On this Day 9th December 1825

A Slave Ship in St Ives

December 9, 1825. - Arrived the French brig Perle from St John's, on the coast of Africa, having on board five negroes. She is supposed to be a slave-ship driven off the African coast. The Captain, First and Second Lieutenants, doctor, super-cargo, and five seamen dead, and the mate unable to come on deck.

This extract comes from the diary of John Tregerthen Short (JTS) of St Ives. The editor of JTS's published diary, Sir Edward Hain, commented that it would be deeply interesting to have full details of the voyage of the slave-ship from the time of her leaving the African coast to her arrival at St Ives, but the complete story of this tragedy of the sea can never now be known. In fact more details did come to light through the information gathering effort of the African Institution. The Perle was homeward bound from St John's River where she had taken on board 244 slaves, including 70 women and 30-40 children. With the exception of the five who made it to St Ives and two boys who died and were thrown overboard, these slaves were all trans-shipped at sea into another vessel sailing with the Perle. St Johns River is in modern day Liberia. Hain had speculated that the depleted crew and cargo were the result of a dreadful epidemic, cholera, or yellow fever but on this occasion it seems this was not the case though how many of those who were trans-shipped survived the Middle Passage is unknown.

The Perle was registered in St Malo and sailed under Captain Julien Legue. The African Institution information gives her a crew of 12, most of whom were dead when she arrived in St Ives. She was boarded by Lieutenant Rye of the Coast-Guard Service and found to be well fitted out as a slaver:

Among her stores there were found manacles and shackles in abundance; a long chain, to confine the unfortunate creatures in gangs; with all the usual implements of Negro torture.

The five survivors were clearly identifiable as slaves, having no French or English and lacking all knowledge of the sea and seamanship. Two of the five did not survive their time in England but the other three were released from slavery after coming before Chief Justice Best in London in February 1826. The names of these men and boys are unknown as no-one was able to talk to them, no interpretor could be found. In London they were lodged in the Hampstead Workhouse where they contracted measles, of which two of them died. In June 1826 the remaining three were taken on board His Majesty's Ship North Star and sailed for Sierra Leone.

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 had abolished the trade in slaves in Britain and her colonies and also made it illegal to carry slaves in British ships. However slavery itself was still permitted though the assumption was that the ban on trade would gradually lead to the end of the institution. The official end of slavery came on 1st August 1834 when the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into force.

Publicity for the St Ives Anti-Slavery Meeting from p1 of the Royal Cornwall Gazette 21 January 1826 (courtesy of Morrab Library) The Perle's slaving activities were legal but only just in so far as France had enacted legislation against the slave trade in 1815 but it did not come into effect until 1826. Perle herself was impounded by the Preventive Service and, according to JTS, dismantled. This probably just means that her slaving accoutrements were removed. She was released back to her owners on January 25th 1826, exactly the same day as an anti-slavery meeting was held in the Calvinist Chapel in St Ives as a direct consequence of Perle's unscheduled visit to the town.


Diary of John Tregerthen Short

Royal Cornwall Gazette 21st January 1826

The Perle, French Slave Ship. Statement relative to the French Slave Ship the Perle, and to the Negroes found on board her. Appendix H p174 of the 20th Report of the directors of the African Institution, London, 1826.

If you'd like to see some details of a ship like the Perle look at Vigilante in the collection of the National Maritime Museum.

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