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Life Aboard A Slave Ship Essay Writing

Raped at will, tortured with white-hot forks, they were thrown to the sharks if death ended their agony. A new book reveals the true horror of life on a slave ship...

Louis Asa-Asa was 13 when his happiness ended. One day, warriors converged on his home far from the sea. They set fire to the huts, killing and capturing villagers.

He escaped into the forest, the only child to survive.

A few days later the warriors found Louis.

They manacled him into a slave train which slowly made its way to the coast.

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"I was sold six times over, sometimes for money, sometimes for cloth, sometimes for a gun," he recalled.

"We were taken from place to place and sold at every place we stopped at."

It took Louis six months to reach the "white people" and their "very large ship".

Ukawsaw, about the same age, lived in northern Nigeria, up near Lake Chad.

The grandson of the local king, he was mesmerised by the magical tales told by a visiting merchant.

Vividly, the man described white people who lived in houses on the water which had wings upon them.

His family let Ukawsaw go with the merchant, who told no more tales but dragged the boy to the Gold Coast where Ukawsaw was enslaved.

A Dutch captain sold him in Barbados for 50 dollars.

Olaudah, also Nigerian, was only 11 when slave traders carried him aboard a slave ship.

He was grabbed by members of the crew, "white men with horrible looks, red faces and long hair", who tossed him about to see if his limbs were sound.

He thought they were bad spirits, not human beings.

As he recorded 35 years later, when they put him down on the deck the first thing he saw was a huge copper boiling pot, and nearby a crowd of black people, "chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow".

Struck by the thought that he had fallen into the hands of cannibals, Olaudah fainted.

These are just three slaves among the 12.4 million Africans who were captured by raiders and kidnappers and transported across the Atlantic in slave ships between the late 15th and the late 19th centuries.

As Marcus Rediker recalls in a new book on the slave trade, 1.8 million slaves died during that journey known as the Middle Passage, their bodies thrown to the sharks.

Most of the ten million who survived the journey were condemned to a plantation system so brutal, many more perished.

Two-thirds of the total were transported between 1700 and 1808, a period which includes the Age of Enlightenment and manuscripts by Jane Austen.

Olaudah was born in 1745.

He came from a pastoral background in which villagers worked collectively to build homes and cultivate the fields, raising foodstuffs, mostly yams and fruit, but also tobacco, and cotton which they wove into clothes.

Blacksmiths made weapons; other craftsmen made jewellery.

His Igbo people believed that the spirits of the dead would wander aimlessly unless given proper burial.

As in last century's death camps, perhaps only the very young, like him, could survive the journey without lifelong mental damage.

The humiliation of the slave train - men, women and children strapped in a neck yolk as they stumbled towards the coast - was usually followed by imprisonment for as much as eight months until a slave ship arrived and collected a full cargo - whereupon they were marched out, stripped, examined, haggled over and finally given a number by which they would be known throughout the voyage.

When Olaudah came round on the ship after fainting and was offered food, he refused it.

He was tied to the windlass and flogged.

In his despair, Olaudah went to throw himself over the side, even though he couldn't swim.

Then he saw that the slave-ship was equipped with netting on the sides to prevent its valuable commodities from committing suicide.

He was told that he was being carried to white people's country to work for them.

Many of the slaves believed until the end of the voyage that they were being shipped away to be eaten.

Olaudah was taken down into the darkness of the lower deck, where the slaves were manacled and shackled.

He was made to lie wedged in such close quarters that he "had scarcely room to turn himself".

His living space was about three square feet, hardly more than that of a corpse in its coffin.

The air was noxious; the constant rubbing of his chains raised sores on his wrists and ankles.

As the ship set sail, the full enormity of what was happening to him struck home, as it must have done to millions of other Africans.

Because of bad weather, the slaves stayed locked below in their chains for days at a time.

The heat was suffocating, the stench unbearable.

