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  • Ransoming Practices and “Barbary Coast” Slavery:Negotiations Relating to Liverpool Slave Traders in the Late Eighteenth Century1
  • Suzanne Schwarz (bio)

The shipwreck and ransom of the officers and crew of two Liverpool slave ships (the Anna and the Solicitor General) on the “Barbary Coast”2 of Morocco in the last two decades of the eighteenth century took place in a context of growing metropolitan debate on the moral and legal justifications for the enslavement of Africans in the transatlantic slave trade.3 Two years before the schooner Anna foundered on the shore at Wad Nun south of Agadir in May 1789, the Liverpool abolitionist and former slave trade mariner Edward Rushton published a poem in which he pointed to the hypocrisy of those who cherished their own liberty but were prepared to deny it to others. Using the voice of a fictional slave in the West Indies, he criticized men who “Think … that liberty is bliss,” but who were motivated by “base av’rice, to make others slaves.” These men had wrenched Africans from their “native shore Which (dreadful thought!)” they “must behold no more.”4 Bound to the Gold Coast on his maiden voyage as captain of this newly-constructed vessel designed to carry 83 enslaved Africans,5 James Irving appeared to be aware of the broad parameters of abolitionist debate in Britain and attempted in his subsequent correspondence with the Vice-Consul at Essaouira (al-Sawira) to use this borrowed language of liberty to secure his own release.6 He urged John Hutchison to “Let that spirit of humanity which at present Manifests itself throughout the realm actuate you to rescue us speedily from the most intollerable [sic] Slavery.”7

In the same year that Irving was shipwrecked, Gustavus Vassa’s Interesting Narrative urged “nominal Christians” to consider how they could reconcile the brutality and suffering imposed on Africans with the biblical injunction to “Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you.”8 For Irving, his Christian faith was used in captivity in Morocco not to reconsider the legitimacy of his earlier role in transporting some three [End Page 59] thousand Africans to the Americas but rather as a form of resistance and a clear signifier of his cultural superiority over his Muslim captors whom he repeatedly represented as “infidels,” “barbarians” and “savages.”9 In describing his captivity to his intended readers, he set his experiences in a wider biblical context by commenting on how he had “languished and pined in sorrow” for “40 days.” The Bible was also presented as a source of solace, which enabled the mariners to withstand their inhumane treatment at the hands of the “tyrants.” Shortly after the men’s capture on the beach at Wad Nun in May 1789, Irving noted in his journal how “One of us had saved a Bible, from which we selected some Psalms and Chapters, suited to our forlorn situation; and received considerable comfort and benifit [sic] from reading them.”10

Irving considered that his detention represented a reversal of the natural social order, and he was incensed by the notion that “Negroes” could exert control over his crewmen. In a journal entry for 17 June 1789, he reported how some of his crew were required to work in a garden near to Guelmim “under the direction of a Mahomitan negro, who beat them frequently.”11 With no cognisance of Islamic traditions of slavery and contemporary debate in West Africa on the rights of freeborn Muslims,12 Irving interpreted his captivity narrowly within the framework of metropolitan assumptions on the rights of Britons to freedom.13 Cultural assumptions about European entitlement to liberty and African eligibility for enslavement which Liverpool traders would have regarded as normative were at odds with the prevailing climate of opinion in this “ransoming frontier between the worlds of Christianity and Islam.”14 As Jennifer Lofkrantz has noted, in “Muslim regions of West Africa the slavery debate was centred on religious identity; in other words, on social and cultural categories, rather than on ‘race’ and Enlightenment ideals as in European and European-derived societies.”15 Irving was aware that his Christianity attracted the ire and disdain of his...