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Captain James Fraser

Return to Slave ships and Captains

The Society for Affecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed by twelve men in London in May 1787 and quickly created three effective tools with which to campaign.

By the end of the year Josiah Wedgewood had produced the Society’s pottery medallion, showing a kneeling slave in chains with the simple question: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ [left].

In November 1788 the Plymouth branch of the Society published William Elford’s engraving of a slave ship, showing Africans packed side by side between its decks [right].

And, in December of the same year, the Society published Alexander Falconbridge’s Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa.

The medallion would soon be seen on objects ranging from plates to brooches, and the words became the campaign slogan of abolitionists on Britain and North America; the print of the slave ship hung in houses through the country; and Falconbridge’s work became ‘the most widely read and graphic account of the physical cruelties of the [slave] trade’ [Simon Schama, Rough Crossings (London: BBC Books, 20015), p215].

Falconbridge, before being converted to the abolitionist cause, had sailed as a ship’s surgeon on four slaving voyages to Africa and described, among other abuses, the cramped, insanitary conditions between the decks; poor food and shortage of water; Africans being burned with hot coals held to their lips if they refused to eat; rape of women; deaths from heat and suffocation; dead and living slaves shackled together; and suicides by hanging or drowning. He named no names in his Account but his evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1790, together with information gathered in the Voyages: Transatlantic Slave-trade Database, identifies his service as being on the ships Tartar [1782], Emilia [1783-84], Alexander [1785-86], and, again, Emilia [1786-87]. John McTaggart was master of the Alexander and both the Tartar and the Emilia were captained by James Fraser.

James Fraser was a resident of Bristol but his family roots were in the parish of Kiltarlity, near Inverness. Scottish captains were uncommon on Bristol slave-ships, although perhaps a fifth of the Liverpool slavers were commanded by Scots, but Fraser had family connections in the city. He was a cousin of the prosperous merchant and slave-trader, Evan Baillie, the third of three brothers from Dochfour (Inverness-shire) who were all making money from the slave trade and from their plantations in the Caribbean. It was Evan, and another Bristol merchant Walter Jacks, who built the Emilia in 1782, naming it after Evan’s mother, Emelia Fraser of Reelig.

And so, surprisingly, the ‘most widely read and graphic account of the cruelties of the [slave] trade' — and, because it was by an eye-witness and participant, the most influential account — was largely based on voyages under a Highland sea captain.

Like Falconbridge, James Fraser gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee in 1790 — but in support of the slave trade. By this date he already had twenty years experience on slave ships. He had served as second mate and chief mate, on the Amelia [1769] and Polly [1772], and then as master of five different slave ships, which made ten voyages from Africa to the Americas between 1773 and 1789. An eleventh voyage failed when his ship, the Tartar, was captured by the French before leaving the African coast. Between 1790 and his death in 1798 he made a further three voyages, two on the Hector and finally on the Pilgrim. He embarked a total of 5,513 captured Africans and disembarked  4,973. 540 African men, women and children died under Fraser’s command and he delivered his remaining human cargos to South Carolina, Jamaica, Dominica, Grenada, Tortola, St Thomas, St Kitts, St Vincent, and Demerara.

Evidence from Fraser and Falconbridge

While Fraser claimed that that Africans were enslaved according to the laws of their own country and then sold in a fair manner, by brokers on the coast, to captains such as himself, Falconbridge was clear that they were enslaved as a result of kidnapping and crime. When questioned, he observed that ‘Captain Fraser, or any other captain that goes for Slaves, seldom trouble themselves how they were caught or made Slaves’.

Fraser told the Committee,’It is the custom with the Africans to lay close together, in such a manner that one does not breath into the other’s face — this is also a very common custom among the Slaves on board the ships.’ Falconbridge described them as having less space than in a coffin.

Falconbridge, in his Account, had written: ‘I have seen coals of fire, glowing hot, placed on a shovel, and placed so near their lips, as to scorch and burn them. And this has been accompanied with threats, of forcing them to swallow the coals, if they end longer persisted in refusing to eat.’ When examined Fraser denied that he had ever ‘held hot coals to a negro, threatening to force him to swallow them, if he persisted in refusing to eat’ but being pressed conceded:

. . . . Being sick in my cabin, the chief mate and surgeon, at different times informed me, that there was a man upon the main deck, that would neither eat, drink, or speak — I desired them to use every means in their power to persuade him to speak, and assign reasons for his silence — when I was informed he still remained obstinate, and not knowing whether it was sulkiness or insanity, I ordered the chief mate, or surgeon, or both, to present him with a piece of fire in one hand and a piece of yam in the other, and to let me know what effect it had on him — it was reported to me that he took the yam and eat it, and threw the fire overboard.

Fraser believed he had only punished slaves reluctantly and then only because of their ‘peevishness, perverseness, and obstinacy' is refusing help.

James Fraser and Demerara

When he made his will in 1797, James Fraser was owed £2,200 by plantation Dochfour in Demerara and was also to inherit his late brother's share in the plantation. Dochfour was a 500-acre cotton plantation on the west sea-coast of Demerara, owned in 1798 by James Fraser jnr of Belladrum (with whom Captain James Fraser's brother must have been in partnership).

Fraser's last voyage was as master of the Pilgrim, which embarked 402 captured Africans on the Gold Coast and disembarked 368 in Demerara in May 1798.

Who was James Fraser?

In his will [PROB 11 Piece 1314: Walpole, Quire Numbers 662-710] Fraser granted legacies which amounted to about £9,000. These included legacies to a number of cousins: Edward Satchwell Fraser of Reelig; Evan Baillie and the children of his deceased brother James, all of Dochfour; Katharine Chisholm [nee Baillie, of Dochfour]; and Isabella Robinson.

For family tree see James Fraser on Ancestry (subscription required) but note that this does not include the unidentified link to the Fraser of Reelig and Baillie of Dochfour families.

Duncan Warrand, Some Fraser Pedigrees (Inverness: Carruthers, 1934) gives his father as Alexander Fraser and his mother as Marjory; and also identifies his nephew as Alexander Fraser, later of Ballindoun. He also, according to Warrand, had a brother Alexander, who may have been the part-owner of plantation Dochfour.