By Anne Farrow
Captain Dudley Saltonstall is best known in Maine and national history for his disastrous leadership during the Penobscot Expedition in 1779, and for a rout which resulted in the loss of more than forty ships and the end of his naval career.
Sometimes called the worst naval disaster in American history before Pearl Harbor, the smoke and destruction of that Revolutionary War battle has served to obscure something else about Saltonstall: that he was an aggressive and successful slave trader for most of his adult life.
Online resources say he “dabbled” in the slave trade, but this aristocrat and descendant of colonial governors was the slave trade’s man in full. His career stretched from 1757 when he was 18 and served as chief mate aboard the Africa, a Connecticut vessel owned by his father, and ended in 1796, when he is said to have died of a fever in the West Indies.
That all-important first voyage to the western coast of Africa is intimately detailed in a logbook Saltonstall maintained and which also documents two other slaving voyages he made between January 1757 and August of 1758.
This intact, early document is almost without parallel in the existing records of New England’s 18th century slaving trade. Purchased by the Connecticut State Library in 1920 from the widow of a collector, the 80-page account provides a harrowing window into the trade. Terrible weather, buying people on the African coast, the horrors of the Middle Passage—all are calmly recorded, day by day, and without emotion.
Born in New London, Connecticut, just a short sail from slave-trading powerhouse Newport, Rhode Island, Saltonstall entered the slave trade during the second half of the 18th century, when more African people were stolen and shipped to the English Caribbean and the American colonies than during any other period of the trade’s four centuries.
And Saltonstall, despite the blame he took for the Penobscot Expedition and the humiliation of his subsequent court-martial (some thought he should be shot), was regarded as “a good man” in the Atlantic world. Surviving letters in private and public collections show an esteemed and busy mariner shipping supplies and human beings from Africa to Caribbean islands and to the American South.
To be a successful captain aboard a “Guinea trade” vessel required expert seamanship, a bold personal nature, knowledge of the many trading locales, customs and personnel, and an absence of feeling for one’s suffering human cargo.
Though Saltonstall appears to have been an affectionate family man, writing to his wife Frances and his relatives during many months away from home in New London, his entries in the ships’ logs evidence the callousness that was, tragically, typical.
In one voyage made aboard a sloop called the Good Hope, amoebic dysentery breaks out among the captives and 18 Africans—the majority of them children—die before the vessel reaches St. Kitts. Saltonstall refers to them as “small slaves.”
Men who served with him in the Navy and later achieved prominence of their own —including Paul Revere of Boston and Commander John Paul Jones—found him haughty, quick to anger, and dismissive, treating even his officers “as tho they were of a lower species,” Jones wrote.
But in the dangerous world of slave trading and privateering (after his court martial Saltonstall captained a privateering vessel which captured the greatest British prize ship of the war), Saltonstall did well enough to own a “Mansion & Garden,” many beautiful possessions, and to send his son to Yale and then law school.
One of the islands where Saltonstall traded in Sierra Leone is now the focus of an international preservation effort because this tiny island, today called Bunce Island, is covered with the ruins of the last slaving fortress built there. Thousands of African people who were skilled rice growers were sold through this island to work in the American South growing, not coincidentally, rice. The island, abandoned and believed to be haunted, is an essential piece of the story linking West Africa and colonial America. Scholar Joseph Opala calls what happened on this island “a technology transfer.”
At this once-bustling island in the mouth of the Sierra Leone River, and at other sites in West Africa and the English Caribbean, Dudley Saltonstall played his part in the human catastrophe of slavery, a catastrophe that has not ended.
The Saltonstalls are one of the nation’s great early families, and have a long reputation for public service. This, too, is part of their story.