The Price of Doing Business
Joseph Hawkins, American Officer on a Slave Ship

Oral History

On the Water - Life at Sea - Hawkins

Image of Joseph Hawkins: Reproduced from A History of a Voyage to the Coast of Africa..., 1797 (detail)

Listen to Joseph Hawkins

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Historical Context

From the early days of the American colonies, forced labor and slavery grew to become a central part of colonial economic and labor systems. The slave trade was a vast system involving many types of people. As you listen to this first-person narrative and review the supporting primary sources, think about how learning the story of this man who served as the cargo superintendent (or supercargo) on a slave ship might build a better understanding of the American slave trade in the 18th century.


These questions are based on the accompanying primary sources. They are designed to help you practice working with historical documents. Some of these documents have been edited, but all are authentic. As you analyze the documents, take into account the source of each document and any point of view that may be presented in the document.

PDF icon Download the student worksheet for Joseph Hawkins.


  1. Citing evidence from the words of Mr. Hawkins and one supporting primary source, do you think he believed there was a danger of the slaves resisting or escaping?
  2. According to Mr. Hawkins' account and referring to at least one supporting primary source, state another danger faced by all travelers aboard the ship.
  3. Looking at the cover of Mr. Hawkins story and reviewing the transcript of his first-person account, what happened to him during this particular journey that ended his career?

Supporting Primary Sources

Slave Ship

This model shows a typical ship in the early 1700s on the Middle Passage. To preserve their profits, captains and sailors tried to limit the deaths of slaves from disease, suicide, and revolts. In the grisly arithmetic of the slave trade, captains usually chose between two options: pack in as many slaves as possible and hope that most survive, or put fewer aboard, improve the conditions between decks, and hope to lose fewer to disease.

Resistance and Revolt

Enslaved people on the Middle Passage were not simply passive captives. Some refused to eat and had to be fed against their will. Others threw themselves overboard rather than submit to slavery. This image shows a rare revolt aboard a slave ship. The ship's officers are crowded behind the barricade while the captives fill the deck, some diving into the sea.

Plate, from Carl Bernhard Wadstrom's An Essay on Colonization: Particularly Applied to the Western Coast of Africa, 1794–1795

Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia

Ship's Medicine Chest, 1800s

Starting in 1790, American merchant ships larger than 150 tons and with more than 10 crew members were required to have medicine chests. The chests came with instructions, and the captain or first mate usually administered the medicines. This well-traveled example has labels from Baltimore, Maryland; Mamaroneck, New York; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Joseph Hawkins, 1797

The Author Relating the History of His Travels to a Friend. Reproduced from A History of a Voyage to the Coast of Africa.

Additional Primary & Secondary Sources



  • Ebo—the English word Hawkins used to refer to the Igbo people (West Africa)
  • Embarkation—to put or go on board a ship or other vehicle
  • Shallop—a small open boat propelled by oars or sails and used chiefly in shallow waters
  • Fetter—a restraint device, usually shackles or chains for the feet
  • Dysentery—a disease characterized by severe diarrhea with passage of mucus and blood and usually caused by infection