Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007) is a beautifully written but horrifying account of Europe’s slave trade in the eighteenth century. Its focus is on the slave ship and everything that transpired there, although Rediker also discusses how Africans ended up on the ship in the first place and what happened to them after they had reached the New World. Among scholarly books, The Slave Ship is surely one of the most gory and disturbing ever written. Rejecting an abstract analysis of institutional relations, Rediker describes in grim detail the actual experiences of slaves and sailors on the ship, this “floating dungeon” and torture-chamber. Anecdote after anecdote lends credence to the judgment of British abolitionist William Wilberforce: “So much misery condensed in so little room is more than the human imagination had ever before conceived” (p. 327). Reading the book is an awe-full experience.
Consider a few examples. One captain, facing a “rage for suicide” among his slaves, decided to teach them a lesson by tying a woman with a rope under her armpits and lowering her into the water. “When the poor creature was thus plunged in,” remarked a witness, “and about half way down, she was heard to give a terrible shriek, which at first was ascribed to her fears of drowning; but soon after, the water appearing red all around her, she was drawn up, and it was found that a shark, which had followed the ship, had bit her off from the middle” (p. 40). Another captain punished slaves for an attempted insurrection by cutting them up with an axe as they were still alive: first their feet, then their legs below the knee, then their thighs, then their hands, and so on, all the while throwing their limbs and heads into a group of trembling slaves who were chained on the deck. But this torture was not enough (p. 219):
[For the next group, the captain] tied round the upper parts of the heads of others a small platted rope, which the sailors call a point, so loosely as to admit a short lever: by continuing to turn the lever, he drew the point more and more tight, till at length he forced their eyes to stand out of their heads; and when he had satiated himself with their torments, he cut their heads off.
More common was the use of thumbscrews to crush thumbs over a period of hours or days, and of course rape and incessant floggings of disobedient Africans.
However, the book is not just a record of unremitting brutality, one nauseating anecdote after another. Its principal virtue, admittedly, is that it presents the Middle Passage in its human reality and consequences. But Rediker interprets the whole sordid story from a particular perspective, and that perspective is a Marxist one. He bookends his study in the introduction and conclusion with a condemnation of capitalism, the argument that the horrors he chronicles “have always been, and remain, central to the making of global capitalism” (p. 13). Distant merchants and capitalists were the ones who kept the system going; the slave captain was their representative, the representative of capital, who did their dirty work, but in a sense they were as bloodstained as he and equally or more guilty. The system had a hierarchy of power: at the top was the tyranny of capital, which supported the tyranny of the ship’s captain over his crew and, at the bottom, the slaves naked and dying belowdecks. The sailors functioned as proletarians, so to speak, who worked on the raw material of Africans to turn them into slaves, i.e., degraded, dehumanized, cowed beings whose will was their master’s. (Needless to say, the transformation was rarely complete: resistance was common.) As proletarians, moreover, sailors were tyrannized and brutalized themselves—by the captain. They channeled their frustrated wrath into cruelty toward blacks.
The sailor’s situation was not much better than the slave’s. Often he had been forcibly recruited while drunk; other times he was a prisoner or debtor the condition of whose freedom was to work on a slave-ship. After the ship had arrived on the coast of Africa it would sit for five to seven months as it filled up with human commodities; the subsequent voyage to the Americas took two or three months. During all this time it was the seamen’s duty not only to sail the ship but also to guard the slaves and take care of them. For instance, during the daytime hours when the slaves were on deck, sailors went below to clean their “apartments.” This entailed emptying the tubs of urine and excrement and scrubbing the deck to remove all the filth. Mortality among sailors was sometimes even higher than among slaves: they succumbed to African diseases, poor food, and harsh treatment by the captain and officers. Mutiny, desertion, and piracy were not rare. Upon reaching the West Indies, captains typically discarded sailors who had proved rebellious or were in a bad condition for some reason or other, with the result that Caribbean ports and coasts teemed with seamen scurvy-rotted, starving, and dying.