Covered in sweat, vomit, and blood, the packed slaves created a miasma which rose through the gratings of the upper deck in a loathsome mist.

The "necessary tubs" full of excrement "almost suffocated us", recalled Olaudah.

The shrieks of terrified slaves, conscious of the troubled spirits of the dead, mingled with the groans of the dying.

It was rare for a slave transport across the Atlantic not to give plenty of sustenance to the sharks swimming nearby.

Olaudah became sick and "hoped to put an end to my miseries".

He envied the dead who were thrown overboard, believing that their spirits lived on, liberated from their shackles.

His own spirits improved with the weather.

The slaves were usually allowed on deck twice a day, in chains.

Olaudah, being a child, went unfettered, and because he was sickly he spent more time on deck, where women slaves washed him and looked after him.

He saw three slaves elude the netting and jump overboard.

A boat was lowered, and to the anger of the captain, two of them succeeded in drowning.

The third was brought back on deck and flogged viciously.

When at last they sighted landfall the crew were overjoyed.

The captives were sullen and silent.

Like Ukawsaw, they had docked in Barbados which, as they would shortly find out, was one of the most brutal slave societies to be found anywhere in the world.

Olaudah was luckier than some.

His forcible separation from his beloved sister had occurred on the quay before he was taken to the slave ship.

But many families were now separated in the Barbados dockyard, and the air was filled with their shrieks and bitter lamentations.

They were lined up in rows, and at the sound of a drum-roll, buyers scrambled to pick out the slaves they wanted to purchase, throwing cords around them which tightened as they were pulled away.

Husbands were separated from wives, brothers from sisters, parents from children.

Olaudah, too young and small for the slave-masters, was transferred to another ship.

"I now totally lost the small remains of comfort I had enjoyed in conversing with my countrymen," he wrote (or dictated) many years later.

"The women who used to wash and take care of me were all gone different ways, and I never saw one of them again."

Nothing more would have been heard of Olaudah, had not the ship's crew, attracted by the boy's bright curiosity, taught him a lot about sailors' work.

He was eventually bought by a ship's captain as a gift for someone in England.

During the 13-week voyage he learned enough English to become a sailor himself and, by the age of 24, had earned enough money to purchase his freedom.

Slave ships could be of almost any size, from great galleons such as the 566-ton Parr, built in 1797, which carried 100 crew and could stow 700 slaves, to the Hesketh, a 10-ton vessel which sailed to Sierra Leone and took 30 slaves on to St Kitts in 1761, thus demonstrating that anybody with a bit of money could become a slave trader.

A typical medium-sized slaver would carry about 140 slaves, 70 male and 70 female, shackled two-by-two at the wrists and ankles.

The beams above the lower deck left only about four-and-a-half feet, so most slaves would spend 16 hours a day without being able to stand.

Many traders lowered the height still further by building out 6ft platforms in the lower deck from the edge of the ship to pack more bodies in.

A grating provided ventilation.

Male slaves were stowed forward and women aft - the women generally not in irons, giving them more freedom of movement.

So packed were the vessels that some captains slept in a hammock over a huddle of little African girls, while the first mate and surgeon slept over the boys.

In the middle of the main deck a "barricado" or barricade, ten feet high and extending two feet over the water either side, separated the men from the women.

If there was a slave revolt on board - and the crews accepted that these desperate men might try to kill them at the cost of their own lives - the barricado served as a defensive wall, allowing the crew to retreat to the women's side.

When the male slaves were on deck, the crew had them covered with blunderbusses and cannons loaded with smallshot.

The slave ship towed a lifeboat behind it in which sick slaves were isolated.

According to Louis Asa-Asa, many sick slaves on his ship got no medical attention.

Even on a comparatively healthy voyage the mortality rate would be five to seven per cent, and each death enraged and terrified the slaves, especially the ones who woke in the morning to find themselves shackled to a corpse.

