“Every man condemns the [slave] trade in general,” wrote the abolitionist Thomas Cooper, of Manchester, England, in 1787, “but it requires the exhibition of particular instances of the enormity of this Commerce, to induce those to become active in the matter, who wish well to the cause upon the whole.” Those accounts of the trade that present “particular distress, with its attendant circumstances,” are best “calculated to excite compassion.” Such were the principles of the British campaign against the slave trade at the end of the eighteenth century, as historian Marcus Rediker explains. And this emphasis on itemizing particular instances describes just as well the approach that guides Rediker’s breathtaking new book on the eighteenth-century Atlantic slave trade.
The Slave Ship opens with an extensive and unforgettable inventory of the trade’s particular horrors. There are the accused conspirators in a failed slave ship revolt forced by their captors to eat the hearts and livers of the recently executed. A captive starves himself to death after several unsuccessful attempts to rip open his throat with his fingernails. A black sailor accused of fomenting an insurrection gets pinned to the mast by the ship’s captain, who leaves him to rot to death without food or water over the course of three weeks. Sharks trail slave ships from one edge of the Atlantic to the other, overgrown by the time they reach Jamaica from feeding on human carcasses tossed overboard en route. Captains embrace the spectacle of grisly executions with devilish glee. The desecration of human bodies becomes at once efficient, whimsical and sadistic. A London merchant orders the captain of his ship to brand each captive with the first initials of his wife’s and daughter’s names. One master lowers a shrieking woman feet first into the Atlantic; when “she was drawn up” moments later, according to Rediker, “it was found that a shark…had bit her off from the middle.” The Atlantic slave trade has been the subject of rigorous historical study for more than four decades, but no previous work comes as close to conveying its terror.
Rediker describes The Slave Ship as a “human history.” By this he means, in the first place, that there are people in the story–not aggregates, not statistics, not categories, but individuals. His approach stands in sharp contrast to the mode of analysis that has dominated the study of the Atlantic slave trade since the late 1960s, when historians began to seek reliable numbers–the number of captives shipped from Africa, mortality rates in the middle passage, sex ratios on board slave ships, average rates of profit, the relative importance of specific ports of embarkation in Africa and arrival in the Americas. This research, which continues apace, has revolutionized the economic and demographic history of the early modern era. There’s no better example of this revolution than the extraordinary database compiled by a team of historians led by David Eltis of Emory University, which, to date, provides documentation for approximately 30,000 voyages from the late fifteenth century to the last half of the nineteenth–a database that Rediker often mines to good effect in this book.
Yet lost in this welter of numbers, too often, are those aspects of the history less amenable to quantification. “Even the best histories of the slave trade and slavery,” Rediker writes, “have tended to minimize, one might even say sanitize, the violence and terror that lay at the heart of their subjects.” Indeed, for historian Philip Curtin, who launched the “numbers game” with his 1969 The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, the emotions that the subject stirs recommended even more powerfully a commitment to dispassionate analysis. “The evils of the slave trade,” he wrote, “can be taken for granted as a point long since proven beyond dispute.” But those injunctions now prove increasingly dissatisfying to an emerging generation of scholars interested less in enumeration than in the history of immiseration. In writing about topics such as mortality rates in the Atlantic slave trade, literary critic Ian Baucom recently insisted that we attend not only to the cumulative numbers, to the many thousands gone, but also to the sound of each corpse hitting the water one at a time.