The Slave Ship Embodies the Whole Story of Slavery

Nirit Ben-​Ari interviews Marcus Rediker, author of “The Slave Ship: A Human History”

Slave Ship: Held by Anti-​Slavery International

The man refused to eat. He had been sick, reduced to a ‘mere skeleton.’ He had apparently made a decision to die. Captain Timothy Tucker was outraged, and probably fearful that his example might spread to the other 200-​plus captives aboard his ship, the Loyal George, as it made its way across the Atlantic to Barbados in the year 1727. The captain turned to his black cabin boy, Robin, and commanded him to fetch his whip. This was no cat-o’-nine-tails but rather something much bigger, a horsewhip … All the while the man made no resistance and said nothing, which incensed the captain, who now threatened him in his own language: ‘He would tickeravoo him,’ that is, kill him, to which the man answered, ‘Adomma,’ so be it.

This is not the only, nor the most horrific, description in the book “The Slave Ship: A Human History,” by the American historian Marcus Rediker (originally published in 2007 and now available in Hebrew translation). The book recounts the history of the modern slave ship, from the moment the first captives boarded it on the coast of Africa — 12.4 million souls from the 15th to the 19th century — until the last of them disembarked on the shores of the New World. No fewer than 1.8 million of them died during the journey; their bodies were thrown to the sharks that trailed the ships across the sea. The 10.6 million who made it to the other side became slaves on the plantations of the American South or in the Caribbean.

Much has been written about the slave trade, but “The Slave Ship” is the first and only study that focuses solely on the vessels that made slavery possible. It’s not a book to pack for light reading on a beach vacation. Its pages are filled with bloodcurdling accounts of the agonies and tortures undergone by the captives. There are descriptions of coerced cannibalism, the hanging of innocent individuals by their toes, the amputation of limbs, feeding by means of the “speculum oris, the long, thin mechanical contraption used to force open unwilling throats to receive gruel and hence sustenance,” branding with white-​hot metal rods, starvation to death, shackling with handcuffs or by chains to other captives, and rape.

A large part of the book is devoted to the resistance that was mounted on the ships, on a daily basis, and to the captives’ attempts at suicide. Some of them leaped from the ship in mid-​ocean, to be mangled by sharks, and there is testimony about one man who tried to kill himself by slashing his throat with his fingernails.

The purpose of the death and torture was not to satisfy the sadistic streak of the captains or sailors. Indeed, the overseers of the slave trade had a vested interest in having the sea voyage end with the lowest possible number of dead captives, because every live captive was worth money. Their aim was to offer the captives as merchandise on the international slave market.

Race and class

I meet Prof. Marcus Rediker at a hotel in Greenwich Village near New York University, where he has been invited to give a talk on revolts aboard slave ships. Even before we sit down, he tells me he is thrilled about the book’s publication in Hebrew. “My father-​in-​law, Laurence Goldman, was born in the Old City of Jerusalem,” Rediker relates. “He died about 18 months ago, at the age of 95. His family left Jerusalem in 1929, when he was 14. He was born into an ultra-​Orthodox family, mostly rabbis, and became a rabbi himself, until one day he gave it all up and joined the Communist Party, living in New York until his death.” Rediker’s father-​in-​law was not the only rebel in the family.

Rediker himself, who holds the title of Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh, espouses views that might easily be broached by radical circles of black social-​justice movements. He wants compensation to be paid for slavery, for example, and is a member of a worldwide campaign for the abolition of the death penalty.

“At my 20-​year high school reunion,” he says, “I met an African-​American friend whom I played with on a basketball team. There was a little booklet there about the graduates’ careers. He says, ‘Hey man, I hear you write books.’ I said, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ ‘What’s the main idea of these books that you write?’ he asks. I had just finished ‘Who Built America?’ – a history book from the point of view of the working-​class people who built the country. I told him that one of the ideas of the book is that the people who produce the wealth of the world ought to have the wealth of the world. So he leans back and looks at me like this, and I say, ‘What’s the matter – you never heard that idea before?’ ‘No, man,’ he says, ‘that’s not it. I just never heard a white man talk like that.’”

