Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Previous section
Betsy Sawyer, Freed Slave, and Thomas Murray

William Butterworth, an Account of a Slaver Ship

What did you do as teenage rebellion?

William Butterworth was born 2 October 1769 at 55 Kirkgate, Leeds. Aged 16 in 1785, he was in search of adventure and ran away from his home in Leeds to sea. He travelled to Liverpool, and signed up (or was naively press ganged) to be part of the crew on a slaver ship called the Hudibras.

From Liverpool, the ship sailed to Africa to capture and buy people, then across the Middle Passage to the West Indies to sell the enslaved people into servitude on plantations. It then returned to England carrying goods and profit made through this triangular trade.

The journey lasted for a period of three years.

William’s experience was not as positive as he may have hoped. Sailors of the period were brutally treated and had to do hard physical labour and little food or reward, as less investment in the crew meant higher profits for the Officers and investment companies involved.

He witnessed the inhumanity of the slave trade, and the realities of enslaved people deemed as ‘cargo’, with their ‘free-born spirit’ being quashed by ‘dealers in human flesh’. He witnessed a revolt by enslaved people and an attempted mutiny, and their violent suppression.

After his voyage, he returned to Leeds and trained as an engraver, including for illustrations of parts of ships. He wrote about his experiences later in life. 'Three Years Adventures of a Minor in England, Africa, The West Indies, South Carolina and Georgia' was published in 1823.

As many of the sailors were illiterate, it remains one of the only first-hand accounts of the brutal reality of life on board a slaver ship.

He recounts meeting with African enslavers, about horrific conditions on board ship and the suppressed insurrections. His experiences led him to believe in abolition. William died in his stone terrace house in St Michael’s Road, Headingley, 3 October 1834, and is buried in St Michael’s graveyard.

Below are extracts from Three Years Adventures of a Minor in England, Africa, The West Indies, South Carolina and Georgia. These include the use of the word ‘negro’ and ‘the black’ when referring to African people. These words were widely used in the nineteenth century, and are now recognised as discriminatory and offensive. They are used here in direct quotes and within historical context, to help give an accurate portrayal of the political and social climate at the time.

From the introduction: ‘I firmly believed that a time would arrive, when virtuous legislators would lend an ear to the cause of degraded Africans, and, by resisting the powerful influence of opulent planters, finally overthrow the system of cruelty practised on slave ships, not only on defenceless negroes, but also on the wretched crews, whose half-famished bodies bore marks of ill treatment…’,

Landing in Africa: ‘We made land on a Sunday morning, at Benin (in Africa), which is rather low and woody, though it exhibits many beautiful landscapes… [a] canoe… came up to us, containing twelve or fourteen blacks, two of whom came on board... They appeared to be superior men, or chiefs; their hair was curiously plaited; each wore a white or drab-coloured hat, and had a piece of blue cotton cloth tied round the waist; the others were naked, and, to me, had a frightful appearance. In their conversation with the captain, they informed him that they were going to catch slaves; most probably by making war on some unarmed villages, as the canoe was fitted up for operations of offence or of defence; having a six-pounder lashed in the bows… Preparations were now made for receiving the unfortunate sons and daughters of Africa; not as fellow creatures, possessing powers capable of improving in a wonderful degree; but as a degraded race unworthy to enjoy the blessing of freedom, in God’s free air, and therefore doomed to perpetual exile…’

‘I formed an agreeable acquaintance with a negro, who had a wife and three or four children; the boys spent their time in fishing, the girls in cooking. As I often visited them when on shore… I frequently partook with the negroes, and they gave the food with as much cheerfulness as I accepted it; which was great indeed… [A] young black… mentioned showed a strong desire to learn to read and write, both of which I undertook to teach him. He procured the requisites for the undertaking; and, during the time I remained there, he made tolerable progress. He was in possession of a piece of paper containing the alphabet, in different characters, but it was worn into holes…’

‘The interior of a slave ship is divided into three parts, by means of strong partitions: the men are cooped up in the fore part of the ship, the boys in the middle division, and the women and girls in the aft part of the vessel.’

Food on board ship: ‘At break of day, all hands being mustered on the quarter deck, each received half a biscuit (of bad quality) and a small glass of brandy: this was our breakfast: at ten o'clock a.m. we had a miserable imitation of chop, produced from a quarter of a pound of salt beef, or the same weight of dried codfish… Many of the crew became chop-fallen… and died… The slaves were infinitely better fed; we were not allowed to touch anything that was cooked for them…’

Suppressing the slave revolt: ‘Captain Evans, with… fixed bayonet in his hands, mounted a scuttle butt… till the refractory slaves were completely driven back. In their retreat, they evinced the first symptoms of fear, though not before they saw one of their countrymen run through the head by the captain's bayonet, as he was attempting to scale the partition. The conduct of our cook, who was an African black, astonished all who beheld it, filling the mind with mixed emotions of pity and indignation. Snatching up a bucket, he filled it with boiling water from his copper, and deliberately threw the whole contents amongst his much-injured countrymen, whose naked bodies were ill calculated to endure the scalding fluid. It was worse than all the weapons used against them… The scene was truly affecting; many of the killed were still fettered by the leg to living slaves, in which case they assisted each other to lift the dead incumbrance on the gun wale, whence both were plunged into the water…’

‘Though the slaves were overpowered by severity, and apparently reduced to subordination, he must know very little of the human mind, who could expect that men, suffering bodily pain and debasement, with the loss of native freedom, should calmly resign themselves to the will of their oppressors, like a lamb to the knife of the butcher, without at least meditating how to escape the one, or to regain the other. Though weapons of cruelty had mutilated the body, they could not subdue the free-born soul, notwithstanding its energies were paralyzed by existing circumstances; so that, when all appeared tranquil, the most deadly hatred was rankling in the minds of these coerced Africans.’

Through the course of the book we see William grow from a naïve boy to a man whose morals are shaped by his experiences of friendship with an African family, comradeship with some of his fellow crewmen and the cruelty of others in the pursuit of profit through the trade in enslaved Africans.