On September 4, 2022, we remember an important date in the history of the Brazilian nation: 172 years since the end of the transatlantic traffic of enslaved Africans. When in 1850, under pressure from the British, Euzébio de Queiróz, then Minister of Justice, promulgated the second law abolishing the slave trade, Brazil had already received 4.8 million of the total of more than 5.3 million Africans deported as slaves to work in the mines and plantations of cotton, sugar and coffee, as domestic servants and in various urban activities.
In the history of the slave trade and its repression, sharks have played a large part in the narratives which detail the Atlantic crossing. Also in painting, artists such as Winslow Homer and Joseph M. W. Turner have realistically represented these voracious predators who would follow slave ships from purchase to sale spot, eager to shatter, in a few seconds, the bodies of the enslaved men and women who would fall ill and also those of the insurgents, leaving a striking trail of blood. A brutal instrument of control, terror of the sailors and of the enslaved, one can estimate that, in three hundred years, sharks have devoured more than 1.8 million bodies that were thrown into the Atlantic. As part of the slave trade, they would always parade around the ships, and have also swallowed documentation on the infamous trade – evidence that was found, perchance, by the British.
One such peculiar discovery was the case of the slave ship Carlotta, a large schooner flying the Spanish flag, whose documents were found in the stomach of a shark in the West Indies.
In March 1834, when the English cruiser H.M.S. Pickle, commanded by Lieutenant Christopher Bagot, coasting the Isle of Youth (Cuba’s second largest island) in search of slave ships pursued Carlotta, nobody could have imagined what would happen afterwards. Bagot, suspecting that it could be a floating tomb and hoping to catch a “good prey,” cornered, detained and checked the deck and the documents of the Spanish ship (passport, logbook and maps).1 The unusual number of water barrels on board, the deck equipped to carry slaves and an even larger number of sailors quickly drew the attention of the English captain who was forced to release the slave trader based on the false documents presented. However, to the Spanish commander’s misfortune, after two hours of investigation, the Pickle’s sailors noticed something strange swirling in all directions, trying to break free from the hook that had been left close to the hull. The English pulled the hook and lifted a 4-foot shark. The animal was not opened until the next morning and, to everyone’s surprise, a bundle of tied paper was found inside its stomach. Those were actually Carlotta’s documents, proving that she had landed 293 enslaved Africans on the Cuban coast four hours before being approached.
At first glance, Carlotta‘s capture seems more like one of those fishermen tall tales. It is impossible not to think of it as a strategy of Captain Bagot in order to leverage his approach. In the book O Alufá Rufino, historians João José Reis, Flávio Gomes and Marcus Carvalho narrate cases in which some English captains literally “planted” evidence in order to incriminate slave ships – in particular, a Brazilian one, Ermelinda, whose capture, in 1841, was framed in the 1839 Equipment Act, based on material evidence found on board. However, the arrest of Carlotta took place in 1834 and as fictitious as it may seem, the Spanish slave ship was not the only one captured by the British thanks to the unique testimony of a shark. Thirty-seven years earlier, also in the West Indies, in the context of conflicts involving France, Spain, Holland and England, Lieutenant Hugh Whylie stopped Nancy, an American ship.
Nancy‘s journey, a 125-ton brig, began in the port of Baltimore on July 3, 1799, and was bound for the ports of Curaçao and Santo Domingo (now Haiti) to buy goods that would supply American trade. After the first stage, the ship followed its destination towards Port-au-Prince, but bad weather and a broken mast forced it to stop at the small Île à Vache (Cow Island), in southern Haiti. Soon after, Nancy was chased and approached by Sparrow, one of the English cruisers commanded by Lieutenant Whylie, who watched the Haitian coast. Since the ship was suspected of being a “good prey” for the illegal trafficking of goods with the enemy nations, it was then escorted to Port Royal, Jamaica, where a lawsuit was filed. Nancy‘s captain, Thomas Briggs, fervently claimed the vessel was neutral, with no connection to the Dutch or Spanish. As investigations progressed, another English cruiser, H.M.S Aberdavenny, commanded by Lieutenant Michael Fitton, found the main evidence to convict Briggs and his crew of the crimes of perjury and smuggling. On August 30, Fitton spotted, near Jacmel, a dead bull fought by hungry sharks, 119 kilometers from Cow Island, a description that might take one back to Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. In the interest of catching at least one of the predators, the lieutenant threw a bait and managed to lure the biggest of them. As the sailors opened and cleaned the animal, they found in its stomach a package with documents carefully tied. The leaves were separated on deck and set to dry in the sun, revealing who the real trading partners of the American brig were.
Except for the envelope, the letters were in perfect shape. One of them, dated on the island of Curaçao, was addressed to Christopher Schultz, a Jewish merchant from Baltimore, and dealt with merchant affairs. Based on this documentation, Nancy and her charge were condemned as “proper war preys” on November 25, 1799.
Lieutenant Fitton could not doubt that the shark had followed Nancy when the ship left the port of Curaçao, possibly hoping to grab more than papers. It is known that the transatlantic slave trade brought about a change in the habits of the Atlantic Ocean sharks who instinctively migrated following slave ships in search of human flesh. For some researchers, this adaptation process is precisely what differentiates them from sharks in other oceans.
With the case closed, for years Nancy‘s real documents and the shark jaws that helped frame her were preserved at the English Vice Admiralty Court in Jamaica. They were then displayed at the Royal United Service Museum in London. In 1907, during the earthquake that shook the capital Kingston, the documents of the American brigade temporarily disappeared and can now be found in the Institute of Jamaica. The case of Carlotta was widely reported in the international press and also in Brazil, where the news was translated and published in the newspapers Gazeta Comercial da Bahia and Diário de Pernambuco. According to the newspapers, the ship was recaptured and brought to trial, but the papers that were in the belly of the big fish are still missing.
Due to their exceptional character, the aforementioned documents can sometimes go by unnoticed. However, they point to a maybe common practice of evidence covering. Therefore, one should avoid, under any sort of circumstances, neglecting them, as fictional as they may seem. After all, the truth is just as strange and cruel, if not even more so, as fiction.
The transatlantic slave trade and the sharks are also one of the main interests of historian Marcus Rediker, author of the famous book The Slave Ship. In 2007, Rediker shared his discovery of an African Shark Petition written at the end of the 18th century in which sharks ironically demand members of parliament to continue supporting the grotesque system that would feed them. In fact, it was a document written by the Scottish James Tytler and addressed to the British Parliament. A doctor, poet and composer, Tytler used his peculiar humour to denounce the horrors of the Atlantic crossing. His petition was reproduced both inside and outside Britain, amplifying the debate and joining forces to press the Parliament to put an end to the infamous trade of human beings.
When on September 4th we remember the end of the transatlantic traffic of enslaved Africans to Brazil, we do not forget that in the last 40 years historiography has never stopped analyzing, reading and rereading documents, some of them as exceptional as the “testimony” of a shark. Thanks to academic research, we know that the struggle for freedom, better working conditions and survival was, above all, led by enslaved Africans and their descendants, men and women who resisted individually and collectively. The struggle carries on!
- Any sort of vessel that would be caught practicing the commerce of enslaved Africans after the 1826 anti-traffic treaty between England and Brazil was considered as a good prey. ↩