“if I have done any justice to the subject, it will be a painful book to read.”


[CN: Slavery, anti-black violence, colonialism]

THE SLAVE SHIP: A HUMAN HISTORY raises the curtain on a woman slave from Igbo, narrative details used liberally, who escapes from the slave march to the coast by trying to swim among estuary sandbars, is hindered by a shark, recaptured, and taken aboard the infernal “wooden world.”

This imaginative but evidence-based story gives way to a kind of digest of three centuries of documentary evidence. The slave ships were the paradigmatic technology of modernity, of the rise of capitalism, and at the center of the history of the political strife that is still happening. In short vignettes, Marcus Rediker, a white male historian, explores the squalor that happened on these vessels from as many angles as possible: captains and officers, the white sailors, the black captives, the merchants, the witnesses and activists who composed poems, pamphlets, plays to serve one political agenda or another. There are lots of maps and illustrations, the type looks really nice, the design is tasteful — everything about it indicates a big production from Penguin. This book was assigned reading in a transatlantic slavery course i took in undergrad but dropped (too many frat boys, and they talked too much), as was Hartman’s LOSE YOUR MOTHER. And these two works create an interesting dialog with each other.

Hartman’s book was a dark, brooding inquiry into the trauma of slavery after the poststructural crisis — she visits the El mina castle, which is also mentioned in SLAVE SHIP, but being in this historically charged space denies the “center” of a truly understood past. Rediker ends his introduction with

the firm belief that we must remember that such horrors have always been, and remain, central to the making of global capitalism.

LOSE YOUR MOTHER emphasizes that the final violence of white supremacist genocide is the kind of erasure that keeps the past outside of language which undermines the kind of movement for justice we need. Rediker’s book is rooted in a more classical presentation, and he’s emphatic that we can’t abandon history even if we wanted to. We are chained to the center as he identifies it. SLAVE SHIP starts with a reconstruction, the exercise that Hartman does only after 135 pages of intense thinking on the limits of apprehending historical knowledge.

Both authors use Foucault’s ideas to their own ends. Hartman writes on the “infamous lives” of her ancestors, condemned to be outside of humanity because the language of the dominant classes makes it so. Rediker is all about “technologies” of control in the broad Foucaultian sense, not limited to the naval architecture of deep-sea ships but also terror and public torture.

If LOSE YOUR MOTHER prioritizes depth, deliberately and painfully exploring Hartman’s own past, and her own attempts to push out from inherited trauma to make contact with the silence of the past through careful, meditative thinking, SLAVE SHIP is primarily about breadth. We sweep across continents and centuries, using ship manifests, logs, diaries, books, poems, narratives, broadsides — all manner of discourses to look at the slave trade from as many perspectives as possible.

The “magnificent drama” is made of four components: Captain vs. Crew, Sailors vs. Slaves, The conflict and cooperation among the slaves, and the strategies of Abolitionists.

One striking tool of control is the barricado,

a strong wooden barrier ten feet high that bisected the ship near the mainmast and extended about two feet over each side of the vessel. This structure, built to turn any vessel into a slaver, separated the bonded men from the women and served as a defensive barrier behind which the crew could retreat (to the women’s side) in moments of slave insurrection, but it was also a military installation of sorts from which the crew guarded and controlled the enslaved people on board. Built into the barricade, noted Riland, was a small door, through which might pass only one person at a time, slowly. Whenever the men slaves were on the main deck, two armed sentinels protected the door while “four more were placed, with loaded blunderbusses in their hands, on top of the barricade, above the head of the slaves: and two cannons, loaded with small shot, were pointed toward the main-deck through holes cut in the barricade to receive them.” The threat of insurrection was ever present. The captain assured a nervous Riland that he “kept such a guard on the slaves as would baffle all their efforts, should they attempt to rise.”

What becomes clear through the book is that the slave ship is the center of the history of our society because all of the major totalitarian institutions of our modern world are concentrated here. The corporate culture of the captain and his crew binds them together through race over class. The deck becomes a “military installation” and a prison yard. All of these procedures of incarceration, surveillance, hierarchy, individualization, control, all in a primordial mix before being divided and dispersed in the modern way we understand them now.

Another tool is the use of sharks. An endnote tells us that 25% of the world’s species of shark are found off Africa’s west coast. Sharks were the dread of everyone aboard; they followed the vessels all the way across the Atlantic, they stopped slaves from jumping overboard, and the bodies of perished slaves were fed ignominiously to the sharks. Some captains fed insubordinate slaves to the sharks alive.

The ship is also the crucible in which the modern concept of whiteness is formed:

It also mattered little what had been the cultural or ethnic background of the sailor, for he would, on the ship and coast of Africa, become “white,” at least for a time, as the “vast machine” helped to produce racial categories and identities. It was the common practice for everyone involved in the slave trade, whether African or European, to refer to the ship’s crew as the “white men” or the “white people,” even when the crew was motley, a portion of it “colored” and distinctly not white. The sailor’s status as a “white man” guaranteed that he would not be sold in the slave-labor market, and it marked him as someone who could dispense violence and discipline to the enslaved on behalf of the merchant and his capital. One of the lessons of the slave ship, as William Snelgrave pointed out, was that the enslaved must never “make a Disturbance, or offer to strike a white Man”; otherwise, they would be “severely punished,” perhaps executed for it. But such status did not guarantee that the sailor himself would not be the target of violence and discipline form the captain and officers, nor did it guarantee other standards of treatment aboard the ship.

A lot of interesting material is used, from the poems of James Field Stanfield, who sailed on several slavers; the memoirs of a captain-turned-abolitionist John Newton; the essays of Olaudah Equiano, a slave who became freed and a major activist; the stories of white anti-slavery pirates who liberated slave ships in what they called a “distribution of justice”; and the broadside of the Brooks, with the now famous drawing of the brutally packed slave hold.

