Maman Brigette: a selection of entries from the journal of Gerard D'Estaing, mid-shipman on the slave ship 'Le Saphir' .
Sanatorium for the Insane, Paris, 2 Feb 1788
I cursed the day that I met Captain Bernard Dugarry. What a fateful decision, made over too many cognacs in a tavern in La Rochelle, though it seemed the right one at the time. I had been discharged from the French Navy for long service after the American War of Independence and my life was going nowhere. I thought I'd had enough; that I wanted to turn my back on the sea, but it was in my blood. In my depressed and drunken state I could see no reason to turn down Captain Dugarry's offer. He was persuasive and charismatic. He was young for a captain of a vessel, yet supremely confident and ambitious. The money was good, very good, better than anything offered by the French Navy and I had even been offered a cut from the sale of the slaves when we reached the Indies as a bonus.
It seemed a good match. On his own admission Captain Dugarry was not concerned with the details and fineries of sailing; he was a leader and disciplinarian, a businessman as well. He saw profit and wanted somebody to steer his cargo safely across hazardous waters to make it. He needed a skilled seaman and I was that man; decades of service harrying the British navy down the coast of West Africa, across the Atlantic and in the Indies gave me experience of these waters. One last job, I thought. One last pay day to see me into my retirement and perhaps then I would be able to turn away from the sea.
As I flick through the pages of the journal I wrote at the time, my memories come into sharper focus. The experiences that led to my descent into madness were still an open sore that I had not recovered from. I did not know then that the journey I was about to embark on was not only a voyage across a sea but also one into the darkness of my soul.
'Le Saphir', 14th April 1785
We were several days into our crossing of the Atlantic and I have had time to reflect on the voyage so far. We had departed the port of La Rochelle on 2nd February. Captain Dugarry had delayed to leave on that particular day. It was Candlemass, the saint's day of St Bridget and the feast of the Purification of the Virgin and he insisted that this would be an auspicious day to set off. The night before setting sail he had gone to the seaman's church at La Rochelle to receive confession. God knows, having already seen something of this man's temper and the extremity of his cruelty he would need the intercession of a priest to stop him going to hell. We had sailed around Spain and down the African coast to pick up our cargo from the slave fortress at Gold Coast in West Africa.
'Le Saphir', 16th April 1785
Today I went down onto the cargo deck for the first time. As a sailor in the French navy I have experienced some terrible things. I have seen men blown apart by cannon balls in battle, their bodies a mess of bloodied flesh and shattered bones. I have seen the harsh penalties administered by the quarter-master where men's backs have been torn to bloodied flesh by the cat o' nine tails for stealing a mere drop of rum. I have looked on hopelessly as men have been tossed overboard into the raging ocean, floundering desperately before the sea swallows them up. A sailor is hardened to hardship.
But none of what I had experienced had prepared me for the sight that confronted me on that day. Hundreds of near naked bodies in tattered rags crammed like sardines, row upon row, chained together by ankle cuffs. The smell was unbearable; an unspeakable stench of soiled bodies and dried piss permeated the whole deck. The bodies were listless and lifeless. Some blank eyes stared up at me, but most of the slaves barely recognised anybody else was there. I was shocked. I had never worked on a slave ship before and, although I had heard stories from other sailors, this mass of human misery was overwhelming. In twenty years of being at sea I had never thrown up but I had to use all of my powers of resilience to stop myself from wrenching then.
Captain Dugarry was with me. He laughed at my squeamishness. "Monsieur D'Estaing, you shouldn't give a fucking damn," he bawled at me, "this is what will make us money. I've three hundred and sixty of these bastards on two decks, I can afford to lose a hundred and fifty and still make a comfortable profit – in fact I count on losing at least that number in a crossing, you just have to write them off. I don't give a shit as long as I have enough for the slave markets and plantation owners of Saint Domingue to make a handsome return."
I think this was the first sign of my unease about this adventure, if that's what it could be called. I'm a sea-hardened sailor but this felt different from the thrill and terror of sea battle. It was calculated and cruel in a way that scuttling English frigates wasn't. What else should I have expected, after all, Dugarry was right, it was just business. "Yes, Captain, of course," I replied but deep down I knew that something in my conscience had been pricked.
