First hand accounts: Silas Told

Silas Told was born in Bristol in 1711. When he was 8 years old he went to Colston’s School. Silas was a ‘charity pupil’, who was educated for free, unlike other pupils. The school, which still exists today, was then located near Bristol’s quayside close to what is now the city centre. Told and his schoolmates joined in the funeral procession through Bristol of his school’s founder, Edward Colston, in 1721. Edward Colston, as well as being a generous funder of Bristol charities, was also an important member of the Royal African Company. This was the London-based company which controlled the British trade in African slaves from 1672 to 1698.

At the age of 14, Silas Told was apprenticed to sail to Ireland and to the Caribbean island of Jamaica on board the ship The Prince of Wales under his master Captain Moses Lilly. Once on board, Told reports he suffered beatings and abuse along with short rations, sea sickness and storms. He fell ill and after the ship landed in Jamaica, Told was discharged (made redundant). By his own account he was left to starve ‘on a dunghill’ in the town of Kingston, Jamaica, until strangers took pity on him. Eventually he regained his health and found a job with a more humane captain, David Jones, and returned to Bristol. He was then returned to his original master, the cruel Captain Moses Lilly, who handed him over to the slave captain Timothy Tucker. This captain was known for his cruelty. Told’s suffering began for real when he sailed under Tucker aboard the ship the Royal George for West Africa and the Caribbean on a slaving voyage. Unlike most sailors in his day, Told was able to read and write and kept a diary of his ordeal. On his return to England he became a Mehodist, converted to the religion by John Wesley, a Bristol preacher. He ended his days as a chaplain to prisoners who were condemned to hang at Newgate Prison in London. Shortly after his death, his book The Life and Dealings of God with Silas Told was published in 1786. It was published by his Methodist friends who wanted to spread the story of Told’s conversion to the religion. They also used it to show the cruelties of the slave trade, which many religious people were against. The following is an extract from the book.

‘… One Sunday morning I was sent down to the gun room, in order to get the necessary provision for the ship’s company; the Captain happening to find me at the bread-cask, declared that I had got much more than was wanted; he went immediately to his cabin for a horse-whip, and exercised it in so unmerciful a manner, that not only my cloaths was cut to pieces, but every sailor on board shuddered at the sight of my lacerated flesh; yet this barbarity did not satisfy him he threw me on the deck and stamped on my stomach several times, and had not the people taken me by the legs and thrown me under the Windlass, he would have ended his despotic cruelty by murder.’

The passage from Silas Told’s book shows the terrible suffering that the sailors, as well as those enslaved on board, could experience at the hands of the officers and captains.