Grandpa Kewl

Book Review – Memoirs of a Slave Trader, Theodore Canot

I have not a clue where I found this book but it’s just the kind of book I love to read –  real life by a real person with all the real details, unpalatable as that might be, associated with life. No ugly detail left out….and this one has a lot of ugly details.



That book cover illustrates how the slaves were places in the lowest levels of the boat that they were shipped on…..all chained together with no place to relieve themselves. It is estimated that at least 30% of them died on the journey.

I read this book a few years back and stumbled onto it yesterday in my library. It is worth adding to the list here for a variety of reasons.  It is exactly as the title states – the life history of a slave trader Theodore Canot who was born in 1807 and who became an expert in the trade.

The introduction contains this about him: “He went to sea before his twelfth birthday, as an apprentice, and quickly gained promotion, but after an involuntary association with wrecker-pirates on the Keys of Cuba, he drifted into the African traffic. In 1826 he first sighted the West Coast, ‘full of woods and great rocks hard about the shore and the billows beating so sore that the sea brake upon the shore as white as snow and the water mounted so high that a man could easily discern it four leagues off’. So an earlier sailor described it. In compensation he tells of the strange lives of the slavers with whom he decided to work, on the Pongo River, which has since become part of the Sierra Leone Protectorate.”

For anyone who wants to cut thru the myths and politically motivated descriptions of the times, who wants the unvarnished truth, as repulsive as it is at times, of this era in history, this is an invaluable source. In addition to the personal experiences related to the trade, the book is an exceptional resource for an understanding of living conditions at the time.  Be aware tho…this is a pretty sordid time in history and the tales of cruelty and abuse can sometimes be hard to read. This is mankind at its worst.

It should be added…that mankind at its best can be seen in the efforts of the British to put an end to the slave traffic, something we forget. God Save the King!

Some of the content well worth repeating:

p 105 – “It would be a task of many pages if I attempted to give a full account of the origin and causes of slavery in Africa. As a national institution, it seems to have existed always. Africans have been bondsmen everywhere: and the oldest monuments bear their images linked with menial toils and absolute servitude. Still I have no hesitation in saying that three-fourths of the salves sent abroad (italics in the original) from Africa are the fruits of native wars, fomented by the avarice and temptation of our own race. I cannot exculpate any commercial nation from this sweeping censure. We stimulate the negro’s passion by the introduction of wants and fancies never dreamed of by the simple native, while slavery was an institution of domestic need and comfort alone. But what was once a luxury, has now ripened into an absolute necessity; so that Man, in truth, has become the coin of Africa and the legal tender of a brutal trade.”

p 106 – speaking of the consequences associated with the things offered to the native population from the rest of the world: “It is the temptation of these things, I repeat, that feeds the slave-making wars of Africa, and forms the basis of those admirable bills of exchange.” He had previously listed a variety of items offered to the native leaders, such as muskets, cottons, brandy and “tinsel gewgaws”.

p 108 – A note about the discover of the wonders of coffee…:)

In a real sense, this is a book akin to the Travels of Marco Polo…full of interesting details of the day-to-day life, trials and even joys of a trader in Africa…along with a few notes about the hypocrisy of those who preached against the trade yet benefitted materially from it.

Rather than trying to cull thru the book and write out a detailed history of the author, I swiped this biography from an internet site…apologies to all…

“Theodore Canot, whose real name was Theophile Conneau, was born at Alessandria, Italy, the second son of an Italian mother and a French father who was a paymaster in Napoleon’s army. Theodore went to sea in 1819 as cabin boy on an American ship which took him to Salem, where he learned navigation. After a series of West Indian adventures he joined the slave ship Aerostatica at Havana in 1826 and “plunged accidentally,” as he put it, into the slave trade at age 22. Henceforward Canot— ambitious and intelligent, daring and unscrupulous, with “no religion, many vices, and few weaknesses”—became one of the more famous, though not the most successful, slavers of the 19th century.

Canot’s story is filled with the lurid details and violent personalities of the new era of slave trading after the Napoleonic Wars, stimulated by Europe’s revived demand for tropical produce, the expansion of slave systems in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States, and the enormous profits to be gained in the face of Britain’s efforts to blockade the seas. The small operators of earlier centuries were now eclipsed by heavily capitalized “merchant princes” called mongos, established in huge depots or strongholds on the West African coast, able to embark a thousand and more slaves at a time.

Canot served these operations as clerk, agent, supercargo, and shipowner, seeking repeatedly to branch out on his own. Beginning on the Guinea coast as clerk for “Mongo John” Ormond at the Rio Pongo, he tried to succeed Ormond on the latter’s suicide in 1828 but was burned out by hostile Africans. With a condemned schooner from Sierra Leone, Canot hijacked a cargo of slaves and took them to Cuba. After a series of successful voyages he was seized by the French and imprisoned at Brest. Pardoned by King Louis Philippe, he returned to Africa and joined Don Pedro Blanco, the Spanish nobleman and “prince of slavers,” at the Gallinas River between Sierra Leone and Liberia.

After Don Pedro’s retirement to Havana as a millionaire in 1839, Canot’s fortunes declined. He tried legitimate enterprise for a time as a planter at Cape Mount in Liberia but failed and returned to slaving. Burned out of Cape Mount by the British, he was captured on a slaving voyage in 1847. Taken to New York for trial, he skipped bail and fled to Brazil, where the great coastal raid by Commodore Foote destroyed Canot’s last ship in 1850.

Canot next appeared down but not out in the saloons of Baltimore in 1853, where he parlayed his acquaintance with the philanthropist James Hall of the African Colonization Society, for whom he had done favors when a planter at Cape Mount, into a second chance. Canot then recovered his fortunes with an unlikely marriage to socially prominent Eliza McKinley of Philadelphia and with the help of his brother, who had become personal physician to Napoleon III, pursued a career in the French colonial service as collector of Nouméa in New Caledonia, until he returned to Paris and died in 1860.”

Source for this:



Share this on

1 thought on “Book Review – Memoirs of a Slave Trader, Theodore Canot”

  1. Pingback: Starting | Grandpakewl

Comments are closed.