Seamen took away the dead, along with tubs of excrement and urine.

They also scrubbed the deck and the beams, using sand and other scourers to remove dried filth, vomit and mucus.

Once or twice a fortnight, the crew would fumigate the lower deck with vinegar and tobacco smoke.

During the afternoon, bread and perhaps a pipe of tobacco and a dram of brandy would be offered to the slaves.

Around 4pm the slaves would be fed the afternoon meal: horsebeans and peas with salt meat or fish, before being taken down for the long night.

Dysentery, known as the bloody flux, was the biggest killer, followed by malignant fevers, including malaria, and dehydration, especially in the tropics.

The slave ship crews were almost as liable to disease, and many of them were not treated much better than the slaves themselves.

Although slave trade merchants always insisted that "good order" aboard their ships meant no abuse of the female slaves by the crew, it all depended on the attitude of the captain, who had the power to protect the women if he chose to do so.

Alexander Falconbridge, a doctor who campaigned against the slave trade, wrote that "on board some ships, the common sailors are allowed to have intercourse with such of the black women whose consent they can procure".

The officers on the other hand, "are permitted to indulge their passions among them at pleasure, and sometimes are guilty of such brutal excesses as disgrace human nature".

The crew were always more dispensable than the slaves: officers knocked to the deck any sailor who was disrespectful to them.

The smallest error saw the crewman bound to the rigging and flogged.

Literally adding salt to the wounds, the officers applied a briny solution called pickle to the deep red and purple furrows made by the cat o'nine tails, its knotted tails - sometimes interwoven with wire - serving to maximise the pain.

The cat ruled.

It was used to make people move on or to obey orders more quickly, even to make the slaves dance and sing, since exercise was good for them.

Mostly, the cat was used to make slaves eat the food they often refused.

If that did not work, a long, thin mechanical contraption called a speculum oris was used to force open their mouths and throats.

Slaves who rebelled were tortured, often by turning thumbscrews or by applying a white-hot cook's fork to their flesh.

Both caused excruciating pain.

However, most captains knew that his mission was to deliver slaves in good condition.

About ten days before the end of the journey and estimated landfall, the fetters were taken off the male slaves so that marks of chafing disappeared.

Their beards and sometimes their hair were shaved, and a silver nitrate caustic applied to hide sores.

Grey hairs were picked out or dyed black.

Finally sailors would rub down the naked Africans with palm oil to make their skin smooth and gleaming.

We know all this because the slave trade, at least in Britain, accumulated logs and diaries as assiduously as any Nazi book-keeper in the early 1940s.

This precision would be of great help when it came to educating the British public on what was being done in their name.

Men like Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce spoke with blazing moral conviction, and their single most powerful propaganda weapon was the reproduction of an image of a slave ship.

First published in 1788 and redrawn and republished many times throughout the Western world, it illustrated a coffin-shaped cross-section of a 297-tonner with 294 tiny, meticulously drawn Africans wearing loincloths and chained at the ankles, packed like herrings in a barrel.

Beneath the image were eight paragraphs of explanatory text, together with a picture of a supplicant slave in chains, hands raised and asking, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

Olaudah was a brother.

Louis and Ukawsaw were brothers.

They were bound together by a common experience of Hell.

• The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker, £30, John Murray Publishing.

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Marcus Rediker is a historian, writer and human rights activist, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. As a specialist of maritime history and of the Atlantic in particular, he has published several books, among which: Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (2004) and The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (2012). Marcus Rediker has granted an interview to Books&Ideas on the occasion of the publication in France of his book The Slave Ship. A Human History (Viking Penguin, 2007), whose title in French is À bord du négrier. Une histoire atlantique de la traite (Seuil, 2013).

In the following interview, Marcus Rediker discusses his ethnography of the slave ship, the sources he worked on, as well as the consequences of slavery, while making the link between race and terror from the 18th century to the current times. He defends the idea of writing “history from below”, which involves taking into account the lives of individuals, as modest as they may be. He also reminds us that the sea played a major role in the formation of social classes, of culture and ethnicity, making it obvious that the slave ship doesn’t belong to the past.

