The Voyage of the Sally: Complicity and Tragedy

By Kelvis F. Hernandez, Manager of The John Brown House Museum, Rhode Island Historical Society

The voyage of the Sally is one of the most well documented slaving voyages of the Atlantic world. It displays how, whether directly or indirectly, many people in 18th-century Rhode Island were complicit in the injustices of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the 1700s, Rhode Island was the most active British colony in the North American slave trade. About sixty percent of all slave ships sailing from the colonial US came from Rhode Island.1Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Providence, RI. Brown University, 2007. Nicholas Brown and Company was owned by one of Rhode Island’s most prominent merchant families, the Browns. Named after the eldest brother, the company was operated by Nicholas, Joseph, John, and Moses Brown, from 1762-1774.2“Finding Aid for Obadiah Brown I (1712-1762) Papers.” Rhode Island Historical Society Robinson Research Center. Accessed April 2020. In 1764, the company financed a voyage from Providence to the western coast of Africa to acquire Africans for enslavement and sale.3Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Providence, RI. Brown University, 2007. Ultimately, the voyage of their ship, the Sally, was a financial disaster for the Browns and exemplifies how the slave trade impacted not just the investors and enslaved persons on specific ships, but rather an entire community.

Hopkins, Esek, “Manifest of the brig Sally: September 11, 1764 ” (1764). Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, Voyage of the Sally. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.

Before the Sally set sail, it had to be outfitted with supplies provided by many local merchants. Ships traveling across the Atlantic Ocean needed many supplies for the journey to their destination and back.4Hopkins, Esek. “Manifest of the Brig Sally: September 11, 1764.” Brown Digital Repository | Item | bdr:303420. Brown University Library. The ship held 40 handcuffs, 40 shackles, 7 swivel guns, and multiple firearms. For food, the Sally carried 30 casks of bread supplied by George Gibb of Newport, 24 barrels of beef, and 1,800 bunches of onions.5Gibb, George. “Invoice: Gibb, George to Nicholas Brown: September 10, 1764.” Brown Digital Repository | Item | bdr:303198. Brown University Library. A case of medical supplies reserved for the crew was purchased from Dr. Jabez Bowen of Providence.6Bowen, Jabez. “Invoice: Brown, Jabez Jr. to Nicholas Brown & Co.: September 8, 1764.” Brown Digital Repository | Item | bdr:303231. Brown University Library. Other items included 30 boxes of spermaceti candles, supplied by the Browns, 51 loaves of sugar, supplied by William Mumford of Newport, and 185 barrels of rum, or 17,274 gallons.7Mumford, William. “Receipt for 51 Loaves of Sugar: September 6, 1764.” Brown Digital Repository | Item | bdr:303207. Brown University Library.

Anchored off the western coast of Africa the captain of the Sally, Esek Hopkins, detailed every single piece of inventory traded on and off the ship, and he also kept records of the people with whom he was trading. Supplies on the Sally were used as provisions, for defense, or specifically to trade with during the voyage. The Browns used this voyage as a way to generate revenue from their other business interests. For example, they used their own stock of spermaceti candles from their candle-making factory for trade. Another commodity they planned to bring onto the ship from the Caribbean with the money they would make from the sale of the enslaved was sugar. It was one of the most significant imports to Rhode Island because it was used to produce rum in New England distilleries. 185 barrels of New England rum were brought to Africa by the Sally as the main export from Rhode Island. While there were numerous paths and trading systems followed by other slaving vessels, the manufacturing and exchange of both sugar and rum facilitated the system we know today as the “Triangle Trade.” Rhode Island was one corner of the trade, and in this case the other two were Africa and the Caribbean. Sugar and molasses produced by the enslaved population on the plantations of the Caribbean were shipped to Rhode Island to produce rum which would subsequently be exported to Africa in exchange for enslaved Africans, who would then be traded or sold to plantations of the Caribbean in exchange for more sugar and molasses.8“Slavery and Justice: Selected Sources from the John Carter Brown Library.” John Carter Brown Library Exhibitions. Accessed April 2020.

Brown University Scholarly Technology Group. “Map of the Sally.” In Voyage of the Slave Ship Sally.

The main goal of all slaving voyages was to profit from the trans-Atlantic slave trade; and the Sally was no different. The Africans captured were treated as cargo on the ship and as property by their enslavers on plantations or in homes. On slave ships they were kept below deck, segregated by age and biological sex, and positioned in the way the enslavers deemed most financially beneficial, not in a way that was best for health. In most voyages, the women and children were left unchained while the males would be chained in pairs, using the cuffs and shackles to restrain their hands and feet, onto shelves laid flat or onto the floor seated. While the majority of an enslaved person’s time was spent below deck, they were generally given some time above deck, which was to be spent doing forced exercise.9Rediker, Marcus Buford. The Slave Ship a Human History. New York: Penguin Books, 2008 To counter any uprisings from the enslaved people or mutinies from the crew, the Sally held weapons in addition to the shackles and handcuffs. While the conditions on slaving ships may have varied for the crew members, for the enslaved people, there were no “good” slave ships. Every voyage for enslaved peoples resulted in fear, sickness, and sometimes even death before arriving at the ship’s next destination, the Caribbean.

