This is such an unusual story that I’d certainly love to get more information from any of you. Recently, I was researching court cases from the 18th century and came across the most horrific example of people being forced into slavery. A London man called John Smith had kidnapped two youngsters, ‘trepanned’ them, and then shipped the unfortunates off into slavery. Lobotomised in other words and sent across the Atlantic.
I had to read the court account several times to see if I’d got the wrong end of the stick. But sure enough, there it was in black and white. Young men zombified in some terrible procedure and then sent out of their wits to a life of hell in the New World.
On 15 January 1700, the central criminal court in London – better known as the Old Bailey – heard the case against London labourer John Smith. There were two main crimes under consideration.
Firstly, he was accused of kidnapping a Jewish man from Ceuta in Morocco who had come to England to visit friends. His name was Joseph Portall. He’d arrived in the country about two days before and Smith bumped into him at the Exchange, a commercial marketplace in the old City of London.
Lobotomised into slavery down a backstreet
Presumably Smith befriended Portall after which he was lured back to an “office” near St. Mary-Hill. That’s a small street by an ancient church still standing though rebuilt be Sir Christopher Wren after the 1666 Great Fire of London.
There Portall became Smith’s prisoner and at some point, was trepanned. Now this is the word that is used in the court case and there’s only definition I have for being trepanned. That is a person’s head being bored into with an instrument in a similar manner to a lobotomy. If anybody has another definition for this term – I’m all ears.
The same fate befell a 16-year-old “Christian youth” called Samuel Cooper who was also sent off into slavery after being trepanned. Cooper’s parents had sent the young man off to church on a Sunday morning and never saw him again. The court heard that he was taken on to a ship with Portall bound for the British American colony of Maryland. This would have meant forced labour on a plantation in the New World.
Potentially hundreds lobotomised into slavery
Most disturbingly, it seemed that Smith had illegally transported potentially hundreds of people to the colonies from his office. Whether they were all trepanned or sent against their will wasn’t entirely clear in the trial. Smith tried to argue that they consented to what happened to them. Highly unlikely of course.
Smith was only apprehended because he was turned over to the authorities by a certain Jacob Kysor. In court, Smith couldn’t contain his rage towards Kysor and declared “he wisht he had his Heart Broyled on Coals, for he would Eat it, and Drink his Blood after it”. Original spelling from the court transcript by the way. That comment was good enough for the jury to find him guilty.
What shocks me is that he wasn’t condemned to death. Given how easily it was to be hanged for any number of crimes in 1700. But especially as he’d committed such an appalling crime. But instead, he was fined and put in the pillory to be pelted by the public. He may also have been whipped at the same time.
I would love to know your insights into this story. By all means have a look at the court case. Were these people actually lobotomised into slavery or is there another way of reading this story? Because if it’s true as reported at the time, then this for me is a new and sick perspective on the dreadful history of slavery.
Companies today are at great pains to show they have diversity strategies in place. But not so long ago – corporate racism was rife. Let’s look at a truly appalling example I came across recently.
Corporate racism in the Roaring Twenties
It was Christmas 1923 and the owners of the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers had a great festive idea. For their card to friends and family back home, why not paint Merry Xmas on the bodies of their African workers. You really couldn’t make it up!
Nigeria was a British colony and many enterprising English folk went out to the colonies to set up businesses and exploit the natural and human resources. They may have thought they were benevolent to their staff but more often they were demeaning.
At the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, there is a photograph in the slavery section of the museum that will make your jaw drop. It’s a truly dreadful example of corporate racism.
Britain had outlawed slavery before the United States and a hundred years before, its navy had patrolled the seas stopping slave ships and liberating their occupants. But a few years earlier, Britain had been the greatest profiteer from slaves. It had operated something referred to as the “slave triangle” – with Liverpool as one point of that triangle.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, manufactured goods were sent to Africa to trade with local chiefs and obtain their war captives and other unfortunates as slaves. These were then shipped to the Americas – north and south – to work on plantations.
Then the produce of these plantations – sugar and cotton being the most important – were shipped back to Britain’s industrial factories before being bought as finished goods by consumers – or sent to Africa to begin the triangular cycle again.
With the end of slavery, shipping millions of Africans to the Americas ceased. But exploitation, supremacist racist attitudes and corporate racism did not.
This photograph of Nigerian workers turned into a human Christmas card evidences that. The European couple are Mr and Mrs Baxendale of Miller Brothers looking a bit sheepish.
Miller Brothers was a Liverpool based trading company and the Baxendales had journeyed out to the Nigerian town of Badagry to manage its affairs. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of their workers as they were humiliated in front of the camera.
So what was the difference between slavery in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago and slavery in the American south 150 years ago. The answers may surprise…
American slavery was very real – here is the grim evidence!
First of all – this is me holding a copy of the Richmond Enquirer – a newspaper from Virginia. This is an original newspaper from 1840. I bought it from an antique dealer a few years ago. And on the front page are some grim reminders of American slavery.
The front page is not like newspapers or websites today – it’s full of small ads and announcements. And shockingly, there are ads for forthcoming slave auctions. Plus there are pleas from slave owners to help them retrieve their runaways.
So – how did American and Roman slavery differ?
