Lost in Africa: Sea captains Henry Sharp & Robert Rae

39 X - Tributary of Rio_Nunez, Guinea
River Tingalinta, a tributary of the River Nuñez, in the 19th century.


I have been researching gravestones in the Gloria Dei churchyard in Philadelphia that commemorate people who were “lost at sea.” Two of the sea captains that I looked into in recent weeks were apparently lost while on voyages to Africa.

One of them, Capt. Henry Sharp, appears in the Philadelphia directory as in 1810 as a 24-year-old mate, living in a back alley. Later, as a sea captain, he lived on S. Second Street, making frequent voyages to the West Indies and to Africa.

On one voyage, Sharp’s mate and four crewmen died while their vessel was in the Rio Ponga, the heart of the slave trade in what is now the country of Ghana. But Sharp was not a slave trader; he returned to Philadelphia with a cargo of beeswax, ivory, palm oil, hides, camwood, and gold. Sharp reported that the colony of relocated former American slaves in Liberia seemed to be thriving, but slave ships were thick along the African coast.

On his final voyage to Africa, Sharp left Philadelphia on the brig Mary on Nov. 14, 1835. On New Years Day, according to later reports in the newspaper, the Mary was at the River Gambia and due to sail shortly for the River Nuñez, where it was spotted in March 1836. There was no more word about the Mary until May 11, when she had returned to Philadelphia under command of the mate, Bancroft. The mate gave the news that Capt. Sharp had died in Africa—at just about the time of his 50th birthday. But still, how he died is not known.

38 - Capt. Henry Sharp stone
Memorial stone for Capt. Henry Sharp in Gloria Dei churchyard. (Courtesy Historic Gloria Dei Preservation Corporation.

The answer in similar incidents is often disease; most crew members on trading ships from Europe and America had little resistance to tropical diseases like malaria.

An 1873 U.S. government handbook for ship masters, “The West Coast of Africa: From Cape Spartel to Sierra Leone,” cautions its readers: “The climate of the [River] Nuñez is very unhealthy. It is rare for the crews of vessels which have been in the river any time to escape the dangerous fevers, that require 10 days for incubation. The most unhealthy months are November and December, when even the natives suffer from the effects of the climate. It would be better not to enter the river during these months, and never to remain in it longer than necessary. Negroes should always be employed for doing the work of loading, discharging, and boating.”

Another gravestone here at Gloria Dei is for Capt. Robert Rae, who died three years later at almost the same place where Henry Sharp lost his life—along the River Nuñez.

I should digress for a moment to explain that Rae was not a parishioner at Gloria Dei; his gravestone was originally erected at Ronaldson’s Cemetery at 9th and Bainbridge Streets. When Ronaldson’s was converted into a city playground in the year 1950, the bodies were moved and most of the stones were destroyed. But a handful of stones belonging to men who were thought to have been soldiers in the American Revolution were moved to this churchyard in order to memorialize them. Recently, when my history colleague Amy Grant and I were beginning to research the men whose names were on those stones, we realized the lives of some of them had been misinterpreted.

Several of them were far too young to have fought in the Revolution. Capt. Robert Rae was one of these people, having been born in 1789. But although he was not a Revolutionary soldier, or a parishioner at Gloria Dei, he was a close neighbor, having lived for a number of years with his wife Jane on what is now Kennilworth Street. And so, it is appropriate that a monument to him stands in the Gloria Dei churchyard, although his body was never brought home.

How did Rae lose his life? Disease is the most likely answer, but there were other dangers on the African coast, including tensions with the local people, which had been whipped up to a boil from the actions of American and European slave traders.

In 1839, when Capt. Rae made his last voyage on the bark Rosalba, the area around the River Nuñez was in the midst of wars among the local tribes, which was interfering with commercial ship traffic. For example, a few weeks before the Rosalba arrived on the coast, a New York ship, the Transit, put into the River Nuñez after suffering heavy damage in a hurricane. The captain, Joseph Wise, had been killed in the storm, but the crew was soon to face further dangers.

43 - Battle_of_Rio_Nunez_1849
Battle of River Nuñez, between Britain and France, 1849.

Newspapers later printed a report by a British naval officer “that the ship Transit of New York, in passing down the river Nuñez, had been boarded by people of one of the kings of the country, and robbed of a considerable amount of property, and one man killed belonging to the ship before they surrendered. … The reason the king gave the supercargo of the ship for robbing her was that they had sold powder to his enemies up the river, with whom he was at war, and which enabled them to invade his dominions and make slaves of his people.”

