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Little Ships of Horror | The Nation

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Little Ships of Horror

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"Learning cruelty was intrinsic to learning the trade itself," Rediker writes. For the slave ship captain, it was "a requirement of the job and the larger economic system it served." At sea, he held within himself every element of authority and command typically distributed more widely through the institutions of social, political and legal authority on land. Each slave ship stood as a despotic state in miniature. But if the captain was an absolute sovereign in his domain, he was also an employee and partner, a principal agent in a heavily capitalized commercial enterprise, the profits of which turned upon the delivery of captives, not corpses. So the captain had to combine the arts of commercial negotiation and economic calculation with the imperatives of carefully calibrated cruelty. In Rediker's telling, the brutality of the slave trade lay not only in the sometimes casual and sadistic destruction of human life but also in the callous "moral insensibility" that it induced. So, for example, Rediker presents us with the striking image of the pious John Newton rehearsing passages from Scripture while strolling across what he called his "peaceful kingdom" as he prepared to purchase 250 captives on the coast of Sierra Leone. The slave ship produced not only slaves but monsters too.

About the Author

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

Rediker dwells on the terror of the middle passage to inform as well as to horrify. To know what became of Africans in the Americas, we must first come to terms with what they came through. Rediker calls attention to the choices slaves made in a setting conceived and designed to forbid willed activity completely. The prisoners thwarted their captors as far as the ghastly circumstances permitted. They seized weapons. They threw themselves overboard. They refused to eat. When unable to lash out at the crew, they sometimes turned on one another. Rediker devotes particular attention to the distinctive experience of enslaved women, far more than most who have written about the middle passage to date. Because slave ship captains regarded women and children as less of a threat to revolt, these prisoners often were allowed more freedom of movement on the ship. This freedom of movement, predictably, helps explain the key roles some women played in shipboard insurrections. A great many more, though, only suffered additional indignities and abuse. Captain and crew raped women and girls with impunity. More than a few captains seem to have done so systematically. And Rediker guesses "that some men signed on to slaving voyages in the first place precisely because they wanted unrestricted access to the bodies of African women."

The account of the captives' experience, however, extends beyond the themes of victimization and resistance. Rediker presents striking evidence detailing how captives coped. On one ship enslaved women sing in unison of their despair and longing for home. On another, an enslaved woman offers a long oration of sorrow to other women and girls, who surround her in a series of concentric circles that mark the listeners' age and status. The slave community, Rediker suggests, first took shape on the slave ship, not on the plantation. Previous scholars have speculated about the kinds of relationships that developed among slaves during the middle passage. But no one has done more than Rediker to document the limits that the circumstances imposed or the possibilities they permitted.

The sailors, the men in between, emerge here at once as tormentors and victims. Often drawn into the work by either poverty or deceit, some seamen in the trade described their fate as worse than slavery. Although Rediker emphatically rejects such claims, he does give extended attention to sailors' own special hell. Because they were laborers rather than a capital investment, slave ship sailors were more disposable than the captives. As a consequence, in part, they perished with even greater frequency. Many met desperate, lonely deaths from disease on the West African coast. Others died en route to the Americas as the unsanitary conditions of the ship wreaked havoc on workers and captives alike. With astonishing frequency, men broken or disabled by service in the trade were abandoned to poverty and despair in the port towns of the Americas. Rediker is probably the first to call attention to the legacy of misery the trade left among those who made it go. It is not a surprise, then, to learn that a loathing of the slave ship seems to have been common among them. Mutiny and desertion occurred with some frequency. The two or three thousand sailors who led an uprising in Liverpool in August 1775 targeted the property of slave merchants in particular.

