William Butterworth (1769-1834)
Engraver, writer, artist – and slave ship sailor

William Butterworth (1769-1834)William Butterworth spent most of his life working in Leeds as an engraver and copperplate printer with a flourishing business in Kirkgate, originally founded by his father in 1758. He had a productive and successful career, but he is best remembered now for his adventures as a rebel teenager, when he served aboard a slave ship in the 1780s – an extraordinary story which he only wrote down much later in his life, giving a unique, first-hand account of what life was like aboard one of these terrible ships of torment and death.

Born in 1769, the second of five children, he received a modest education and seemed destined simply to follow his father into the engraving business. But at sixteen, fired by the stories of a sea-faring cousin, he set his mind on going to sea and travelling the world. With one of his friends as companion he ran away from home and the two youngsters made their way to Liverpool to find a ship to take them on. Innocents as they were, they were quickly pounced upon and persuaded to join the crew of the slave ship ‘Hudibras’, bound initially for Africa to purchase slaves. From there the ship would make the terrifying journey across the Atlantic (the notorious ‘Middle Passage’) to the West Indies to sell the slaves to the plantations, and then move on to trade goods in South Carolina and Georgia before returning to England. The whole voyage was to take three long years.

The experience was a world away from the exciting adventure young William had anticipated: he was ill-treated, half-starved, worked to the bone, and above all brought face-to-face with the appalling inhumanity and brutality of the slave trade. He saw the cruelty inflicted on the defenceless Negroes and the degradation their ‘free-born spirit’ had to endure, and he shared the wretched life of the ships’ crews, exploited like the slaves themselves by the avarice and greed of the planters and the ships’ officers – ‘dealers in human flesh’ as he called them. He witnessed a slave revolt, an attempted mutiny, and the barbaric cruelty with which they were suppressed.

By the time he finally came home to his relieved family, he had had his fill of adventure and threw himself into learning and mastering the skills he needed in his profession as an engraver. He made a name for himself with the delicacy and precision of his work, so essential for book illustration (no photography then). His exquisitely detailed engravings (over 180 figures) for a famous, widely-used guide to seamanship in which he collaborated in 1819 (‘The Young Sea Officer’s Sheet Anchor’, by Darcy Lever) demonstrate his exceptional talent and skill and no doubt drew on his own experience as a seaman. Alongside his professional work, he painted, learnt music, and studied. He married twice and had three children – a rich, safe, settled life.

He had always hoped and believed that the notorious transatlantic slave trade would finally be outlawed, and this was achieved in 1807, when British ships were prohibited from transporting slaves from Africa. Some years later he was persuaded to write down and publish an account of his own slave-ship experiences. His book ‘Three Years Adventures of a Minor in England, Africa, The West Indies, South Carolina and Georgia’ was published in 1823. It provides a vivid, eye-witness account of life on a slave-ship and of the workings of the slave trade in Africa and America, from a humane and sensitive perspective. Such accounts are rare, as most common seamen working the Middle Passage were illiterate, and William’s story has proved immensely valuable to historians of the slave trade. The book concludes with a fervent warning to all young men about the dangers of seeking adventure abroad.

Around 1832, ready to retire, he moved to a newly-built stone terrace house in St Michael’s Road, Headingley, where he died in 1834, aged 65, ‘esteemed for his uprightness, cheerfulness and kindness’. He is buried in St Michael’s graveyard. His book remains a significant memorial to his experience, insight and compassion.

Eveleigh Bradford
December 2015