Slave Ship Captains of the Atlantic Slave Trade

A painting c.1830 by the German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas depicts a scene below deck of a slave ship headed to Brazil; Rugendas had been an eyewitness to the scene

Who were the men who commanded the slave ships on the Middle Passage and what exactly did they do?

On the slave ship, the captain was King. He held absolute power over every individual on his ship. His responsibilities were extensive and his friendships few. He could not afford to appear vulnerable to his officers, crew, or the enslaved Africans his ship carried.

How to Become a Slave-Ship Captain

Most slave-ship captains were “bred to the sea”. This meant they were apprenticed out at around 11 years of age to be taught necessary sailing skills and often came from a lineage of sailors. It was their connection to financiers that provided their opportunities, however. Their commands came from a group of investors who needed someone to captain their ships, and they obviously looked for captains they could trust.

The payment for commanding a slaver provided plenty of incentive for experienced captains to try their hand at it. Negotiated contracts outlined not just wages, but also commissions and bonuses. A common form of payment was in the slaves themselves, allowing the captain the “privilege” to select a certain number of slaves for himself — for example, four slaves for him to every 100 slaves that arrived alive at their destination. This gave the captain incentive to transport as many as possible, but also to work hard to keep them alive.

Duties of the Slave Ship Captain

The duties of a slave-ship captain began upon his appointment. He first had to select his officers and find a crew. This was, perhaps, his most important task as the skill and loyalty of the men aboard would be tantamount to its success. Captains obviously preferred to work with men who had proven these requirements on previous voyages.

Supervising the loading of the ship also fell under the captain’s duties. In fact, supervising every aspect of the ship’s functioning, both in port and on the seas, was his primary function. His knowledge of all aspects of ship life is what qualified him as captain. He managed supplies, crew members, bookkeeping, navigation, and more; and he documented it all in his log. He was the representative of the merchants who backed him, and once upon the seas became the sole decision-maker for the ship and all aboard.

Aside from the sailing-related duties, he took on the role of negotiator in purchasing enslaved Africans. Most merchants provided explicit instructions on what to look for when making the purchases. For example, most were instructed to purchase more males than females and to ensure that females were not “long-breasted”. They were instructed to avoid “smooth negroes”, those who were not used to hard physical labor.

On a slave ship, a captain also served as warden of a floating prison. He had to maintain the discipline of his crew and follow strict protocols when loading and moving slaves to avoid escape attempts. The majority of slave captains never personally entered the hold where the slaves were housed as this would give them the opportunity to kill him. However, he was still responsible for their care during the voyage and gave the orders for how they would be treated. The real and constant fear of insurrections, led most to be aloof, cruel, and arbitrary in their treatment of both sailors and slaves.

Famous Slave Ship Captains

By far the most well-known slave-ship captain is John Newton, but his fame is derived more from his famous hymn “Amazing Grace” than from his time as a slave-ship captain. Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake made their first voyages to the New World on slave ships, but are better known for their privateer days. The famous pirate “Black Bart” Roberts started his pirating days after being kidnapped from a slave ship by pirates in 1719.

According to The Slave Ship: A Human History, the average slave-ship captain made 2.2 slaving voyages, but more than 50 captains documented five or more runs. These captains created a network, sharing information on African traders, slaving methods, crew members, and more. Although they were competing with each other, they also shared a common interest in improving their methods and increasing their profits.


  1. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-67001823-9