Torn Pages

I stumbled upon this one morning while looking through the Jarvis-Robinson Family Papers in the Beinecke library at Yale. It’s the first page of a journal started by Colt (or Coult, as he spelled his name then) when he was 18 and traveling the country on his nitrous oxide tour.

I can’t tell you how much time I put into deciphering this page and its flip side (you can see the ink bleeding through). The pages that followed were torn out-- by Colt? by someone else?-- and Colt misspelled the name of the vessel he sailed on (it was the Ariel, not the Aeral), so I had some trouble identifying it.

The Ariel turns out to have been a slave ship owned and operated by the largest domestic slave trading firm in the country at the time, Franklin & Armfield. Colt sailed on the Ariel from Norfolk to Alexandria, where the firm was headquartered, then south to New Orleans. In the brig's hold were more than a hundred slaves.

A few weeks after finding Colt’s journal, I came upon this in the online archives of Harvard’s Houghton Library. It’s a bill of lading for 17 young slaves who sailed with Colt on the Ariel. This ragged-edge document cuts right to the tragic reality of the slave trade. Most of these boys and girls were headed for harsh fates in the deep South, much worse than anything they'd experienced in Virginia. None were likely to see their families again.

While these two images solve some questions about Colt’s travels, they generate so many others. What was Colt’s role on the Ariel? Was he a paying passenger or crew? What was his attitude toward the slaves in the hold under the deck?

What did he write on those torn out pages?


© 2020 Jim Rasenberger