Born in Kentucky to a working-​class family, Rediker grew up in Tennessee and Virginia. His desire to study African-​American history, he says, has its roots in two formative experiences from his youth. “Interracial sports was a big thing when I played basketball in the Richmond, Virginia, high school I attended. As a good basketball player, I was an honorary member of the black community in my school – my first experience of the other world that most white Southerners never experienced. The second experience was that when I worked in a factory for several years, my two best friends there were devotees of Malcolm X, so we were part of a group. But in the same part of the factory there was a grand wizard– the highest rank of the Ku Klux Klan. So there was a lot of racial tension, fist fights, and as someone who chose to be part of the black workers’ group, I was often attacked. What struck me in that setting, though, was this: Here are these two groups, who would rather fight each other than fight the bosses. From that moment, I became interested in the relationship between race and class.”

Rediker decided to make a study of the slave ships while visiting Mumia Abu-​Jamal on death row. Abu-​Jamal, an African-​American activist in the Black Panthers, was convicted of murdering a policeman in Philadelphia in 1981 and sentenced to death. He insisted he had not committed the crime. In 2012, the death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment without parole. Abu-​Jamal will turn 60 on April 24.

Rediker’s talks with Abu-​Jamal “took me into a discussion about the relation between race and terror,” he says, “because so much of the experience of race in America has been the experience of terror. The punishments and hangings and mutilations, but also the lynching, survival in the face of police violence – cases such as those of Rodney King and Trayvon Martin.”

In many ways, Rediker observes, “The whole concept of race was created aboard the slave ships. The people who boarded the slave ships did not speak the same language and were often members of ethnic groups that were enemies on land. Many multi-​ethnic Africans boarded the ships as Fante, Igbo, Mandinka, but were unloaded as members of the Negro race, so-​called. That new entity was created under the pressure of violence and terror. I thought I could make a contribution by studying the slave ships, where this relationship was forged.”

The idea that the slave ships produced the notion of “race” is the book’s major contribution to the study of the period of slavery. “In producing workers for the plantation, the ship-​factory also produced ‘race,’” Rediker writes. “At the beginning of the voyage, captains hired a motley crew of sailors, who would, on the coast of Africa, become ‘white men.’ At the beginning of the Middle Passage [across the Atlantic], captains loaded on board the vessel a multi-​ethnic collection of Africans, who would, in the American port, become ‘black people’ or a ‘Negro race.’ The voyage thus transformed those who made it.”

Intricacies of memory

Before he won the Best Picture Academy Award for “12 Years a Slave,” director Steve McQueen accused Hollywood of ignoring the subject of slavery. “The Second World War lasted five years, and there are hundreds of films about [that] and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and yet there are less than 20 films about slavery in North America,” McQueen said, in an interview with the British paper The Voice. “We have to open our eyes and look at it and other people have to acknowledge it.” The black community, he added, must remember slavery in the same way the Jews remember the Holocaust. “They believe in the saying ‘Never forget’ when it comes to the Holocaust, and I think we should be the same when it comes to slavery.”

I asked Rediker if he agrees that Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day could act as a model for remembering slavery in the United States. “I think it would be absolutely impossible in this country,” he replied, “because the majority of the white population is utterly opposed to reparations and would not like to remember slavery in any way that might lead to economic and political conclusions. The difference is that the people who want to remember in Israel are in charge in the government. John Conyers [a veteran Democratic Congressman] has for many years proposed, at the beginning of each Congress, a bill to study the effects of slavery in American history. And every year, it’s voted down.”

Do you think the United States does a good job teaching and remembering the history of slavery?

“It’s true, thanks to the rise of the civil rights movement, that the textbooks have changed over time for people on all levels of education, and there is more and more acknowledgement that slavery has been part of our history. But I think that when it comes to really facing all of the darker implications, we still have a long way to go. In the United States, a lot of energy is put into denying that we have this history.

“There is a new African-​American museum that is being created as we speak [on the National Mall in Washington], and slavery will be central to it – and that’s long overdue. You would expect that the United States would have a reason to deny this history: It’s easy to talk about the glorious pages in history, but much tougher to evoke the dark pages. On the other hand, it is very odd, because the abolition of the slave trade is one of the most virtuous things the American government ever did. You’d think they would want to celebrate the fact that finally we were on the right side of history.”

How do you explain this?

“I feel as though the presence of slavery in everything that we do now makes it very hard to talk about. In other words, if it was safely in the past, it would be easy to have a discussion about slavery, but the fact is that we still live with its consequences: Deep structural inequality, poverty, discrimination, premature death for large numbers of people who live in our cities, highly radicalized mass incarceration. If you think of slavery as an injustice that produced lasting consequences across many generations, then you have a responsibility to commit to doing something about it.”

You write that the countries that were involved in the slave trade should pay reparations to the slaves’ descendants. Who would be entitled to these payments?

