A Humorous(?) Post about People Traveling by Canoe

Crossing the bar of Gallinas River, near Sierra Leone and Liberia. During the 1820s and 1830s, slave ships stopped at the mouth of the Gallinas River, to collect slaves. Image taken from The illustrated London News. Originally published/produced in London, 1849. British Library Images Online, Shelfmark P.P.7611.237, filename 080997

Crossing the bar of Gallinas River, near Sierra Leone and Liberia. During the 1820s and 1830s, slave ships stopped at the mouth of the Gallinas River, to collect slaves. Image taken from The illustrated London News. Originally published/produced in London, 1849. British Library Images Online, Shelfmark P.P.7611.237, filename 080997

This summer I started research for my second book project, which I will admit feels a bit ridiculous when my first book project is still in process. I’m blithely ignoring this problem at the moment. In brief, the project, currently-horribly-titled “Aquatic Foodways” asks two related questions: 1) Where, why, and how did people fight over food when crossing water in the early modern Atlantic, and 2) What happened when people disembarked and interacted with indigenous peoples as they searched for sustenance? After a month of preliminary research at the British Library this summer, I’m decidedly more interested in the second question, but have a sense that I’ll need to answer the first question before proceeding forward.

This post is a first stab at putting words onscreen in an effort to get a sense of some of the mechanics of day-to-day travel via water. I didn’t want to start somewhere obvious in terms of sources, so for someone who’s worked primarily in Native American history, I knew I didn’t want to begin in North America. I’ve been writing about Sierra Leone for a couple chapters in the first book project on Sierra Leone, so I decided to go back to some of those sources this summer.[1] I was struck by the pervasiveness of canoes in the manuscripts I looked at, and thought it would be fun to write about them in a way that didn’t involve Niagara, or Detroit, or Michilimackinac.

I also thought it would be fun because of how inept British travelers appeared when it came to travel by canoe. In late 1794 a group of French sailors attacked the British colony at Freetown, Sierra Leone, and in the confusion a Temne ruler seized nearly all of the colonists’ ships.[2] As of February 1795 the Sierra Leone colonists could claim ownership of only one large vessel. Once they could no longer rely upon this form of transport, they began to use canoes to traverse the rivers that stretched into the interior of West Africa.

It could be said that to some degree, rivers provided many advantages. They offered a way for Englishmen to escape when the French attacked in 1794. Rivers created a way for indigenous Africans, paddling in their canoes, to approach European ships when they came to call, linking the two peoples to ensure that goods and information flowed in multiple directions. But canoes on rivers also created conflict; the most obvious example is the use of such transport to convey slaves from the interior to the slave ships waiting for them. No one needed reminding of this fact; the sharks that swam upriver in anticipation of spilled blood were symbolic enough.[3] Other forms of violence were less obvious. The moment in which Africans disembarked from their canoes and boarded English vessels, and the instances when Britons set out on their own river journeys were fraught with the potential for misunderstandings.

Although Britons estimated that they could cover approximately seven miles in an hour, in reality they were woefully unskilled at rowing about.[4] In order to do so they often had to impose on their African landlords in order to borrow a canoe in the first place.[5] Indigenous Africans’ towns were rarely located directly on a river, but rather a quarter or half mile away from the river at high tide. Getting back underway after a visit sometimes necessitated no small amount of planning. James Watt, the Sierra Leone Council’s plantation manager, described an insomnia-plagued early morning when, fearful of missing the tide, he and his travel companions actually arrived back at their canoe too early. They returned to town and then back to the canoe, encountering “much trouble getting on board, wading up to the knees in mud for upwards of a 100 yds.” They had remove their “stockings & shoes for this purpose,” and their “feet were much hurt with the sharp edges of oyster shells under the mud.”[6] They finally got underway at 6:30 in the morning. The previous day they waded “400 yards up to the knees in mud” and through Mangrove bushes, to reach their canoe.[7] On another morning when Watt and his travel companion, John Gray, were allowing themselves a leisurely time of writing while their canoe men (“our people”) dealt with the vessel, Watt decided it was time that he “leapt over to assist them” to help in their “endeavor to shove her [the canoe] along into the water.” Unfortunately Watt found himself “sinking to the knees in Mud & still finding no bottom,” and had to cling to the canoe and haul himself on board while the canoe men unsuccessfully tried to finish the job.[8]

Lack of knowledge rarely prevented British journeyers from trying to take charge. After a morning and afternoon spent piddling “through the Shoals” and coming “frequently aground” because they “did not know the right passage from the mouth” of a creek, Watt wrote that “Our Boatmen now wished to set a mat sail with which they had provided themselves.” Rather than allow the boatmen to do their job, Watt and Gray, disinclined “to sail in such a crazy vessel . . . positively forbid it.” To smooth things over they offered everyone a drink of gin, which sounds like a recipe for disaster (hilarity?) while sailing in “a crazy vessel.”[9]

It’s going to be tough not to excoriate these travelers. Sitting in the British Library reading room, I felt my historians’ objectivity seep away from me. I don’t think I’ve reached the heights of Jill Lepore lovingly stroking a lock of Webster’s hair, but some of the things that these British dudes did was pretty despicable.[10] One of their African guides, a blind, older Mandinka man, found himself regularly heckled by Gray, who “diverted himself with making him renounce his religion every day, before he would give him a dram [of gin], which the old boy did very readily rather than want it.”[11] John Gray, it should be noted, was one of the future governors of the colony. My notes from that episode simply read “SO THAT HAPPENED.”