The financiers of these ships wanted to keep the enslaved people healthy and nourished, but it was less a concern about the well-being of the enslaved people and more about the ship owners’ finances. This was because an enslaved person who was sick or malnourished had less value than a healthy enslaved person and could not be sold at the same price. As such, for the crew members and the enslaved people to survive the journey, provisions and medical supplies were needed in large quantities. Foods like bread, beef, and rice, provided by local bakers and farmers, were loaded onto the ship and would be force-fed to enslaved people who refused to eat in defiance.10Life Aboard a Slave Ship. A&E Television Networks, 2019. Onions were supplied in bulk because they were used for both food and medicinal needs—they could be used as a poultice to reduce fever, relieve coughing, or in a tea to relieve headaches. They also are a great source of vitamin C, which prevents scurvy. Illness and disease were widespread on slaving ships. Larger ships hired doctors to join the voyage, but smaller vessels  like the Sally purchased medical equipment, which included various ointments and remedies.

The Sally was in Africa for nine months, which was far longer than a slave ship usually stayed. When the conditions on the Sally became so terrible that both crewmembers and the enslaved people were becoming ill from diseases, many of the enslaved Africans decided to fight back. In response to the uprising, the crew on the deck used swivel guns, small cannons which could be turned in toward the deck of the ship, stopping the rebellion and killing eight people.11Hopkins, Esek. “Brig Sally’s Account Book: 1765.” Brown Digital Repository | Item | bdr:303732.Brown University Library. After selling the enslaved persons in the Caribbean, the Sally began its return to Rhode Island. Records show that the death toll was 109 of the 196 enslaved persons.12Hopkins, Esek. “Brig Sally’s Account Book: 1765.” Brown Digital Repository | Item | bdr:303732.Brown University Library. The Sally as a voyage was a complete disaster in terms of the lives lost as well as financially for the Brown brothers.

Hopkins, Esek, “Brig Sally’s account book: 1765 ” (1764). Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.

Though the Browns had no partners in financing the Sally, many people still profited from its voyage, mainly those who outfitted the ship before it set sail. Those included George Gibb of Newport, a local baker who provided the ship with bread; Dr. Jabez Bowen of Providence who provided the medical supplies; William Mumford of Newport who provided the sugar; Robert Bell, a local sailmaker who completed work on the sails for the Sally13Bell, Robert. “Invoice: Bell, Robert to Brown, John: Ca. August 1764.” Brown Digital Repository | Item | bdr:303167. Brown University Library.; and Samuel Ingraham who provided ironware and worked on one of the Sally’s small boats.14Ingraham, Samuel. “Receipt: Ingraham, Samuel to John Brown: August 7, 1764.” Brown Digital Repository | Item | bdr:303234. Brown University Library. While this voyage may have been a financial disaster for the Browns, they eventually overcame the loss of capital and continued to profit from their other businesses.

Enslaved people did not profit from the slave trade. First kidnapped in Africa, enslaved people were carried by way of force to a new land–either in the Caribbean or North American colonies–without their consent. Stripped of their freedoms in new and unfamiliar lands, many enslaved people lost their lives. Many others who survived the Middle Passage began new lives in places where their cultural heritages were outlawed. Still, these people persisted. Some were able to self-emancipate through actions such as escaping from their enslavement or rising up in rebellion against their enslavers. These large acts of resistance were not always possible or successful. Both choices of rebellion and/or escape had their own set of risks and were dangerous for those involved and as well as for those not involved. Even the people who could not participate directly against their enslavers could perform small acts of resistance such as practicing cultural traditions in secret, creating families, and slowing down work.

Examining the voyage of the Sally exposes the many injustices caused by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Not only the complicity of those everyday people in the trade but the struggle of a people mourning the loss of human lives against a system created by those who enslave them solely mourning the loss of their profits.


Complicit: participating in wrongdoing or suspicious activity, or acting in association with those who are involved in such activities

Financed: to provide money for. A financier is a person who provides the money

Enslavement: the state/condition of being forced into bondage or subjugation

Enslaved person/people: a person who has been placed in the condition of enslavement (We use this phrase instead of “slave” to recognize the person and their experiences)

Outfitted: to supply with equipment needed

Swivel guns: small cannons mounted on a stand so that it can be rotated horizontally and vertically

Casks: large, strong barrels used for holding liquids

Inventory: the goods and/or materials on hand

Provisions: supplies of food

Spermaceti candles: candles made from a waxy substance found in the head cavities of the sperm whale

Imports: goods brought into one country or region from another for purposes of trade

Export: a good sent from one country or region to another for purposes of trade

Biological sex: how we are identified at birth, based on hormones, sex organs, and chromosomes (Examples include male, female, and intersex)

Mutinies: forcible or passive resistance to lawful authority

Malnourished: supplied with less than the minimum or an unbalanced amount of the nutrients or foods essential for sound health

Poultice: a soft usually heated and sometimes medicated mass spread on a cloth and applied to sores or other lesions

Self-emancipate: the act or process of freeing oneself from restraint, control, or the power of another


Enslaved people had many ways to resist their enslavement, why do you think they continued to resist?

What do you think are some other actions enslaved persons may have done in resistance?

Highlighted in the essay were just some of the people complicit in the voyage of the Sally, do you think those merchants, bakers, farmers, etc. had a choice in being involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade? Why/why not?

After the voyage of the Sally three of the Brown brothers chose to stop directly participating in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, why/how do you think they came to this decision?