Transatlantic Ties: A Juneteenth voyage to Ghana

By Jo McConville, Project Archivist

Please be aware that this post covers topics that may be distressing. The original 18th century documents discussed here also contain archaic racial language and terminology which is now considered unacceptable.

“Black Unity Juneteenth Celebration” by dsgetch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

If you’re reading this on Saturday (19th), today marks Juneteenth, a celebration of the emancipation of enslaved peoples in the United States following the end of the American Civil War and the victory of the Union armies in 1865. It’s a hugely significant event in the American calendar (with activists currently pushing for its recognition as a national holiday by the US government), reflecting the presence of slavery as a central, and inescapable part of the history of the United States. As such, it’s also a key theme we’ve been exploring through our Transatlantic Ties project.

Documents held at WSRO such as the extraordinary (and harrowing) Inventory and valuation of the estate of Doctor John Channing of South Carolina, 1817 (Acc 15714) bear witness to the horrific commodification of enslaved people suffering on Southern plantations. At the same time, the fuller history of slavery and the slave trade is decidedly not one isolated to the United States. As the name suggests, the Transatlantic (or ‘triangular’ slave trade) spanned oceans and continents with enslaved Africans transported by European traders across the Atlantic (the notorious ‘Middle Passage’) to labour in plantations in the Americas producing goods such as cotton, sugar and tobacco which were then shipped back to Europe.  Within this history are multiple narratives, tying together America, Africa and Europe and their dealings over the centuries, and records in the archives at WSRO shed an unexpected light on facets of this history. Mindful of a quotation I came across, that ‘celebrations of the end of slavery should have three goals: to celebrate, to educate, and to agitate’,[1] I’m hoping it’s fitting on this Juneteenth to make a modest attempt at least at the middle of those three by dipping into some of these perhaps less familiar narratives.

Buckle Mss 108 – Orders and instructions to Captain Mathew Buckle, HMS Assistance, 1751

With which preamble, today’s Transatlantic Ties post will take us, not to America but to the west coast of Africa, in the company of Matthew Buckle, captain of His Majesty’s ship Assistance (later an Admiral). The records of the Buckle family of Sussex and Surrey, who had a long association with the Royal Navy, are a surprisingly rich resource on this topic: diaries, log books and other documents belonging to serving members of the Buckle clan over the 18th and 19th centuries provide substantial insight into the Royal Navy’s activities over this time – and into Britain’s complex and changing role in the transatlantic slave trade. Two contrasting roles in particular are revealed through the papers of the aforementioned Matthew Buckle (1718-1784) and Claude Henry Mason Buckle (1803-1894) – both serving in the Royal Navy, one before and one after Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807. I hope to follow up on Claude Buckle’s activities in a later post, but for today will focus on a couple of fascinating documents which provide a detailed and revealing record of the commission undertaken by Captain Matthew Buckle in 1751-1752 to the coast of modern day Ghana (then known as the Gold Coast): a set of orders and instructions from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty (Buckle Mss 108), and an account by Buckle himself describing the events of the voyage (Buckle Mss 460).

Captain Buckle and the ship Assistance, with companion ships the St Albans and Sphinx and the sloop Badger ‘Sail’d from Plymouth Sound’ on the evening of Thursday 5th December 1751. With various stops planned for the route, (notably in Madeira to ‘Procure Seven Months Wine’…), the ships’ destination is Cape Coast Castle on the South Coast of Ghana – at that time the centre of British trading operations in West Africa. This name wasn’t familiar to me but it turns out that Cape Coast Castle had (and has) quite a reputation – and a disturbing one at that.

The original ‘Castle’ on the site was built for the Swedish Africa Company in 1653 and named Carolusborg for King Charles X of Sweden. After changing hands several times in the ensuing years, as the various European powers jostled for control of trade and territory, the castle was captured by the British in 1664. At the time of Matthew Buckle’s expedition in the mid 18th century, the British slave trade was in full flow; Cape Coast Castle was one of over 50 ‘slave castles’ (of which over 25 still remain) lining Ghana’s coast. In Buckle’s orders from the Admiralty, it is also referred to, disturbingly, as a ‘Factory’ – and its business was as a holding place for the enslaved, who were housed in the squalid dungeons before being shipped across the ocean to be sold in America and the Caribbean.

