Matthew Sheldon, Head of the Curatorial Department at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, talks about a scrimshaw belonging to an African sailor who helped the Royal Navy of the 1820s fight the transatlantic slave trade
A scrimshaw would usually be a carving in whalebone or walrus ivory and were often very intricate and highly designed decorative pieces. This one is rather different because it’s not whale or walrus, but ivory from a baby elephant collected in West Africa and it has quite an amazing story to tell.
What’s immediately unusual is the inscription: ‘Jim Freeman, Krouman HMS Sybille Commdr Collier 1827’ and ‘Jim Freeman Head Krouman, Owen Glendower Sir Roberts Mends Commdr 1823’.
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A Krouman was actually part of the Krou tribe who lived in Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa. So they are black Africans in the Navy – in the 1820s – fighting the slave trade.
Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and started sending ships to Africa in force shortly after the Napoleonic Wars. A squadron of ships would be covering 3,000 miles of African coast, navigating huge rivers, treacherous waters, sandbanks, tides and heavy surf. So they needed to recruit local people who could work in those environments to work the ship’s boats, go ashore, get water, navigate the rivers, help them do interpreting, all that kind of thing.
They would enlist and pay Africans who were literally taking part in the fight against slavery. Jim Freeman was one of them.
Obviously you’re not going to get a member of the Krou tribe called Jim Freeman, it’s just the way the Navy had of recording people in the ship’s muster lists – so they would have given him the name. I don’t think he was necessarily a freed slave, by calling him Freeman the Navy are making that distinction between the people they are trying to release and the people they are employing to work on board.
He had quite a high status. On HMS Sybille there would be about 245 officers and men and you would have had about 40 Africans serving on board. Jim Freeman would have been a Petty Officer and paid quite a high daily rate.
He probably had responsibility for organising the other Kroumen on board and we also know he was rated as a Quartermaster, which meant he helped with steering and navigation. He actually served for about four years.
It’s an interesting counter to what people actually think. I think it’s very powerful that this is a kind of record of somebody for usually no record exists. We get lots of family items from Britain but we rarely get items that have come from West Africa so it’s really interesting.
“An amazing picture of what Jim Freeman’s ship was doing and the kind of conditions people were suffering”
As scrimshaws go it’s fairly basic and as you can see it has these different false starts. He starts with a j and also in the middle – I suspect he actually did make it. But even if he didn’t, and someone made it for him, it shows his relationship with the other crew on board who were recruited in Britain. Here’s a traditional craft that he was either taking on or he wanted somebody to make him a souvenir of.
We couldn’t have picked a better ship for Jim Freeman to have served on than the Owen Glendower because we have here in the archive two amazing diaries kept by CH Binstead, a nineteen-year-old, fresh-faced son of the aristocracy, who was a midshipman serving on the ship at the same time.
The diaries give a really amazing picture of what Jim Freeman’s ship was doing and the kind of conditions people were suffering.
Binstead talks a lot about the people he’s working with and the pretty hairy things they do. Leaving the ship offshore, getting in the ship’s boats and rowing 100-150 miles up these rivers to look for vessels that have gone up to get slaves; looking for settlements where slaves are being prepared to be put on board ship and all the difficulties they have of language and the quite severe scrapes they get into. There are fatalities among the ship’s crew from disease – it’s really dramatic.
To be able to place Jim Freeman on board at that time as well, you couldn’t get much better.
Matthew Sheldon was speaking to Richard Moss
National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
The National Museum of the Royal Navy, in Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard, is one of Britain’s oldest maritime museums. The Museum’s mission is to preserve and present the history of the 'Fleet' - the ships and the men and women who manned them. The National Museum of the Royal Navy is…