Framing: What follows is our account of the death

Knowns:

Age and gender: small boy

Date: 3 am, May 11th, 1757

Location: lat 10.92, long -35.42, miles off the coast of Africa

Cause: Flux

Duration: 14 days

Branded

Fresh breeze and hazy

At approximately 3:00 AM on the morning of May 11, 1757, on an otherwise normal sailing day, a small boy died while on board the slave ship The Good Hope. At the time of the boy’s death, The Good Hope was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, having left West Africa fourteen days prior. 

Kinship Network

Many of the indigenous people of the north side of the Sierra Leone river belonged to the Bullam kinship network. The dialect of Bullam could also be called Kafu. The Bullams are described as being “industrious in trade and agriculture; and particularly famous for manufactory of matting… made of stained grass.”* The small boy may have been part of the Bullam community and already learning how to mat the beautiful stained grass. The Sierra Leone river also produced a great quantity of rice and salt, both of which would have been on board the ship. The Good Hope was docked off the coast of Bence Island from April 11th to April 17th, where it was loaded with water, rice, and wood in addition to captured Africans.

Children and the Middle Passage

During his time on board the Good Hope, this small boy most likely would not have been shackled, but would have traveled unfettered on deck with enslaved women, separated from men. He may have been with kin; however, many children endured the transatlantic crossing without family ties, as unaccompanied minors. He was perhaps cared for by unrelated women. When he fell ill, did anyone care for him, physically or emotionally? Was he alone when he died in the early hours of the morning? At the time of his death, much of his experience of the world would have consisted of time spent in confinement. His socialization process would have been interrupted, and he would have faced exacerbated “vulnerability, grief, and isolation.” 

Depending on how young he was, he might have been born somewhere along his mother’s journey from inland to the factory of Bence Island. Small could mean his age or height, as traders defined children anyone shorter than 4’4.” **citation The extra adjective “small” is noteworthy here. Who was his mother? The pervasive culture of sexual abuse perpetrated against enslaved women suggests a higher probability that children, like the small boy, were products of rape.

Medical Context

A small boy dies of flux defined as the leading cause of death among bondpeople forced to survive slavery at sea. Flux can be understood to be an ambiguous medical condition. Flux can be dysentery, for instance, an intestinal infection that results in diarrhea in which blood is present in the stool. Such a condition is contracted by exposure to certain bacteria and parasites. The small boy would have experienced abdominal pain and a fever, as well as horrific pain and discomfort. The small boy likely stopped eating and drinking. As soon as it was made evident that the small boy had contracted the flux, the surgeon and crew knew that he would die soon. 

Mortuary Practices

After the small boy died, his body was left to be discovered. His death might have gone some time without being noticed. During this time, his soul would have been cleaved from his body. The sea itself was not an acceptable domain for humans to live, much less an acceptable site for the passage from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. The body would have been thrown overboard by the captives, left to the mercy of the ocean’s currents, to sea-dwelling carnivores. The soul, without the necessary resources to ensure a ritualistic burial and interment of the body, would be subject to other considerations. 

In this respect, the impact of the death of the small boy on the remaining Africans on board is perhaps even more monumental than that of the death itself. Without the enactment of appropriate mortuary practices by his kin and social group, his soul could not effectively transition to the spirit world. The unfinished quality to his death would cause a similar rupture in his kinship and social group—the captive Africans who lay alongside and around him in the belly of the ship. After experiencing a ‘bad’ death, without the appropriate methods of burial, his soul might take the form of a vengeful spirit, haunting those must still bear the burden of living.  

*Matthews, John. 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: Printed for B. White & J. Sewell, 1791, 24-25.