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Let Freedom Ring

My pleasure dimmed somewhat when I learned that the British Crown had decided, the following day, to declare the journal a National Treasure. This status meant I could own the journal, but not remove it from Great Britain. However, after expert negotiations by my agent, during which I established my scholarly bona fides, I obtained an “export license” for the item. The terms required me to provide the British Library with a digital copy of the journal. In return, I negotiated a 10-year exclusive right to the contents of the journal, after which the British Library is entitled to make its digital copy public. In other words, I have eight years left in which to write my book!

“…when an opportunity offers she will haul her American colours down and…make off with about 1,000 slaves. This the Yankees are very fond of doing.”

The export license duly issued, I traveled to London to pick up my prize. I half expected to be stopped at Heathrow and thrown into a royal dungeon. But I made it back to San Francisco, and quickly became enmeshed in the life and times of Gilbert Elliot, Jr., his family (his father was the Dean of Bristol), and the efforts of the Royal navy to eradicate the slave trade.

As for Elliot’s journal, it proved all I’d hoped for, and more. The sketches are, indeed, most evocative—of Elliot’s shipmates, from Captain “Vinegar” Jones downward, the vessels encountered, and of the “Slave Coast,” as it was then called. Elliot’s entries have the spontaneous verve of an eyewitness:

“…There is an American barque at Lagos with her papers all right but only two Americans onboard, she is already to ship slaves having even the water onboard; so that when an opportunity offers she will haul her American colours down and having been sold to Brazilians make off with about 1,000 slaves. This the Yankees are very fond of doing.”

Elliot records occasional news from home (the opening of London’s Great Exhibition) and the daily frustrations of life onboard ship. His reflections on slavery, both literary and heartfelt, reveal a resolve that would be tested by the complexity of his enterprise.

“…I am one of those who believe that while there is a demand there will be a supply, and that nothing will stop the trade unless we ruin the slave owners.”

Of the suffering in the barracoons, those abysmal holding pens where the slaves were kept on the coast clogged up by the British blockade, he laments the

“…thousands of poor wretches huddled together where no sea breeze can blow on them…”

Morally and philosophically opposed to slavery, Elliot soon found himself at odds with the unintended consequences of British altruism:

“…I should like very much to freight a ship with Philanthropists and send them out to sea—to shew them what their Philanthropy has…caused their countrymen to suffer [and] what dreadful misery it has brought on those poor unfortunate savages whose condition they pretend to better.”

Still, the luxuriant natural beauty of West Africa enchanted the young lieutenant. At anchor at Fernando Po, Elliot wrote:

“A steep beach…clothed with very luxuriant and most exceedingly beautiful foliage I do not think I ever saw so many splendid shades of green—from the bright waving palms—to the dark Acacia with its silver stem.”

Elliot also provided fascinating glimpses of the cross-cultural contact along the African coast:

“I left [HMS Sampson] in a canoe…a vessel hollowed out of a small tree, and propelled by three paddles, in the stern sheets were…a heap of monkey skins on which I sat…On landing I made for the house of my friend King Tay who received me with great dignity in a house built in the midst of the mud huts of his subjects…The reception room was hung round with English prints—such as ‘Spring Fashions’, tailors pattern prints &c…a door opened in to a bedroom in which there was a regular ‘four poster’ with heavy coverlets, curtains &c”

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