The Slave Ship: A Human History

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Overview

For more than three centuries, slave ships carried millions of people from the coasts of Africa across the Atlantic to the New World. Much is known of the slave trade and the American plantation complex, but little of the ships that made it all possible. In The Slave Ship, award-winning historian Marcus Rediker draws on thirty years of research in maritime archives to create an unprecedented history of these vessels and the human drama acted out on their rolling decks. He reconstructs in chilling detail the lives, deaths, and terrors of captains, sailors, and the enslaved aboard a "floating dungeon" trailed by sharks. From the young African kidnapped from his village and sold to the slavers by a neighboring tribe, to the would-be priest who takes a job as a sailor on a slave ship only to be horrified by the evil he sees, to the captain who relishes having "a hell of my own," Rediker illuminates the lives of people who were thought to have left no trace.

This is a tale of tragedy and terror, but also an epic of resilience, survival, and the creation of something entirely new, something that could only be called African American. Rediker restores the slave ship to its rightful place alongside the plantation as a formative institution of slavery, as a place where a profound and still haunting history of race, class, and modern capitalism was made.

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Editorial Reviews

Adam Hochschild
…the notorious Middle Passage across the Atlantic, on which more than 12 million Africans were embarked for the Americas over more than three centuries, we know about almost entirely from the perpetrators. There are few accounts of this voyage by slaves…but an astonishingly large body of evidence remains from those who trafficked in human beings: letters, diaries, memoirs, captain's logbooks, shipping company records, testimony before British Parliamentary investigations, even poetry and at least one play by former slave-ship officers. It is this rich array of material that Marcus Rediker plumbs, more thoroughly than anyone else to date, for his masterly new book, The Slave Ship: A Human History…Rediker has made magnificent use of archival data; his probing, compassionate eye turns up numerous finds that other people who've written on this subject, myself included, have missed.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In this groundbreaking work, historian and scholar Rediker considers the relationships between the slave ship captain and his crew, between the sailors and the slaves, and among the captives themselves as they endured the violent, terror-filled and often deadly journey between the coasts of Africa and America. While he makes fresh use of those who left their mark in written records (Olaudah Equiano, James Field Stanfield, John Newton), Rediker is remarkably attentive to the experiences of the enslaved women, from whom we have no written accounts, and of the common seaman, who he says was "a victim of the slave trade... and a victimizer." Regarding these vessels as a "strange and potent combination of war machine, mobile prison, and factory," Rediker expands the scholarship on how the ships "not only delivered millions of people to slavery, [but] prepared them for it." He engages readers in maritime detail (how ships were made, how crews were fed) and renders the archival (letters, logs and legal hearings) accessible. Painful as this powerful book often is, Rediker does not lose sight of the humanity of even the most egregious participants, from African traders to English merchants. (Oct. 8)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In Slave Ship, University of Pittsburgh history professor Rediker employs the slave vessel as the central metaphor in the exploration of the African diaspora, the roots of capitalism, and the creation of race. As a scholar of "history from below," Rediker juxtaposes the horrific machinations of the slave trade with, as the book's subtitle indicates, the daily dramas of the industry's participants-captain, sailor, and slave. The strength of Rediker's narrative-beyond the gruesome explication of the ship's inherent terror-is the use of the ship as representative of a factory that commodifies humanity and a dungeon of racial subjugation that creates a subspecies. As a result of the Atlantic journey, the slave is dehumanized and therefore ready for use as an implement of industry and agriculture. This work is carefully and intelligently read by David Drummond, a former winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award. His succinct enunciation, warm tone, and precise yet subtly compassionate interpretation enhances Rediker's already exemplary book. Strongly recommended for libraries of all sizes and an integral addition to any collection focused on the history of the African slave trade. [An LJ Best Book of 2007; also available as downloadable audio from Audible.com.-Ed.]
—Christopher Rager

