Aaron Thomas:

The Caribbean Journal of a Royal Navy Seaman

Excerpts from the Journal

An Epitaph

Here lies foundered in one fathom, the shell of Aaron Thomas formerly commander of a Squadron, who brought to at 9 P M. 18th January 1798 aged 36 years. He kept his Guns always loaded, and his tackle ready maned, and never shewed his poop to the enemy, except when he took her in tow, but his Shot being expended, his match burnt out, and his upper works decayed, He was sunk by deaths superior weight of metal. –Nevertheless he will be weighted again, at the great day, His riging refited, and his timbers repaired: and with one broadside will again drive his enemys. (p. 98)

-penned by Aaron Thomas during the summer of 1798

The writings of Aaron Thomas offer readers insight into the feelings and beliefs of an intelligent, thoughtful, eighteenth century British sailor serving in the Royal Navy in the Caribbean region, miles away from his family and friends. Thomas was meticulous at recording the ordinary, day-to-day events that occurred around him, and by doing so, he has provided a record of naval life that few can imagine. His comments on the social customs of the time are sometimes humorous and often poignant, and provide fascinating and informative reading.

The following are selected excerpts from the journal.

"There is no Clergyman there. no canonical man to bury their dead, or Christian their Children. No man to Join together in holy Wedlock. or Church weomen. and yet most of the islander are good people. They are a fine set of looking persons. Very Tractable, and all might be easyly made true followers of God. The men & weomen are hale looking but generally very lank in their bodies, they live on Yams, Sweet Potatoes, and the roots which their Island produceth, their wants are few & their supplies are many. On Sundays they have nothing to do, but visit each other, had they a Holy man amongst them His House would be the general redevoze for all of the Island on Sunday." (p. 13)
"Ashore at St. Kitts this day, the Captain waited an hour for all the Boats Crew. --He swore he would flog the Coxwain and all of them, when they were found; pray where have you all been, says the Captain; We have all been to Church says the Coxwain, --I will Church you all says the Captain when you get aboard. --But the Captain took no notice of it, further than remarking to Capt Brown that he was very angry with them, but the extreme novelty of a Boats Crew, being absent from the Boat, and found in a Church; instead of a Grog Shop; was so new. so singular, and so uncommon a thing; --That their answer melted his rath, into complete forgiveness." (p. 21)
"At 5 Captain Charles Mais of Ship Nevis of Bristol, from Nevis for Bristol with this Convoy came aboard, to beg us to take a Negro and Mulatto, who had secreted themselves in his Ship, and wanted to run away from their owners in Nevis. at 6 Both of them came aboard and were put in Irons. The Negro was a youth of about 17. said his father and mother were Salt Water Negros, which mens people who crossed the Sea, in coming from Africa. I asked him is reasons for runing away. Sir says he, tell me one thing, will you runaway from good. --My owner only gave four pints of India Corn a week, he does not import provisions, therefore he cannot give us so much to eat, as those great Gentleman that do, as he must pay a higher price for it. --Bad usage Sir, made me run away, as some Gentleman gave their Negros 9 pints of Corn a week, but my owner only gives his Negros 4 pints a week. --my name is Robin, I belong to Mr Henry Dickson of Indian Castle in Nevis, Last Sunday being Negroes Holyday, I went aboard the Ship to sell Sweetmeate, And finding she was going away a sudden resolution came into my head to get off, as it is better to be free, then to be a Slave; So while they were geting the Ship under weigh, yesterday morning; I hid myself in the Hold, and this evening being very hungry I came on Deck, but I did not think the Ship was to Anchor again, untill she got to England. but they stoped here & I am taken &c." (p. 54)
"Sunday 21 October. At 15 minutes past 12 AM a Sail passed us, wore Ship, and gave Chace. at 2 spoke the Chace. She was a Sloop her name [blank] from the Coast of Africa, bound to Tortola with 90 slaves on board, in great destress, as every Soul on board, had been 2 days without anything to eat, and that on this day, (Sunday) they intended to cast Lotts amongst the Blacks, and each one. -- They left the coast on the Sixth of June, and had made no land since, we sent them on board, one Barrel of Beefe, and one Bag of Buiscuts, as they might make Tortola this evening, if the Breaze continued. -- They had no Candles in the Sloop for 3 weeks back." (p. 141)
"The lands are tilled by the Black people, brought from Africa who do the work here, which Horses do in England. -- When a Cargo of these Black people arrive from Africa, they are chained and exposed for Sale, in the same manner as you expose Sheep & Pigs at Shrewsbury Fairs. --I have seen them on these occasions, primed with Ginger, exactly in the same manner, as you prime a Horse, before you lead him into the fair to be sold. And if any of these poor creatures are so old, as to have grey hairs in their heads; the Slave Dealer on the morning of Sale, will rub his head over, with an Ointment, that will hide his grey hairs for several days." (p. 141)
