Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Book Review: "The Slave Ship: A Human History"

Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: A Human History (Viking, 2007) explores the history of the transatlantic slave trade by concentrating on both the slave ship itself (which Rediker calls "a strange and potent combination of war machine, mobile prison, and factory") and also on the humans who populated the ships and paid for their voyages: the slaves themselves, the common sailors, the captains, and the bankrolling merchants. Rediker notes that while many histories of the slave trade have been written, the scholarship has been plagued by what novelist Stephen Unsworth termed the "violence of abstraction" - a reliance on numbers and statistics which serves to dehumanize slavery and those involved with its continuation.

At the end of his introduction, Rediker writes "[T]his has been a painful book to write, and if I have done any justice to the subject, it will be a painful book to read" (p. 13). He's right, but his following sentence is also correct: "There is no way around this, nor should there be." This is indeed a profoundly disturbing book, one which I had to put down for hours and in a couple cases even days at a time before I felt comfortable opening it again.

The first chapter is comprised of a series of vignettes showing some of the various gruesome, imaginative and horrifying ways slaves found to rebel on board the ships, or to take their own lives to end their suffering. Rediker goes on to provide a deep, thoughtful analysis of the ships used to haul human cargo, as well as one of the best overviews I've read of the origins of African slavery and an ethnographic look at the regions from which most slaves were 'obtained'.

Chapters in the middle of the book highlight three particular individuals: the slave Olaudah Equiano, sailor James Field Stanfield, and captain John Newton. This is also the best scholarly treatment of Newton I've read, as Rediker is able to cut through the myths about the man and examine his career in its totality. I had no idea, for example, that Newton was such a prolific writer while serving in the slave trade: Rediker suggests that between his letters, diaries and logbooks, Newton "may have written more from the decks of a slave ship - and more about what transpired on the decks of a slave ship - than has any other captain" (p. 158).

Following the targeted examples, Rediker takes captains, sailors and then slaves in a more general light, discussing the impact of merchants' orders on the way the captains carried our their missions, examining the terroristic nature of the captain's authority aboard ship (toward both sailors and slaves), and getting deep into the question of how the enslaved came to form a collective identity on the ships which in some cases prompted revolt or resistance.

Finally, Rediker briefly discusses the abolitionist movement as it emerged during the late 1790s, ably analyzing the spread of a particularly effective piece of propaganda, the image of the slave ship Brooks. He also works to remind readers of the important work done by leading abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (lately overshadowed by William Wilberforce and others), who spoke with hundreds of slave-trade sailors about their experiences on board the ships, working - Rediker argues - as an early sort of social historian.

Powerful, moving, and extremely well-written, Rediker's book should be read by anyone with an interest in human history. The range of sources and research is staggering, and the footnotes are both thorough and illuminating. With a minor reservation about some of the views expressed in the epilogue, I recommend this book very highly indeed.

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