Dancing the Slaves

After the morning meal came a joyless ceremony called ‘dancing the slaves.’ ‘Those men who were in irons,’ says Dr. Thomas Trotter, surgeon of the Brookes in 1783, ‘were ordered to stand up and make what motions they could, leaving a passage for such as were out of irons to dance around the deck.’ Dancing was prescribed as a therapeutic measure, a specific against suicidal melancholy, and also against scurvy — although in the latter case it was a useless torture for men with swollen limbs. While sailors paraded the deck, each with a cat-o’-nine-tails in his right hand, the men slaves ‘jumped in their irons’ until their ankles were bleeding flesh. One sailor told Parliament, ‘I was employed to dance the men, while another person danced the women.’ Music was provided by a slave thumping on a broken drum or an upturned kettle, or by an African banjo, if there was one aboard, or perhaps by a sailor with a bagpipe or a fiddle. Slaving captains sometimes advertised for ‘a person that can play on the Bagpipes, for a Guinea ship.’ The slaves were also told to sing. Said Dr. Claxton after his voyage in the Young Hero, ‘They sing, but not for their amusement. The captain ordered them to sing, and they sang songs of sorrow. Their sickness, fear of being beaten, their hunger, and the memory of their country, &c., are the usual subjects.’

— Daniel P. Mannix and Malcolm Cowley, Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865, 1962