made a conscious decision to recruit slave sailors able to speakthe languages that they would encounter during the voyage. African seamen wereable to listen to what was being said by the cargo under the deck and denounce possibleconspiracies. Also, they translated orders from the captain and other crewmembers to captives and helped to calm down new slaves.

Even in slave ships that were multicultural, there were linguistic similarities betweenslave sailors on board. This is the case with the brig Bonfim, headed to Luanda, whichhad 11 slave sailors, most of whom were from West Central Africa. Only Domingoswas from Costa da Mina in West Africa. There were three Angolans, two Benguelas,and two Congos enslaved crew members. Besides three slaves were listed as from Cassange,and one from Ambaca, places in the Luanda hinterland. The Angolan slavesailors probably spoke Kimbundu, as did those identified as Cassange and Ambaca.

Kimbundu was the most widely spoken language in Luanda and its surroundingsbefore the twentieth century, and ‘gradually came to be essential in the administration,the army and the church as it was for inland commerce’. Thus, Manoel Joaquim,from Cassange, and Antonio, from Ambaca, almost certainly could speak some Kimbundu,as did people who lived in these two settlements in the interior of Luanda.

Slaves exported through the port of Luanda were also exposed to the Kimbundulanguage, which by the 1760s was considered to be ‘a language of communicationbetween blacks in the interior’. Even non-Kimbundu speakers could speak thelanguage, since it was used as a lingua franca around the region.

The vessel NossaSenhora das Brotas, Sao Joao Napumoceno, heading to Benguela, had two slavesailors on board identified as from Benguela (Andre´ Manoel and Jose´ Martins).

Both had been working as servants for four years. The length of the voyage fromLisbon to the African littoral and the subsequent Atlantic crossing allowed culturaland linguistic exchange among slave sailors who came from different backgrounds.This contact was also established between Africans and Europeans of the crew.

The slave ship was the central stage for the circulation of ideas. It was aboard slaveships that free and enslaved men interacted and learned nautical terms and newlanguages.

African doctors also played an important role on slave ships. Portuguese legislationrequired the embarkation of a surgeon, who was in charge of treating disease amongslaves and crew members during the middle passage. On some occasions, Africanslaves also acted as doctors. By the end of the eighteenth century, Luis Antonio de OliveiraMendes reported that ‘black bleeders’ treated slaves on the Atlantic crossing.

Among the licenses analysed in the studies, most of the ships had surgeons listed onboard. Only 48 captains, out of a total of 365 licenses, did not list surgeons as partof the crew.

In one of these ships, two black sailors were identified as barbeiros, orbarbers. On the brig General Rego, Simao Congo, and Antonio, simply listed as anAfrican barber, travelled from Lisbon to Luanda and Benguela.

Simao Congo andAntonio were responsible for 17 crew members, among them four slave sailors.Barbers could bleed and also perform medical operations. They performed dentalcare, a serious issue on slave voyages where scurvy affected crew and slaves alike.

Another Historian, Saunders, mentions the existence of Africans acting as barbers in Portugal in the sixteenthcentury.

In Brazil, African barbers performed minor surgeries in colonial towns. Although regulation existed that mandated the presence of surgeons onboard of slave ships, captains did not always embark them. To overcome the lackof a surgeon on board, African barbers were hired in Lisbon.

This blog highlights the presence of African seamen on Portuguese slave ships.As with their free counterparts, enslaved sailors knew how to set the sails and steerthe vessel. They were skilled labourers, in most cases experienced, who travelledwith their owner or by themselves. Unlike the slaves held under the deck, the slavesailors enjoyed a certain degree of freedom. They could go ashore, for example, andthey spent most of their time in the company of free sailors. These occasionsallowed enslaved seamen to recuperate some sense of liberty, even if only temporarily.

As many scholars have already stressed, Africans under or above the deck were active inshaping the Atlantic world.

African slaves also acted as interpreters along the African coast. They helped captainsconduct commercial transactions, and facilitated communication aboard slaveships between the crew and recently acquired slaves. Slave sailors became vital forthe operation of slave trade on Portuguese ships.

The relationship between the placeof intended slave purchase and the recruitment of slave sailors based on their placeof origin indicates the careful planning of slave voyages. Ship owners employed andhired enslaved seamen who could speak the languages used in specific African ports.

Rather than a homogeneous crowd, the crew of Portuguese slave ships was multicultural.Free and enslaved crew members interacted and relied on each other during theAtlantic crossing. However, for most of the enslaved sailors, their bondage to the shipcaptain did not finish after their return to Portugal, they remained in captivity, boundto travel across the ocean again.

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