Le Saphir, 20th April 1785
Tonight Captain Dugarry invited me to his cabin for 'some fun' as he put it. When I arrived there were two slave girls already there. Their bodies had been stripped of the rags that passed for clothes and washed down with sea water. Their hands were tied with rope behind their backs and they were gagged. The knelt on the floor; their eyes wide with fear and their black-skinned foreheads dripping sweat.
"Come on in Monsieur Gerard, I've got some entertainment for us tonight. We sailors need some relief, don't we, eh." I looked on as he took up a leather whip and flayed it across one of the slave girl's breasts. There was a muffled squeal of pain from behind the gag. Dugarry laughed at her sadistically. "I've only just started, you black bitch," he muttered. She would not have understood a word of French but that wasn't necessary to understand the Captain's threat. The whip reined down hard on her cutting a red weal across her breast. When she collapsed onto the floor to protect her exposed tits Dugarry pulled her up roughly by the hair and whipped her harder.
He threw the whip over to me and laughed, "you whip yours now." I felt uneasy. I am no prude. I have been to brothels in more ports than I can name. I've fucked plenty of prostitutes in my time, but something about this seemed cruelly malicious. Still, what could I do? The Captain clearly expected me to join in.
I started whipping the second slave girl's tits. At first I was hesitant and held back, but Dugarry shouted and encouraged me. "Go on, get stuck in man; give her a good beating. You'll enjoy it once you get going." I increased the momentum and the strength of my strokes. I could hear the muffled screams from behind the gag. Scarily, egged on by the Captain's laughs and taunts, I got involved in the task, driving myself onto harder strokes moving onto the girl's back, thighs and arse. Despite the disgust at what I was doing and against the better side of my nature I found it exhilarating, even enjoyable, to whip the girl harder, challenging myself to go further. "Great work Monsieur Gerard," Dugarry called out, "you've got the makings of a great sadist."
The captain pulled down his crisp white breeches and knickerbockers so that they hung around his ankles and thrust is hard cock into the slave girl's mouth so deeply and forcefully that she started to gag. "Keep whipping her whilst she sucks on me," he ordered. And I did, but was I doing it because it was an order or because I was enjoying it? The Captain grasped the girl's head and forced her down on him making her suck his cock. It didn't take long before he reached his climax, pulling out if her mouth and shooting a stream of hot white cum over her face.
The Captain took the whip from my hand and gestured to me to take my pleasure from the other girl. Once again, I was hesitant at first, but I was so aroused that I needed relief so it was not long before I had the girl's head in my hands forcing her to suck on me as Dugarry whipped her arse. I could sense my erect member in her mouth muffling her screams. Like the Captain, before I felt my cum about to burst forth I withdrew and emptied myself over the girl's face and then onto her limp drooping breasts.
The Captain had still not finished. He grasped the girl's head and forced her onto the tits of the other girl and made her lick my cum off. I caught a glimpse of the tears of humiliation running down her cheeks.
When I returned to my cabin that night I was quivering. On the one hand I was disgusted with myself. It was against my nature. But I also had to face the dark reality that I had enjoyed it and that it had aroused me.
Le Saphir, 25th April 1785
Today, we threw overboard six slaves who had been found dead. They were still lying there chained to their shackles, flies buzzing around their limpid heads. Some of them had probably been dead for days. "Make sure you log them as having escaped and jumped overboard, then I can claim insurance on them," I overheard Captain Dugarry tell one of the cabin crew.
The Captain turned to me. "These slaves need to know who is in charge. Discipline is everything on a slave ship. They have to know that my power is absolute and random so every so often I come down and watch one of them being whipped." Dugarry pointed to one, seemingly at random, who was released from his iron fetters and roped to a wooden support on the deck. The quarter-master wielded a knotted whip. Not the bull whip, which was far too long to use in such cramped quarters, but a severe and horrible weapon nonetheless. I had seen similar instruments of punishment like this used before on naval vessels.
