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The Slave Ship: A Human History

The Slave Ship: A Human History

3.6 7
by Marcus Rediker, Kathleen Flinn

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“Masterly.”—Adam Hochschild, The New York Times Book Review

In this widely praised history of an infamous institution, award-winning scholar Marcus Rediker shines a light into the darkest corners of the British and American slave ships of the eighteenth century. Drawing on thirty years of research in maritime archives, court records,


“Masterly.”—Adam Hochschild, The New York Times Book Review

In this widely praised history of an infamous institution, award-winning scholar Marcus Rediker shines a light into the darkest corners of the British and American slave ships of the eighteenth century. Drawing on thirty years of research in maritime archives, court records, diaries, and firsthand accounts, The Slave Ship is riveting and sobering in its revelations, reconstructing in chilling detail a world nearly lost to history: the "floating dungeons" at the forefront of the birth of African American culture.

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

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.48(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are Saying About This

Barry Unsworth
I admire this book more than I can easily say. At the heart of it is the slave ship, engine of wood and hemp and canvas, instrument of terror. From this dark heart Marcus Rediker ranges outwards over four centuries and three continents. He brings to his task a combination of dedicated research, deep human concern and narrative power of a high order. By insisting on the realities of individual experience, he counteracts our human tendency to take refuge from horror in comforting abstractions. We are all indebted to him for this. In range and scope and in the humanity of its treatment, this account of the Atlantic slave trade is unlikely ever to be superceded. (Barry Unsworth, author of Sacred Hunger)
Peter Wood
Marcus Rediker, like the incomparable Herman Melville, understands both the immediate human drama and the sweeping global context of life aboard a cramped ocean vessel in the age of sail. Now Rediker brings his informed passion, energetic research, rich storytelling, and stark analysis to perhaps the most wrenching, important and neglected topic in the early modern Atlantic World. Following in the wake of such pioneers as W. E. B. DuBois and Elizabeth Donnan, Rediker joins a growing group of scholars who are reinvigorating historical research on the huge traffic in enslaved Africans. Two centuries after the abolition of the English and North American slave trade, he uses his unique gifts to take us below decks, giving a human face to the inhuman ordeal of the Middle Passage. (Peter Wood, author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept)
Robin Blackburn
The Slave Ship is a tour de force. Never before has the reality of the trade been so comprehensively and subtly conveyed. Marcus Rediker's intimate knowledge of sea-faring in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enables him to reconstruct the life-and death-on those on the slave trading vessels more vividly and convincingly than any previous historian. I am sure that it will continue to be read as long as people want to understand crucial episode in the birth of the modern world. (Robin Blackburn, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the New School for Social Research, New York, and author of The Making of New World Slavery)
Ira Berlin
The slave ship was a machine that manufactured modernity. As it moved across the Atlantic, the world changed. It joined Europe, Africa, and the Americas, creating enormous wealth and untold misery, and its hellish voyages continue to cast a shadow over our lives. Marcus Rediker, a preeminent historian the maritime Atlantic, unravels its history with unmatched knowledge of the material changes and moral ruptures its created. Slave Ship is the best of histories, deeply researched, brilliantly formulated, and morally informed. (Ira Berlin, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland and author of Many Thousands Gone a winner of the Bancroft Prize, Slaves Without Masters, and Generations of Captivity)
Marcus Wood
The slave ship is an open metaphoric wound lying at the heart of attempts to understand the middle passage. Marcus Rediker's remarkable new book combines a uniquely profound understanding of the maritime industries in the eighteenth century with an imaginative humanism. No other book has displayed such combined practicality and compassion regarding the actual workings of 'the abominable traffick.' Rediker's work important not only because of what it uncovers, but because it suggests ways of overcoming the disastrous legacy of the slave trade. The Slave Ship struck me with the force of prophecy, it is a superbly realized work that will actually change the living memory of slavery, and only Marcus Rediker could have written it. (Marcus Wood, author of Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography)
Patrick Manning
This Atlantic epic brilliantly reveals the slave ship as a 'vast machine,' transforming its human cargo into slaves-but it is also a precise portrayal of Africans, free and captive, in their choices and desperate struggles. (Patrick Manning, author of Slavery and African Life)
From the Publisher
“Masterly.”—Adam Hochschild, The New York Times Book Review