“I don’t have any specific policy, predictions or suggestions – I think that should be a demand made by social movements. There are lots of creative options – it doesn’t have to be cash payments for individuals. You could set up investment programs in the inner cities, create jobs and arts programs, strengthen public education. Those projects will benefit all citizens, but maybe have a special impact for people who have long felt the legacy of slavery. Reparations are to repair, so what can you do to repair the situation?”

The capitalist connection

You describe the ships as a prison, a factory to produce slaves. Can they be thought of in terms of a floating Auschwitz?

“The ship was a concentration camp, an enclosure of human bodies. Here’s the difference: The point of the slave trade was not to kill people. The point of the slave trade was to get as many living bodies as possible to the New World in order to use them to make money. The idea was not to kill people, even though there were millions of deaths of what we would call ‘collateral damage.’

“In addition, the slave trade went on for 370 years. That in some ways makes it not better, but worse. It went on forever, and its horrors were known to a great many people. The reason it went on is that it was so profitable, because slavery was a centerpiece of international capitalism of those days, and they had to have these bodies. I call slavery the ‘African holocaust.’ I think the millions who died deserve that word.”

The question is whether it’s a capital “h” or not.

“That’s true, that makes a big difference. I give a lot of talks about the slave ships, and the one thing I always try to do is to avoid comparative suffering. Instead of asking who suffered more, we should ask whether there are systemic links among these mass deaths, and how such things are part of the larger history of capitalism.”

To use Hannah Arendt’s term, do you think the evil of the captains and sailors was characterized by “banality”?

“I would be leery of making a moral category like evil primary to our understanding, because evil is a culturally relative term and there are many different ways to understand it. The larger question that Arendt raises is how individuals get caught up in that machinery, without necessarily knowing what the system actually is. I think a lot of people on slave ships did have a pretty good idea of the larger picture of the transatlantic slave trade. Especially the captains, who visited slave plantations in the New World and knew about the production of sugar for the world market. They loaded the sugar onto the same vessels and sailed back to their home port.

“As for the sailors, they died in roughly the same proportion as the slaves, and many of them were forsaken, hungry and sick. The primary causes of the slave trade were the wealthy merchants who owned the ships and organized the trade and made sure that the plantation owners had slaves to produce the sugar. You have to see the system. The sailors signed on for the ship because they had no other way of getting money. Some of them didn’t even sign on, they were taken straight from jail. They were forced laborers, shanghaied.”

Indeed, this is perhaps the most stunning discovery of Rediker’s study — that the drama of the slaves was not the only drama being played out on the ships. The fact is that there were not two but three classes of people on the slave ships. Whereas the captains were the agents of the owners of capital who owned the plantations and the ships, and raked in handsome profits from the slave trade, the ordinary sailors and deckhands were poor white folk from the lower classes. Often they were sold to the slave ships by their debtors, or taken straight from prison, forced to serve their prison term on a slave ship. Rediker found that control on the ship was based on violence meted out to the sailors with the same degree as it was wielded against the captives. In some cases, sailors and deckhands were beaten to death. They received paltry portions of food, their wages were low and their mortality rate high. When the ship arrived in the West Indies, the captain got rid of them, as they were not needed for the voyage back. Many were in a poor state of health, suffering from malaria, retinal diseases, worms, ulcers and parasites. Sick and incapable of working, they became beggars in the ports of the countries in which they were abandoned.

Does their victimhood absolve them of a charge of moral failure?

“Not at all. They are part of it. Their labor is part of the story. But we do have to understand that a slave ship captain, who by today’s standards made hundreds of thousands of dollars on a given voyage, was in a very different situation than a sailor who may have been a forced laborer or was dumped overboard.”

We conclude our conversation by discussing U.S. President Barack Obama – it’s impossible to talk about race in America without mentioning the black family in the White House. Have racial relations in the United States changed under President Obama?

“One of the most pernicious myths out there is this idea that we live in a post-​racial society. I think that is an attempt to deny the history that we have. All kinds of studies show that since Obama’s election, the amount and variety of racism in America has gone up. It’s a reactionary response. I think there are a lot of people who really don’t like having a black president.”

What would you like to see happen?

“I just wish people had the courage to say that it is all right to examine the history of the slave trade and slavery in this country. As I indicated earlier, we still have not yet addressed deeply the dark and violent side of this history, which is perhaps the reason that the discrimination and violence are continuing in the present.”

Published with permission from Haaretz and the authors.

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