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Book review: The Slave Ship: A Human History

Marcus Rediker is a distinguished professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and an award-winning American historian of the early modern age and the Atlantic world. He is the author of four previous books, the most recent of which is titled The Slave Ship. Rediker synthesizes the violent nature of the Anglo-American slave trade during its so-called Golden Age, which lasted from 1700 to 1808, for common readership by using evocative language, fluid narration, poignant imagery, dramatic vignettes, diverse sources, dynamic characters, and bold statistics. This was accomplished for the general public. Rediker captures the phenomenon of the transatlantic trade from the perspectives of its many varied participants, such as merchants, underwriters, captains and officers, seaman, slaves, and agitators.

 This approach is reminiscent of Walter Johnson’s multi-perspective approach to the American interstate trade, which was presented in Soul by Soul. This visceral and philosophical history centers on a particular emphasis on the horrific but calculated “hardware of bondage,” which is most accurately defined by that “vast and devilish machine,” the Guineaman slaver. This history’s foundation is a specific focus on the “hardware of bondage.” Even though The Slave Ship provides very little new information, it is one of the first books to present a nuanced and comprehensive portrayal of the Atlantic slave trade as “capitalism without a loincloth,” to borrow a metaphor that Walter Rodney has used in other parts of his writing. Not only does it serve as a reminder that “violence and terror were integral to the Atlantic economy,” but it also does much more. It demonstrates this to us time and time again.

Even though Rediker never mentions this connection, it is quite probable that The Slave Ship gets its name from the Romantic marine painting of the same name that was created by G.M.W. Turner (1840). This oil painting on canvas portrays a barkentine slaver struggling in the swirling waves against a stormy sky. In the forefront of the image are black slaves who are drowning while still wearing their chains. The Zong massacre, which occurred in the Caribbean in 1781 and saw the slaving captain Luke Collingwood throwing 142 living slaves overboard, inspired the artwork. Collingwood afterward launched a civil battle to collect the insurance money. The Zong case is discussed in depth throughout the book, and a painting by Turner was selected as the cover illustration for one edition of the book.

The Slave Ship is divided into ten chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion. Four of the chapters approach the topic of the slave trade from different points of view by using memoirs, four of the chapters discuss how sailors and slaves ended up on the slave ship and how they resisted the slave trade. The final chapter discusses the rise of abolition by disseminating transatlantic imagery (diagrams of the slave schooner). These chapters can be found in “The Slave Trade: A Global History,” published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Although a direct comparison is never elaborated upon, readers will sense a consistent and underlying contrast between the slave trade and the modern prison industrial complex. Rediker has stated that the idea for The Slave Ship emerged from his visits in the 1990s with death-row prisoners in Pennsylvania. Although this is the case, readers will sense a consistent and underlying contrast between the slave trade and the modern prison industrial complex. In this sense, the central theme is the Foucaultian concept of constructing obedient and working bodies through imprisonment, horror, and subjection. Slave ships are considered carceral facilities, similar to the highest security prisons. It not only “delivers millions of people to slavery,” but it also “prepares them for it.”  Similar to the process of slavery, the practice of imprisonment relies on a “violence of abstraction,” in which the general people are shielded from the everyday horrors committed by their economic system.

The picture of the Slave Ship was designed to appeal to general people, much like the image of the Brooks, so that it might break beyond the barrier of academic abstraction. Slave-trade historians have been misled by those detractors who claim the book does not provide any fresh scholarly insights since it was not written for them. However, those historians have failed to understand that the book was not written for them. Rediker’s most notable contribution is providing non-historians with an honest, thorough, critical, and interesting review of the slave trade. This is by far Rediker’s most notable accomplishment. He has inspired us to remember that “the most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history” was so magnificent because of the people who made it possible, rather than because of the numbers that made it profitable, by beginning the book with a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois. He has done this by beginning the book with a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois. As he draws to a close on the book with a call for a “new, social movement of justice,” he poses the following question: Where will the most wonderful narrative of the next thousand years be told? Who exactly are the people involved? Who are the people working to abolish it?

References

Rediker, M. (2007). The slave ship: a human history. Penguin.

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