The Slave Ship, by Marcus Rediker

The Slave Ship

The Slave Ship is a book about the enslavement of Africans by European colonists in the Americas, but as indicated by the title it focuses significantly more on how the slaves got to the Americas than on their subsequent life here.

The book is mostly built out of the surviving accounts of participants in and contemporary commentators on the slave trade, including freed slaves, abolitionists, ship’s captains and more. Sometimes this material is incorporated smoothly into the narrative, but at times, especially early in the book, it feels—or it did to me anyway—a little too undigested, like we’re reading the notes to be used in writing the book rather than the book itself.

If there’s a bias to the book, I suppose it’s in the direction of wanting to make sure the slaves come across as sympathetically as possible. Not that that’s all that objectionable, but at times it reads like Rediker was concerned that the injustice of their victimhood would somehow be lessened if they weren’t entirely pure.

As I was reading this book, for whatever reason among the things running through my head were some of the excuses I’ve most often heard from those who want to deny, or at least mitigate, the evil of the slave trade.

One such point I’ve heard many times is that the Europeans shouldn’t be painted as the villains, since it was “their own people” (other black Africans) who sold the slaves to the Europeans.

Now first off, it’s a stupid point if you think about it for even a few seconds. It would be like a child molester saying that his raping a six year old wasn’t as bad as it’s being made out to be because, “After all, the kid’s own stepfather let me rape him for $500.”

But for what it’s worth, it sounds indeed like Europeans themselves typically didn’t venture into Africa and snatch black people to make them slaves; they hung out near their ships and purchased them from, or traded for them with, Africans.

Sometimes the Europeans rationalized their behavior by saying that the slaves were prisoners of war, captured by a rival tribe in one of the incessant battles the natives had with each other, and so it’s not like they were being taken away from some wonderful life; in all likelihood as vanquished people they would have been put to death, lived as slaves within Africa, or otherwise led a miserable existence had they not ended up in European hands.

That’s not entirely untrue—it’s not as if most or all of the people taken to the Americas as slaves would have otherwise lived an idyllic life of peace and happiness with their families—but what it ignores is the effect the demand had on the supply. These battles were not independent events that the Europeans just happened to benefit from. The presence of people willing to pay for slaves incentivized the kind of behavior that produced slaves. A lot, indeed probably most, of these battles were not parts of wars that would have occurred anyway; they were basically kidnapping raids.

So, yes, for the most part “their own people” sold them into slavery. But in no way does that somehow put the European slave traders in a better light.

Another claim I’ve sometimes heard, either in defense of slavery or just as a curious observation, is that Africans succumbed to slavery in a way other people didn’t. For example, Indians weren’t enslaved. (Actually I think a small number were, but not to anything like the degree Africans were.) They were ignored, slaughtered, occasionally cooperated with and traded with, pushed farther and farther west, cheated, eventually encircled in little reservations, etc., but typically not captured and put to work as slaves on plantations. Nor did Europeans, that I know of, buy Chinese, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, Australian aborigines, etc. and bring them in ships to the Americas to labor as slaves.

The implication being, evidently, that if Africans somehow lacked some kind of fighting spirit or whatever enabled all these other groups to avoid enslavement (though not avoid oppression), maybe it’s kind of their own fault they ended up as slaves.

There’s much in this book that can be taken as a counter to any such apologetic for slavery. Rediker reveals that Africans routinely fought tooth and nail to avoid being taken to America as slaves. The ships’ crews lived in constant fear of insurrections, because such insurrections were quite common. When insurrection wasn’t a viable option, suicide and attempted suicide were frequent. Given any opportunity to do so, slaves would jump overboard, preferring even death by drowning (and probably being attacked by sharks in the process) to being slaves.

Indeed, the crews had to focus on suicide prevention as much as insurrection prevention or they’d lose their valuable cargo. Among the countermeasures taken were that slave ships were equipped with netting to catch anyone who attempted to go overboard.

There’s probably as much material in the book on this theme of Africans preferring anything—including death—to slavery as on any other.

I don’t know, though, that that is really sufficient to refute the notion that Africans were somehow more amenable to being slaves than other people. I could see a critic acknowledging all these accounts of rebelling and committing suicide and such, and responding that that’s all well and good, but the fact remains that Africans ended up as slaves and other people didn’t, so apparently they still could be broken—enough of them anyway—in a way other people couldn’t.

