McBurney, Christian M. Dark Voyage: An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s African Slave Trade. Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2022.
The twenty-first century has seen a duo burgeoning of Revolutionary Era books on the Atlantic slave trade and American Privateering. Uniquely, Christian McBurney fuses these two historiographical trends into a compelling monograph, Dark Voyage: An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s African Slave Trade. The author of six previous American Revolutionary War books, McBurney writes a self-described micro-history of the privateering voyages of an American ship, the Marlborough, to the African coast (xiv). He chronicles Marlborough’s expeditions through the ship’s logbook, carefully corroborated by other primary sources. While McBurney’s book focuses on the actions of one ship, his work is an example of an Atlantic worldview with excellent observations on the African operations of the slave trade and the horrific middle passage to the Americas. Therefore, readers will gain exceptional insights into the late eighteen-century Atlantic enslaved person and how the War for American Independence disrupted the British and American enslaving ventures.
After the outbreak of hostilities, the Continental Congress and individual states authorized armed private ships to attack enemy commerce and naval vessels. Merchant ship owners responded and funded hundreds of voyages to disrupt British trade. The privateers brought captured boats for sale to port, and the privateer’s owners, ship officers, and sailors divided the proceeds. During the Revolution, privateering, though dangerous, could be highly profitable.
Most American privateers operated off the coasts of North America, the West Indies, or the British Isles. Focusing on a little-known privateering objective, McBurney tells the story of John Brown, a Providence, Rhode Island merchant, who funded the privateer Marlborough seeking new raiding possibilities along the African coast. Audaciously, Brown ordered the ship’s captain to plunder isolated British enslaved person transit stations and seize vessels involved in the slave trade. The Marlborough voyage disrupted the British slaving operations and netted numerous British ships, including their enslaved cargoes. A portion of the captured ships and human cargo made it to home or friendly ports enriching the ship’s owners and sailors. However, as common among privateers, the British recaptured several lightly-crewed prize ships before they could safely arrive at a welcoming port.
The best parts of McBurney’s volume are interesting observations not well-known or interpreted by other authors. For example, he notes that the First Continental Congress outlawed the importation of enslaved Africans, primarily to hurt British business interests (20). The non-importation restriction had its intended consequences, as at least twenty-one slave trade merchants when bankrupt during the rebellion (267-68). Second, readers learn the mechanics of slave trade operations in Africa, including the acquisition of enslaved persons, preparation for the middle passage, and the transport to the Caribbean and North American slave markets. Lastly, readers will gain an appreciation for the extreme danger facing privateers. However, intrepid sailors could reap huge rewards from the sale of prizes if they evaded the British, survived combat and stayed safe from disease.
Criticisms of McBurney’s work are few. He carefully walks the line, not ascribing any anti-slavery intent by the American privateering who almost wholly disrupted the British slaving business; thereby, few Africans became enslaved in the Americas during the Revolution. He points out several times that the privateers’ motivations were pecuniary and not altruistic. While the interruption of the trade of enslaved people to the Americas was a good thing, it was done for wartime objectives and not for moral anti-slavery reasons. However, by reiterating the privateers benefiting from the slave trade, McBurney’s prose sometimes sounds overly judgmental. Perhaps, an introductory note up front would have aided readers that McBurney was not ascribing anti-slavery motives to the American privateers. Additionally, McBurney provides informed speculations when lacking primary sources. The inferences might bother some readers, but they are reasonably well-supported and provide the readers with the best possible narrative.
Finally, readers benefit from McBurney’s numerous statistical charts and well-designed maps. Both his fascination with Rhode Island history and his meticulous research are most evident in the clever use of archival data. Typically, appendix materials are not captivating. However, the four appendices are chocked full of interesting descriptions and informative statistics, which I highly recommend to the readers.
I strongly recommend Dark Voyage to people interested in the Atlantic slave trade and the American Revolution. It effectively combines a micro-history of the Marlborough and a global perspective on the eighteenth-century Atlantic trade in enslaved people. Even the most informed readers will learn something new from McBurney’s latest work.