These problems shouldn’t be surprising. But I’m still torn between figuring out what information is simply new to me, and what information is actually new. I am at heart an archive rat who prefers to dive into the primary sources first, and catch up on my secondaries later. Ineptitude is one of the themes I’m always interested in pursuing in my research: why, decade after decade and even century after century, do colonists persist in making shoddy plans, offending their indigenous hosts, creating conflicts and violence, starving by the score, and dying in droves? At this point I could go on and on about the challenges that annoying British colonists faced when they settled themselves—gracefully or not—into a canoe, but I think it would be more helpful to hear from those of you maritime historians who’ve worked on this stuff before. What should I be reading about travel by canoe, boat, or large ship? And what’s your favorite story about hilarious British travelers?

____________________

[1] Shameless plug for this essay, which is coming out soon: Rachel B. Herrmann, “‘If the King had really been a father to us’: Failed food diplomacy in eighteenth-century Sierra Leone,” in Carol Helstosky, ed., The Routledge History of Food (forthcoming Oct. 2014). If the price gives you sticker shock, as I expect it will, and you want to read a copy, drop me a line and I’ll send a pre-proof copy.

[2] For primary sources see Zachary Macaulay and James Watt to the Chairman and Court of Directors of the Sierra Leone Company, Freetown, 15 November 1794, f. 1, Journal of Zachary Macaulay, MY 418 (7), Macaulay Papers, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; Ad[am] Afzelius to the Governor & Council of Sierra Leone, 27 November 1794, f. 186-87, Add. MS 12131, BL; “An Account of the Life of Mr. DAVID GEORGE, from Sierra Leone in Africa; given by himself in a Conversation with Brother RIPPON of London, and Brother PEARCE of Birmingham” (London, 1793-1797), in Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Vincent Carretta (Lexington, Ky., 1996), 344. For secondary works that describe the event see Christopher Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone (London, 1962), 59-61; James Sidbury, Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic (New York, 2007), 110; Ellen Gibson Wilson, The Loyal Blacks (New York, 1976).

[3] Marcus Rediker, “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade,” Atlantic Studies, 5, no. 2 (2008), 285-97, esp. 289-90.

[4] 4 February 1795, Mr. Grays Journal in January & February 1795, f. 46, Add. MS 12131, the British Library, London, UK (hereafter BL).

[5] On the landlord-stranger relationship see Philip D. Morgan, “Africa and the Atlantic, C. 1450 to C. 1820,” in Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan, Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (New York, 2008), 228; A. G. Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa (New York, 1973), 109; Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill, 1998), 90.

[6] 5 February 1795, Mr. Watts Journal to Furry Cannaba’s between the 31st January & 11th February 1795, f. 71, Add. MS12131, BL.

[7] 4 February 1795, Mr. Watts Journal to Furry Cannaba’s between the 31st January & 11th February 1795, f. 69, Add. MS 12131, BL.

[8] 11 February 1795, Mr. Watts Journal to Furry Cannaba’s between the 31st January & 11th February 1795, f. 83, Add. MS 12131, BL.

[9] 4 February 1795, Mr. Watts Journal to Furry Cannaba’s between the 31st January & 11th February 1795, f. 70, Add. MS 12131, BL.

[10] Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” The Journal of American History, 88, no. 1 (June, 2001), 129-144.

[11] 7 February 1795, Mr. Watts Journal to Furry Cannaba’s between the 31st January & 11th February 1795, f. 74, Add. MS 12131, BL.

5 comments on “A Humorous(?) Post about People Traveling by Canoe

  1. yxesmai12 says:

    Presumably you’ve come across Rediker’s The Slave Ship, since you cite an essay of his in your post. If not, he does a lovely job capturing the diverse cultures present on transatlantic vessels. He doesn’t shy away from the horrors of maritime life, and he captures the ineptitudes of various myopic captains, sailors and- understandably- slaves.

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. […] seminars and events across the country. Finally, in case you missed it, this week at The Junto, we traveled by canoe, ventured into French archives, reconsidered the “new history of capitalism,” and took an […]

  3. […] Rachel Hermann shares early thoughts concerning her second book project in “A Humorous(?) Post about People Traveling by Canoe.” […]

  4. […] watery Atlantic World contexts. I’ve blogged about some preliminary ideas on that second project here. In sum, I’m always interested in contextualizing peoples’ hunger-related decisions and actions […]

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