According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, the first mention of an American-built slave ship was in John Winthrop’s journal, where he wrote about a ship called Desire, which was actually a two-way slave carrier. Following the Pequot War of 1637, it transported captive Pequot Indians to the West Indies in exchange for African slaves, the first of numerous intercontinental slave transactions.

Aboard the Desire

Doubtless the journey aboard Desire was horrendously uncomfortable, since the earliest American slave ships were refitted merchantmen meant for nonhuman cargo. It was only later that slave ships included ports and gratings for air below decks. To get an idea of the travel conditions, consider another such vessel, the Hannibal. Even larger than the 79-foot Desire, this 1693 British slaver of 450 tons could cram 700 slaves into its overcrowded hold.