The Irishman determined to expose the slave trade

Extraordinary Emigrant: James Field Stanfield saw a ‘floating dungeon’ filled with ‘howlings of despair’ as part of a crew charged with taking more than 200 Africans to Jamaica. He quit

In September 1774 James Field Stanfield left Liverpool for the west coast of Africa. The young Dubliner had been hired as a sailor on a ship headed to Benin, a major exporter of enslaved people.

Every year, European traders arrived on this stretch of coast and forcibly removed thousands of men, women and children, transporting them across the Atlantic for sale in the Americas. Stanfield was part of a crew charged with the delivery of more than 200 Africans to Jamaica, a voyage that would take about four months.

Plantation owners in the West Indies relied on a plentiful supply of enslaved workers, but many captives died during the infamous Middle Passage. Starvation and disease were rife on slaving vessels, and some chose to throw themselves into the ocean rather than face what was ahead.

Irishman Stanfield was horrified by his experience, calling the ship on which they left Africa a “floating dungeon” filled with “howlings of despair”. He quit the trade after returning to Britain and took up acting.


Years later, he wrote to the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson about the conditions he had witnessed. The letters were published in 1788 by Britain’s Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade under the title, Observations on a Guinea Voyage. Stanfield’s tract was the first eyewitness account of transatlantic enslavement by a common sailor. He followed it up in 1789 with an epic poem, The Guinea Voyage.

Both texts make for exceptionally grim reading. Stanfield described enslaved people being crammed into the vessel’s holds and flogged under the watch of a sadistic captain. Some were force-fed after refusing to eat, a common act of resistance on slaving ships.

Two women decided they had suffered enough and jumped overboard, “folding themselves into each other’s arms” in a final moment of tenderness. At this point, the crew had to put all the women down into the hold because “many of them were preparing to follow their companions”.

The last scene of brutality takes place in Jamaica, where the captives are sold amid “shrieks of terror”.

Significantly, Stanfield undercut the argument that enslaved Africans had a better standard of living on Caribbean plantations than in their homeland – a claim often made by proponents of the trade.

He had been impressed by his observations of Benin during the eight months he spent on land before departing for the West Indies. “I never saw a happier race of people,” he wrote. “The slave trade, and its unavoidable bad effects excepted, everything bore the appearance of friendship, tranquillity and primitive independence.”

Stanfield was determined to lift the impenetrable veil that had been placed over this lucrative business, jolting his readers out of complacency

Ordinary seamen were obviously complicit in the system, but Stanfield presented them also as victims. “Crimps” – recruiters for the ships – lured young men into public houses, he revealed, and got them so drunk and indebted that they agreed to sign up for an African voyage so as to make back their losses.

Once at sea, sailors were regularly beaten and weakened by hunger, their ratio of provisions “shortened to the very verge of famine”. Only 15 of the 25 crew members who left Africa survived the sailing to Jamaica.

As their numbers fell, “all idea of keeping the slaves in chains was given up” and a large number of captives “pulled and hauled as they were directed by the inefficient sailors”.

Like other abolitionist writers of the period, Stanfield did not hold back from sharing gruesome details. He was determined to lift “the impenetrable veil” that had been placed over this lucrative business, jolting his readers out of complacency.

As the historian Trevor Burnard has noted: “It was this evocation of horror that was largely responsible for the dramatic shift in opinion among educated Britons about slavery. Slavery moved from being seen as a necessary evil to being a sin that had to be eradicated in order to preserve European honour.”

Stanfield’s sailing career is a reminder of Ireland’s role in transatlantic enslavement.

While British regulations banned Irish ports from direct involvement in the trade for most of the 18th century, Irish people could still be found across the supply chain. It has been estimated that about one in eight sailors on the ships that went to Africa from Liverpool in this period were Irish men.

Ordinary seamen like Stanfield might have suffered, but plenty of Irish merchants reaped huge profits from the sale and exploitation of enslaved Africans.

An example was David Tuohy, a Liverpool-based Irish Catholic, who part-owned 10 slaving vessels between 1772 and 1786. The Tralee man had made his fortune as a captain of transatlantic voyages to the West Indies, carrying hundreds of enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage to supply plantations in Barbados, Grenada and Antigua.

Thanks in part to writers like Stanfield, though, the brutality of the trade became increasingly difficult to ignore.

  • This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Catherine Healy, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.