'The Slave Ship' by Marcus Rediker
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The Slave Ship" is not an easy read. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Marcus Rediker admits it upfront:
"(T)his has been a painful book to write," he said, "and if I have done any justice to the subject, it will be a painful book to read. There is no way around this, nor should there be."
Rediker, history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, also makes it clear that he hasn't written the first history of the slave trade. He lists several other worthy works, including Philip Curtin's "landmark study," titled "The African Slave Trade: A Census," and the "grand synthesis" of Hugh Thomas, "The Slave Trade."
He praises several literary works that have treated the subject, including Toni Morrison's "Beloved," Charles Johnson's "Middle Passage," Barry Unsworth's "Sacred Hunger" and Caryl Phillips' "The Atlantic Sound."
By Marcus Rediker
So why bother reading Rediker's book?
There are two good reasons. It grippingly tells the story of the trade in human flesh from an unexplored perspective -- the decks of the slave ships.
Thanks to this unique vantage point, the author comes to a thought-provoking conclusion:
The violence of the trade was no accident but was central to the rise of global capitalism.
Accounts of the slave trade usually emphasize the human tragedy of the practice, and rightly so. Lasting from the late 15th century to the late 19th century, it displaced more than 12 million people who were brutally loaded on ships against their will, transported across the Atlantic in dismal conditions and sold into slavery in the New World.
During the Middle Passage (the First Passage was from Europe to Africa to pick up the human cargo; the Third Passage was from the New World back to Europe), a million and a half died and were cast into the sea.
Add to that figure an estimated 1.8 million who died en route to the ships and three-quarters of a million who expired during the first year as slaves in the New World and you begin to understand why the black historian W.E.B DuBois called the slave trade "the most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history."
Rediker focuses on four distinct narratives in that drama:
The interaction between the all-powerful ships' captains and their often dispensable cargo; the constant violence between the sailors and the slaves they were hired to control; the cooperation among the enslaved people who at times couldn't even speak each other's languages; and ultimately, the success of British and American abolitionists in using the slave ship itself as a symbol of capitalism's relentless quest for more profit.
These four strands did not operate in isolation, of course, but understanding the dynamics of each paints a more complete picture of how the trade was able to flourish for almost 400 years and how it finally was able to be stopped.
The slave ship, writes Rediker, was "a strange and potent combination of war machine, mobile prison, and factory."
The ship-factory not only transformed the people who were brought there in chains into workers for plantations, but it also produced the concept of "race," Rediker points out. The captain and crew -- even the dark-skinned sailors -- were referred to as "white" while the captives, although they represented a wide variety of ethnicities, became "the Negro race."
Ultimately, this transformation -- and the creation of racism as a means to condone such an inhuman practice -- was performed for people who were not on the slave ship:
"(T)he dramas that played out on the decks of a slave ship were made possible, one might even say structured, by the capital and power of people far from the ship," writes Rediker. "The dramas involving captains, sailors, and African captives aboard the slave ship were part of a much larger drama, the rise and movement of capitalism around the world."
The violence of the slavers, in other words, was no accident. Even John Newton, the creator of "Amazing Grace" who was a Christian slave-ship captain, used chains, whips and thumbscrews in response to mutiny by his sailors and insurrection by his slaves (he would take more than three decades after he quit the trade to finally come out against it).
All the captains (and the merchants who hired them) built death into the social planning of each and every voyage, a fact that was brought chillingly home when the abolitionists began to circulate an image of the slave ship Brookes that showed chained Africans tightly packed, "side by side, almost like herrings in a barrel."
The image "depicted the violence and terror of the ship and at the same time it captured the brutal logic and cold, rational mentality of the merchant's business," writes Rediker.
The slave trade was eventually abandoned, of course, but the violence and terror that have always been central to the rise and continuing operation of capitalism is still with us, as is the racism that slavery spawned, Rediker warns.
The United States and Britain have "yet to come to grips with the darker and more violent side of this history, which is perhaps one reason the darkness and violence continue in the present," he writes.
Putting a human face on both the oppressors and the oppressed, "The Slave Ship" confronts that violent history head on. It may not be easy reading -- but the cruel truth of what one group of people is willing to do to others for money never is.
All the captains (and the merchants who hired them) built death into the social planning of each and every voyage, a fact that was brought chillingly home when the abolitionists began to circulate an image of the slave ship Brookes that showed chained Africans tightly packed, "side by side, almost like herrings in a barrel.
First Published October 7, 2007 12:00 am