What i remember most from the book are all the implied continuities of white supremacist and capitalist attitudes. The state is seen as the tool of capitalists, who need public handouts since there wasnt enough capital to maintain the slave trade in the first place. There is a racial double standard: whites are horrified and outraged by slave revolts as they glorify the resistance of Greek and Roman figures in history; sound familiar? And there is the constant fear of slave insurrection, something the white people then were more honest about than white people are now. The cop and military worship feverishly expounded by white culture betrays the weakness that they really cannot give an inch to any kind of protest against the racialized order. An interesting point from C.J. Robinson in BLACK MARXISM is the conflation of certain attitudes of the Christian masters, with the anxiety of the coming apocalypse and judgement, and the constant looming threat of a slave uprising. i feel like both of these anxieties persist.

But the best parts of this history are these revolts, which were very common. Sometimes they were led by the women slaves. Women and children, who had more freedom of movement on the ship, passed weapons and tools through the gratings to the slave hold, as well as gather information about the ship and the watch. Slaves took over ships, blew up ships, jumped overboard en masse, went on hunger strikes.

Rediker’s voice is confident and cool as he presents his research which is far-reaching and thoroughly well-cited. This history is indeed a human one, one that creates a tense knot of conflicting feelings, because we see how everyone, including the sadistic captains and white crew, were human beings; and that such inhumanity was given license bc of the broader definitions of humanity that were coming into the fore. A closing story of slaves looking after white sailors too sick for work, whose decomposing bodies are left to die in empty sugar casks, another form of refuse from the free-trade in human beings. It’s a glimmer of humanity in this 500-year nightmare. While LOSE YOUR MOTHER has the self-reflective consideration that this book lacks, SLAVE SHIP presents a vivid history and the earnestness that the past must be confronted.


Equiano’s Middle Passage proved to be a pageant of cruelty, degradation, and death. It began, crucially, with all of the enslaved locked belowdecks “so that we could not see how they managed the vessel.” Many of the things he complained about while the vessel was anchored on the coast suddenly worsened. Now that everyone was confined together belowdecks, the apartments were “so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself.” The enslaved were spooned together in close quarters, each with about as much room as a corpse in a coffin. The “galling of the chains” rubbed raw the soft flesh of wrists, ankles, and necks. The enslaved suffered extreme heat and poor ventilation, “copious perspirations,” and seasickness. The stench, which was already “loathsome,” became “absolutely pestilential” as the sweat, the vomit, the blood, and the “necessary tubs” full of excrement “almost suffocated us.” The shrieks of the terrified mingled in cacophony with the groans of the dying.

Kept belowdecks, probably because of bad weather, for days at a time, Equiano watched as his shipmates expired, “thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers.” The ship was filling up with the troubled spirits of the deceased, whom the living could neither bury properly nor provide with offerings. Conditions had “carried off many,” most of them probably by the “bloody flux,” or dysentery. The Bight of Biafra had one of the highest mortality rates of any slaving area, and the eight months it took the Ogden to gather its enslaved “cargo” only made matters worse. Equiano himself soon grew sick and expected to die. Indeed his death wish returned as he hoped “to put an end to my miseries.” Of the dead thrown overboard, he mused, “Often did I think many of the inhabitants of the deep much more happy than myself. I envied them the freedom they enjoyed, and as often wished I could change my condition for theirs.” Equiano considered those who had committed suicide by jumping overboard to be still alive, happy and free, and apparently still in touch with people on the ship.

Against the horror and the death wish stood stubborn, resistant life. Equiano continued to communicate with his fellow enslaved for the sake of survival. This he owed in part to enslaved women, who may or may not have been Igbo, and who washed him and showed maternal care for him. Because he was a child, he went unfettered, and because he was sickly, he was kept “almost continually on deck,” where he witnessed an increasingly fierce dialectic of discipline and resistance. The crew grew more cruel as the enslaved resolved to use whatever means available to them to fight back. Equiano saw several of his hungry countrymen take some fish to eat and then get flogged viciously for it. Not long after, on a day “when we had a smooth sea, and moderate wind,” he witnessed at close range three captives break from the crew, jump over the side of the ship, elude the nettings, and splash into the water below. The crew snapped into action, putting everyone belowdecks to prevent the eattempted suicide from escalating (as Equiano was convinced it would have done), then lowered the boat to recover those who had gone overboard. There “was such a noise and confusion amongst the people of the ship as I never heard before.” Despite the crew’s efforts, two of the rebels successfully completed their self-destruction by drowning. The third was recaptured, brought back on deck, and whipped ferociously for “attempting to prefer death to slavery.” Equiano thus noted a culture of resistance forming among the enslaved.

One part of Equiano’s own strategy of resistance was to learn all he could from the sailors about how the ship worked. This would, in the long run, prove to be his own path to liberation, since he would work as a sailor, collect his wages, and buy his freedom at age twenty-four. He described himself as one of the people on board who was “most active,” which in eighteenth-century maritime parlance meant most vigorous in doing the work of the ship. As he watched the sailors toil, he grew fascinated and at the same time mystified by their use of the quadrant: “I had often with astonishment seen the mariners make observations with it, and I could not think what it meant.” The sailors noted the bright boy’s curiosity, and one of them decided one day to gratify it. He let Equiano peer through the lens. “This heightened my wonder; and I was now more persuaded than ever that I was in another world, and that every thing about me was magic.” It was another world, a seafaring society unto itself, and it had a magic that could be learned. Equiano had made a beginning.


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