Kirkus Reviews
"Making the slave ship real, "historian Rediker (History/Univ. of Pittsburgh) revivifies the horror of this world-changing machine. By 1807, more than nine-million Africans in shackles, manacles, neck rings, locks and chains had been carried to New World plantations, a crime impossible without ships, the most complex machines of the age, turned for this evil purpose into floating dungeons. Rediker's multilayered narrative-marred only by an occasional eruption of academic lingo and a clunky economic analysis-examines first the captains, whose absolute authority and mastery of many duties-warden, straw boss, international merchant, technician-made them indispensable. Their violent tyranny animated the "Savage Spirit of the Trade," cascading downward to the victimized crews, the dregs of the waterfront, who in turn became victimizers, liberally employing the cat-o'-nine tails on their captives. Boarding the ships, the slaves, themselves prisoners of African wars, criminals in their own societies or kidnap victims, transitioned to European control and found their world completely changed. Here Rediker (Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, 2004, etc.) excels, detailing their strategies of resistance-refusing to eat, jumping overboard, rising up against their captors-their shipboard punishments, deaths and deprivations and the new kinship that arose among the survivors of the harsh Middle Passage, a bonding that helped sustain the resistance movement for centuries. Finally, the author includes stories by and about abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, who gathered the horror stories of the seamen; William Wilberforce, Parliament's most persistent anti-slave trade voice;James Stanfield, an old jack tar who wrote from the common sailor's perspective; Captain John Newton, whose religious transformation turned him into an opponent; and Olaudah Equiano, a slave who wrote movingly about the Atlantic crossing. Rediker's dramatic presentation powerfully impresses. Agent: Sandra Dijkstra/Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency
From the Publisher
"Imaginatively conceived, expertly researched, humanely informed, and movingly written." ---Library Journal Starred Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670018239
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/4/2007
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.48 (d)

Meet the Author


Marcus Rediker is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.

David Drummond has made his living as an actor for over twenty-five years, and he received an AudioFile Earphones Award for his first audiobook, Love 'Em or Lose 'Em.

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Table of Contents


Introduction     1
Life, Death, and Terror in the Slave Trade     14
The Evolution of the Slave Ship     41
African Paths to the Middle Passage     73
Olaudah Equiano: Astonishment and Terror     108
James Field Stanfield and the Floating Dungeon     132
John Newton and the Peaceful Kingdom     157
The Captain's Own Hell     187
The Sailor's Vast Machine     222
From Captives to Shipmates     263
The Long Voyage of the Slave Ship Brooks     308
Epilogue: Endless Passage     343
Acknowledgments     357
Notes     361
Index     417
Illustration Sources and Credits     433
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2008

    Brilliant account of a murderous trade

    Marcus Rediker, of Pittsburgh University¿s History Department, has written a brilliant account of the machine that enabled history¿s largest forced migration. Exploration, settlement, production and trade all required massive fleets of ships. The slave ships, with names like Liberty, Free Love and Delight, transported both the expropriated labourers and the new commodities that they produced. The ships were weapons, factories and prisons too. These ships were the key to an entire phase of capitalist expansion. Between the late 15th century and the late 19th century, it is estimated that they transported 10.6 million people, of whom 1.5 million died in the first year of slavery. 1.8 million had died en route to Africa¿s coast, and 1.8 million died on the ships. So the trade killed more than five million people. The 18th century was the worst century, in which seven million people were transported, three million of them in British and US ships, from Liverpool, Bristol and London. Seven million slaves were bought in Britain¿s sugar islands, for toil in the plantations. For half the 18th century, Britain was at war with France or Spain, for markets and empire. The slaver merchant capitalists gained from it all. They hired the captains and the captains hired the sailors. The conflict between these two forces was the primary contradiction on board, until the ships reached the African coast, then all united against the slaves. The captains exercised the discipline of exemplary violence against slaves and sailors. Their cruelty and terror were not individual quirks but were built in to `the general cruelty of the system¿. Rediker studies the conflicts, cooperation and culture of the enslaved. He shows how the enslaved Africans were the primary, and first, abolitionists, supported by dissident sailors and antislavery activists like Thomas Clarkson. The book renders the sheer horror of the experiences that this vile trade inflicted on people. Rediker concludes, ¿we must remember that such horrors have always been, and remain, central to the making of global capitalism.¿ The British Empire, so romanticised by Brown, Blair and a horde of self-publicising sycophants, was built on this murderous trade.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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