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Slave ship log book up for auction

By Alphonso Van Marsh
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- International auction house Bonhams is timing the sale of a slave ship log to mark the 200th anniversary of legislation banning the then British Empire's participation in the slave trade with Africa.

But critics say its Wednesday auction of the rare 19th century journal from a British slave ship is enabling its owners to profit from slavery.

"It is more than an irony. It is perhaps a more deeply disturbing thing that people are making money out of the slave trade 200 years later," says Caroline Bressey, Co-Curator, of the Museum in Docklands' upcoming "London, Sugar and Slavery" exhibit.

Bonhams says the logbook's owners, who live in North Wales but in auctioning tradition remain anonymous, contacted the auction house about selling the book.

Experts say the log is a rare find because most slave trade documents were destroyed as public opinion turned against the practice responsible for the enslavement of at least 10 million Africans.

Bonhams says the slave ship log is expected to garner bids upward of $6,000 and that it has received expressions of interest from American dealers.

Bonhams can claim up to a 15 percent commission on the sale.

"The only criticism that we've had is from institutions who say, 'Isn't it a bit off that you are selling this at an auction? Shouldn't this go straight to an institution for care?'" says Lionel Willis, Bonhams Scientific and Marine Expert.

Brutal voyage

The logbook chronicles the schooner Juverna's journey from Britain's then major slave trading port Liverpool in July, 1804 to the Bight of Benin off Africa's west coast, where salt was traded for more than 100 enslaved Africans.

Those who survived 82-ton, two-mast Juverna's brutal voyage across the Atlantic to Suriname in the Americas were sold into slavery.

Juverna returned to Liverpool with coffee, cotton and other goods in July 1805.

In the bound logbook, Juverna's leader, or "master," Robert Lewis, matter-of-factly records the trade -- and deaths -- of his human cargo as if they were commodities.

"Buried one female slave," Lewis writes on one page yellowed with age.

On another he tallies the number of female and male slaves on board -- after listing cords of wood.

"The slaves are the same as the cargo of salt that [Lewis] brings down and the same as the cotton he brings back," says Willis.

"It is chilling when you read through the log book the fact that there's no sense of any feeling of the humanity of the people involved."

Bonhams says the likely buyer will be a museum and that it is not worried that the historical document will fall into the wrong hands. "It will be treated with respect," Willis says.

It is unclear if the logbook owners, who Bonhams say they believe are descendants of "master" Lewis, are aware of the criticism surrounding the slave ship log auction.

After the auction, one legal expert says, there theoretically could be legal ramifications for the owners.

"What comes to mind under common law approach is to bring an action that we refer to as unjust enrichment," says Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the International Bar Association.

"It would be interesting to see if there was a possibility of gaining some sort of standing from an individual family demanding [that the logbook owners] should not be allowed to profit [from the auction]."

In the meantime, some hope the slave ship Juverna log will not be sold to the highest bidder.

"There is a lot of hurt and pain and perhaps murder, reflected in the pages of this book and I think to give [the logbook] to a museum, as opposed to asking for financial compensation for it, would have been a good thing," says Bressey.


story.alphonso.jpg

Alphonso Van Marsh with the controversial log book.

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Auction house Bonhams is selling a 19th century slave ship log book to the highest bidder. Are the owners of the log and Bonhams profiting from slavery?
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