"Sunday 30th, Was in the Negro Market with Joe Hilliard called of old Mrs Clarke, on her Negro called Trouble
"He was his Mothers first Child, and when a Negro Girl begins to have Children, she is, as their Masters say; worth nothing afterwards, as all their time is taken up, in looking after their Children; so says Mrs Clarke, I called her first Child; Trouble." (p. 200)
"Doctor Ridgeway asked me this morning to Lend him 12 Joes, untill the Ship went down to St. Kitts. -- His reason for being in want of money was rather curious. -- He says that he was here in the Lapwing fifteen months ago, and that a weoman now daily brings him a child and says that he is the Father of it. -- that he himself beleives, that he had the greatest hand in making the Puding, day -- therefore being convinced of this great & uncertain truth, he wishes to buy the infants freedom, and that this money was for that use. -- I did not lend him the money, but he got it this evening from Captain Harvey. -- Wretched slavery. What a disgrace it is, to all Christian countries to traffick in humane flesh. -- Here is an instance of its infamy. -- A surgeon of an English Man of War, has a Child by a Black Weoman, but has no more property in the infant, then he has claim to the Throne of England, because the Weoman he had the Child by is not free; unless he buys the child, of the owner of the Girl, and then the buying of his own Son or Daughter, will cost him 20 or Thirty pounds." (p. 212)
". . .had a long conversation with an old Negro Weoman who abut 40 years ago came from Makoko, near the Lake of Zambra in the Eastern shore of Africa. I gave her the history of the building of the Tower of Babel; the confounding the workers, which was the cause of so many Languages being spoken by different nations at the present time. She had not forgot her native Tongue, but told me the names of many thing in the African Tongue. I asked her if she did not wish to go back again to her own Country, she answered me. -- Who will carry me back master: nobody durst carry me back, unless they wish to loose 2 Hundred pounds -- I shall die a Slave master, nobody will carry me back master. -- I shall be a Slave master all the days of my life." (p. 230)
"I asked Parson Masset the reason why Slaves are not permited to marry, his answer was in these words! "Why should other people take my property away. if you, as being a free man should take a fancy to one of my Slaves, and carry her away & marry her, I hold it as our Law that you, by so doing; have Stolen my property. -- if a Slave was allowed to Marry: the contentions that would flow from it, would be endless, take it all togather allowing such a thing, would in the course of 15 or Twenty years make property in Slave a dubious and uncertain matter." (p. 247)
Corporal punishment:
"Saturday 13 October. Captain Harvey paid much attention to the circumstances of the Robery last night. The theife Thomson accused many people, of Robing Mr Taylor before, -- In Thompsons Pillow was found a Bag, containing 6 Joes, secreted there; being the produce of his former plundering, With money of Thomsons in other people hands, and the money in the Bag, it was proved that he had about 15 Joes, and all except Three; was plunder. a poor french Boy about Twenty days Back, lost 8 Dollars in little Bag from under his head, as he laid asleep, and the money which was found in Thomsons Pillow Case, was enclosed in this Identical Bag, which the Boy owned, as soon as he saw it
At 10 AM Thomsons arms was lashed; the Ships Company formed a Lane all around the Waiste of the Ship, every man being provided with a Nettle, 2 Marines faced him with each a Bayonet pointed at the Theife, a Cord was thrown over the prisoners body, the ends of which were held behind by Two Quartermasters, Things being thus ordered he run the Gauntlet, every man striking him as he passed; the noise of which I thought at the time, resembled Reapers at work, when cuting Corn. After passing once round, he fainted and & droped down. -- The Surgeon threw some Hartshorn in his face, and he was ordered into Irons, to receive more punishment when his back recovers." (p. 133)
"At half past Seven PM. Peter Bird a Seaman Aged Twenty Three departed this life. He had been ill of a Flux about nine days. --About three months ago this young man showed me a Letter which he had from his Mother. he also told me, that his mind was fixed upon young weoman in London: who he intended to Marry, when the war was over adding I am but a young man, and she will forgive me for leaving her as I did. --So I see this poor youth, was boasting in his strength, but the Lord has told us of this folly, by taking one away from amongst us, who has been in the Ship more than 4 years, and during all that period, has never been in the Sick List untill nine days before his death." (p. 55)
