slavery lobotomised

Lobotomised and sold into slavery

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.

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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.

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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.

Muslim American slaves

Muslim African slaves in America

Here’s an angle on American slavery that I’d never considered. How did the treatment of African slaves who were Muslim differ from non-Muslim slaves?

I knew nothing about the role of Muslim African slaves in 18th and 19th century America until I read a fascinating book called A History of Islam in America published by the Cambridge University Press. The author is a professor of religion, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri.

Most white slave owners were ignorant of differences between people in Africa. To them, Africans were a commodity bought and sold for their labour and that was it. But a minority seem to have taken an interest, if only to find ways of exploiting those differences for their own advantage.

They noticed that some of their slaves knelt to pray five times during the day while working on the plantation. Many were literate as they been brought up writing and reading Arabic. And they didn’t identify with non-Muslim Africans who having not accepted the word of Allah were therefore unenlightened.

Some white American slave owners began to regard the Muslim slaves as a cut above the others – and these slaves encouraged this notion. After all, they wanted better treatment and held out the hope that it might be possible to find the means to be freed one day.

Professor GhaneaBassiri notes that some were even given supervisory roles over other slaves because they were seen as being brainier. He also notes that of course some Muslim Africans had been slaveowners back in their homeland or had engaged in wars of religion with pagan Africans in the decades before.

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During the War of Independence against the British, some African Muslims fought with the colonists. Names on the military muster rolls include Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali and Joseph Saba. It’s well known that Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an and opposed discrimination against Muslims and Jews.

In the years after independence, the new United States experienced years of conflict with the so-called “Barbary” states of north Africa. The US even suffered the indignity of its own sailors being captured off the African coast and sold into slavery – by Africans. Karma is the word that comes to mind.

Behind the scenes, a still miffed Britain encouraged the north African rulers to attack American shipping no longer protected by the Royal Navy after independence in 1783. In desperation, the US turned to Muslim African slaves in its diplomacy with the Barbary states to try and put a stop to the onslaught on its ships.