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Little Ships of Horror | The Nation

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Little Ships of Horror

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"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.

About the Author

Christopher Leslie Brown
Christopher Leslie Brown teaches history at Columbia University. He is the author of Moral Capital: Foundations of...

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.

It is this concern with the texture of individual experience, with the minutiae of misery and the ordeal of its endurance, that decides the shape and content of The Slave Ship. Rediker offers a view not so much from the bottom up as from the inside out. The personal testimony of captives, sailors and captains carry this account so that we may know the slave ship in the way that those who lived it knew it then. This approach, inevitably, leads Rediker to neglect what historians know now but actors at the time could not fully know--information fundamental to any comprehensive understanding of the slave trade's history. A reader new to the subject will learn only a little about where captives came from and almost nothing about where they went (assuming they had survived the middle passage) once they disembarked. The fundamentals of the Atlantic economy in the eighteenth century receive only passing mention. There is little attempt to sketch change over time. And as Rediker readily acknowledges, there is no effort to assess the ways that British and American slave voyages might have differed from the practices of other nations. But these subjects, to varying degrees, have been addressed by others. By choosing to set these questions aside, Rediker is able to go much further than others have before in describing what the slave ship was like. And few have worked harder to recover the countless stories preserved in published memoirs, remote provincial archives and records assembled by the British Parliament to investigate the slave trade at the height of the abolition movement. Even those who know the subject well will be surprised by the details that Rediker unearths. The Slave Ship is rich with anecdotes--so rich, in fact, that the book never feels anecdotal. Instead, what emerges is a fine-grained account of everyday savagery.

This command of the subject shows not only in Rediker's knowledge of the sources but also in his precise depictions of life at sea. Few historians at work today know the age of sail better. The virtues on display here--eloquence, empathy, erudition--are characteristic. His previous books treated the social history of merchant seamen, the golden age of piracy and revolutionary politics in Atlantic port towns. In each of these books, Rediker presented the growth of merchant capitalism in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a pivotal moment in the making of the modern world and in the transformation of the world of work. The deepening networks of Atlantic exchange called into existence a growing merchant marine whose labor made the emerging economy go, although they profited little from the new economy and suffered much from its toils. Those sailors responded by recognizing that they shared a common identity. They forged an oppositional culture in response. In some instances, they turned to piracy. At times they sought out alliances with the dispossessed in the colonies, such as slaves and indentured servants. Before the Industrial Revolution, Rediker has suggested, there emerged a class identity that gave sailors and port town workers a sense of collective purpose. And before the American Revolution, it was Atlantic seamen and their brethren on shore who conceived and practiced precocious ideals of equality and liberty. To know the making of the modern world, Rediker has insisted, we must know the history of the sea.

In The Slave Ship, his fifth book, he prepares the way by offering a tour of the slave ship itself. The vessel, he explains, took on varied purposes from one moment to the next. It was at different times a floating warehouse, an open-air market, a workplace, a prison and a factory that transformed captives into commodities. Rediker describes slave ship construction, the distribution of responsibilities assigned to the crew, the variations in ship design and scale, and the administration and allocation of space on board. On these subjects he is a sure-footed and knowledgeable guide. When presenting how captives in Africa reached the Atlantic shore and the waiting slave ships, he relies rather more on the expertise of others. Here too, though, he has read widely and deeply in the relevant scholarly literature. And his mastery of the slave ship's special characteristics allows him to convey fully the shock and fear such vessels would inspire among enslaved men, women and children who had never seen them before.

The Slave Ship is, however, less about slave ships per se than about the people who found themselves on them. The heart of the study lies with an extended assessment of captains, captives and crew. Rediker works his way up the social hierarchy through biographical chapters on Olaudah Equiano, the slave ship sailor James Stanfield and slave ship master (and later evangelical convert and slave trade opponent) John Newton. All three wrote extensively and precisely about what life on a slave ship entailed. Rediker then works back down the ladder of authority to explore, more broadly, the art of brutality at sea, the experience of slave ship work among the free and the contours of captivity. The slave ship, Rediker notices, demeaned everyone it touched.

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