Yet, as Rediker is careful to note, these protests aimed not to abolish the slave trade but to improve payment and working conditions within it. In The Slave Ship, he does not assume that the oppressed found a common interest across racial lines, as he tended to do in some of his earlier work. "Victims of poverty, deception, and violence themselves," slave ship sailors, Rediker writes, "took out their plight on the even more abject and powerless captives under their supervision and control." On the middle passage, in the months and weeks that they served as prison guards, their racial status as "whites" briefly mitigated the disadvantages of class. If sailors did not, on their own, become abolitionists, they were in an unusually good position to testify to slavery's brutalities. In a highly original chapter on the early antislavery movement in Britain, Rediker finds that the testimony of sailors made abolitionist propaganda particularly plausible and compelling. Moral denunciations carried far more weight when coupled with detailed descriptions of particular abuses. "Real enlightenment," Rediker writes, "began not with a Scottish philosopher or a member of Parliament, but rather in the meeting of a sailor and a slave amid the 'instruments of woe' on board the 'vast machine.'" Thomas Clarkson, the lead propagandist for the London abolition committee, understood the strategic value of slave ship sailor accounts particularly well. Sailors knew the character of the trade better than anyone. And their sufferings promised to draw special concern from those statesmen less interested in the morals of the trade than in its impact on the lives of those men upon whom the imperial state would depend in time of war. The oral histories that Clarkson collected on the docks of Liverpool, Bristol and London yielded the evidence that abolitionists presented to Parliament, and provided the basis for countless antislavery pamphlets and poetry. Sailor testimony informed, as well, the text that accompanied the famous depiction of the slave ship Brooks, the visual image that came to represent then and thereafter what a fully loaded slave ship looked like, an image that Rediker demonstrates, incredibly, to have been a "graphic understatement."

Fittingly, this first history of the slave ship concludes with an extended assessment of the making and circulation of this most famous of images. Its design began with a simple description recorded by an officer of the Royal Navy who had been dispatched to Liverpool to measure the dimensions and tonnage of representative slave ships. The Brooks, as Rediker quotes from an eighteenth-century source, was "well known in the trade," embarking 5,163 captives from Africa in ten different voyages over more than two decades. What was not well known, though, was what a fully loaded ship looked like. So, working from the measurements and its declared carrying capacity, an antislavery committee in Plymouth, England, transformed the raw data into an emblem of atrocity; 1,500 copies of the image were circulated in England in 1788. The Brooks became "a central image of the age, hanging in public places during petition drives and in homes and taverns around the Atlantic." It served as a backdrop to debates in Parliament during the first thrust of antislavery organizing, from 1788 to 1792. And it was reprinted and distributed abroad, in Philadelphia, New York and Paris, carrying the British antislavery movement beyond the British Isles. For the abolitionists, the Brooks distilled an essential truth about the trade. "It depicted the violence and terror of the ship," Rediker explains, "and at the same time it captured the brutal logic and cold, rational mentality of the merchant's business.... It was itself a concentration of capital, and it was the bearer of capitalist assumptions and practices about the world and the way it ought to be."

These closing thoughts, in some ways, point up one shortcoming of The Slave Ship. Rediker largely neglects the merchant capitalists who put the ships in the water. Their ambitions and purposes remain largely offstage. The result is to direct attention to the most immediate consequences of slave ship voyages--the brutality of life on board--rather than the comparably immediate causes that set these voyages in motion. The critique of the eighteenth-century economic order does not quite center, then, on those who might have been its principal targets--the investors in slave ships, the producers of plantation crops and the consumers of slave-produced goods. Rediker, though, in this work, is less interested in developing a critique of the Atlantic economy than in dissecting the anatomy of terror and understanding its most immediate social consequences. He does draw attention throughout to the ways this history resonates into the present day, both in the creation of a racial order in the Atlantic world and with the casual destruction of human life at a distance through the imperatives of global trade. And at the close, he invokes the fleeting but thought-provoking evidence that shows slaves and ex-sailors assisting one another in the work of survival in Atlantic port towns and in the reckoning with death. Rediker closes with an account of enslaved men and women nursing diseased and mangled slave ship sailors back to health or, as was often necessary, arranging a proper burial in a "negro" cemetery.

In these ways, The Slave Ship restates and extends imperatives at work in Rediker's earlier books. The Slave Ship is at once impassioned and restrained. This is because the "darkness and violence" needs no embellishment. It only requires, as Thomas Clarkson knew and as Rediker demonstrates, a skilled advocate to tell the story. This year and the next mark the bicentennial of slave trade abolition in the British Empire and in the United States, events that, properly, have been marked by commemorations of various kinds on both sides of the Atlantic. This landmark work provides a timely and unforgettable reminder of what was abolished and hints also, indeed, at what was not.

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