The Slave Ship: A Human History 
by Marcus Rediker.
Murray, 434 pp., £25, October 2007, 978 0 7195 6302 7
Show More
Show More

Last year’s bicentennial of Britain’s outlawing of the Atlantic slave trade inspired a host of scholarly and popular commemorations: conferences, exhibitions, even a big-budget film, Amazing Grace, that made an unlikely matinee idol of William Wilberforce. All these events took place in an atmosphere suffused with self-congratulation. The crusade against the trade and the government’s eventual response offers a usable past for a society increasingly aware of its multiracial character: a chapter of history of which all Britons can be proud.

As Christopher Brown’s excellent recent book on the abolition movement suggests, Britain, the world’s leading slave trader in the 18th century, later presented abolition as irrefutable proof of its virtuous motives as it embarked on a new era of imperialism.* Previously, rhetoric celebrating ‘British liberty’ had rung a bit hollow given the country’s role in shipping Africans to the New World. Abolition, Brown suggests, accumulated a stash of ‘moral capital’ that helped to underpin the idea of liberal empire. Even today, it has not been entirely expended. Lost in all this self-satisfaction is the reality that slavery itself survived in the British Empire into the 1830s and in the United States until the end of the Civil War in 1865. (This perhaps explains why Americans all but ignored the anniversary of their own country’s outlawing of the trade on 1 January 1808.)

Also lost, of late, according to Marcus Rediker, has been the human experience of slavery. Historical debate has focused on the trade’s economic impact, the causes of abolition and the precise numbers transported from Africa. The most widely accepted figure today is that over the course of four hundred years, beginning in the late 15th century, eleven million Africans arrived in the New World. About three million more perished onboard the ships or in the process of capture and enslavement in Africa. This was ‘history’s greatest forced migration’, Rediker writes.

Rediker has established himself as the leading historian of maritime labour in the 18th century, the ‘golden age’ of the slave trade. He has previously written about the era’s pirates and its rebellious sailors and dockworkers. Now, he directs his attention to the captains and crews who worked the slave ships and to the slaves themselves. The book is not conceived as a full history of the trade. There is no mention of the part played by other European powers, nor does Rediker enter into the long-standing debate, originally inspired by Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), on the economic causes of abolition. Rediker sees the slave ship as a microcosm of economic exchange and political and military power, the ‘linchpin’ of the world’s first era of ‘globalisation’.

Slave ships carried the labour that built the first British Empire. They enriched planters, merchants, investors, insurance companies, shipbuilders and the government. On their return voyages to Europe they flooded the market with sugar, coffee and tobacco, the first mass-marketed consumer goods. The trade involved high costs, high risks and high profits. Rediker does not mince words in describing the ‘terror’ – unleashed against sailors as well as slaves – that enabled it to function. The Slave Ship is dramatic, moving and kaleidoscopic. It draws on a remarkable array of sources: memoirs, eyewitness accounts, government documents, merchants’ record books and the database of slaving voyages compiled in the 1990s by a group of historians headed by David Eltis and Herbert Klein. It ranges from the counting houses of Liverpool and Bristol to the ‘factories’ (slave-trading outposts) of West Africa and the slave markets of the Caribbean. The book is episodic and sometimes confusing. It lacks a clear principle of organisation, and there is much repetition concerning the purchase of slaves, the recruitment of crews and discipline and resistance at sea. But its virtues considerably outweigh these flaws. This is truly an Atlantic history – something frequently called for but much less frequently achieved.

Rediker certainly knows his ships: how and where they were built, how a normal trading vessel was transformed into a slave ship by the addition of cannon and the building of a ‘barricado’, a barrier across the main deck behind which armed crewmen could retreat in the event of an uprising. He takes us on a tour from stem to stern, from captain’s quarters to the levels below decks where slaves were incarcerated. He knows the crew and their tasks – the mates, carpenters, gunners and common sailors. And he knows how slaves were captured, transported and terrorised.

The Slave Ship makes it clear that while Europeans financed, directed and profited from the trade, it could not have functioned without the active participation of rulers and traders in Africa. Domestic slavery and the trading of slaves across the Sahara to Arab merchants existed centuries before Europeans arrived in West Africa. But the rise of the transatlantic trade transformed African societies. By the 18th century, militarised states like Asante and Dahomey had come into existence that thrived by warring on and enslaving their neighbours. The trade exacerbated class tensions within African societies, as merchants and rulers profited from selling commoners to the slavers.

But Rediker’s interest lies primarily with the victims. He draws heavily on the memoir of Olaudah Equiano, the son of a West African village chief who was kidnapped at the age of 11 by traders but eventually went on to a notable career as an abolitionist, to describe how Africans were brought from the interior to the coast and first encountered the slave ship – a vessel far larger and more menacing than anything they had ever seen. Even if, as some historians have recently suggested, Equiano was born in South Carolina, not Africa, his vivid account, Rediker argues, derived from conversations with those who lived through the experience of capture and transportation.

