28 October 1762
The London registered Phoenix was carrying 332 slaves crammed into its hold from Africa towards Maryland on the United States’ mid-Atlantic coastline. Since 20 October, she had been battling heavy seas but had sustained severe damage to the hull and rigging and was continuing to gain water despite the crew and the captive Africans bailing and manning the pumps. An account published in several British newspapers by a survivor, possibly the ship’s captain McGacher, described how the slaves’ ‘dismal cries and shrieks, and most frightful looks added to our ( meaning the crew’s ) misfortunes.’
There were several possible reasons for the ‘frightful looks,’ notwithstanding the slaves’ chilling realisation that they were trapped in the hold of a sinking ship. Not one black man, woman or child had received any fresh drinking water or food for five days and when, driven by sheer terror, some of them had managed to free themselves from their irons and attempted to break down the gratings that confined them, the crew felt ‘obliged, for the preservation of our own lives, to kill fifty of the ringleaders, and stoutest of them.’
The gruesome task of the extrajudicial executions and the endless battle to clear the water from the ship’s hold, meant that the white sailors ‘were quite worn out and many of them in despair,’ when suddenly about 10 in the forenoon of Thursday 28 October they finally spotted a sail. At 2 pm the approaching King George of Londonderry acknowledged the distress signals and agreed to take the crew on board. The survivor’s report claimed that ‘the gale increasing prevented (the King George) from saving anything but the white people’s lives. which were 36 in number; not even any of our clothes,’ before finally adding almost as an afterthought, ‘or one slave.’1 This seemingly skewed order of priorities would not have shocked those reading the account who would have accepted and assumed as natural that a ship owner would insure his ‘cargo and property’, including slaves, against unexpected ‘loss’, but who might also have had some sympathy for the miserable human beings on board ( the crew ), who were unlikely to gain any similar financial recompense for their lost clothes.
- This account is based entirely on ‘From the London papers, Jan 1,’ The Caledonian Mercury, 8 January 1763, p. 1. There is little coverage of the incident either in academic literature or online.
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