"Thirty strokes I think." I raised my eyebrows. In the navy six or ten of these would be considered a severe punishment with such a savage instrument, but thirty? "And twenty more if he squeals," continued the Captain. Of course, the poor black man screamed out in agony and was given the full fifty strokes. His back was a bloodied mess by the end of the whipping. I could not help but think that this slave would be useless to anybody when we got to port, if he survived that long, as in these conditions the wounds were sure to get infected, but Captain Dugarry could not care less. "That will strike fear into these bastard slaves. They need to see that, Monsieur Gerard."
Le Saphir, 28th April 1785
Today we threw overboard another ten slaves, five men, three women and two children who had died from fever. They included the slave who had been whipped by the Captain only a few days earlier, whose bloodied wheals had become infected as I anticipated.
I felt sickened but at the same time I felt drawn to the sadistic and charismatic Captain Dugarry. What was happening to me? Was exposure to the hardships of the slavery eroding my sense of humanity? I only wanted to earn some money to retire on. I was not expecting a voyage to expose the raw limits of my soul.
Le Saphir, 5th May 1785
The Captain planned another evening of pleasure for me. This time he said he would allow me to choose my own girl. We entered the slave deck. The contrast could not have been more marked; the Captain in full navy blue uniform and polished brass buttons and the miserable cargo listless and sickening; squeezed into the cramped hold. It was so hard to choose which poor wretch would be the object of the Captain's perversions. Eventually, I made a choice of a slender young woman who looked in better health than some of the other disease ridden slaves. The Captain ordered one of the crew to unshackle them, have them bathed and delivered to his quarters.
We retired to his cabin for some cognac, to "get us in the right mood for the night's entertainment" he said with a malevolent twinkle in his eye. The two slave girls were brought in, both with their wrists tied behind their back, both wide-eyed and staring in fear. The Captain ordered one face down onto his bed, tied her wrists to the bed post with rope, got her to kneel up and with her legs spread secured to the posts at the bottom of the bed with rope.
It looked as though Dugarry had planned another sadistic arse whipping game, but I soon found he had other ideas. He took off his jacket and removed his breeches. He slapped the girl's arse with his hand to get himself aroused and then mounted the bed. His cock was fully erect and rampant. He sought out the slave girl's tight little arse-hole and when he had found it pushed it in. He did not do so gently or slowly, but finding the right place thrust his cock in with one forceful stroke. The girl screamed. Her arse was young and tight and had never been treated like this. To take the full length of Dugarry's manhood in one thrust must have been agonising for her. The Captain slapped the side of her arse hard and told her to stop making a noise, not that she could understand him. He thrust his cock hard into her in deep and forceful rhythmic movements until after only a few minutes he let out a gasp and came inside her.
"Your turn now Monsieur Gerard," he laughed at me. I felt nauseated, but at the same time strangely intrigued and excited. Once again my values were being challenged and put to the test by the Captain. He smiled knowingly at me as if he knew that what he had done repulsed me but tempting me to go another step further on his journey into sadistic pleasure. He tied the second slave girl up for me in the same way and, like the Captain I removed my jacket and breeches and then entered her. I felt disgusted with myself. In all my visits to brothels, this was something I had never done. But, I was fearful of the capricious Captain and dare not deny him his entertainment. Or was I just fooling myself and using the Captain as an excuse for my own debauchery. As I emptied my seed into the slave girl's arse my feelings of repulsion were mixed with those of pleasure.
Le Saphir, 8th May 1785
Today, we threw over another eight dead slaves, three men and five women, two of whom could have barely been out of puberty.
A slave had been dragged up onto the fore-deck. Apparently, this one had defied an order given by one of the crew. How, I do not know, as from what I had seen none of the miserable chained up slaves had the wherewithal to put up any resistance. I expect some command was shouted at him and he had no idea what was being said to him. Still, that was no matter to Captain Dugarry. Any form of defiance from a slave was dealt with savagely.
This poor devil had his wrists and ankles tied and was lowered from the foremast by a rope. This was done in full view of most of the crew and also some of the slaves had been brought up on deck to witness the punishment, no doubt so they might report back on the kind of cruelty they would face for any insubordination, however slight. The slave was left dangling for a while with his tied legs dangling in the air, the strain on his forearms showing and his face racked in pain. Then he was slowly lowered down the side of the ship and into the sea. He was kept submerged, perhaps for a minute and then lifted up again. This process was repeated, each time the miserable wretch coming up to draw-in desperate breaths. After several descents into the cold waters of the Atlantic the quarter-master asked the Captain if the slave could be released. Dugarry stepped forward. "Certainly not," he laughed sadistically as he cut the rope himself and sent the slave plunging into the icy waters.
