Captain John Matthews Papers
Held at: Princeton University Library: Manuscripts Division [Contact Us]
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Princeton University Library: Manuscripts Division. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
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John Matthews (d. 1798) was an officer in the British Royal Navy who was employed in the transatlantic slave trade in Sierra Leone in the late 18th century. Originally from the English port city of Chester, Matthews became a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy and saw active duty against French naval forces in the West Indies during and immediately after the American Revolution. He wrote and illustrated two accounts of these tours, titled The Maritime Campaign of 1778: A Collection of All the Papers Relative to the Operations of the English and French Fleets… (1779) and Twenty-one Plans: with Explanations of Different Actions in the West Indies during the Late War (1784).
Matthews left the Royal Navy in the 1780s to work as an agent for a London-based slave merchant and spent the years from 1785 to 1787 in Africa, primarily in and near Sierra Leone. During his employment in West Africa, Matthews made a systematic attempt to observe and explain the relationships between coastal kingdoms and the origins of the enslaved Africans who were sold to European traders. In 1788, Matthews published A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone on the Coast of Africa: Containing an Account of the Trade and Productions of the Country and of the Civil and Religious Customs and Manners of the People, which later appeared in a revised edition (1791) and a French translation by Nicolas-François de Bellart (1797). In the book, Matthews used the observations he made during his travels to construct an argument against the abolition of the slave trade. Matthews attributed the existence of the slave trade to ongoing religious wars and the practice of domestic slavery within Africa, rejecting the premise that European and American demand for enslaved Africans contributed significantly to the trade. He also made pro-slavery arguments based on theories about overpopulation and slavery as a "moral" alternative to death as a punishment for crimes.
At the time, the transatlantic commerce in enslaved Africans was at its peak, though reformers were working towards its abolition, and the British government had begun resettling formerly enslaved Africans in a colonized Sierra Leone. Matthews's published writings and testimonies about West Africa were used by British politicians to justify anti-abolitionist arguments, as well as the colonization of Sierra Leone. During British parliamentary investigations into the transatlantic slave trade in 1788 and 1789, Matthews was part of a Liverpool-based delegation, headed by John Tarleton, to provide evidence before a committee, and his comments were later cited in multiple reports.
Matthews returned to the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in the early 1790s. From May through August 1793, he was the captain of the HMS Vulcan and commanded the ship's voyage from England to Toulon, France. At the beginning of the Siege of Toulon, he was reassigned to command the HMS Courageux. By 1797, Matthews was back on the West African coast as captain of the HMS Maidstone, a British patrol ship that later crossed the Atlantic Ocean to police trade in the Caribbean.
Matthews was married to Anna Helena Matthews (d. 1793) and seems to have died a relatively affluent man, leaving 2250 pounds to his heirs.
Consists of journals, illustrations, and documents of Captain John Matthews (d. 1798), a British naval officer involved in the transatlantic commerce in enslaved Africans in Sierra Leone in the 1780s and 1790s. Four detailed journals document Matthews's employment as an agent for the African Company of Merchants between 1785 and 1787; as captain of the HMS Vulcan and the HMS Courageux in the Mediterranean Sea during the 1793 campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars; and as captain of the HMS Maidstone, a British patrol ship monitoring trade in Sierra Leone and the Caribbean in 1797 and 1798. Also present are watercolor illustrations of colonial forts along the West African coast and several personal and family documents of John Matthews, including an anti-abolitionist deposition Matthews gave regarding the slave trade.
The majority of the collection, including three of the journals, pertains to Matthews's involvement in the slave trade in Sierra Leone and the Windward Coast region of West Africa, first as an agent of London-based slave merchants, Samuel Hartley and Company and the African Company of Merchants, and later, as an agent of the British government policing transatlantic commerce. The region where Matthews was active is also sometimes referred to as the Grain Coast or Rice Coast and includes present-day Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire, as well as Sierra Leone. Enslaved Africans from these regions were one of the largest captive groups imported into South Carolina and Georgia during the 18th century. Their descendents include some of the Gullah people of the Lowcountry region of those states.
