The Capture of a Slaver is a non-fiction historical account written by John Taylor Wood, published in 1900. The narrative delves into Wood’s experiences as a midshipman on the United States brig Porpoise during the 1830s and 1840s, a period when both the United States and Great Britain were actively combating the transatlantic slave trade. Wood, who later became a Confederate naval hero during the American Civil War, recounts a specific mission aimed at intercepting and capturing a slave ship off the coast of Africa. This vivid account provides insights into the naval operations, the harrowing conditions on slave ships, and the moral complexities faced by those involved in the suppression of the slave trade.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

In the early 1830s, the United States brig Porpoise, under the command of Lieutenant Thompson, embarked on a perilous mission off the coast of Africa. The brig, heavily armed and manned by a determined crew, was part of a joint Anglo-American effort to intercept and capture slave ships. The Porpoise, though slow and cramped, was a symbol of hope against the backdrop of the brutal transatlantic slave trade.

John Taylor Wood, a young midshipman aboard the Porpoise, recalls the grim realities and moral complexities of their mission. The Porpoise, alongside the faster British schooner Bright, patrolled the coast near the Niger River, a hotbed of slave trading activity. Slave depots, or barracoons, were hidden up rivers, where slavers could load their human cargo away from the prying eyes of naval patrols. The slavers, often swift schooners, were adept at evading capture, making the task of the Porpoise and its crew daunting.

One fateful morning, the Porpoise received intelligence from local natives about two slavers preparing to set sail. The crew, seasoned and wary, maneuvered their ship to intercept any vessel attempting to leave the river under the cover of darkness. At dawn, a lookout spotted a brigantine on the horizon, its sails straining under the weight of its cargo. The chase was on, but the slaver, with its superior speed, seemed destined to escape.

As the sun climbed higher, a calm settled over the sea, giving the Porpoise a fleeting advantage. The crew, working tirelessly, wetted the sails and adjusted the rigging, squeezing every ounce of speed from their vessel. Hours passed, the tension mounting, until a fresh breeze began to stir. With renewed vigor, the Porpoise closed the gap. The slaver, realizing the danger, executed a desperate maneuver, cutting its studding sails and changing course sharply.

The Porpoise’s crew, anticipating such a move, adjusted their sails and resumed the chase. The gun crews targeted the slaver’s rigging, firing shot after shot until a lucky hit brought down the peak halyards and topgallant yard. The slaver, crippled and unable to flee, was now within reach. As the Porpoise drew alongside, Lieutenant Bukett led a boarding party onto the slaver, where they encountered a horrific scene.

Below decks, over three hundred enslaved Africans were crammed into the hold, suffering from dehydration, starvation, and disease. The air was thick with the stench of death and despair. The slaver’s captain, a defiant and imposing Spaniard, protested vehemently, claiming his ship was a legitimate trader. His resistance was futile; he and his crew were overpowered and taken prisoner.

The crew of the Porpoise, horrified by the conditions below, immediately set to work providing aid. Water, food, and medical care were administered as best they could in the cramped quarters. Despite their efforts, seventeen of the captives were beyond saving and were given a burial at sea. The survivors, many barely clinging to life, were gradually nursed back to health.

The next challenge was transporting the captives to Monrovia, Liberia, a settlement established for freed American slaves. The journey was fraught with peril, including a severe tropical storm that threatened to capsize the heavily laden brig. The crew’s determination and skill saw them through, and they finally arrived at Monrovia.

However, the reception in Monrovia was far from welcoming. The local authorities, overwhelmed and bureaucratic, delayed the landing of the captives. Wood, frustrated but persistent, negotiated tirelessly. After several days, he received orders to transport the captives to Grand Bassa, another settlement along the coast.

At Grand Bassa, Wood faced further resistance, this time from the local king. Demanding weapons and goods in exchange for allowing the captives to land, the king presented a new challenge. Wood, standing firm, refused to capitulate. Eventually, the captives were allowed to disembark, though their fate remained uncertain in the volatile environment.

As the captives were led ashore, their fear and reluctance were palpable. The men and boys, silent and stoic, offered no resistance, while the women and girls, more demonstrative, begged with their eyes to remain on the ship. The crew, having formed a bond with these helpless individuals, found the task heart-wrenching. Nevertheless, the captives were handed over to the local authorities.

Wood’s mission concluded with his return to Monrovia to report the successful delivery, and subsequently to Porto Praya to join the flagship of the squadron. Reflecting on the ordeal, Wood grappled with the moral complexities and immense suffering he had witnessed. The brutal realities of the transatlantic slave trade and the arduous efforts to combat it left an indelible mark on him.

This harrowing mission underscored the profound human cost of the slave trade and the tireless efforts of those who sought to end it. Through the courage and compassion of Wood and his fellow sailors, a small measure of justice was brought to a dark and turbulent chapter in history.

Main Characters

  • John Taylor Wood: The narrator and a midshipman on the Porpoise, Wood is a dedicated and compassionate officer committed to the suppression of the slave trade. His leadership and empathy are evident throughout the mission.
  • Lieutenant Thompson: The commanding officer of the Porpoise, Thompson is a resolute and strategic leader, directing the complex maneuvers required to capture the slaver.
  • Lieutenant Bukett: The executive officer of the Porpoise, Bukett plays a crucial role in boarding and securing the slaver, demonstrating tactical skill and courage.
  • Captain of the Slaver: A defiant and physically imposing Spaniard, he represents the ruthless determination of slavers to evade capture and protect their illicit cargo.

Themes and Motifs

  • Moral Complexity: The narrative explores the ethical dilemmas faced by the crew, balancing their duty to suppress the slave trade with the harsh realities of the captives’ suffering.
  • Human Suffering: The harrowing conditions aboard the slaver highlight the inhumane treatment of enslaved individuals, emphasizing the brutal nature of the transatlantic slave trade.
  • Duty and Compassion: The crew’s commitment to their mission and their compassionate treatment of the captives underscore the duality of military duty and humanitarian concern.
  • Bureaucracy and Resistance: The logistical and political challenges faced in Liberia illustrate the complexities of implementing abolitionist policies in a colonial context.

Writing Style and Tone

John Taylor Wood’s writing style is characterized by vivid, detailed descriptions and a narrative tone that combines military precision with compassionate observation. His use of first-person narration provides an intimate and immersive account of the mission, drawing readers into the experiences and emotions of the crew. The narrative is structured to build tension and suspense, capturing the perilous nature of the chase and the subsequent challenges. Wood’s language is both technical, reflecting his naval background, and empathetic, conveying the profound impact of the captives’ suffering on the crew. This combination creates a compelling and thought-provoking account of a significant historical episode.

Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer (if any)

When I am not working/watching movies/reading books/traveling, you can reach me via my Twitter/LinkedIn or you can contact me here

Categories: Book Summary