The Slave Ship

The Slave Ship: A Human History is a historical study of the incredible human suffering and terror experienced by slaves who were transported from West Africa to the New World on British slave ships between 1700 and 1807, the year that the British parliament approved the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Marcus Rediker, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, undertook extensive archival research in British libraries and record offices, and he based this thorough study on original documents and on important but little-known eighteenth century books on the slave trade. The solidity of his research and his fifty-two pages of footnotes demonstrate clearly his scholarly expertise in this human tragedy that caused so much avoidable suffering in Africa, on numerous Caribbean islands, and in the United States. He wisely decided to limit his investigation to the British involvement in the slave trade over just one century. His choice of the eighteenth century also makes sense because it has been estimated that almost half of the total slaves transported from Africa to the New World endured this trip in the bottom of slave ships during that century. Had Rediker also chosen to examine participation in the slave trade by France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain, this book would have been three or four times longer.

Rediker explains clearly that England relied greatly on the slave trade for its immense wealth and political influence in the eighteenth century. The infamous slave trade was part of the triangular trade. English merchants shipped finished goods from England for sale in West Africa or to be traded with African chiefs for slaves. Rediker points out that most black Africans who were transported to the New World as slaves had been kidnapped by other black African leaders and tribes and then sold or traded to captains of English slave ships. This may come as news to many readers who may not have realized that black Africans had sold other black women, men, and children into slavery.

Rediker describes how slave ship captains and members of their crew worked through intermediaries or directly with African leaders to get slaves. He also relates how captured Africans were taken on small boats from which they were taken in chains onto slave ships, where they were kept chained on the lower deck. Rediker illustrates the horrendous conditions that the slaves endured by reproducing a 1787 drawing of the slave ship Brooks. The ship was built in 1781; its lower deck was designed to accommodate 294 slaves. Each slave occupied a space comparable to the that which a coffin would occupy. Each adult man was allocated a space six feet long and fifteen inches wide, while adult women, boys, and girls had even less space. The height of the prison area was just five feet, and there were no toilet facilities for the slaves. Those slaves who died during the “Middle Passage” were simply thrown overboard, where their bodies were eaten by ravenous sharks.

Rediker explains that captains of slave ships attempted to justify such cruelty by claiming that the slaves had to be chained in order to prevent uprisings and to protect the crew from attacks. He argues persuasively that the physical and psychological mistreatment of slaves was part of organized terror designed to transform free human beings into subservient prisoners whom the captains planned to sell to plantation owners in the New World. Other forms of physical and psychological terror were experienced by slaves when they were dragged from the lower deck to the main deck. Slaves were then ordered to “exercise” in chains; those who resisted were whipped or captains threatened to throw them overboard. Other captains went even further. A captain named Edward Kimber ordered adult and adolescent women to “dance” naked before the crew in order to bring lascivious pleasure to the sadistic captain and crew. When one modest fifteen-year-old girl refused to “dance” in front of Kimber, he ordered...

(The entire section is 1635 words.)