In fact, these conflicts with the native people possibly led to a crucial mistake at the beginning of March 1839, when the Rosalba arrived off the River Nuñez to trade for palm oil and gold dust. According to newspaper reports at the time, Capt. Rae took the jolly boat to visit the shore, and supposedly, a large grouping of native people gathered on the beach to receive him. In the meantime, the mate, who had remained aboard, was watching Rae’s progress through his spyglass. He could not tell whether the gathering on the beach was friendly or not. Moreover, he explained later, he had imagined he saw that the boat was upset in the surf. This apparently created some alarm in his mind, which was reinforced when he saw that another boat had been dispatched from the shore to their vessel, bearing a white flag at the end of a pole.

The mate thought it was necessary to escape. He raised the anchor and ordered the Rosalba to put to sea. In the meantime, Captain Rae, who was stranded on shore but perfectly unharmed, thought that his mate had led a mutiny. Luckily, there was a fleet of British Navy vessels in the region, which were on the hunt for slave traders. Rae enlisted the help of the British commodore, who delegated four naval vessels to chase the Rosalba. Ultimately, they found her, and after the misunderstandings were clarified, Rae took command once again.

Rae then wrote a letter thanking the British ships for aiding him. Tragically, that might have been the last letter that he wrote. By the time it was reprinted in U.S. newspapers several months later, Rae was long dead.

A later letter by the mate, a man named Thomas Bevans, and written in Barbados, informed people back home that Captain Rae had died on April 2, 1839, and that he was buried the next the day. The mate’s letter is on file in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and is within a large folder of correspondence, mainly on legal matters related to Robert Rae’s untimely death.

The handwriting in the mate’s letter is extremely difficult to decipher. At the start, he states that Capt. Rae died “after a short … [illegible] of eight days.” The missing words seem to end with “stress,” so maybe it’s “distress.” It seems quite possible that he is referring to a disease, which lasted eight days, as the cause of Rae’s demise.

Bevans then states that the crew of the Rosalba was “suffering much at present.” They were running out of food and were unable to obtain any on shore. “I have got but one bb. of beef and but one of pork and bread none. I give the men farina in substitute for bread,” he wrote. He added that the vessel had been unable to land its cargo.

Another letter in the file, by an attorney, made the situation clearer. He wrote, “… the mate said that a civil war was going on among certain of the natives and he was very afraid to land the cargo as it might be subjected to the depredations incident to the unusual disorder which then existed in the country.”

At some point while still on the African coast, the Rosalba lost her anchor and cables. After crossing the Atlantic, the barque remained several days in Barbados in order to have those items replaced. She arrived in New York City in late July under Bevans’ command.

The legal matters detailed in the correspondence at the Historical Society had to do with the efforts of Rae’s widow, Jane, to sue Bevans. Robert Rae had owned the Rosalba, which they claimed was valued at $5000, as much as all the items in the rest of his estate put together (two houses at $2000 each, jewelry $500, furniture $458). But now, after a disastrous voyage, the Rosalba was up in New York in the hands of other people, while Bevans was demanding extra wages for the time that he was master of the vessel. So Jane Rae wished to recover some money.

The case dragged on for at least three years, and I am not sure how it turned out for Jane Rae. I did read in the Historical Society letters that in the meantime a rich aunt of hers died in northern England, and there was a good chance that she would inherit a lot of money.

40 - Robert Rae memorial
Memorial to Capt. Robt Rae, moved in 1950 from Roanaldson’s Cemetery to Gloria Dei churchyard. (Courtesy Historic Gloria Dei Preservation Corporation)

As for what happened to Capt. Rae, it does not seem to have been made entirely clear to anyone. His widow’s chief attorney, John Cadwalader, even asked Thomas Buchanan, the governor of Liberia and brother of the future U.S. president, to try to inquire about the circumstances. Cadwalader wrote about Rae’s family having “a painful felling of uncertainty, which can only be relieved by some precise and authentic information of the time … and circumstances of his death. And would be a matter of some consolation if some particulars as to his burial could be added to the information.”

Buchanan wrote back (Sept. 4, 1840) that he would ask some of the British naval officers in the region if they knew anything, but he died exactly a year later on Sept. 3, 1841, and I’m not sure what he found out in the meantime. The file at the Historical Society does not contain any more particulars, so for now we have to leave the matter of how Capt. Rae died still imprecise.


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