Human Cargo


‘An elegant, vital insight into human suffering and survival.’ Cerys Matthews

How can history help us understand today’s refugee crisis? This rich, timely book gives voice to emigrants, the enslaved, convicts and other human cargo from the 18th and 19th centuries. Its striking mix of story and folk song sets these past voices beside testimony from today – so shedding new light on a defining disaster of our time.


‘Well-researched … fascinating … a great read.’ Living Tradition Magazine

Published 2016. 166 pages paperback. ISBN 978-0-9561361-2-1

Kindle version £4.91

Amazon UK paperback


‘Matthew Crampton has taken a fresh look at the worlds of slavery and emigration. He’s unearthed some fascinating stories and, crucially, added folk song to let us hear from those whose voices are usually silenced. Songs give such a distinct perspective on history – and this book gives us an elegant, vital insight into human suffering and survival.’ Cerys Matthews

Matthew Crampton introduces Human Cargo


Stories that need telling

Today, smartphones can take us right into migrant boats. But how do we put a face on those trafficked or transported in the past? And how might their experience help us attend to those today in terrified transit?

Human Cargo includes personal testimony from those within the emigrant boats, the convict ships and the slave vessels.

You can read Olaudah Equiano’s rare description of the Middle Passage from a slave’s perspective; Peter Williamson’s account of being kidnapped as a child in Aberdeen and sold into servitude in colonial America; James M’Lean’s life as an American sailor pressed into the Royal Navy; and Robert Whyte’s passage on an Irish coffin ship.

You’ll hear from Scottish families cleared to make way for sheep, petty criminals transported to Australia, Pacific islanders enslaved for Asian plantations, Welsh emigrants to Patagonia, and many more.

Folk songs give voice to the silent

Only the rich or lettered leave record of their lives. But what of the masses? To hear their voices, Human Cargo turns to traditional folk songs – the anonymous and authentic record of popular feeling.

The lyrics of 25 folk songs appear within the book; some well-known, many obscure. Each song is a survivor, because people kept choosing to sing it. Together, they provide distinct windows into collective experience.

Modern testimony too

Alongside the old story and songs, the book features snapshots of human cargo in the 21st century – words from people trafficked, transported, enslaved or impressed in modern times. In their similarity to the past, for cruelty remains constant, they help bring that past alive.

Matthew Crampton also performs Human Cargo as a show of story and song. Find out more.

Short radio show – with pictures and songs


‘A timely history of the tide of human cargo … if you get a chance to see the story-and-song show Human Cargo, don’t miss it.’ Songlines Magazine

‘A vital insight into history which resonates today … well worth seeking out.’ School Librarian.

‘Well-researched … fascinating … a great read.’ Living Tradition Magazine

‘A dark and harrowing read. But … a vital one to help understand the timeless reasons people have been driven from their homes.’ Morning Star

‘Though frequently disturbing, Human Cargo makes for compulsive, if not compulsory, reading.’ Folk London

‘I have never linked today’s news to the slave trade, the press gangs and forced emigration of the past. Matthew Crampton’s book makes that link.’

‘This little gem of a book … thoroughly recommended.’ FATEA

‘A very fine book…’ All About Jazz


The Highland Clearances

Index of Songs

Additional information

Weight .290 kg
Dimensions 23.4 × 15.6 × .96 cm