“Searingly brilliant.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review

“ I was hardly prepared for the profound emotional impact of The Slave Ship: A Human History. Reading it established a transformative and never to be severed bond with my African ancestors who were cargo in slave ships over a period of four centuries.”—Alice Walker

The Slave Ship is the best of histories, deeply researched, brilliantly formulated, and morally informed.”—Ira Berlin, author of Many Thousands Gone

Peter Linebaugh
The Atlantic's foremost historian from below has written a masterpiece. In this human history you can hear the shrieks of pain, the groans of loss, and uproar of rebellion. In the midst of mass and calculated murders Rediker finds the genesis of a human story that delineated ethnicities, that created musical lamentations, that caused heart-rending resistance, that produced African and human consciousness, and in the end, with ex-slaves offering amazing graces to discarded sailors, the cry still rises up from this magnificent book for justice and for reparation. (Peter Linebaugh, author of The London Hanged)
Steven Hahn
Marcus Rediker is one of the most distinguished historians of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, and he brings to the slave ship both an unrivaled knowledge of maritime labor and transport and a deep theoretical perspective on the slave trade's role in the rise of capitalism. His is a 'human history' with all its dramas and complex lineaments. (Steven Hahn, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning A Nation Under Our Feet)
Alice Walker
I was hardly prepared for the profound emotional impact of The Slave Ship: A Human History. Reading it established a transformative and never to be severed bond with my African ancestors who were cargo in slave ships over a period of four centuries. Their courage, intelligence and self-respect; their fierce efforts to free themselves (and, though cruelly bound, to create community) moved me so deeply that, for several days, I took to my bed. There I pondered the madness of greed, the sadism of wielding absolute power over any creature in chains, the violence of attempting to dominate and possess what is innately free. For all Americans and indeed all those who live in the Western world who have profited by, or suffered from, the endless brutality of the slave trade, during all its centuries and into the present, this book is homework of the most insistent order. There is no re-balancing of our wrecked planet without sitting with, and absorbing, the horrifying reality of what was done, by whites, by the West, by the wealthy, to our beloved ancestors, The Africans, who endured and sometimes survived "the middle passage" to bring their radiance and their indomitable spirits into the New World. What, now, is to be done? That is the question that can only have a collective answer. (Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple)
Robert Harms
Mixing powerful vignettes with astute analysis, Markus Rediker brings the terrible dramas of the middle passage to life. This beautifully written and exhaustively researched book gives us unforgettable portraits of the captives, captains, and crewmen who came together in that particular kind of hell known as the slave ship. This is Atlantic history at its best. (Robert Harms, author of The Diligent)

Meet the Author

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

David Drummond has narrated over seventy audiobooks for Tantor, in genres ranging from current political commentary to historical nonfiction, from fantasy to military, and from thrillers to humor. He has garnered multiple AudioFile Earphones Awards as well as an Audie Award nomination. Visit him at drummondvoice.com.

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The Slave Ship: A Human History 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Chicagoan More than 1 year ago
I was sickened when I read about how many generations have endured world cruelty. Yet, I could not abandon reading this book. I felt that I owed it to my ancestors to be informed about what occurred. Dr. Rediker's presentation of the material makes difficult reading easier.
KeikoHP More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book. It has a lot of inside information about slave ships. For instance, it tells that the slave ship captain who wrote Amazing Grace was not really that much of an opponent to slavery, regardless of what one is told in church and Sunday school. The only problem with this book is that the subject matter is sometimes hard to take. It's painful to read about slavery, but if one is nevertheless interested in it, then this book is a good one.
katelyn clem More than 1 year ago
An eye opening look at the atlantic slave trade. Graphic but necessary, an important historic look into mankinds history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book has a lot of good history but continually repeats what has already been told. I understand there are many different accounts but the reader is not going to remember the names of persons whom the reported the events. I did not even get halfway through the book and will not finish it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago