Between 1540 and 1850 the estimated 15 million people taken from Africa to forced labor in the western hemisphere were brought in specially designed or modified ships. The kinds of vessels preferred for the slave trade were brigs and schooners.1A basic brig is a comparatively large two-masted square-rigged ship with masts stepped toward the stern
(“raked”), while a basic schooner is a smaller two-masted vessel with the masts perpendicular to the keel
and the fore-and-aft sails suspended by gaffs. Additional masts, spars, and sails could be added to both
types of vessel and it was also possible to combine square rigging and gaff rigging on the same ship, as in
the so-called “brigantine”. The famous clipper ships of the 19 th century were square-rigged brigs with
three raked masts. A barque, or bark, had combination rigging with three perpendicular masts. These
kinds of vessels were also commandeered for the American Navy during the Revolutionary War and
became privateers during the War of 1812. Types of Sailing Vessels:; Sailing Ship Rigs, Maritime Museum of the
Atlantic: See also

Some schooners and other vessels owned by Cape Ann merchants and their families were bought, built or refitted, and used in the illegal slave trade. These vessels sailed from Gloucester, Boston, and other ports after 1808, when the slave trade was illegal, with Gloucester captains and crews. The slave trade was an intergenerational family business, with merchant families deeply and loyally interconnected through marriage and business. Today in New England, some descendants of slave-owning families acknowledge the participation of their ancestors in the slave trade and have made education about slavery a major focus.2Glickman, 2015, p. 46; Howard, Warren S., 1963, American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837-1862.
See particular examples at

Ship owners prized the schooner’s legendary speed for getting more slaves to their destinations alive. The quicker the voyage, the more slaves survived, the more goods traded, and the more money could be made. Merchants built ships that would best use the wind and currents to make the shortest possible trans-Atlantic journeys. Schooners were especially designed for speed and maneuverability. With a sleek hull and comparatively shallow draft a schooner could maneuver in the shallow waters around African ports and come about quickly to out-maneuver and out-sail pursuers to evade arrest. Because their speed and maneuverability made schooners difficult to catch, the British often used captured slave ships in their naval campaign to suppress the slave trade.3Rediker, Marcus, 2007, The Slave Ship, A Human History, p. 64; Glickman, Jessica A., 2015, A War at the Heart of Man: The Structure and Construction of Ships Bound for Africa, Open Access Master's
Theses, Paper 666:, pp. 24-26.

The United States brig: Niagra
Source: Wikipedia
Two Masted Schooner Artist: D. Thyler
Source: Lannan Gallery

During the height of the legal slave trade, between 1700 and 1807, before Britain and the United States outlawed it, ships were custom-built specifically for the purpose of carrying enslaved people to European and American ports from the coast of West Africa. These vessels were given copper sheathing to withstand hazards to wooden hulls in tropical waters. The ships were heavy, full-bodied, and deep-hulled to maximize the number of slaves or amount of cargo that could be carried on a single voyage.4Glickman, 2015, pp. 25-26; Rediker 2007, pp. 71-72.

The cargo included goods to trade for slaves in West African ports, especially fabric and cloth, iron or copper bars called manillas, and cowrie shells—forms of money, glass beads, and firearms.5Alpern, Stanley B., 1995, What Africans Got for Their Slaves: A Master List of European Trade Goods,
History in Africa 22, p. 22.
Extra decks and platforms, separated by little more than 4 feet of space, plus plank barriers and a variety of restraints, segregated African men, women, and children from each other and from the crew quarters and ships stores. The galley, or kitchen, was placed in the stern to aid separation and to restrict access to the arsenal, rudder, and steering. Also above deck was a space designated for a large brick stove for cooking the large quantities of rice and beans needed daily to feed the slaves.6Glickman, 2015, pp. 25-26; Rediker, 2007, pp. 72-73.

An Okpoho-type manilla from south-eastern Nigeria, a form of money traded for slaves
Source: Wikipedia
String of Cowrie Shells traded for slaves
Source: A NORTH EAST STORY; Aberdeenshire Council, UK

Slave Ships

Slave ships were armed with cannons and deck weapons for defense against attacks from both within and without, but also carried devices for keeping human cargo and crew alive during the voyage. As horrible as conditions were, measures were taken to try to ensure that slaves would survive to reach the markets. Life-saving devices on purpose-built slavers included extra portholes and hatchways for air circulation below decks, with special sails dedicated to funneling air into the holds. Giant awnings over the deck were for the purpose of preventing overheating by blocking the sun. Rope nets were arranged on the top deck to protect the captain and crew in the event of revolt and to prevent slaves from committing suicide by jumping overboard.7Glickman, 2015, p. 26; Rediker, 2007, pp. 14; 68. Despite stringent measures, revolts on slave ships were common. It is estimated that 100,000 Africans died in uprisings at sea or during shore-to-ship transport on the West African coast.8African Resistance:

The refitting of schooners to secretly carry slaves became a common practice after 1808 when both Britain and the United States abolished the slave trade. An example is the schooner Leda, built in Essex and part-owned by Gloucester merchants. We do not know where or when the Leda was refitted as a slave ship. To avoid attracting attention refitted vessels carried little or no decoration and no carved figurehead on the bowsprit, and carried flags of different nations to raise as needed to deceive pursuers.9Dow, George Francis, 1927, Slave ships and slaving, p. 273; Edwards, Bernard, 2007, Royal Navy
Versus the Slave Traders: Enforcing Abolition at Sea 1808–1898
, pp. 26–27
They sailed between West African and South American ports, with coastal vessels carrying slave labor up to the West Indies from South America as needed.

Schooners had less space below deck than larger merchant vessels but could easily be refitted to carry smaller numbers of high-value cargo such as slaves. Designs for alterations created a faster, lighter vessel by removing heavy framing in the hull to reduce the weight, placing frames farther apart to maximize the amount of space, installing a partial row of extra decking below the main deck, and adding on more sail. However, these changes also made refitted schooners more at risk of sinking in a storm. The vessel was lighter weight, lower in the water, and top-heavy with sail.10Glickman, 2015, pp. 31; 36; 47; 50-51. For expediency slaves often were left in the hold unrestrained on mats spread directly on top of cargo casks. In this case, lack of extra decking and restraints meant that slaves could be loaded and unloaded quickly to escape detection, but also meant greater risk of revolt as well as of bacterial contamination of the water and food in the casks.

Cutaway Drawing of Slave Ship Cargo Hold, Showing Male Slaves Below Deck
Source: The History Collection

Enforcement of Laws against the Slave Trade

During this period of illegal slave trade, vessels often were sent in pairs to reduce risk of discovery or seizure by British Admiralty and American Navy patrols. Equipment for slaving could be divided among the vessels, and in case of discovery, the vessel carrying slaves could be abandoned in a port or at sea and the captain and crew could escape arrest in the second vessel. To avoid liability, after delivering cargo, ships could be sold to slave dealers in foreign ports or be scuttled at the end of a journey, while still realizing a profit.11Dow, 1927, p. 274. Strategies for avoiding detection were ingenious. For example, some voyages included a carpenter who was specially tasked with making the alterations for taking on slaves while on route to Africa and then dismantling the alterations while on route to the home port after delivering the cargo in Brazil or Suriname.12Rediker, 2007, pp. 54-55.

Slave ship captains could be arrested even if no slaves were on board at the time the ships were boarded for inspection, if it was determined that the ship contained evidence for carrying human cargo. Evidence included excessive barrels containing water rather than palm oil, large cooking pots and food stores, a large supply of spoons, additional air funnels, extra hatchways, extra planking, extra sails and awnings, extensive barricades or nets, lattice covers or iron grates over holds, articles of restraint (such as manacles, shackles, and chains), and additional small boats or canoes on board for ship-to-shore transport of slaves, supplies, and crew.13U.S. Congressional Serial Set 458, Vol. 9, No. 150, Report: U. S. Navy relative to operations of the
squadron on the coast of Africa, pp. 273-274; Edwards, Bernard, 2007, Royal Navy Versus the Slave
Traders: Enforcing Abolition at Sea
1808–1898, pp. 26–27.
Between 1807 and 1860 British naval vessels captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 160,000 slaves.14British and Foreign State Papers, Vol. 32, 1843-1844, p. 52.

Cutaway Model of Slave Ship; Artist: Joseph McCleary

Source: The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Slave Traders of Cape Ann