Sailors did fight back, on one occasion memorably: in Liverpool in 1775 thousands of them struck for higher wages. Together they went to the local prison to free their comrades, and then for two days they set about unrigging and immobilizing ships in the harbor. At the Mercantile Exchange the merchants rebuffed their wage-demands; again the next day the sailors met with no success but were ordered to disperse. Instead they began throwing bricks at windows, whereupon the besieged merchants fired on them, killing several. For the sailors, this meant war. The following day, therefore, the strikers broke into gunsmith shops and warehouses, and even commandeered horses to drag ships’ cannon up a hill from which to fire on the wealthy slave-trading district. “As shot rained down on the center of business, privilege, and power, terror gripped the city” (p. 256). Men broke into the homes of the wealthiest merchants and destroyed their property. At last a regiment arrived from Manchester, which soon put down the rebellion.
Worse off than the sailors, however, were the slaves. The numbers involved are staggering. Over the nearly four hundred years of the slave trade, about 14 million people were captured, 1.8 million of whom died in Africa, another 1.8 million during the Middle Passage, and 1.5 million during their first year in the New World. The golden age of the slave trade, to which Rediker confines his analysis, was from 1700 to 1808, when the trade was abolished. During this period the slave ship was a world unto itself, a machine perfectly calibrated for transforming humans into commodities. Its very structure and dimensions, as well as the peculiar devices of torture and control with which it was outfitted, served the function of creating a terror regime that was meant to extirpate humanity. It never wholly succeeded. Rediker devotes much of the long chapter “From Captives to Shipmates” to slave resistance on the ships, which took a variety of forms. Chained to each other belowdecks, men separated from women, the slaves sometimes sang. “Song was an essential means of communication among people who were not meant to communicate” (p. 282). Through song they could communicate information and “forge a collective identity.” Storytelling and drumming were other means of resistance, of asserting humanity. The Africans spoke different languages and were from different, sometimes hostile, cultures, but in the bowels of their floating prison they found ways to communicate and overcome mutual hostilities. It is not exaggeration to say that they constructed a collective identity in opposition to whites; they forged an identity as Africans or blacks, a single people oppressed by white demons. Miraculously, they were able to coordinate insurrections, hunger strikes, mass suicides (to return home in their afterlife), and they created new bonds of ‘fictive kinship’ that would carry over into the New World. “In a dialectic of stunning power,” writes Rediker, “the community of mortal suffering aboard the slave ship gave birth to defiant, resilient, life-affirming African-American and Pan-African cultures” (p. 307). It is indeed a magnificent confirmation of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic: the slaves eventually went on to found cultures of Christian love and soulful living—churches, the Negro spiritual, later gospel, blues, jazz, arts of sublimated emancipation—while the slave-masters’ culture, based on idle leisure and violent exploitation of a productive people, withered away.
Rediker also touches on the abolitionist movement at the end of the eighteenth century, showing how it made advances by invoking the reality of the slave ship. The famous Brooks image of hundreds of blacks crammed together on a ship was republished many times around the Atlantic; according to one abolitionist, it made “an instantaneous impression of horror upon all who saw it” (p. 309). In this way, the diabolical design of the ship, perfectly suited to its task, itself contributed to the eradication of the slave trade.
The Slave Ship is such a thorough, well-researched and well-written book that it is hard to find faults with it. Perhaps, ironically, it is too thorough: the stream of anecdotes surges on relentlessly, such that the book becomes repetitive and almost tiresome at times. It could have been fifty pages shorter without losing any of its power. Instead of hammering the reader with yet more instances of cruelty and barbarism, Rediker could have devoted some of those extra pages to a discussion of how French ships differed from British ones, or whether there were significant differences between the slave-trading practices of the Portuguese and the British. He also could have spent more time describing the fate of Africans after they had disembarked in the West Indies or North America, and how their fates diverged from region to region.
Nevertheless, if a book is to be judged by how well it fulfills its author’s intentions, The Slave Ship is an admirable success. It portrays in vivid detail the conditions of life on a “slaver,” and it rescues from historical obscurity the heroism of all those Africans who resisted their enslavement. Appropriately, it ends on a note of affirmation: testimony from discarded sailors on the Caribbean shore, disease-ravaged wrecks of former men, relates that when the white world had turned away from them, blacks carried these living cadavers into their huts and tended to them, their former tormentors. And when the broken bodies finally died, it was blacks who buried them. In the darkness of a nightmare, a flicker of humanity.