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Full transcription of the interview

Books & Ideas: How did you get the idea of writing a book on the slave ship?

Marcus Rediker: The idea for this book first came to me while I was visiting someone on death row. I have been involved as an activist against the death penalty for many years. I believe that governments should not be allowed to kill their citizens. In the United States the death penalty and the prison system in general are heavily racialized. In other words, minority people are vastly over represented both in the prison population and on death row.

So, in talking with Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is actually very well known in France – and on whose case I have worked for many years – he described to me the moment when he first got an active death warrant, meaning, he was given a slip of paper with his date to die on it. That was a moment of connection between race and terror. He was a member of the Black Panther Party, he was persecuted by the Philadelphia police for many years, he was someone that they really wanted to kill for political reasons. At that moment, I realized that I could study the origin of that connection. The relationship between race and terror began on the slave ship; I could study that. It took me a long time actually to do it, because it was such a daunting challenge. But, in a very real way, the origins of this book lay in a meeting on death row in Pennsylvania.

It has been important to me personally that a lot of prisoners have taken an interest in this book. I have gotten a lot of letters from people in the Pennsylvania prison system, asking if I would donate copies of The Slave Ship to the prison library – and of course I was always happy to do that.

I once had the opportunity, while I was a visiting scholar at Cornell University, to take part in their “prison education program”, at Auburn prison. I went to speak with a small group about a different subject, about piracy, but toward the end of that meeting, a senior and well-respected prisoner asked if I would come back and speak to a larger group about the slave ship. And I said “of course I would” but I didn’t actually believe that it would ever happen. And as I was leaving, that particular day, one of the prisoners came up to me and said: “You know, we think of this place as the modern slave ship.” I knew, that; it spoke directly to the continuities of history. When I finally did manage to give the lecture, despite a lock down that intervened in between (some prisoners thought it was because of the lecture itself because they were so eager to hear it). I spoke to about eighty people. After the lecture, a prisoner stood up and asked one of the best questions ever to me. He said – and he was, by the way, a so-called “white prisoner”: “OK. So, we know that violent incarceration is central to the story of America, from the beginning – on those slave ships – to right here, right now, where we are in Auburn Prison. How do we understand that? What does that mean to American history?” We spent the remaining time discussing that question. It was certainly one of the best discussions of the book I have ever been privileged to have.

Books & Ideas: You remind us that 14 million people were enslaved from the end of the 15th century to the onset of the 19th century. About 5 million died during the expropriation in Africa, the Middle Passage, and the first year in the Americas. This is a monstrous tragedy, but, as you explain in the opening of your book, statistics erase the violence of abduction, enslavement, torture, and early death: hence your ethnography of the slave ship, hence the “human history” you wrote. Did you want to bring humanity back in a history dehumanized by numbers and charts? Is the violence you recount an antidote to another violence, the “violence of abstraction” [1]?

Marcus Rediker: The fourteen million people who were enslaved in Africa resulted in about five million deaths and a middle passage through which nine to ten million were delivered alive in the Americas. This was an instance of extraordinary brutality and violence that was central to modern history. So, the question is: “Does the statistical approach to this great subject – the transatlantic slave trade – participate in that violence, by masking the human tragedy, by (in a way) sanitizing the reality?”

The answer that I gave to this question, in my book The Slave Ship, is:, yes, it does and it has. And interestingly, the modern statistical methods that were associated with investigation had their origins among merchants – who calculated the tonnage and the cargo – and the statistics of their own time. This was done in part to insulate themselves from the human atrocity that they were creating. So, in a very real sense, I think it is necessary for us to have a human history in order to struggle with the continuing human consequences of the slave trade. I truly believe that we live with those consequences every day and every country in the west, and certainly in all of Africa, all countries that were in any way involved in the slave trade.