Buckle Mss 460 – ‘An Account of the Proceedings on a Voyage to the Coast of Africa by Captain Mathew Buckle’, 1751

Buckle’s own mission was not direct engagement in this trade – in fact the orders given by the Admiralty, and issued by Buckle to his crew, forbade naval personnel from the practice in no uncertain terms. Illicit trading by naval officers, whilst theoretically banned since the late 17th century, was a significant occurrence in the years preceding the Buckle voyage.[2] The practice was damaging to British trade; as naval ships were not subject to any of the same costs and taxes as merchant ships, they were able to undercut these ‘legal’ traders which affected market prices for goods (including enslaved people) and ultimately cost the British Treasury.  The ‘Act of Parliament’ cited in both Buckle documents was the Navy Act of 1749, which consolidated the laws regarding naval discipline and imposed stricter penalties (often death) for violations.

Matthew Buckle’s task in his voyage to the African coast was ‘the Protection and Security of the Trade of His Majesty’s Subjects in those parts’ and to establish, ‘…whether the Possessions of this Nation, or the Trade of His Majesty’s Subjects in those Parts, have been Incroached on, or Interrupted by the Ships or Subjects of any Other Nation…’

Buckle Mss 460 – Cropped image from ‘An Account of the Proceedings on a Voyage to the Coast of Africa by Captain Mathew Buckle’, 1751

The main source of concern for Buckle and his crew is the threat posed by the French. The admiralty report that French ships are known to have travelled to Anomabu,[3] a few miles east of Cape Coast and the site of a British ‘Fort and Factory’ for a number of years. As suspected by the admiralty, on Buckle’s arrival at Cape Coast, he receives confirmation of the French presence and reports that the local Fante people may be about to hold a meeting with the French crews to ‘Sign a Paper, to give the French Liberty for a Piece of Ground to Build a Fort upon’, the French having been attempting to gain the allyship of the Fante through ‘making Presents from the Highest to the Lowest Sort of People.’

Buckle Mss 460 – Cropped image from ‘An Account of the Proceedings on a Voyage to the Coast of Africa by Captain Mathew Buckle’, 1751

The series of negotiations which follows is a fascinating insight into the rivalries of the European powers in the drive to colonise territory and gain the upper hand in trade, as well as the complex power dynamics at play in their interactions with the local chiefs or caboceers[4], most notably John Currantee, chief of the Fante people.[5] Captain Buckle and his men offer lavish gifts, and attempt to appeal to Fante loyalty to the British crown. The Fante concede this, but air their grievances over the disrepair of the existing fort and their dissatisfaction with the Chief agent of Cape Coast. This meeting ends in something of an impasse, with Buckle recording:

‘…they acknowledged themselves to be English, but…they was for having the French & English both Build there. And this was all the Satisfaction we could get from them.’

Buckle Mss 460 – Cropped image from ‘An Account of the Proceedings on a Voyage to the Coast of Africa by Captain Mathew Buckle’, 1751

Buckle then turns his attention to the French ‘Commodore’, with a meeting on board ship ending in an explicit warning: ‘…we acquainted him, that if he did attempt to Erect a Fort, or offer to make a Settlement, or hoist French Colours, we should look upon it as a Breach of the Peace Subsisting between the two Nations & should be obliged to Fire upon him…’

Buckle Mss 460 – Cropped image from ‘An Account of the Proceedings on a Voyage to the Coast of Africa by Captain Mathew Buckle’, 1751
“Fort William – Anomabu” by -AX- is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

A further meeting with John Currantee and other caboceers underlines the Fante’s own interest in proceedings: ‘…if we would fulfil our Promise in Building the Fort, they would all stand by the English.’ Ultimately, it seems that this aim was fulfilled. Buckle sailed home and the following year (1753), the British began construction of a new Fort at Anomabu, continuing the trade in enslaved Africans until its abolition in 1807. Like Cape Coast Castle, this Fort, renamed Fort William in the 19th century, still stands today as a monument to a complex and troubling past.


[1] From historian Mitch Kachun

[2] Mewett, R E. ˜To the Very Great Prejudice of the Fair Trader: Merchants and Illicit Naval Trading in the 1730s.Historical Research 93, no. 262 (October 28, 2020): doi:10.1093/hisres/htaa016.

[3] spelt ‘Anamaboe’ or ‘Annamoboe’ in the Buckle records

[4] This appears to be spelt ‘Capuchiers’ in Buckle’s account

[5] It appears that Currantee was strongly in support of the existence of a fort on Fante land,and a likely beneficiary of the European trade in enslaved Africans


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2 thoughts on “Transatlantic Ties: A Juneteenth voyage to Ghana

  1. Factory didn’t have the same meaning then that it acquired a little later. It’s more modern sense perhaps derives as a shortening of manufactory, a place of manufacture. The sense here (and also as used by the East India Company) was as the base for a factor, the local British official. Still very much tied up with colonialism of course.

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  2. I did a presentation on the enchantment of Ghana. Very gruesome. It will take the grace of God to recover, however, we must forgive.

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