The two earliest journals cover the same time period (1785-1787) and activities Matthews describes in his book, A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone, on the Coast of Africa; Containing an Account of the Trade and Productions of the Country, and of the Civil and Religious Customs and Manners of the People... (London, 1788). These journals, which provide additional information not published in Matthews's book, document Matthews's travels inland and along the coast of Sierra Leone, his negotiations with African kings and fellow slave traders, his work supplying ships and stocking them with captive Africans, and the resistance of those captured to their enslavement and transport. Also included are retained copies of several letters and agreements related to the trade. Another journal from 1797 and 1798 records Matthews's official duties as captain of the HMS Maidstone in both West Africa and the Caribbean, as well as his struggles with his crew's discipline, drunkenness, and poor health on board the ship; his visits to leading figures in coastal settlements, and his observations and theories about African communities, politics, law, and cultural practices.
Matthews's journals emphasize the Mande-speaking peoples of West Africa, whom he refers to as "Mandingoes," the practice of domestic slavery within Africa, religious wars between Muslim and non-Muslim kingdoms, and his musings on the "disposition" and "nature" of African peoples. Though Matthews makes claims about African communities living in the interior of the continent, he also notes that he only spoke the language of the coastal Africans. His observations are therefore based on his own interpretations of what he witnessed, as well as the perspectives of coastal Africans about other African communities living further inland. In addition to the frequent sketches of coastlines within the journals, there are eight watercolor paintings depicting colonial forts and vessels along the coast of West Africa and the Sierra Leone River, four of which are early sketches for engravings that appeared in the second edition of Matthews's book. Also of note is a manuscript transcription of a testimony Matthews gave on Sierra Leone during British parliamentary debates over the abolishment of the slave trade in the late 1780s.
To a lesser extent, the collection also documents Matthews's participation in the Mediterranean fleet of British Admiral Samuel Hood (1724–1816) during the French Revolutionary Wars. One journal, with entries spanning from May through September 1793, records his activities as the captain of the HMS Vulcan and the HMS Courageux leading up to and during the early stages of the Siege of Toulon (1793). The journal contains orders he received, including his reassignment, as well as his observations and sketches of the various Mediterranean coastlines he passed on his way to Toulon.
Other documents include Matthews's admission as a freeman of Liverpool, his appointment as captain of the HMS Maidstone, and a medical license belonging to a descendent.
Arranged by type of material, then chronologically.
Sources consulted in the creation of this finding aid include: Matthews, J. A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone, on the coast of Africa; Containing an Account of the Trade and Productions of the Country, and of the Civil and Religious Customs and Manners of the People; in a Series of Letters to a Friend in England. By John Matthews ... during his Residence in that Country in the Years 1785, 1786, and 1787. With an Additional Letter on the Subject of the African Slave Trade. Also, a Chart of Part of the Coast of Africa, from Cape St. Ann, to the River Rionoonas; with a View of the Island Bananas. London, Printed for B. White and Son, and J. Sewell, 1788. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044043321512 Sanderson, F. E. "Liverpool and the Slave Trade: A Guide to Sources." Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, CXXIV (1973). Retrieved from http://www.hslc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/124-8-Sanderson.pdf Schwarz, S. "'A Just and Honourable Commerce': Abolitionist Experimentation in Sierra Leone in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries." African Economic History, 45.1 (2017). Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/662699
Purchase, 2017 (AM 2018-14).
This collection was processed by Kelly Bolding in August 2017. Finding aid written by Kelly Bolding in August 2017.
No materials were separated during 2017 processing.
- Ship captains -- 18th century -- Sources
- Slave trade -- Africa, West -- History -- 18th century -- Sources
- Slave traders -- Africa -- 18th century -- Sources
- Slavery -- Africa -- History -- 18th century -- Sources
- Transatlantic voyages -- 18th century -- Sources
- Manuscripts Division
- Finding Aid Author
- Kelly Bolding
- Finding Aid Date
- Access Restrictions
Open for research.
- Use Restrictions
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. No further photoduplication of copies of material in the collection can be made when Princeton University Library does not own the original. Inquiries regarding publishing material from the collection should be directed to RBSC Public Services staff through the Ask Us! form. The library has no information on the status of literary rights in the collection and researchers are responsible for determining any questions of copyright.