Books & Ideas: Everybody knew that slavery gave way to a world of violence, humiliation and terror, and you show that this started as soon as the Africans would set foot on the deck. Violence was embodied by the “cat” (e.g. the whip), the thumbscrew, handcuffs, and even the sharks that surrounded the ship. But slaves also rose in revolt. Despite the dreadful violence aboard the ship, did the slaves have any agency?

Marcus Rediker: It is very important for everyone to understand that the slave system was based on violence and terror from the beginning to the end — from the moment of enslavement in West Africa, on the ship, through the voyage and on the plantation. Extreme violence was used by slave ship captains and their crews to control these millions of Africans in transit to the new world. The forms of violence included the cat o’ nine tails, thumb screws, other instruments of torture, manacles, shackles, neck ringa – what I called “the hardware of bondage”. Things were very important to the operation of every slave ship.

Yet, one of the most important findings of my book is that despite the calculated effort to terrorize, the Africans on the lower deck fought back, under the most extreme circumstances imaginable. In fact this is the only redeeming quality of this entire tragic story. The fact that despite the terror – even the use of sharks that circled the ships, to whom dead bodies were thrown overboard every day – none of this actually cowed the fighting spirit and the will of these Africans to be free. And the clearest sign of this is that even under those circumstances where they had no chance of winning, for example, if they should rise up and capture the ship, they did not know how to sail it! They still kept fighting. Sometimes they engaged in mass suicides so that their spirits might go home to Africa. So there is a powerful expression of agency from below against this logic of extreme violence and terror that was meant to rule all of those captive people.

Books & Ideas: Benito Cereno, Herman Melville’s novella, was published in 1855. The narrative takes place in 1799 and recounts how the African slaves overthrew and killed part of the white crew. Do you see any parallel between your narrative and literary accounts?

Marcus Rediker: As I wrote The Slave Ship, I was conscious of maritime literature – writers like Herman Melville, who had paid close attention to life at sea, who had himself been a sailor for several years and who wrote the novella Benito Cereno, based on his knowledge of a slave revolt that had taken place around the same time.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/Benito-Cereno/dp/B002H05F1U

The slave ship haunted the writers of its day, just as it was haunting entire societies both then and now. I would also mention a truly brilliant novel of the slave trade written by the late Barry Unsworth called Sacred Hunger, which won the Booker Prize in 1993. It is a really magnificent tale of the slave ship, in fact it was so good that I would not allow myself to read it while I was trying to write my book, for fear of being demoralized by how well he had managed to capture the reality of sailors, slaves, and the horrors of the ship. The history of slavery has had a profound influence on and through literature, fiction, and poetry. This was true, actually, of the romantic writers in the late eighteenth century. Coleridge and Wordsworth were both close friends of Thomas Clarkson. So, we see that the magnitude of this trade itself creates rumblings, echoes, all kinds of effects in all of the arts – painting, poetry, music and fiction.

Books & Ideas: The abolitionists started to be active in the 1770s. How did they lead their strategy? What arguments and methods did they use?

Marcus Rediker: How abolitionists fought the slave trade was a very important part of the story. Beginning in the 1770’s and then formally in the 1780’s, they created an organization to try to break the slave trade. One of the remarkable things about it was how quickly they succeeded in Britain in gaining a national consensus that the slave trade needed to be abolished.

But they had a dilemma: many people in Britain had some relationship to the slave trade but very few people understood its actual operation. So what the abolitionists felt they had to do was literally to make it real to people. How can we make the slave trade real? They came up with a brilliant answer, by having one of their number go to Liverpool, take all the measurements of a slave ship called the Brooks and then draw a diagram with all the bodies of the enslaved Africans symmetrically arranged to give a sense of “what the horror might be”, of having so many hundreds of people crammed into such a small space.

