Sunday, October 26, 2008

Marcus Rediker - The Slave Ship – A Human History

Marcus Rediker is one of two historians of the “Revolutionary Atlantic”. Along with Peter Linebaugh, he co-authored one of the best accounts of emergent capitalism in the countries that surrounded that ocean. His latest work, is a study of the Slave Trade, examined through the historical records and accounts of the people who built, crewed, and lived aboard the slave ships, as well as those who were transported, tortured and killed on them.

The Slave Trade was a moment in human history that is almost unparalleled in suffering. In his introduction, Rediker explains that over the “four hundred years of the slave trade, from the late fifteenth to the late nineteenth century, 12.4 million souls were loaded onto slave hips….. along the dreadful way, 1.8 million of them died, their bodies cast overboard to the sharks that followed the ships. Most of the 10.6 million who survived were thrown into the bloody maw of a killing plantation system.”

Rediker points out that this figures underestimate those who died and suffered as many more people died as they were forcibly marched from inside Africa to the slave ships waiting on the ocean. He quotes a conservative estimate of a further 5 million men, women and children dying before they reached the sea.

This blood-bath existed only to feed the profits made from the sugar plantations in the Caribbean and the United States. But this is not a history of that aspect of slavery, rather it is an account of the brutalities that made up the actual transportation. This illuminates two things – firstly the immense profits available from the actual trade were worth huge investments by European and American traders, despite the real dangers that could threaten the success of a slave voyage. Secondly, at every stage of the voyage, the enslaved resisted what was happening to them. Rediker recounts many tales of insurrection and resistance, from hunger strikes to murder, and he also makes the painful point, that once your own body is the property of someone else, suicide is not just an escape from imprisonment, it is also an act of rebellion.

The last chapter of this book looks at the slave trade from the point of view of those who struggled to expose its horrors and end it. From those who had experienced the pain and suffering to those whose moral beliefs made them stand up and be counted we learn how the nature of the slave ships themselves became the strongest weapon against the trade. The infamous drawing of the slave ship Brooks, showing its human cargo packed in below decks was printed over and over again to display the barbarity. Rediker’s emphasis on the slaves own rebellion makes it clear that it wasn’t simply action by Europeans that brought the trade to an end, but the groundswell of anti-slavery action in Europe and the US played its role in abolition.

Rediker places the slave trade firmly in its context – in the needs of an emergent capitalist mode of production, that wanted (or even needed) the super-profits available. Its an interesting point that viewed from this point, the victims of the trade weren’t just the African peoples, but also those who were dehumanised and destroyed by the conditions on the ships. Almost 22% of sailors on slave ships died as a result of the poor conditions, appalling food and brutality of the officers. This isn’t to paint the sailors as innocents in the slave trade, rather to put them in their class position, people to be exploited by the ship owners and officers to ensure the maximum profits from a voyage. That these sailors took part in the brutalisation of the captives is of course part of their own complex story, one that also included mutiny and rebellion (like the great Liverpool uprising that targeted those who were central to the slave trade).

The end of the book is a discussion about justice – Rediker ends with a discussion on how to “redress a monstrous historical injustice”. His conclusion isn’t simply one of apologies or financial compensation, rather he imagines a “social movement for justice” led by the descendants of those who suffered, which could come up with proper redress. It’s a laudable idea and one that will stand firmly in the traditions of rebellion and resistance that so marked those who were the victims of this terrible moment in our history.

Related Reviews

Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Rediker & Linebaugh - The Many Headed Hydra 

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