A Newly Digitized Logbook Documents Life and Death on a Slave Trading Ship
The “Mary” departed Africa in mid-June 1796 with 142 enslaved men, women and children on board
Last month, the Georgetown University Library announced its acquisition—and digitization—of a rare logbook detailing life aboard the Mary, which transported enslaved West Africans across the Atlantic at the turn of the 18th century.
The text documents day-to-day happenings on a 1795 voyage from Providence, Rhode Island, to several ports along the coasts of modern-day Senegal, Liberia and Ghana. It also recounts the Mary’s return to the United States the following year.
Per the library’s catalog entry, the ship departed Africa in mid-June 1796 with 142 men, women and children on board. By the time the boat reached Savannah, Georgia, on October 22, 38 of these enslaved individuals had succumbed to infectious diseases, suicide and violent disciplinary measures.
“We don’t know their names,” says Georgetown historian Adam Rothman in a video about the logbook. “We don’t know their biographies. We don’t know where they came from. We don’t know anything about their families. All we know is what’s recorded in this journal.”
The logbook keeper—probably one of the captain’s assistants—recorded enslaved people’s deaths in “the numbest way” possible, Rothman tells Atlas Obscura’s Matthew Taub. Each demise is noted simply by a number indicating the voyage’s growing death toll.
Far from acting as a “photographic portrait of reality,” Rothman adds, the logbook is “a representation from a certain perspective, one of the officers on board this vessel for whom the Africans were commodities, potential sources of profit and loss. That helps you understand why the deaths are recorded the way they are.”
The Mary’s transatlantic passage was one of 18 such voyages funded by slave trader Cyprian Sterry. All of these trips are recorded in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which tracks nearly 36,000 journeys undertaken between 1514 and 1866.
Prior to the logbook’s acquisition, the database’s record of the Mary’s 1795–76 journey were sparse, consisting mainly of the dates the ship left each port and the names of its owner and captain. The newly digitized document offers additional insights on the crew’s experience between ports.
In March 1796, for instance, the logbook’s writer describes three crew members’ attempted mutiny. The insurrection failed, and Captain Nathan Sterry later dismissed the trio.
Three months later, a group of enslaved men escaped their chains and tried to take control of the ship. The logbook dedicates a full page to the fight and its aftermath: Per Atlas Obscura, two of the men were killed in the fight, while two others jumped overboard. The entry ends with a jarring note about the good weather.
Speaking with Atlas Obscura, Rothman says, “[T]he experience of actually seeing this artifact in person and turning the pages yourself is absolutely terrifying.”
He adds, “It’s a really emotional experience. It’s a record of so much pain and trauma, and just to have it in front of you—it’s just a kind of testament.”
As Samantha Tritt reports for the Georgetown Voice, Sterry continued to fund voyages long after his home state of Rhode Island passed a 1787 decree banning residents from participating in the slave trade. Sterry only halted operations in 1797, when the Providence Abolition Society threatened to sue him for violating state law.
At some point in its more than 200-year history, the Mary’s logbook ended up in the closet of Robert S. Askew’s California home. After finding the document, Askew reached out to family friend (and Georgetown University alumnus) Jack Pelose, who connected him with the school’s library. Pelose even built a custom crate used to safely transport the fragile text across the country, according to a statement.
Per the video, the library worked with preservation specialists to remove the book’s binding, clean its pages and paste the crumbling leaves on Japanese paper.
Georgetown University historian Hillary MacKinlay is currently transcribing the sprawling 18th-century logbook, notes the Georgetown Voice. Rothman, meanwhile, intends to create a digital storytelling project that will track the ship’s journey on a map.