Source: http://www.culturalfront.org/2012/06/diagram-of-slave-ship-brooks.html

William Wilberforce had said “the world has never known so much misery in such a small space”. So, by handing this image from one person to another, they succeeded, I think, in exciting a sense of opposition, a sense of outrage, a sense that this was morally wrong, that it was a human tragedy. The image actually became a very important part of their successful campaign.

Now, we must also remember that most of the abolitionists were middle-class or upper-class people. They themselves did not know exactly how the slave trade worked, so Thomas Clarkson, who plays a very important part in my book, actually went to Bristol and Liverpool and walked up and down the docks to gather evidence from sailors who had worked in the slave trade, they were the ones who educated him, allowed him to understand the horrors – in truly real and personal ways – and that, then, gave him the capacity to educate the public at large about those horrors. In a real sense, there was not only abolition but abolition from below, through these dissident sailors who told their stories to people like Clarkson.

Books & Ideas: You often underline the scarcity of evidence, the lack of autobiographies and narratives pertaining to the slaves’ feelings and experiences. Nonetheless, you succeeded in explaining the slaves’ hardships and suffering: some of them would drown themselves to escape their executioners. Would you say that through your book, you struggled against silence and oblivion? How do historians struggle against such oblivion?

Marcus Rediker: The biggest single challenge in writing The Slave Ship was finding adequate sources. Adequate sources – I should say – of a particular kind because the business side of the trade generated a massive amount of evidence. But these tend to be the dry, statistical, inhuman kinds of evidences that I wanted to try to overcome. So the question was, what other kinds of evidences could be found? I had the advantage of having worked in maritime archives for about thirty years before I began this book. So, I had a flying start. I had already encountered, and read and studied, a lot of court cases involving slave ships. I had read travel narratives, I had already gathered a great deal of evidence. In fact, I would say that this is not the kind of subject someone could just one day begin and say “I am going to study the slave ship”. This research background made it possible.

That said, part of horror of the slave trade is the systematic destruction of African identities. I’ll give you one example of how that worked: we know that a million people, “a million souls” as they were called, passed through the port of Ouidah in Benin. Of that one million people, we have first person testimony from precisely two of them. So, the destruction of culture, the destruction of names, of histories, of backgrounds is a big part of the story and I must tell you that I actually spent several years thinking about whether to do this project because I wondered if I could do justice to those people, who were trapped on the lower deck.

I finally decided that it would be better to try and fail than not to try at all. But, in the process of doing work, and in educating myself about African societies from which these people came, I found it was possible to reconstruct the West African cultural logic of their experience and especially their resistance. We do have articulate story tellers like Olaudah Equiano – who left a remarkable account of his time in the slave trade – but I found that it was possible to put together other stories and to see how some of these African people thought about their own experience.

Books & Ideas: You stated that “to focus on the slave ship increases and diversifies the protagonists of the drama and, from the prologue to the epilogue, complicates the drama itself”. So, would you say that the hero of the book is the anonymous slave, or the ship herself?

Marcus Rediker: The kind of history I do – and I have written for my entire career as historian – is called history from below. It is sometimes called “people’s history”, it is a kind of social history that stresses the power of those normally left out of the narratives, to affect the course of history. So, in some ways, this book, The Slave Ship, was the ultimate test for history from below – literally from below decks! Is it possible to recover the thought and the action of those people about whom there was so little evidence? Can we really understand their lives, their constrained choices – what they did, how they did it, and what impact they had on the evolution of slavery as a system?

I knew we had hundreds of studies of the plantation – which was clearly one of the central institutions of modern slavery – but only three or four studies of the other major institution of slavery, that is, the slave ship. You can’t have plantations unless you have slave ships! Why were there so few studies of slave ships? It became an interesting question and I felt the need to fill that void with this ethnography of the ship, to show that historical processes happened at sea. Cultural formation happened at sea, race formation happened at sea, class formation happened at sea. We have to understand those processes because they were crucial to who the Africans were and who they would become.