The author doesn’t address this type of claim directly, nor is it something I’ve researched, but my guess would be that there are factors to explain why Africans and not others were enslaved, other than some difference in group character that makes some people more “natural” slaves.

For example, in some cases maybe the distance would have been too great for any such hypothetical slave ship voyages to be economically feasible. Or maybe there wasn’t as much convenient strife the Europeans could generate and exploit. Or maybe, in the case of Indians, escape would have been too viable, as they would still be in their homeland with free people of their kind close by, unlike Africans brought across a vast ocean to a different continent. (Though I would think you could largely mitigate this last factor by shipping Indians thousands of miles within the Americas so they wouldn’t be near their countrymen, e.g., putting Cherokee slaves to work on plantations in Brazil, or bringing Patagonian Indian slaves to Alabama to pick cotton.)

Anyway, The Slave Ship is a very informative book. It certainly contains a lot of facts I didn’t know before reading it.

For example, speaking of the economics of slave ships, it sounds like that aspect of the slave trade was not a huge moneymaker. It was actually a very, very risky investment. If everything broke right, the shipowners could make some good money, but there was a great deal that could go wrong, from an inadequate supply of slaves at acceptable prices where you expected to find them in Africa, to slaves taking over a ship or dying trying to (both of which deprive you of your cargo), to ships falling prey to bad weather or pirates.

Maybe as striking as anything in the book to me was just how dangerous slave ship voyages were to the Europeans themselves. The author notes that “Half of all Europeans who journeyed to West Africa in the eighteenth century, most of them seamen, died within a year.” That’s something I would have never guessed.

Though there were some casualties in fights with slaves, most of these deaths were a result of disease. We hear a lot more about how devastating it was when diseases like smallpox were introduced by Europeans to Indians who had no immunity to them, but Europeans traveling to Africa to pick up slaves were exposed to many awful diseases to which they had no defenses, and a great number of them succumbed to them.

Plus a lot of sailors were basically worked to death. They were generally treated only marginally better than slaves themselves. Often they were, if not kidnapped, then manipulated in deceptive or borderline coercive ways to become a crew member on a slave ship to begin with. For example it was common to trick sailors—who tended to be a free spending bunch in general—to go on a drunken spending binge and then offer them a job on a slave ship as their only alternative to debtors prison.

Then on the ships, captains routinely governed in a harsh if not sadistic style with much flogging and such, convinced that it was the only way to keep order on a ship populated largely by people—not just the slaves but the crew—who didn’t want to be there. Toward the end of voyages, like when the slaves had been dropped off and the ship was shortly going to return to England or wherever it had started, if anything captains treated their crews even worse. The goal was to get crew members to desert before getting their pay at the end of the voyage.

In an interesting passage the author chooses to highlight at the end of the book, he tells of how many of the slave trade sailors were left sick, injured and destitute in various ports in the Americas, where they lived as homeless beggars, trying to scrounge enough to survive day to day. Fellow sailors sometimes aided them modestly, but surprisingly so did slaves in the area. They shared what minimal food they had with them, and took them into their huts and nursed them. (Many of the ailments they suffered from they’d picked up in Africa, so the slaves were familiar with them and how to treat them.)

It seems the slaves could see that their recent adversaries, who had often treated them with great brutality, were in another sense comrades who had shared a hellish journey together, oppressed themselves by the captain and his officers. Or maybe they saw them as nothing more and nothing less than suffering people in need of help, and that was enough.

One thing to remember about the situation the slaves were in as they were forcibly taken to the slave ships is that they generally had little or no idea what was going on. It’s not as if someone sat them down and explained what the slave trade was and what kind of voyage they were about to embark upon. No slave who preceded them came back from America to break it down for them. All they knew is that they’d been captured and were now being handed over to some very, very strange looking people who might or might not be human, and who behaved as if they meant them nothing but ill. A common rumor that circulated among the slaves upon their first encounter with white people is that they were to be cooked and eaten by these bizarre, pale cannibals.

Though obviously the human drama is what’s so arresting about the material in the book, it’s certainly also an excellent resource for those wanting to know all the technical details about the ships, such as their size, the material they were made out of, how they were laid out and why, where most of them were made, how many slaves and other cargo they could hold, how many years they typically lasted in service, etc.

The Slave Ship is not a book for the faint of heart. The author does not spare the gory details in describing, for example, the tortures slaves could undergo on the slave ships, such as having body parts cut off one by one (and then thrown into the mass of chained slaves forced to watch) until finally having their head chopped off. But that was the reality.


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