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The “Sukey” Sails For Africa


“She lay alongside Captain Jim DeWolfe’s wharf that day in 1802, a smart, trim topsail schooner, nearly ready for sea. On her stern was lettered her name, “Sukey,” and below it, Bristol, Rhode Island.

As usual, the Bristol waterfront buzzed with feverish activity that day, especially on Captain Jim’s wharf. Heavy ox carts laden with last minute cargo lumbered slowly across the cobblestones of Thames Street that edged the wharf, and then onto it.

Captain Jim and some of his brothers owned the carts and oxen, the distillery on Thames Street from which most of the Sukey’s outward cargo had come, and the countinghouse that was the headquarters for their business. In the West Indies, or Sugar Islands as they were often called in those days, the deWolfes owned plantations to provide the cargo the Sukey would bring back to Bristol on the homeward part of her long voyage. And they owned the Sukey and other ships that sailed in the evil trade in which they were engaged.

The Sukey…had no trouble getting her clearance papers after an inspection by the Bristol surveyor. (Although the Rhode Island State Assembly had forbid he slave trade), Her trade and that of many another Bristol vessel brought too much prosperity to too many people. There were the Bristol sailmakers and carpenters, the caulkers who sealed the ships’ joints with oakum and tar, the ship chandlers who sold provisions and an endless variety of wares needed aboard a vessel, and the owners and workers of the ropes that made cordage---the great number of ropes used in holding, hoisting, lowering and controlling the sails of a ship. And there were many people who depended upon the Bristol ship owners for profit and wages.

If a vessel (returning) from the Sugar Islands was discharging her cargo, there would be (boys who) most Bristol wharf owners would let have their taste of the sweet molasses. But on deWolfe’s wharf that day, when you came close enough to the schooner, there was another smell---a smell that seemed to make your very insides curl up. It was a smell so vile and horrible that you wondered how the Sukey’s crew could possibly stand it.

“You can smell a slaver five miles downwind,” they say on the Guinea Coast. And the Sukey was a slaver.

Probably a fair-sized crowd of the crew’s family and friends were gathered on deWolfe’s wharf as the Sukey sheered gently away…people on the wharf cried “huzza!” and waved their hats. The Sukey was off on her voyage. In West Africa, she would work her way down the Guinea Coast, probably finding it necessary to stop at port after port as she exchanged her trade goods and precious rum for even more precious black slaves, and perhaps also for gold dust, ivory, ebony and other African products.

At last she would head west, crossing the Atlantic over the infamous Middle Passage to the West Indies. In the islands the slaves would be landed and sold. Then Captain Almy would fill the Sukey chockablock with hogsheads of molasses to be distilled into more rum at Bristol.

This was the evil, cruel business known as the Triangular, or Three-Cornered Trade. It was the cornerstone of much of New England’s prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries. It made many men rich, but it was part of what was to bring disgrace upon white (British and New England) men, misery and oppression upon black people, and untold trouble upon the world.”

(Rum, Slaves and Molasses, Clifford L. Alderman, Crowell-Collier Press, 1972, pp. 1-12)