The Slave Dancer Historical Context

Paula Fox

Historical Context

The Slave Trade
Paula Fox is a contemporary writer, but The Slave Dancer is set in 1840, in New Orleans, and on the slave ship The Moonlight. Fox brings this time to life through Jessie's eyes: the reader learns that although it was illegal to import slaves from Africa, this trade went on, and that the sale of American-born slaves was open and accepted. As a World Book article on the trade noted, by the early 1800s, more than 700,000 slaves lived in the southern United States, and by 1860, there were about four million slaves in these states. Although Jessie's family is too poor to own slaves, he sees them in the streets and in the homes of the wealthy, and it is understood that anyone who has any money owns servants, and that most occupations are directly or indirectly related to the work of slaves. Until Jessie sees the truth about slavery, it doesn't occur to him to question whether this is right or wrong—it's just the way things are in his time and place. Attitudes toward people of African descent were also affected by the common racist conviction among whites, as Jessie notes, that "the least of them was better than any black alive."

Because the sole motive of the slave trade was profit, some captains of slave ships tried to pack as many people as possible into their ships and transport them for the lowest possible cost. Others believed in "loose packing"; they did not take on as many slaves, and allowed them more room on the ship, hoping that this would cut down on sickness and death among the captives. (In the book, Captain Cawthorne is called "a tight packer" by his crew.) On all ships, the slaves were kept chained in the hold at all times except when they were brought on deck to exercise. This crowding, and the complete lack of any sanitary facilities, led to disease and death on all slave...

(The entire section is 754 words.)