Once onboard ship, the slaves entered what Rediker calls ‘a world unto itself’, a combination of warship, prison and workplace. It could be of any size, from small pleasure craft dispatched to pick up a handful of slaves in Africa and sell them in the West Indies, to behemoths like the Parr, a 566-tonne ship fitted out to carry seven hundred slaves and a hundred crewmen. (An explosion, its cause unknown, destroyed the Parr during its first voyage.) Then there was the Brooks, the most famous of all slave ships. Abolitionists circulated a diagram of the vessel crammed with slaves on both sides of the Atlantic, the era’s most effective piece of visual propaganda. The trade’s defenders claimed the ship was an invention: human beings could not possibly be packed together for a long voyage with so little space. Rediker shows that, not only was the Brooks real, but she made ten slaving voyages, sometimes carrying even more slaves than the number shown in the famous drawing.

Whatever the size, every slave ship was a rigidly hierarchal environment headed by a captain wielding a power, one wrote, ‘as absolute … as any potentate in Europe’. Beneath him were the sailors, drawn from impoverished residents of port cities, ex-felons, debtors and others who could be lured into service by advance payment of two months’ wages, often spent before departure in taverns and brothels. As soon as the ship left port, captains established their authority over the crew, sometimes sadistically, with whippings and other punishments for minor infractions, or none at all. James Stanfield, a sailor whose long epic poem about his experiences Rediker quotes at length, wrote of the ‘demon cruelty’ of his captain. Stanfield felt that in some ways the slaves were better off than the crew, since the captain had an economic incentive to deliver them alive and well for sale.

Once the ship arrived on the African coast and began to load slaves, however, captain and crew found common cause in fear of insurrection. Now, from captain to cabin boy, all were white men. This hardly guaranteed them equality but it did ensure that they would not be sold. (Even African traders could find themselves ensnared if they weren’t careful.) Captain and crew now terrorised the human cargo: there were whippings and brandings with hot irons and the widespread rape of slave women. Sharks gathered around the ships – some followed them all the way across the ocean – waiting to feed on the corpses of those who perished. To discourage escape attempts, some captains threw food overboard to keep the predators nearby.

On the ship, Africans from different societies, speaking different languages, practising different religions, began to create a new identity. If, Rediker argues, sailors became white men, the slaves, previously Igbo or Yoruba, became ‘blacks’ or ‘Africans’. The trade threw together individuals who would never otherwise have encountered one another and who had never considered their colour or residence on the same continent a source of unity. Their new bond was forged not from kinship, language or even ‘race’, but from slavery itself. Although the process of creating a cohesive African-American culture would take place over many years, it began, Rediker shows, onboard the slave ships.

Rediker’s account of this ‘shipboard community’ is unavoidably speculative, but it helps to explain the resistance that broke out at every stage of the commerce. As Benjamin Franklin pointed out at the American constitutional convention of 1787, the difference between the trade in slaves and all other commerce was that other cargoes do not rebel. The book begins with a failed attempt at resistance – a woman leaping from a canoe while being ferried from the African shore to a waiting slave ship and quickly being recaptured – and subsequently moves on to detail many instances of refusal to eat, jumps overboard, attempted suicide and actual insurrection. A few uprisings succeeded; most were suppressed by the heavily armed crew. Punishments that even the current attorney general of the United States would probably recognise as torture followed these attempts. Leaders were whipped to death, placed in cages and left to die by slow starvation, or had their body parts cut off one by one and thrown to the sharks.

Resistance raised costs, making it necessary to increase the size of crews and the number of weapons on board and causing insurance companies to increase their rates. It did not end the slave trade, but it did help to inspire the abolitionist movement. In 1792, Parliament seemed on the verge of voting for gradual abolition. The following year, with the outbreak of war with France, the plan was shelved. The movement was revived in 1806, and in 1807 Parliament decreed abolition. But the Spanish and Portuguese trade continued, and three million more Africans would be carried to the New World before the commerce ended.

Rediker, however, does not end with a celebration of British abolition. Rather, he directs our attention to the slave ports of the Caribbean and its population of ‘wharfingers’: impoverished, diseased sailors who had been left behind when their vessels departed to prevent shipboard epidemics. Some of them, an official of the Royal Navy reported, had been taken in by ‘negro women, out of compassion, and are healed in time’. That some of the slave trade’s victims cared for men responsible, in part, for their enslavement, echoes Equiano’s eventual realisation, with which he opened his memoir, that mankind is ‘of one blood’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences