Dark Voyage: An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s Slave Trade


October 31, 2022
by Kelly Mielke Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Dark Voyage: An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s African Slave Trade by Christian McBurney (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2022)

In Dark Voyage: An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s African Slave Trade, author Christian McBurney recounts the voyage of a Rhode Island merchant’s privateer ship Marlborough to the West Coast of Africa to attack and disrupt British shipping interests. This is the first book written about the Marlborough’s voyage. Through this microhistory of one ship’s journey, McBurney provides insight into the extent that American privateers disrupted British economic interests at sea. In particular, the book provides a view into the effects of American privateering upon the slave trade. As McBurney notes, privateering constituted America’s most effective weapon of war at sea, leading to both private gains and the advancement of the American war effort at the expense of the British. Considering the huge role the British played in the slave trade, the disruption of their involvement through privateering voyages proved quite a blow to British economic interests.

The book beings by setting the stage with context for the slave trade and both British and American involvement. Most of the narrative details the voyage of the Marlborough, which is bookended by chapters that provide important context for privateering in the American Revolution and the impact of American privateers upon the slave trade. John Brown, a prominent Rhode Island merchant, owned many ships and had been involved in privateering and military contracting which had proven lucrative. However, by 1777, the days of successful capture with small privateering vessels had passed. In response, Brown invested in the construction of a larger and faster privateering vessel, the Marlborough, to send to the West Coast of Africa to interfere with the British vessels off the coast.

John Brown appointed George Waite Babcock to commandeer the Marlborough. Although sources for the ship’s journey and aftermath are scant, McBurney relies heavily upon the journal of Babcock’s captain’s clerk, John Linscom Boss, for many of the details of the voyage. In the chapters detailing the ship’s voyage, readers learn of the struggles that the ship experienced on its way to Africa—including an outbreak of smallpox—and the attacks and captures the Marlborough made once the vessel reached the west coast of Africa.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the narrative are the chapters that explore the fates of the ships the Marlborough captured—the Fancy, the Pearl, the Kitty, and the Betsey—along with their captive Africans and the fate of George Waite Babcock in the wake of the expedition. There are many unknowns and a lack of concrete, conclusive evidence, but McBurney deftly pieces together the extant evidence in the search of plausible explanations. As a result, some speculation is necessary on McBurney’s part to flesh out the narrative and provide suggestions for the fate of these ships and their human cargo. While speculation is something at which many scholars and readers may normally balk, McBurney provides detailed explanations of how the available sources point him to his conclusions and offers alternative explanations in addition to what he personally advocates. McBurney’s creative use of scant resources and detective-like piecing together is admirable.

One example of this skillful use of source material is his discussion of the fate of the Fancy and the enslaved persons on board. There is direct evidence that Babcock directed the Fancy’s commander, Lieutenant Bradfield, to take the ship to a Southern port. This is corroborated by newspaper reports. However, there is no record of the ship’s arrival in a Southern port, including no mention in newspapers indicating the arrival of the 310 enslaved persons on board or the ultimate fate of the ship. McBurney believes that the Fancy was captured in the Caribbean, a conclusion he draws based upon the absence of evidence that anyone involved with the Marlborough benefited from the sale of the enslaved captives aboard the Fancy (page 157). McBurney does, however, acknowledge that there is one piece of evidence that the ship completed its journey: Dr. John Anderson, the British physician Babcock hired to care for the Fancy’s captives and crew, apparently received the payment due him, which was contingent upon the journey’s successful completion. While he received payment, there was a marked delay, which McBurney contends could either imply that Anderson had to journey to Rhode Island for payment or that the mission was not completed successfully but payment was rendered anyway (160-161).

Instances such as this also allow McBurney to explore the nuances of the slave trade. For example, Bradfield could circumvent Congress’ resolutions banning the importation of slaves because the resolutions did not cover property seized on captured vessels (155). McBurney contends that Babcock likely held this view, and the consideration of these instances illuminates the complicated legacy of Revolutionary War privateers. On the one hand, successful privateering positively contributed to the American war effort and greatly impacted Great Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, both of which seem laudable. On the other hand, privateers worked their way around slave trading regulations in the name of seized property and essentially became slave traders themselves. As McBurney notes, Babcock’s reputation as a successful privateer should improve as a result of this book. At the same time, however, Babcock’s treatment of the Marlborough’s African captives creates a complicated legacy (191).

Overall, Dark Voyage is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the lesser explored facets of American privateering or the slave trade during this period. The book not only provides the first full account of this voyage, but it also provides a different perspective on slavery in America and particularly in the Northern states, drawing attention to Rhode Island’s role and the effects of legislation implemented around this period of time. Several appendices provide in-depth information about American privateers and the extent to which they successfully captured slave ships and bankrupted British slave trading merchants throughout the Revolutionary period, providing a wealth of information for context of the Marlborough’s voyage. An enjoyable read, this book will bring new insight to any enthusiast of this period.

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