Found  /  Biography

Eight Clues

Recovering a life in fragments, Arthur Bowler in slavery and freedom.

Given the problems in Birchtown it is not surprising many villagers were prepared to listen when Lt. John Clarkson, on leave from the Royal Navy, arrived in October 1791 offering to take them to West Africa. Financed by the Sierra Leone Company, and partly inspired by the formerly enslaved Thomas Peters’ visit to London, Clarkson offered to take anyone discontented with Canadian winters and slow land distribution to West Africa. The directors of the Sierra Leone Company were philanthropic evangelical Christians, idealistic eighteenth-century gentlemen. They were also investors and hard-headed merchants, all part of the emerging liberal political economy of the late eighteenth century. Accordingly, they favored trade as a way of “civilizing” and converting the Africans, as well as providing a good return to their shareholders. Eighteen hundred people invested in the Sierra Leone Company, which had working capital of £235,000. The investors included such luminaries as physician Erasmus Darwin, industrialist Sir Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water frame, and Josiah Wedgwood, of pottery fame. While some of the shareholders were altruistic abolitionists, others owned large slave plantations in the West Indies and were looking for new sources of raw materials. All of them expected returns on their investments, which had cost £50 a share, an enormous sum of money, almost a year’s wages for a skilled worker.

Bowler was one of the last to sign up, and one hundred and forty-eight Birchtown heads of households had given their name and their details before he finally went to volunteer. There were only six more Birchtown families to go. He told Clarkson he was a farmer and had a wife and a daughter. He was not yet farming his land, however; he exaggerated slightly and said he had been allocated forty acres but admitted he had not yet seen it. And he did not seem to have the tools to farm it, listing only one axe, two hoes and a spade among the implements of his trade. He did have some other possessions, and told the authorities he would take two chests, two barrels, a bed and a musket on his journey back to Africa.

He was one of fifty-two Birchtown men who said they were born in Africa, while eighty-eight said they were born in the southern colonies, and four born in the West Indies. He was the only one who had been enslaved in Rhode Island. The total number of people amounted to more than five hundred and fifty, rather more than a third of the inhabitants of Birchtown.