"I am sorry to inform you, quella our Bastimento is very sickly. several of our hale, healthy looking Lads, have died suddenly of fevers, within these 9 days. We have sent a number to the Hospital, where some have died also. -- My old Ship the Concord, is now refiting in English Harbor Antigua, She has been there about 4 weeks, since which time she has buryed 27 men, and has 98 sick in the Hospital at this time." (p. 148)
"Took another live Gigger from out of the under part of my second Toe, of my left foot. -- It is a foolish thing to be to proud. -- We all know that grubs & worms destroy our Carcases when dead, but in this climate the Gigger worm eats its way under our Skin, lays his Eggs there, without our knowledge, until its young ones, by it motions give us uneasyness. -- we then look at the place and see a loathsome wound in which is 90, or 130 live Insects. the wound must be cut open, and all the insects taken clean out, or else its effects will be fatal. -- from this Insects creaping alive, under the Skin of my two feat, I have not them both laped up in rags. -- The Giggers by getting into the feet of Soldiers, have stoped the military progress of many good General in the West Indies. -- It is said that a Gigger, at a certain period of his age will fly: it must be so, or how do they get about ones breasts &c. -- One of our men a few days ago, had one taken out of his private parts in the Cockput. in which were 85 eggs." (p. 251)
"The Black Negro Girls have the Pox amongst them, as well as our white Ladies in England. There is at this time Eleven Venerals in the List. Silvia the Spaniard. Farthing & Hassels cases are uncommonly virulent and malignant. The only good, the unhappy Captain Cook did in visiting the North & South Pacific Ocean; was to give the Pox; to the Inhabitants of every Island where the Adventure & Resolution watered at. as when these 2 Ships left Maderia in August 1772. Each had several veneral patients on board. which arose from the amours which the English Sailors had; with the Portuguese Puttani, in Funchal." (p. 250)
Alcohol consumption:
"Punished the Boy Skipper on his Backside with 12 Lashes for giving yesterday half a Gill of Rum to Gater the Marine for washing his Cloaths. --There is something particular in this case. The Boys are allowed their Rum. and if they drink it, they often get drunk with it, therefore it is understood, they may give it to persons who wash & mind for them: And many Boys in some Ships sell their Liquior. But this particular Boy was floged for giving his Liquior away to a Marine who had done work for him. So that by floging this Lad, it is the same as giving out orders, for all the Boys to drink their own allowance, and thereby get drunk with it. The best that can be said of it is; that it will encourage intoxication." (p. 71)
"William Woodcock had half a Dozen Lashes, for being the person, who requested Elder to bring off the Quart of Gin;
NB at the Gangway the Captain declared to Elder, that he would flog him, untill he confessed who the Bladder of Gin belonged to, -- Elder took 2 Dozen, and then he confessed it was Woodcock, who the Gin was for.
CONTRAST. The Captain got drunk. -- so drunk; -- that he fell three times off his Horse -- I myself at Breakfast heard him say -- "I drank too much wine yesterday: I would give Sixpence had I not drank so much. -- Yet this man who got so drunk as to fall 3 times off his Horse; gave 30 lashes on the bare backs of 2 men, for attempting to obtain the possession of one Quart of Gin." (p. 196)
"What a Desolute life does man lead in the West Indias. The Blacks never marry. But have intercourse one with another promiscuously. All the white men; Planters as well as merchants: have connection with their female Negros. As to the black Girls themselves, any white or Creole man may have commerce with them, so very little difficulty is there on this head, that it is as easy to lye with them, as it is to convey a glass of wine to your mouth, when you have it in your hand. --A white Sailor may go amongst the Hutts upon an Esstate, where there is 70 female Negros and he will not find the smallest opposition to his will, but will be courted to stop amongst them." (p. 27)
"Capt Renolds of the Etrusco was ordered to carry home a Lady, who was going from England to the East Indias to see her Husband. At St Helens she heard of her Husbands death. She took a passage from Spence back to England again, & in the Passage back was captured by french Privateer , & carried to Guadulupe, she got her Liberty was ordered to go home in the Etrusco. but Renolds said he would not take her unless she slept with him all the passage." (p. 88)
