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Page last updated at 13:06 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 14:06 UK

Dark irony of a slaver enslaved

By Nick Ravenscroft
BBC News

One of Irving's newly-discovered letters. Pic courtesy Lancashire Records Office

When British slaver James Irving was shipwrecked and himself enslaved by Arabs, did he see the dark irony of his predicament? Not a bit of it, according to newly recovered journals, which provide a rare, self-justifying account of a slave trader.

It started with a shipwreck. It was swiftly followed by capture and then 14 months working as a slave. Such a traumatic experience might change the outlook of most people. But not James Irving.

Irving was an 18th Century, Scottish-born surgeon, who served on slave ships trading out of Liverpool. Having completed five voyages he became a skipper himself when tragedy struck.

On his first voyage to West Africa as captain of a slave ship, the Anna, in 1789, Irving and his 10-man crew were washed up on the coast of what is now Morocco. After wandering on the beach they were captured, marched deep into the Sahara Desert and sold.

The slaver became a slave - expressly, a domestic servant. Yet in letters written by Irving, and only recently uncovered, he clearly remained oblivious to the dark irony of his situation.

Writing to British officials for help, he said:

    "For the sake of Almighty God, neglect us not... Let that spirit of humanity which at present Manifests itself throughout the realm actuate you to rescue us speedily from the most intollerable Slavery. Suffer us not any longer to be the Slaves of Negroes, which reflects an unpardonate Negligence on the man who should see them liberated. If we are allowed to stay here to toil and be maltreated under a vertical Sun, we Shall soon be lost forever to ourselves, our Wives and familys, our Country and all we hold dear."
    (Letter appealing for help from Vice-Consul, June 1789)

James Irving's signature (Pic courtesy Lancashire Record  Office)
James Irving's signature (Pic courtesy Lancashire Record Office)
After long drawn-out negotiations he and his crew were freed. One strategy had been for officials to offer medical treatment to the favoured son of the Sultan in return for the release of the Anna's crew.

Furious at his treatment, Irving never seemed to stop and consider he was simply getting a taste of his own medicine. Writing to his wife Mary shortly after his release, he explained:

    "...I dare say my Good Girl you'll feel as happy as I do on the termination of my bondage, which I have weathered with ten Thousand difficultys. Such a severe Affliction happens seldom and one such trial in a mans life, is more than sufficient to prove his fortitude."
    (Letter to his wife, August 1790)

"Irving remained completely blind to the irony of his situation," says Suzanne Schwarz, professor of modern history at Liverpool Hope University, who found James Irving's writings.

"Even though he had direct experience of being treated as a commodity for sale and of the emotional pain of separation from his wife and family, he did not draw any parallels with the trade in Africans."

Born in Dumfriesshire in 1759
First post at 24 as ship surgeon keeping alive slaves on the "Middle Passage" from Africa to the Americas
Died in 1791 on another slaving voyage, probably from disease
The writings are an important counterpoint to those of John Newton, the former slave trader who repented and then gave spiritual advice to William Wilberforce in his campaign against the trade.

Indeed, after being released after two years in enforced labour he returned to Liverpool and sailed again to Africa as the captain of another slave ship.

Ms Schwarz discovered the letters and diaries by accident while researching another project at the Lancashire Record Office. The papers also detail Irving's thoughts and feelings once he reaches the Caribbean and provide an unsettling insight into contemporary attitudes towards African slaves.

    "...our Black Cattle are intolerably Noisy and I'm almost Melted in the Midst of five or six Hundred of them."
    (Letter to his wife from Tobago, December 1786)

"These aren't the first accounts of a slave ship captain to be discovered," says Ms Schwarz. "But most writings came after the abolition of the slave trade. They're self-justifying and defensive. Whereas Irving's writings come from an earlier period - chatty newsletters not intended for publication which are entirely unselfconscious and without self-censorship."

In another letter to his wife, Irving spoke of his relief at his safe arrival in the Caribbean, referring only in passing to the deaths of dozens of Africans:

    "With extatic pleasure am I again enabled to address you from a Christian country. I arrived off this place this morning after a passage of 46 Days We have been all healthy and buried 48 slaves."
    (Letter to his wife from Barbados, November 1786)

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