Consists of a 35-page journal detailing Matthews's activities while employed in the slave trade in Sierra Leone, as an agent of Samuel Hartley and Company, a London-based merchant. Entries document Matthews's extensive travel in the region, especially to the Banana Islands and inland upriver from Sherbro Island on the Deong (Jong) River; the purchase of captured Africans and supplies; and negotiations with other slavers and regional rulers involved in the trade. Matthews gives particular detail to the effect of local wars on commerce and his involvement in negotiating peace between two local kingdoms. Another entry includes "Directions for going up to York Island from Jenkins in the River Sherbro." Written from the back of the journal are an additional four pages containing retained draft copies of five letters Matthews wrote from Deong and York Island, Sierra Leone, between April 20th and 25th, 1787. The letters, which pertain largely to business matters and disputes over business practices, are addressed to C. Harrison; J. Cleveland; George Oliver and John Jenkins; and Thomas Sewell (2 letters). There are also several loose documents relating to Matthews's journey up the Deong River. These include multiple drafts of an 1787 agreement between John Matthews and his partner William Harrison, as agents of Samuel Hartley and Company; the Kings of Sherbro; and George Oliver and John Jenkins, traders and residents of the River Deong. The agreement regards compensation, claims of extortion, and prohibitions against capturing free people who had not committed a crime. There is also a document titled, "Invoice of Sundrys supplied on board the Pilgrim."Physical Description
Consists of an 80-page journal documenting Matthews's work while employed by the African Company of Merchants on the coast of West Africa, primarily in Sierra Leone. The entries detail his work stocking ships with captured Africans and preparing ships for the transatlantic passage to the Americas. His entries include information on the weather; the arrival and departure of various ships from the dock; difficulties in keeping provisions, particularly rice, from spoiling or being eaten by rats and insects; trading for goods with Portuguese and French ships; and the resistance of captive Africans to their capture and enslavement. Locations mentioned include the Gambia River, Gambia Island, Cockle Bay, the Banana Islands, Bance Island (Bunce Island), and Îles de Los. Vessels mentioned include boats named Hazard, Racehorse, Nelly, United Sisters, Speedwell, Grampus, Walker's Pinnance, and Lyon. Later entries occasionally include inventory lists of Africans forced onto ships, particularly the Lyon.Physical Description
Consists of a 68-page journal describing Matthews's activities during the French Revolutionary Wars as captain of the HMS Vulcan, a British fireship engaged in defending Toulon, France, prior to the Siege of Toulon, and later, on the HMS Courageux. The journal begins with Matthews's appointment as captain of the HMS Vulcan on May 3rd, 1793. Shortly thereafter, on May 23rd, the ship weighs anchor as part of the Mediterranean Fleet commanded by English Admiral Samuel Hood. Matthews's journal entries provide a detailed account of the ship's passage through the Mediterranean Sea, with a focus on logging weather and navigational information. He also includes observations on the geographical features of various coastlines he passed, as well as notes taken during time spent ashore in Gibraltar and Genoa, where he visited the Rock of Gibraltar and purchased sheep. His entry on August 29th describes anchoring at Toulon in order to defend the city against an anticipated attack by an army from Marseilles. One day later, on August 30th, Matthews is reassigned to the HMS Courageux, while Captain Charles Hare succeeds him as captain of the HMS Vulcan. Matthews's entries from August 31st through September 15th describe his service and military orders he received while in command of the HMS Courageux. The back of the journal includes charts titled, "Order of Battle of sailing of the Fleet under the Command of the Right Honorable Lord Hood coming out from England to Gibraltar," "Order of Battle on leaving Gibraltar. June 27th 1793," and "Order of Sailing in three squadrons." There are also six ink and wash sketches of coastal horizons along the Mediterranean, including Ibiza (Eivissa), Alicante, and St. Georges Cape, on the coast of Valencia, Spain; Cape St. Martin (Cap Martin), France; and Cape St. Vincent (Cabo de São Vicente), Portugal.Physical Description
Consists of a 185-page journal detailing Matthews's employment as captain of the HMS Maidstone, a British patrol ship stationed off the coast of West Africa, and later, in the Caribbean. The journal begins with the departure of the HMS Maidstone from the warship base at the Downs, England, in January 1797, on orders to accompany ships from the African Company of Merchants to Sierra Leone. Matthews documents the ship's passage along the coasts of Cape Finisterre (Cabo Fisterra), Spain; Lisbon, Porto Santo Island, and Madeira, Portugal; and Cabo Blanco (Ras Nouadhibou); before arriving at Sierra Leone on February 17th, 1797. Entries from this period include lengthy observations on the geological features and culture of Madeira and other islands and coastal regions he passed, along with detailed monthly meteorological charts for January through May 1797. The journal records Matthews's official duties in West Africa and the Caribbean, which involved policing ships engaged in the slave trade. These included American, Dutch, and Portuguese ships, many of which employed British deserters. Matthews describes searching for French privateers; his poor relationship with his own officers, as demonstrated by his constant complaints regarding their drunkenness and insubordination; and struggles with the spread of disease, including yellow fever, aboard the ship.
While stationed in Africa, Matthews also records his observations about Africans and others living in African coastal settlements in Sierra Leone and Ghana. He describes his visits to prominent local figures, such as "the Reverend Mr Quaqua (the black Clergyman at Cape Coast Castle)," as well as a feast he attended, including detailed descriptions of dances and songs, as well as ceremonial objects and clothing. Elsewhere he records the proceedings of a ritual trial for adultery, involving the use of an object he refers to as a "fetish." Written from the back of the journal is a long narrative dedicated to Matthews's ethnographic observations and perceptions about the African communities he encountered. This portion of the journal is titled, "Detached Observations on the Manners and Customs of the Natives of Cape Gorse, Africa," likely referring to "Cape Corse" (Cape Coast Castle) in Ghana, and contains subsections labeled, "Of the Craba & Acra" (which describes the roles of enslaved men and women), "Suicide," "of the punishment of extravagance in youth," "Veneration of the Dead," "Mode of ruining a Man by costs of Suit," "Gaming," and "Natural History," followed by three ink sketches of an African harbor. There are also entries titled, "Notices, respecting the Island of Princes" and "General Observations...for running down the Coast of Africa, from Sierra-leone to Cape Palmas and along the Gold Coast to Acra."
At the end of June 1797, Matthews receives orders from Rear Admiral Henry Harvey to sail for Jamaica, passing by St. Lucia and Martinique on the way. The ship crosses the Atlantic Ocean, arriving in the Caribbean in August 1797. While stationed there, Matthews describes detaining and inspecting the cargo of ships near Jamaica, Cuba, Saint-Domingue (Haiti), and Cape Canaveral, Florida, including a number of American schooners from New York. Matthews also describes his inland travels in the Caribbean, including a visit to the tombstone of Lewis Galdy (1659-1739) in Port Royal, Jamaica, and a meeting with George Poyntz Ricketts, Governor of Barbados. He also makes note of the total lunar eclipse on December 4th, 1797.Physical Description
Early watercolor sketches for four of the illustrations that later appeared as engravings in the second edition of John Matthews's book, A Voyage to the River Sierra-Leone, on the Coast of Africa; Containing an Account of the Trade and Productions of the Country, and of the Civil and Religious Customs and Manners of the People (London, 1791). The design for three of the illustrations is attributed to "Lieut. J.M." (likely John Matthews), and a fourth to "Lieut. J. Larcom." Most are also signed "William Porter" on the opposite edge. The watercolors are painted over with lacquer, and there are notations in the margins.
A digital copy of the second edition of Matthews's book can be found online here.Physical Description
Includes four watercolor paintings of West African coastal views, each 190 x 270mm in size. Three of the illustrations are captioned and signed by M.C. Watts. A fourth illustration is uncaptioned and unsigned, though it appears to be part of the same series.Physical Description
Uncaptioned and unsigned.Physical Description
Consists of a four-page manuscript document containing John Matthews's deposition about his experience working in the slave trade on the coastal region of West Africa he refers to as the Windward Coast. This third-person restatement of Matthews's verbal testimony was printed in the "Reports of the Lords of the Committee of Council appointed for the consideration of all matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations; submitting ... the evidence and information they have collected in consequence of His Majesty's Order in Council, dated the 11th of February, 1788, concerning the present state of the Trade to Africa, and particularly the Trade in Slaves, etc." The draft included here is missing the last page.
A digital copy of the report in which Matthews's deposition was published is available online here.Physical Description
Document regarding the medical education of a relative of John Matthews (d. 1798), also named John Matthews (b. 1813). His parents were John Berggruen Matthews and Anne Matthews of the Parish of St. George's, Bloomsbury, in London.Physical Description