Cape Ann’s involvement in the slave trade began early in the 18th century. In 1740, for example, Captain William Ellery (1693–1771) bought the White-Ellery House for his family at 247 Washington St. in Gloucester. He was a slave ship captain, navigating the slave ship Jenny in 175815 on behalf of the Boston merchant Timothy Fitch. His sons William and Elias also sailed for Fitch in the merchant’s ship Caesar. In 1759, Fitch instructed William Jr. to sail to the West Coast of Africa and purchase 200 slaves to bring back to South Carolina to sell. Fitch had faith that Ellery would perform this task without any trouble as he “often had the care of a number of slaves.”16Letter from Timothy Fitch to Capt. William Ellery, Boston, January 14, 1759, Collections: Slave Trade
Fitch’s instructions include a reference to William’s brother Elias Ellery, master of the sloop Peggy, who was to meet him at Sierra Leone.17A set of Ellery brothers named William and Elias were born in Gloucester in 1720 and 1730
respectively, sons of Capt. William Ellery and his first wife Dorcas Elwell Ellery.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the Hough, Parsons, and Pearce families of Cape Ann were deeply intertwined pillars of the Gloucester community and church benefactors. They were also deeply embedded in the illegal slave trade. Scions of the Hough and Pearce families are named in panels of stained glass in a window of the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church, which they helped found. Benjamin Kent Hough, and later his son, were part owners with William Parsons II and other shareholders of vessels implicated in slave trading, including the Illinois, Leda, Pilot, Heber, and others.18Gloucester Valuations Harbor West Ward, 1842, CCBV3, CC223. City of Gloucester, MA, City Hall archives

The Illinois was a 75-ton brig, and the smaller 72-ton Leda was a schooner built in Essex in Interestingly, none of the slave ships are included in the list of Gloucester vessels
in the Guide to the Port of Gloucester Papers: and
were probably registered at Boston or ports in Maine.
Both ships were officially identified as slavers, cited for transporting slaves from West Africa to ports in Brazil.20Williams, Greg H., 2002, Civil and Merchant Vessel Encounters with United States Navy Ships, 1800-
2000, p. 474; U.S. Congressional Serial Set 458, pp. 72; 76.
The Pilot was a 245-ton barque and the Heber was 107-ton brig built at Saco, Maine in 1834.21The Mariner’s Mirror v. 89 (2003), p. 100; Fairburn, William Armstrong, 1945, Merchant Sail, v. 5, pp.
The masters of these vessels included Capt. William Pearce Jr. and Capt. Joseph Swift of Gloucester. Crew on the Illinois included Gloucester men, for example, John Ingersoll, Thomas Wedge, among others.

West African Ports in the Slave Trade
Source: Quora

The Case of the Illinois

The Illinois was famously involved in a widely publicized Whydah (Ouidah), Benin tragedy, in which the vessel with slaves aboard may have been intentionally grounded on the African coast when approached by British patrol ships after the ruse of hoisting first a Spanish flag and then an American one failed.22Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database,, Voyage IDs
2726, 2274, 4700.
The ship had been sold for the purpose of trafficking slaves and had a Spanish captain. Correspondence between British captains and their commander patrolling the West African coast (Capt. Tucker in Iris, Lt. Cumberland in Dolphin, and the fleet commander Capt. Foote in Madagascar) provides conflicting eye-witness accounts of the sequence of events.23United States Congressional Serial Set 458, pp. 72-78.

The historical record makes only one thing clear: The Illinois of Gloucester was engaging in illegal slave trade.

“The Illinois, a regular American trader, while lying in Whydah roads, in May, 1842, was boarded by Captain Tucker, of the “Iris,” he suspecting her to be sold and engaged in the slave trade, but, not liking to exceed his orders, did not search her. Three days after this, the Illinois sailed from Whydah roads, with Spanish colors flying, full of slaves.”

– Capt. Foote in Madagascar

According to Capt. Tucker, when he first boarded the Illinois, which had not yet loaded its cargo:

I found a number of water casks (puncheons) apparently filled with water, being perfectly clean, and without the smell of palm oil, but which he said contained palm oil; and on my remarking that they were very clean and clear of palm oil smell, he replied, they came off so to him, and he took them in as they were. I perceived, also, one plank on one of the casks near the main hatchway which was shaped and appeared to have been fitted as part of a slave deck. The hatchway being only partially lifted, I was prescribed confirming my suspicions of her being engaged in the slave trade, being unwilling to give the slightest cause for dissatisfaction to the American Government by asking the mate to lift the hatch a little higher.

– Capt. Tucker

Capt. Tucker’s report continues:

“The next morning [the Illinois] fell in with the “Dolphin,” Lieutenant Cumberland commander, and hoisted American colors. Lieutenant Cumberland knowing the vessel, and that she had been boarded so recently by Captain Tucker, did not chase her; but the “Dolphin’s” head being accidentally put towards the “Illinois,” the Spanish captain became so alarmed that he ran his vessel on shore on Whydah beach, where she was very soon knocked to pieces….”

The Dolphin anchored and fired its guns at the grounded vessel, which was also being pounded by heavy surf.