Le Saphir, 12th May 1785
By my calculations we must have been only a few days away from our destination, the harbour of Port-au-Prince on St Domingue. The Caribbean seas were calm and the sky bright blue. The look-out called out from the crow's nest and pointed in the direction we were heading. In the distance before us was a bank of swirling mist. These were strange conditions for these waters. I had sailed in these seas many times and you could expect storms and high winds, even hurricanes, in some seasons but never this strange bank of fog. I remarked on this to the Captain, who seemed indifferent to it. His mind was focussed on getting to port and selling his cargo.
We sailed inexorably into the mist until very soon the ship was completely enveloped in an impenetrable fog. The visibility was practically non-existent. The look out was made to ring the warning bell to alert other shipping of our presence. The combination of the thick mist and the eerie rhythmic ring of the bell created a scary atmosphere. I could tell that the crew were uneasy. I know only too well from experience how superstitious sea-faring folk are. They look for signs of good or bad fortune in every small change of the weather.
Indeed, although a fog like this in these waters was unusual I would not normally be bothered by such conditions. But, there was something about this mist that was deeply unsettling. I shared the crew's unease and discomfort. We were now becalmed and could do no more than sit-out the situation until conditions changed. They lasted for the best part of a day until late afternoon when the mist lifted as quickly as it had descended.
Later that night I was in the Captain's cabin for some more entertainment. This time he had a male and female slave and was about to embark on some more perverse pleasure when there was a knock on the door. Dugarry was furious. He hated his perverse pleasures and entertainment being interrupted. One of the crew members had asked him to come down to the hold as the cargo was behaving very strangely. I went along with the captain. Even before we entered the hold I could hear strange sounds emanating from the depths of the ship.
When we entered the hold the slaves were acting as if in a trance, their eyes wide open, fixed and unblinking. From their mouths they were emitting either low ululating sounds with their tongues or high pitched screeches. The cacophony of noise was deafening and disturbing.
The Captain shouted to the crew to get them to shut up and ordered them to whip all of them, which they started doing. Dugarry grabbed a whip himself and laid into the slaves flaying bare backs and limbs indiscriminately. But, this punishment had no effect. Pierre, one of the crew and old sea dog, turned to Dugarry. "That'll do no good Cap'n, they are possessed. This noise will drive us all mad Cap'n, I've seen grown men try to pierce their ear drums because they can't stand this." The Captain told him to stop talking rubbish that he didn't believe in such things and that a more severe whipping will put an end to racket. "That'll do no good Cap'n. I've seen this before in other parts of the Indies. It's possession I tell you and there'll be nothing you can do without a witch doctor." Captain Dugarry marched off in a furious temper.
Le Saphir, 13th May 1785
It was mid-afternoon on the following day and the strange guttural calls and wails had continued unabated all through the night and into the day. The crew were agitated. There was hardly anywhere on the ship you could escape the other worldly noises from the slaves and no amount of hitting or whipping would stop them. I could see the east coast of Hispaniola through my eye-glass and told the Captain that we should be in Port-au-Prince in two days. Dugarry said we would have to put up with the noise until then and try to solve the problem there. "I'm tempted to throw the whole fucking lot overboard in their chains but they are worth too much to me alive now," he said.
Port-au-Prince, 15th May 1785
The ship landed at the harbour of Port-au-Prince on the French colony of St Domingue at 2.00pm. It was not a moment too soon. The crew were being driven mad with constant ululating sounds being made by the slave's tongues. One of the worse jobs was putting them in the cast iron collars and cuffs whilst they were in this state. The Captain wouldn't normally empty his cargo so quickly from the hold but none of the crew would stay on board with them. They were marched off the ship and onto the quay side of the harbour. Captain Dugarry was taking them to the slave fortress and market on the harbour side to prepare them for sale.