Eyewitness to the Slave Trade

The Manuscripts Division has just acquired four journals and related papers of Captain John Matthews (d. 1798), an officer in the British Royal Navy. He was involved in the African slave trade in Sierra Leone, first as an agent for the African Company of Merchants, 1785-87, and later as naval officer on coastal patrol, 1797-98. During the last fifteen years of the eighteenth century, the transatlantic commerce in African slaves was at its peak, even though British reformers, such as Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846) and William Wilberforce (1759–1833), were working tirelessly for the abolition of slavery, and the British government had begun resettling Africans in Sierra Leone. Matthews is best known for his book, A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone on the Coast of Africa: Containing an Account of the Trade and Productions of the Country and of the Civil and Religious Customs and Manners of the People (London, 1788), which focuses on the natural history, geography, and ethnology of Sierra Leone. The book later appeared in a revised edition (1791) and a French translation by Nicolas-François de Bellart (1797).

Matthews’s book is comprised of a series of descriptive letters that he wrote during his residence in Sierra Leone to an unnamed English friend, 1785–87, with an additional letter on the American slave trade and his own illustrations, which he describes as having been “drawn on the spot.” Most interesting are Matthews’s explorations of Sierra Leone and insights into the African side of the transatlantic slave trade. He emphasizes the people he calls Mandingoes, a term for the Mande-speaking peoples of West Africa, including (but not restricted to) Sierra Leone. Matthews argued that the Muslim faith of certain African kings and their subjects led to continuing warfare in the hinterland against other kings and peoples who refused to accept Islam. This resulted in thousands of prisoners-of-war, who were then enslaved and sold to western traders for the Middle Passage to North America and the Caribbean. Despite compelling moral arguments against the slave trade, Matthews concluded that its abolition would not contribute to the well-being of Africans because of continuing religious wars and local enslavement. In making this argument, however, Matthews ignored the degree to which transatlantic demand for African slaves contributed to the trade

The first two Matthews journals, covering 1 April 1786–31 March 1787 and 28 April 1786–15 May 1787, concern the slave trade in Sierra Leone and negotiations with African kings and slave traders. The second volume also includes retained copies of four letters by Matthews, 20–25 April 1787. The third volume was the journal that Matthews kept aboard the HMS Vulcan, 3 May–15 September 1793, after he had been promoted to be the rank of captain in the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean fleet of Admiral Samuel Hood (1724–1816). He describes early stages of the Siege of Toulon (1793) his reassignment to HMS Courageux. In December 1795, Matthews became captain of the HMS Maidstone and on that ship kept his fourth journal, 1 January 1797–16 March 1798. In it he details his activities along the West African coast from 17 February 1797, in Sierra Leone but also Cape Coast Castle (now in Ghana); service in a convoy across the Atlantic and in the Caribbean, describing visits to leading figures in African coastal settlements; and official duties policing ships of various nations engaged in the slave trade (American, Dutch, Portuguese).

Of particular interest in this volume are Matthews’s “Detached Observations on the Manners and Customs of the Natives of Cape Gorse, Africa,” with headings, such as “Of the Craba & Acra” “Suicide,”, “Punishment of extravagance in youth,” “Veneration of the dead,” “Mode of ruining a man by costs of suit,” “Gaming,” and “Natural History.” This is followed by four watercolors by Matthews of the Sierra Leone coast, showing British colonial trading posts and anchored sailing vessels. He also offers navigational advice for sailing along the African coast from Sierra Leone to Cape Palmas. Along with the four volumes are a dozen separate items from the late 1780s, including his deposition on Sierra Leone and its “domestic slavery,” which he claims accounted for three-fourths of the population in the hinterland. There are also five watercolors of the Sierra Leone coast, signed by M. C. Watts as the artist; and three other watercolors (though with a shellac coating), similar to engravings in the second edition of Matthews’s book. Two are signed by Matthews and one by a Lieutenant John Larcom.

Three of four Matthews volumes complement A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone on the Coast of Africa and provide additional information and illustrations not in the published editions. In his earlier career, Matthews served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and saw active duty against the French naval forces in the West Indies during and immediately after the American Revolution. On the basis of these naval tours, Matthews wrote and illustrated The Maritime Campaign of 1778: A Collection of All the Papers Relative to the Operations of the English and French Fleets… (1779); and Twenty-one Plans: with Explanations of Different Actions in the West Indies during the Late War (1784). It was after this that Matthews became a partner in a series of slave voyages, though he would spend more time in the Royal Navy.

Matthews was from the English port city of Chester (about 28 miles southeast of Liverpool), which was a second-tier county town, with a population of about 10,000 in 1800. Matthews erected a monument in Chester Cathedral in memory of his wife, Anna Helena Matthews (d. 1793). Additional details about his life emerge from his last will and testament, on file in The National Archives (Public Record Office), at Kew. The will was made on Christmas Day 1797 and (with a codicil) probated on 15 June 1798, several months after the last entry in his journals. Matthews seems to have died a relatively affluent man, in part probably as a result of his involvement in the slave trade. His will lists ₤2250 in legacies, charities, annuities, and annual allowances—the equivalent of nearly $300,000 today. Family members mentioned in his will include a few born or living in Jamaica, Antigua, and New York. Among his personal possessions were paintings of the HMS Victory, HMS Vulcan, and the island of St. Lucia.

The finding aid for the Captain John Matthews Papers (C1575) is available online. These papers complement the Manuscripts Division’s growing holdings related to slavery in the Western hemisphere. See the earlier Manuscripts Division blog-post, “African Slavery in the Americas.” For holdings on European colonialism in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, see the journals of Walter Dundas Bathurst (C1588), kept while he was serving as an officer of the Association Internationale du Congo, 1884-85; and the papers of General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell (C0583) and Brigadier General Herbert Cecil Potter (C1409), which in part concern the British army in Sudan, Egypt, and South Africa. For more information about holdings of the Manuscripts Division, consult the online catalog and finding aids site. One can also contact Public Services, rbsc@princeton.edu

John Matthews, Journal no. 4, with views of Africa.