THE Dolben Act of 1788 established that each ship carrying ‘slaves’ must have on board a qualified surgeon.

Ecroyde Claxton, of Kendal, was one of just five slave ship surgeons to give evidence to the House of Commons which, alongside that of all the other eyewitnesses, led to the first successful vote to ‘gradually’ abolish the slave trade.

John Claxton was one of three surgeons to the Kendal dispensary in the early years of its existence at the end of the 19th century.

Born in 1769, Ecroyde Claxton was his eldest son. After spending a number of years as an apprentice, almost certainly with his father in Kendal, Ecroyde will have passed an examination by the Company of Surgeons in London.

Still only 19, Ecroyde arrived in Liverpool in 1788 seeking employment on a slave ship. The ship’s surgeon and surgeon’s mate were among the best paid members of the crew. The surgeon’s duties would include helping the captain to assess which slaves to purchase at the African ports.

His first journey was as the ‘surgeon’s mate’ on the ship Garland, which left Liverpool in May 1788 and arrived in Bonny, Nigeria, in August.

He then became the ship’s surgeon on the Young Hero, transporting 250 ‘slaves’ from Bonny to Trinidad in the Caribbean.

At just 80 tonnes, the ship was clearly overcrowded and ripe for infectious disease. The death rate for the Africans on this journey was over 50 per cent!

Claxton gave evidence about this disastrous voyage to Parliament in 1791, which spelled out the horrors of this period in the ‘slave’ trade.

He spoke of how the ‘slaves’ were stowed in the vessel in such density that they were only able to lie on their sides and how it was not possible to isolate the sick because there were too many of them.

He said: “The slaves were generally dejected and distressed by their captivity and many tried and succeeded in throwing themselves overboard thinking that their spirits would return to their homeland.”

In 1791, Ecroyde married in Burton-in-Kendal and subsequently had three children. He almost certainly had an independent practice as a surgeon – apothecary in Burton during this period.

He returned to the ‘slave’ trade in 1794, serving as ship’s surgeon on the Mary, a 171-ton ship.

Later he was ship’s surgeon on the Speedwell, which left Liverpool in August 1795 and carried 251 ‘slaves’ from Cape Mount, on the west African coast, to the Bahamas. This time, just four African ’slaves’ died on the voyage.

Ecroyde had two younger brothers who also became ‘slave’ ship surgeons.

Charles Claxton was the ship’s surgeon on the Rattler, which departed from London in April 1795 transporting ‘slaves’ from Cape Coast Castle, Anomabu, to Kingston, Jamaica.

Caleb Claxton was the ship’s surgeon on two voyages. Like many ship’s surgeons, Caleb Claxton later became a ship’s captain, but was subsequently lost at sea off Mauritius.


Thank you to Trevor Hughes and Kendal Town Council for the picture of Ecroyde Claxton (Note: the picture is dated 1761, so may be John Claxton, rather than Ecroyde). Thanks also to Steve Behrendt (Dept of History, Wellington University, New Zealand) for information from his database of 1,000 slave ship surgeons