“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.