The Slave Ship

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1635

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...

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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 his crew to flog her to death. Upon his return to England, Kimber wasindicted for the murder of this slave, but an English jury had no problem acquitting him because of its racist belief that killing an adolescent black slave did not constitute murder. This outrageous acquittal made it clear to slave ship captains that they could act with impunity. No English jury was willing to endanger the wealth that the slave trade brought to England. The captains had personal financial motivation to transport as many slaves as possible because they received a commission for each slave sold in the New World.

The living conditions on the lower deck of slave ships may have been much worse than the illustration of the slave ship Brooks would have readers believe. There may well have been even less space on slave ships for each slave than the dimensions described above. It is not at all surprising that a very large number of slaves died from infectious diseases and dysentery. Rediker notes that it is impossible to determine how many slaves died on English slave ships during the eighteenth century because slaves who did not survive the trip across the Middle Passage were simply thrown overboard. Records were not kept for dead slaves. It is reasonable to assume, however, that the fatality rate was very high.

The third part of the triangular trade was also very profitable for England. After selling slaves to plantation owners, slave ship captains purchased raw materials and brought them back to England. By a cruel irony, the lower decks of slave ships were fully cleaned after the removal of slaves. Slave ship captains were more concerned with keeping raw materials clean and dry than with the health of the human beings whom they had enchained.

In this book, Rediker writes frequently of his scholarly interest in economic history. He explains that a desire to increase profits motivated all the actions of slave ship captains and their masters back in England. Allowing more space per slave in the lower decks would have reduced profits, as it would have permitted the sale of fewer slaves in the New World. Relying on less sadistic methods of control than chains, whips, and psychological terror would have required hiring more crew members, and the wealthy slave ship owners in Liverpool and Bristol, then the two major English ports for slave ships, did not want to spend any more money than was absolutely necessary to transport the slaves.

Rediker does an excellent not just in describing the crass economic motivation for the English participation in the slave trade throughout the eighteenth century but also in explaining how English Protestant leaders struggled for almost two decades to persuade Parliament to abolish the slave trade. With the 2007 film Amazing Grace, the general public became acquainted with the key involvement of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) in persuading Parliament to approve the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The very title of the film reminds viewers of the famous Protestant hymn composed in 1772 by the Anglican clergyman and former slave ship captain John Newton (1725-1807). Although the film illustrates effectively how Wilberforce’s religious beliefs convinced him that Christian moral values were totally incompatible with the existence of the slave trade, this otherwise admirable film underestimates the lengthy efforts that had preceded William Wilberforce’s successful efforts in 1807.

Rediker explains that it took many years of repeated efforts by a number of people to change British attitudes toward the slave trade so that the British public slowly began to pressure its members of Parliament to abolish the slave trade. Opponents of the slave trade realized that they needed to shock the public by presenting viscerally powerful images and arguments. Slave ship owners in Bristol and Liverpool had no intention of cooperating with these opponents. An Anglican lay member named Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who had written against the slave trade while he was studying at Cambridge University, decided in the late 1780’s that he wanted to tell the British public what actually happened on a slave ship. Although slave ship owners ordered their captains not to answer any questions from Clarkson, this did not prevent him from acquiring firsthand information on the reality of human suffering during the Middle Passage. Clarkson went to pubs frequented by former crew members of slave ships, who told him that slaves were chained under horrendous conditions on the lower decks of slave ships and were frequently whipped by sadistic slave ship captains.

Clarkson described bluntly the psychological and physical torture experienced by slaves during the Middle Passage. In addition to his verbal arguments, he reproduced in a 1787 pamphlet, first printed in Plymouth, England, and frequently reissued in book form, a drawing of the lower deck of the slave ship Brooks. Clarkson wanted his readers to conclude that the slave trade was nothing more than the systematic torture and murder of human beings. Newton, a highly respected Anglican priest, wrote a treatise titled Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788), in which he wrote of his previous work as a slave ship captain. He spoke of the mistreatment that he had inflicted on slaves before his religious conversion and his eventual repentance for the sins that he had committed. His readers came to associate his hymn “Amazing Grace” with the grace that he had received during his religious conversion experience.

On their own, Clarkson and Newton could not have succeeded in persuading the British parliament to abolish the slave trade, but they successfully convinced their fellow Anglican William Wilberforce, who was also a member of Parliament, to put forth their arguments in the House of Commons. The abolishment of the slave trade required the cooperation of numerous religious and political leaders in England. Marcus Rediker has done an excellent job of describing both the very real horrors of the slave trade and its abolition.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31

Booklist 104, no. 2 (September 15, 2007): 9-10.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 15 (August 1, 2007): 776-777.

Library Journal 132, no. 15 (September 15, 2007): 72.

The New York Times Book Review 157 (October 21, 2007): 15.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 30 (July 30, 2007): 67.

The Wall Street Journal 250, no. 86 (October 11, 2007): D8.

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