"Sunday 26th. off Fort Royal Bay. at daylight saw a small strange Sail, which bore down towards us, but when she came near enough to reconoitre, she hauled her wind, & made sail from us; at 6 AM we made sail in Chace, at 7 she hoisted french Colours, worked her Sweeps, and made every effort to escape. We fired -- Grape, and round shot at her until 30 minutes past Eight; when she struck her colours, and shortened Sail. She proved to be La Fortune french Schooner of 6 swivels (4 of which she threw overboard in Chace) and 22 men, from Guadulupe, but last from Descada. --Got the Prisonors aboard, gave the Prize a Tow Rope, and made sale for fort Royal Bay. --This small Schooner in her last Cruize took, a prize when each man shared 2500 Dollars each. -- This Schooner will not fetch more than 40 Joes at Martinico, but the French Prisonors say, was she at Basseterre in Guadulupe, she would sell for 150 Joes, because they are just the size Vessels which the French want to anoy our commerce with. The Captain of the Schooner says, that this little Schooner will fetch more money in Guadulupe then a Ship of 300 Ton. -- so much do they run on Privateering." (p. 81)
"There is more Prize money made in the West Indias than there is at home, but to counterbalance this advantage one Guinea in England, will go as far as two Guineas in the West Indias." (p. 28)
"Monday the 18th of March 1799 At 8 A M gave Chace to a Strange Sail. at 2 P M came up with the Chace, she proved to be a Sweedish Schooner from Cyane to St. Batholomew, laden with Cotton, Drugs & live Turtles. She had four french Passengers aboard, and a small part of the Cargo, no doubt was french property, but the trouble of taking her in, Condemnation, Admiralty & Expences, would a made it a poor Prize, so the Captains thought it best to let her go on, on her voyage." (p. 256)
Social hierarchy:
"In my present situation, I can speak and walke with whom I like, but had I laid hold of the public situation which you hint at; I could not a done so, for had I spoken to persons in an inferior rank to myself, my Brother officers, would have said, that I acted deregoratory to my Character. Saint James, in his Epistle to his Bretheren says, Chapter 2 Verse 9. "If he have respects to persons, ye commit sin; and are convinced of the Law, as transgressors. -- Now was I a Purser, the moment I became one, I must bid advice, to ever saying a civil word, or ever giving a civil look, to any one of the men before the Mast, in presence of a superior Officer, for it is held in the Navy, to be a proof, of something shocking & bad, to speake to the men with civillity, and if you do, do it: your promotion is damed. now for my own part, I never am more happier, than when conversing with my inferiors, for from them I learn more of life, than I do by conversing with Officers, whose general talke is to abuse high & low, or every body whom they know. -- besides let my Ideas be what they will, I can never give, but on general sentiment at the Wardroom, or Gunroom table, and at the Captains Table, I must set 3 hours, to hear him talke of himself, and must never contradict a word he utters, but nod yes to everything he says, and do not you think this forced tacitity, is paying very dear, for a plate of Mutton, a Tumbler of Porter & Six glasses of wine." (p. 139)
Captain Thomas Harvey:
". . . for my own part I by no Means call myself settled Captain Harvey is like what all men are, who from thirty pounds a year, suddenly come into the possession of 3 or 4 Thousand a year. He is all Verjuice, Lemon Juice, and vinegar for one month, and perhaps for one day out of that time, he will show a little of the Mollasses & Treacle, His officers when they speake to him have their countinances, as regular & as fixed; as the Head of the Indian Cheife, which is fixed on your College." (p. 185)
The trip to Surinam in August, 1799:
"I send this Letter by the Kings Ship, which goes to England with the account of the conquest of this Settlement, and the taking of it from the Dutch. And a very valuable Capture it is. It was taken by 8 Ships of War, & 1400 Soldiers. The Dutch Soldiers would not fight, and the Dutch Vessels of War, were abandoned by their Sailors, as soon as we entered the River. There is Dutch Ships & Stores seized here, that will make the Prize money amount to about 200-000L Sterling. All of which will be devided between the Sea & Land forces, who were present at the Capture -- fra quelque Io have la honour de being una." (p. 318)
"This Colony is not cleared more than 150 miles inland, and that cheifly on the Banks of Rivers, Its back parts are unknown to us; and those who have attempted to explore the more inland parts, have but seldom found their way back: it is supposed they have been killed & eaten by the Indians.
The Dutch have been at great labor & expence, in bringing this Colony to perfection. The town of Paramaribo contains 20-000 Inhabitants half of which are Indians & Blacks. All the Streets have two Rows of orange Trees in them. I counted 144 orange Trees in one Street, & each Tree had at least 300 Oranges on it." (p. 318)
His own character:
"For my own part, I never had had any illness; but most of the hair on my head, is turned white; -- and I call this circumstance now a happy thing. -- It has done me more good, than all the Sermons, I ever heard in my life. It has buryed my pride. -- Drowned all the envy which I had within me. taught me to be humble. To look with charitable eyes on all things, and in earthly matters, to have no greatter hope, than to sequester myself in the lonely shade of spreading trees, and out of the sight and hearing of pertinant man." (p. 324)