The fragile nature of the lives of formerly-enslaved and manumitted individuals is dramatically illustrated in a recently donated memoir now housed at the Amistad Research Center. George Howe was studying medicine in New Orleans in April 1859 when he was invited to serve as ship’s physician on board the Rebecca, a ship that was commissioned to return the last group of individuals freed from slavery by the estate of merchant John McDonogh in Louisiana and transported to Liberia. Howe’s memoir of the voyage details his discovery of the true intent of the ship’s owners and crew – to sail to Cuba and return the individuals to slavery.
Howe’s presence on the ship did change the nefarious plans slightly as the Rebecca initially sailed straight to Liberia, but afterward the crew did purchase over 600 enslaved individuals along the Congo River and embarked for Cuba, landing near the city of Trinidad on the island in October 1859. Howe made his way back to New Orleans, where he finished his studies and worked as a physician for many years.
Howe recounted his story in an 1890 issue of Scribner’s Magazine shortly before his death with an article entitled “The Last Slave-Ship.” Amistad recently received what appears to be Howe’s original manuscript version of his tale. Written on 35 numbered pages disbound from a ledger book, Howe’s manuscript varies from the published version. It recounts events leading to his position on the Rebecca, his discovery that the ship’s captain and crew intended to divert the ship to Cuba and the ultimate decision to sail to Liberia due to Howe’s presence.
Howe describes the attitudes and fear of the former slaves with regard to the idea of being sent to Liberia; details of the ship's true ownership by a Spanish company [Pratts, Pujol, and Co.]; the crew and captain's attitudes toward Howe; life on board the ship and its arrival at Liberia; a dinner with the President of Liberia, Stephen Allen Benson, and his ministers; the taking command by a Spanish captain; and encounters with British and American military vessels. Howe continues with a description of their travels up the Congo River; his exploration of the surrounding area and his visit to a barracoon to treat individuals suffering from smallpox; his decision to remain on board the Rebecca; the securing of slaves; the organization, treatment, and physical descriptions of the enslaved aboard the ship; the journey to and arrival at Cuba; and the visit to a plantation on the island. Howe ends with efforts on the part of him and the American captain and mate from the Rebecca to secure passports to leave Cuba and return to New Orleans, and Howe’s writing of his narrative.
Often the story of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is told through numbers – number of enslaved individuals, length of voyages, etc. – and justifiably so, for those number can illustrate the extent of the trade’s reach and its horrors. However, what has come to light in recent years are efforts to tell the personal stories of individuals impacted by slavery. Amistad is pleased to now preserve and provide access to George Howe’s own narrative of the slave trade. Although Howe’s story has been known by his published version, his manuscript may add additional insight into research for the future.
Images from the George Howe Memoir. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.