“Lieutenant Cumberland reported the schooner which had run on shore was the American schooner “Illinois,” which had been at anchor some days in the roads; that she had, previous to running on shore, American colors flying; and to his astonishment, instead of anchoring, she was run on shore on purpose, and several slaves were observed to escape from her; upon which, I directed Lieutenant Cumberland to send some Kroomen [Kru tribesmen who at that time were working for the British Navy’s anti-slavery patrols] through the surf to board her, and if possible to find her flag and papers, to ascertain if she had changed her nationality, and if there were any poor slaves on board previous to his firing at and destroying her….”

The final report to the British Admiralty offers the following summary.

“[Illinois] weighed [anchor] and stood out to the southwestward under a Spanish flag; returned again towards the evening, with the Spanish flag still flying; took in her slaves, and sailed about 10 P. M., and was lost sight of about midnight; was seen again early in the morning, running for the roads, with the American ensign flying, and the brigantine “Dolphin” and ” Iris” in chase; that he ran into the roads and on shore on purpose, and, as they (the informants) suppose, to avoid being captured with slaves on board.”

Oddly, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Ship Database, in 1842 the Illinois left Bahia, Brazil, bought slaves in Whydah, and was “shipwrecked or destroyed” on the Benin coast. Three hundred and fifty-two slaves “perished with the ship”, which the database primary sources attributed to “natural hazard” rather than to human agency! The politics of the archives may be at work here, obscuring what was clearly human agency in the fate of the slaves on board by both the slavers and collateral damage by the British.

Captain John Foote, the senior officer in command of the British West African Squadron at that time, charged the owners and captain of the Illinois “with participation in the slave trade, by the sale of their vessels to noted slave dealers, with a full knowledge that they were to be employed in the trans-shipment of slaves from the coast.” However, there is no record of Benjamin Hough or William Parsons or their captains ever being prosecuted for slaving.

The following year, in 1843, the Gloucester vessel Leda with Capt. William Pearce in command, was boarded on route from Bahia, Brazil to Lagos on the coast of Benin. Lt. Edmund Wilson, commander of the brig Cygnet reported, “This vessel, similar to the “Illinois”…will doubtless when an opportunity occurs, pass into other hands, and take a cargo of slaves from the coast.” Thus forewarned, the Brazilian government in Bahia arrested the Leda as it unloaded the surviving 270 of 300 slaves it had taken on at Whydah, a major loss for the owners.25U.S. Congressional Serial Set 458, pp. 72; 76. The losses of 1842 and 1843 may have been made up for in 1846, however. In that year the Pilot, captained by Joseph Swift of Gloucester, left Boston for Rio de Janeiro, continued on to West Africa, purchased 576 slaves there, and delivered 484 of them to Rio coffee plantations for a handsome profit.26, Voyage ID 4700; Sherwood, Marika, 2007, After
Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807
, p. 203.

In 1844, another request went out to prosecute American slave traders. Commander Perry of the United States frigate Macedonian called for “the legal trial of the masters and owners of these [the Illinois, Leda, Pilot, and other] vessels; that, if found guilty, they may be signally punished and disgraced; and if innocent, that the reproach brought upon the American flag by their alleged agency may be removed, whatever might be the result. The publicity of the investigation might possibly deter others from embarking on speculations of gain so disgraceful to themselves and to the flag.27U.S. Congressional Serial Set 458, p. 75.

The disgrace continued, however, for another 20 years, and beyond, for history sometimes has a long memory. The call for prosecution was never acted on. In 1850, the Payson [Parsons] & Co. shipping firm sold its remaining vessels and went out of business. Benjamin K. Hough, who died in 1855, had made a fortune, was a local benefactor, and owned prime real estate in Gloucester. The area that became Stage Fort Park was known as Hough’s Farm. In the 1840s, Hough offered his farm to the City of Gloucester to be made into a public park, but he was rebuffed.28Frontiero, Wendy, 2017, Form A, Stage Fort Park, Massachusetts Historical Commission MACRIS
Database, Continuation Sheet 4.
For unknown reasons Gloucester later again rebuffed a free offer of that land by Hough’s son, Benjamin K. Hough Jr. In 1898, more than 20 years after Benjamin K. Hough Jr.’s death, to prevent a sale to residential developers, Gloucester used $75,000 of public funds to buy the property that is Stage Fort Park today.29Frontiero, Wendy, 2017, Form A, Stage Fort Park, Massachusetts Historical Commission MACRIS
Database, Continuation Sheet 5.

Hough Farm scene near Cressey’s Beach, Gloucester, painted in 1850 by Mary Blood Mellen
Source: American Gallery