Mark's Reviews > Slave Ship

Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker
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Sep 23, 07

bookshelves: history
Read in September, 2007

Like many other overwhelming catastrophes -- the Holocaust, AIDS, the persistence of poverty -- America's history as a slave-owning nation is so hard to look at and examine deeply that we often shy away from any serious consideration of it.

But this is a book that could overcome that reluctance in many, because it paints a very human history of the British and American slave trade in Africa without resorting to polemic or a dry recitation of the facts.

Marcus Rediker, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has decided to concentrate on the slave ship of the title, but in doing so, he really ends up exploring the five groups who were most involved in the ownership and operation of these ships -- slave merchants, captains and their officers, the seamen, the African slave traffickers, and the slaves themselves.

Dr. Rediker makes a convincing case that the slave trade actually helped to create the very notion of "white people" and "black people." Before it emerged, most Africans knew each other as members of different tribes and kinship groups, with hundreds of separate languages, customs and home territories. In a similar way, the ordinary seamen of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were truly a motley crew, made up largely of sailors from the British isles and then the American colonies, but mixing in many other Europeans, some blacks and some Asians. Only when they were put in the position of having to serve as both sailors and jailers for a captured mass of Africans did they become a generalized group of "white men" and only then did the slaves become melded into "blacks."

Using his intensive research into British Parliamentary records, ship logs, written memoirs and other sources, Dr. Rediker tells one achingly human story after another to portray what happened to the captured Africans from the time they were seized until they arrived at their destinations, how the sailors were mistreated and in turn mistreated the slaves, how brutal the ships' captains were and the economic and other motives that drove them to frequent use of whips, thumbscrews, and worse, and how most slave merchants worked hard to distance themselves from the pain and agony of their trade by categorizing the slaves as numbers in a ledger, or convincing themselves that they were actually introducing Africans to a better way of life.

The story contains many surprises along the way. One is just how hard and how often slaves worked at freeing themselves, whether it was repeated insurrections on board to mass suicides. Another was the way that Africans often thrown together from many different tribes and territories formed intensely close bonds on the ships, and how the survivors would tell their children henceforth to call their shipmates "aunt" and "uncle" if they saw them in the future. And a third is the impact that one drawing had on the abolition of the slave trade in the early 1800s -- the careful schematic of The Brooke, showing the way it packed more than 400 slaves below decks.

This is a chilling story and one that ought to raise serious and ongoing questions about how much America owes the people whose ancestors were brought to this nation in this way, and whose free labor enriched millions of other people and created fortunes that persist to this day.

If you want to read one book that gives you a sense of the economics, sociology, anthropology and sheer human tragedy of the African slave trade, you could do no better than this.

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message 1: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth I just read your article...fascinating! Marcus should get on Goodreads!

I especially liked this bit:
"Injuries were so common that the majority of beggars in port towns were former sailors, he said, and pirates themselves pioneered the concept of making extra payments to comrades who were maimed -- an early version of disability insurance."



Mark Thanks, Elizabeth. I'll mention the site to him the next time I see him. More than half the fun of this job is getting access to people who know such cool stuff. BTW, if I'm not intruding, what do you do for the LA Times Magazine? Do you write? A byline I could check? And I noticed it's been a little sparse getting any conversation going on journalism topics on your group site. Any thoughts on how to boost that action?


message 3: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth sorry very busy today.
I'm a style writer...here's a couple links to my stuff...

http://www.latimes.com/features/magaz...

http://www.latimes.com/features/magaz...

I don't know why that group is so stagnant...it makes me sad. everyone wants to join and then they don't add anything. I kind of felt like i was shouting in the woods, so i've fallen off with my posting.
cheers
EK


message 4: by peg (new)

peg Thanks for sharing your article, Mark. You have piqued my interest in a subject that I would have otherwise ignored. I'm looking forward to your review of The Slave Ship.


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