- Collection Overview
- Collection Description & Creator Information
- Access & Use
- Collection History
- Find Related Materials
- Matthews, John, lieutenant in the Royal Navy
- Captain John Matthews Papers
- Manuscripts Division
- Permanent URL:
- 1785-1842 (mostly 1785-1797)
- 3 boxes and 3.2 linear feet
- Storage Note:
- Firestone Library (scahsvm): Box 1-3
Consists of papers 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.
Collection Description & Creator Information
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.
- Collection Creator Biography:
Matthews, John, lieutenant in the Royal Navy
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.
Purchase, 2017 (AM 2018-14).
No materials were separated during 2017 processing.
- Processing Information
This collection was processed by Kelly Bolding in August 2017. Finding aid written by Kelly Bolding in August 2017.
Access & Use
- Conditions Governing Access
Open for research.
- Conditions Governing Use
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.
- Credit this material:
Captain John Matthews Papers; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library
- Permanent URL:
- Firestone LibraryOne Washington RoadPrinceton, NJ 08544, USA(609) 258-3184
- Storage Note:
- Firestone Library (scahsvm): Box 1-3
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
- Subject Terms:
- 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.
- Genre Terms:
- Journals (accounts) -- 18th century.
Manuscripts -- 18th century
Ships' logs -- 18th century.
Watercolors (paintings) -- 18th century.
- Great Britain. Royal Navy
Matthews, John, lieutenant in the Royal Navy
- Africa, West -- Description and travel -- 18th century -- Sources.
Caribbean Area -- Commerce -- 18th century -- Sources.
Mediterranean Region -- Description and travel -- 18th century -- Sources.
Sierra Leone -- History -- 18th century -- Sources.
Toulon (France) -- History -- Siege, 1793 -- Sources.