One of the arguments of the book is that, looked at from the African side, you can say that what develops among those people on lower deck is a kind of Pan-African consciousness, because people of many different cultures were coming to terms with each other. But, looked at from the western Atlantic side, it is the origin of African American culture. I do believe that the heroes of the story are those people who suffered the terror, fought back, and endured. I do believe that is the most important moral message that the book can offer. I also think that it is also important that all the countries involved in the slave trade pay reparations to the descendents of those people who suffered this extreme violence and terror.

Books & Ideas: You often resorted to empathy in order to depict the lives of poor exploited sailors, as well as those of enslaved children, women and men. Poor white sailors and poor black slaves are on the same side, but the captains are excluded from this empathic stance. We feel like you didn’t want to sympathize with them, and the reader can feel a kind of contempt, even in the case of John Newton. It is understandable from a moral point of view, but it may be considered an omission from an epistemological point of view: how would you explain this unequal treatment? Why did you exclude the ship captains from the empathy you have white sailors and slaves?

Marcus Rediker: In approaching the slave ship, one of my objectives was to understand the experience of all people who found themselves there: the millions of multi-ethnic Africans, the crews who themselves were a mixed multitude of nationalities – including, by the way, African sailors – and the ship’s officers, and especially the captains. In studying the ship as a social system, I wanted to understand the experience of all of those people, and I think I did. I think I explained how they ended up there and why. The reason why I had so much sympathy for the Africans is obvious: almost none of them chose to be there. This was an entirely coerced migration.

I found that a great many of the sailors were also there by coercion. They had been pressganged or they had been essentially run into debt by ship captains, and then forced to go on the voyage. Many sailors did not want to go to Africa because they knew that the death rate was so high for sailors, who died in roughly the same proportions as the Africans. Most people don’t know that. The west coast of Africa was a deadly place for European sailors. So I had a great deal of sympathy for those people because how many of them ended up on this ship. They too suffered and died.

I did explain why captains were there – by choice. And, they were lucratively reimbursed for making that choice. Sailors made almost nothing, Africans made nothing at all, but slave ships captains might make in a course of a single voyage the equivalent of three or four hundred thousand dollars by today’s currency. Do I have sympathy for that? No, I don’t. That was simply an economic choice on their part. But, knowing that did not cause me to evaluate their role in the ship any differently. In other words, I tried to understand what it meant to be a slave ship captain and one of my points was that his violence was not an individual moral failure; it was a requirement of the job. The violence practiced by the captain of a slaver was required by the division of labor in the international capitalist economy.

So, I like to think that, even though I clearly do show more empathy for some groups than others, I have adequately explained everybody’s motivation for being there and their experience while there.

Books & Ideas: Does the slave ship belong to the past?

Marcus Rediker: We make a fundamental error if we think that the history of slavery is safely in the past; that the slave ships are no longer sailing. They are with us to this very day, they are like a specter on the edge of our consciousness, haunting us, in ways that we can’t fully understand; because this reality of the slave ship and of slavery itself lives on in deep structural inequality, in poverty, in discrimination, in racism. We forget how recently the institution of slavery was abolished. It was only a few generations ago. Historians are now beginning to think about the slave trade and slavery in new ways, not simply as an unfortunate part of our history, not merely as an atrocity.

A new phrase is being used: slavery is a “crime against humanity”. This means the history affects not only its own generations but subsequent generations for many, many years. This is the legacy of the slave trade. We still live with its consequences and we must take action and try to overcome its painful, damaging history.

To quote this article :

Ivan Jablonka, « On Board The Slave Ship. An Interview with Marcus Rediker », Books and Ideas , 12 December 2013. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : http://www.booksandideas.net/On-Board-The-Slave-Ship.html

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team. We will get back to you as soon as possible.

by Ivan Jablonka, 12 December 2013

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