The American South defined slavery in racial terms. In the Roman Empire, anybody could end up a slave regardless of skin colour. The Romans, you could say were equal opportunities slavers! So, you might be a Roman citizen living in Syria of Arab ethnicity who owned a Germanic slave captured in one of Rome’s wars on the Rhine frontier.
In other words, a man of Middle Eastern complexion could own a man of blonde and blue-eyed appearance. To the Romans, your status was everything – your race was a lesser factor.
Roman slaves did what we regard as high status jobs. If you went to a doctor, had your accounts worked on, watched an actor at the theatre or met the manager of a local business – all those professionals could have been slaves in ancient Rome. There were slaves in the fields and mines kept in chains and subject to unbelievable brutality. But there were also slaves in what we would regard as white-collar and managerial roles.
This was simply not the case in the American south. The idea of a white family going to an African-American doctor for a consultation would have been unthinkable in early 19th century Virginia. Ditto having your accounts done. Slaves were overwhelmingly in menial, agrarian roles on the plantations. The variety of roles you’d have found in Rome didn’t exist in the American south.
Routes to becoming a slave were very different. In Rome it might involve:
Being a prisoner of war
Born into slavery because your parents were slaves
Abandoned babies often were reared as slaves
You were the citizen of a city that had rebelled against Roman rule and you and your neighbours were carted off as slaves
Your debts had forced you to sell yourself into slavery
American routes into slavery tended to be less subtle:
You were an African American in the southern states
You had been captured or sold in Africa and sold on to slavers who then transported you to the New World – the Caribbean, Latin America or deep south
Freed slaves could be very successful in ancient Rome. The Romans borrowed a practice called manumission from the Greeks. This was a very smart idea. Slaves were encouraged to earn a wage on the side – maybe doing something like basket weaving – and they would save some of their money. At an agreed date, they would approach their master and buy their freedom at a pre-determined price.
For the master, this was great. Slaves were depreciating assets – as all that work wore them down. So now, the master had a tidy sum of money with which to pop down to the slave market and get a replacement. The freed slave still had social obligations to the former master but could otherwise pursue a successful career. Some freed slaves did surprisingly well. The emperor Claudius made considerable use of clever Greek freedmen as advisers.
Slaves were freed in the American south from the 17th century onwards but on nothing like the Roman scale. In fact, American slave owners seem to have been more reticent to give slaves their liberty. The only reason I can think of is that by this period in history, slavery was so obviously a rotten institution. By the early 19th century, the United Kingdom – once an enthusiastic slave trader – had outlawed it.
I suspect American slave owners thought that emancipating one slave could lead by degrees to freedom for all. That kind of concern never bothered a Roman in a world where all societies had slave ownership. There was simply no economic alternative. Whereas by the late 18th and 19th centuries, modern industrial capitalism was arriving on the scene with people hiring their labour to factory bosses.
The chances of freed American slaves succeeding while they remained in the south were pretty poor because of the strong racial element. An American ex-slave was easily identifiable whereas a Roman ex-slave could blend into the population. Most manumitted African Americans retained a very servile status compared to Roman freed slaves.
American slavery made less and less economic sense. New farming technology and the growing of a wider variety of crops made slavery a bit redundant in economic terms from the mid-18th century onwards in the American south. However, studies have concluded that for some landowners and slave traders, investing in human beings was extremely lucrative.
Bluntly, if nobody had been getting rich out of it – slavery would have collapsed long before the American civil war. The investment yield on “slave capital” could be as high as 13% – comparable to investing in the 19th century railroads. It might seem both distasteful and odd to us now, but there were little old ladies in Worcester, England who invested in slaves in the Caribbean or Virginia in much the same way you might invest remotely in shares or bonds today. You can find these records online.
This kind of investment in slaves required a level of financial sophistication and technology unknown to the Romans. They simply bought a human being and put him or her to work. End of story. It was the economic norm and there was no other known way of powering a ship forward (galley slaves), heating a posh house (the hypocaust) or quarrying all that marble to build lovely temples to the gods.
Whereas American slavery could be replaced instantly by harnessing industrial methods and hiring workers. There was simply no good reason for continuing a pre-feudal form of labour in the 19th century. By the end, when the south lost the civil war, plantation owners who had supported the Confederacy just seemed to be flaunting their slaves like trophies as opposed to making a profit and running a proper business.
Sexual abuse of slaves. In both Roman and American slave systems, sexual abuse was common. The main difference would have been that certain sexual practices were condemned by Christian doctrine – sodomy for example – whereas in ancient Rome, no such restriction was in place.
Slaves in Rome could be openly advertised for their sexual capability – heterosexual and homosexual. Ointments were applied to remove body hair and, it was thought, to delay the onset of puberty. For example, a hyacinth bulb dipped in sweet wine and applied on a teenage slave’s body was thought to keep it artificially youthful. Boys might also be castrated to satisfy the demand for young eunuchs.
Sex between slaves and owners was tolerated in ancient Rome and even celebrated on The Warren Cup – a goblet you can see at the British Museum in London. But there were social conventions. The owner had to be dominant and not passive in the sexual act. The slave had to be in very much the submissive role. Some of these relationships may have been consensual – but you can bet a great many more were not.
Sexual abuse also happened to slaves in the Americas but not openly advertised. In one case, an African American man was forced to rape a slave woman in front of the owners for their amusement. Families were split up at slave auctions with women and children then left exposed to their new owner’s whims.