Jillian MiesnerMarcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History, (New York: Penguin, 2007)Within the book The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker, he bring to life the authentic horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and what truly happened on the slave ships. Rediker's thesis spoke about the four dramas that were played out on the ships by “the ship captain, the motley crew, the multi-ethnic enslaved, and towards the end of the period, middle-class abolitionists”(6). The author then moves onto detail what he calls “human dramas”. The human dramas he describes are actually four different scenarios that were played out most often on the slave ships. The first being “the relationship between the slave-ship captain and his crew”(6), the “actors” would be the captain on the ship and the crew. This was then came the second human drama, which would be “the relationship between sailors and slaves”(7). The slaves and sailors served as the “actors” in this scene. Following was the third “drama”, which was made up of the slaves from different tribes who worked together to survive their journey through hell, a tad bit more bearable. Leaving the last “drama”to be what came about in society in America and Britain's society. It was the reaction to slave ships in society and the actions of abolitionists that created the actors of this drama. Starting the first “drama”-as Rediker puts it- is the relationship between a captain and his crew. These relationships varied in the ways they worked some great, some harsh but consistent patterns of cruelty was most prominent. For Example the author explains the basic role of the
Most spasms of cruelty in history we know about largely through the testimony of victims. It is thanks to acts of witness by survivors like Primo Levi and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for instance, that we can begin to picture what life was like in Auschwitz and the gulag. There is no great trove of memoirs by retired concentration camp guards.
By contrast, a much more prolonged bout of suffering, the notorious Middle Passage across the Atlantic, on which more than 12 million Africans were embarked for the Americas over more than three centuries, we know about almost entirely from the perpetrators. There are few accounts of this voyage by slaves, and historians are now not 100 percent sure of the authenticity of the most famous of them, the 18th-century autobiography of Olaudah Equiano. But an astonishingly large body of evidence remains from those who trafficked in human beings: letters, diaries, memoirs, captain’s logbooks, shipping company records, testimony before British Parliamentary investigations, even poetry and at least one play by former slave-ship officers.
It is this rich array of material that Marcus Rediker plumbs, more thoroughly than anyone else to date, for his masterly new book, “The Slave Ship: A Human History.” His focus is on the period after 1700, when this traffic was increasingly dominated by Britain — a country where, as anyone who has worked in its libraries and archives knows, they seldom seem to throw a piece of paper away. The documents mounted up because the transport of chained and shackled Africans was once so central a part of world commerce.
Rediker looks not at that bigger picture but at the slave ship itself, as a microeconomy where the captain was chief executive, jailer, accountant, paymaster and disciplinarian, exercising these roles by maintaining, from his spacious captain’s cabin in a very unspacious ship, the mystique of what later military leaders would call command isolation. Slave ships are, after all, a far larger part of our history than we like to think. Our normal picture of an 18th-century sailing vessel is of one filled with hopeful immigrants. But before 1807, ships carried well over three times as many enslaved Africans across the ocean to British colonies as they did Europeans.
Not only was the business a booming one, it was, until pesky abolitionists started making a fuss in the 1780s, considered highly respectable, as central to the Atlantic economy as is something like oil today. “What a glorious and advantageous trade this is,” wrote James Houston, who worked for a firm of 18th-century slave merchants. “It is the hinge on which all the trade of this globe moves.” John Newton, who later wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” spent part of his youth as a slave-ship captain and believed that because of the long periods of time at sea, there was no calling that afforded “greater advantages to an awakened mind, for promoting the life of God in the soul.”
Respectability is not the only resemblance to international trade today. Rediker points out many others. One is the highly globalized nature of the business, and even of the ships’ construction: he traces how one major British slave-ship owner ordered his vessels built in New England, which had the best timber, but sent the builder nails, rope and anchors from Liverpool, where their price was lower. Like executives today, British slave merchants pressed their government for deregulation, and finally it obliged, canceling the Royal African Company’s guaranteed monopoly. Just as corporate officers now get stock options, slave-ship officers received the extra compensation of a few “privilege” slaves they were permitted to buy, transport and sell for their own profit. Sometimes there were executive bonuses tied directly to performance, based on the number of slaves delivered. And finally, those who succeeded in the business could seamlessly make the transition to politics, the way tycoons still do: former slave-ship captains sat in both the British House of Commons and the United States Senate (James D’Wolf of Rhode Island). This complex tissue of normality makes one wonder what aspects of our own everyday business-as-usual people will, a century or two from now, be considered as horrendous as we think the slave trade was.Continue reading the main story