Review of The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker

MARCUS REDIKER. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Press, 2007. Pp. 434. $27.95.


Slave Ship Book Cover

The Slave Ship is the fourth book written by Marcus Rediker, a prize-winning American historian of the early-modern era and the Atlantic world and a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Through evocative language, fluid narration, poignant imagery, dramatic vignettes, diverse sources, dynamic characters, and bold statistics, Rediker synthesizes the violent nature of the Anglo-American slave trade during its so-called Golden Age, from 1700-1808, for common readership. Like Walter Johnson’s multi-perspective approach to the American interstate trade in Soul by Soul, Rediker captures the phenomenon of the transatlantic trade from the perspectives of its many, diverse participants: merchants, underwriters, captains and officers, seaman, slaves, and agitators. At the core of this visceral, conceptual history is a special focus on the gruesome yet calculated “hardware of bondage,” most aptly characterized by that “vast and diabolical machine,” the Guineaman slaver. To borrow a metaphor used elsewhere by Walter Rodney, although The Slave Ship offers very little new information, the book presents one of the first nuanced and comprehensive portrayals of the Atlantic slave trade as “capitalism without a loincloth.” It not only reminds us that “violence and terror were central to the Atlantic economy.” It shows us, time and time again.


For sources, Rediker has cited diaries, memoirs, letters, legal documents, testimonies, essays, exposés, interviews, muster rolls, manifests, log books, inventories,  manuals, almanacs, broadsheets, pamphlets, images, diagrams, speeches, lectures, sermons, poems, and material evidence. Much of this information dates from the abolitionist movement of the late 1780s, and its resurgence in the 1820s, when historians (like Thomas Clarkson), ex-slaves (like Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, and Louis Asa-Asa), preachers (like Silas Told), and former seamen and captains (like James Field Stanfield, John Newton, Hugh Crow, and William Butterworth) began publishing personal accounts of their experiences. These works coincided with parliamentary hearings that produced depositions, debate transcripts, and reformist legislation (the Dolben Act of 1788, the Slave Carrying Bill of 1799, and the Foreign Slave Trade Bill of 1806). For archival research, (especially on slaving voyages before the 1780s), Rediker has explored many collections, including the papers of the High Court of Admiralty, the sessional papers of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the Liverpool Record Office, the Bristol Record Office, and a multi-volume compilation edited by Elizabeth Donnan, entitled Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America.


Rediker was inspired to make The Slave Ship “a human history” in order to counteract the preference among slave-trade historians for reproducing cold, dry, “abstract, [and] bloodless statistics” that mirrored the ledgers, account books, and balance sheets of traders and merchants. As he states, historians began to distrust “the propaganda and sensationalism of [the] abolitionists,” and so they focused on addressing the relatively safe issue of the numbers game in the slave trade through graphs, charts, maps, arrows, and tables. But, because traders thought of maritime labor (whether enslaved or free) as abstract commodities, this quantitative methodology served to reproduce the very logic of slavery. With its emphasis on representative numbers over individual testimonies, it sanitized the reader from the horrific reality of the Middle Passage in the same way that underwriters and merchants were sanitized by the distance of their desks at the exchange in Bristol or the coffeehouse in London. In short, it reproduced the same “violence of abstraction” that had allowed slave traders to “hide the reality and consequences of their actions from themselves and from posterity.” As the feminist writer Audre Lorde might say, writing the history of the slave trade with numbers is like trying to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. It simply will not happen.

Despite positioning demographic histories as a foil, The Slave Ship owes much to their quantifiable methodologies. The tireless work of slave-trade historians like Philip Curtin, Joseph Inikori, David Eltis, David Richardson and others has culminated in the critical Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database, which serves as an online, public access compendium for all slaving voyages in the Atlantic. In writing The Slave Ship, Rediker has synthesized the quantifiable findings from this database with a wave of recent, secondary scholarship—from historians like Joseph Miller, Stephanie Smallwood, Eric Robert Taylor, and Emma Christopher—that focuses on the experiences of being in the trade. In fact, Rediker’s introduction includes a breakdown of slaves in the transatlantic trade (2 million died before loading, 1.8 million died in transit, 1 million died in seasoning, and 9.6 million survived in the colonies) that would not have been possible without the database. Now, having conquered the demographic statistics, authors like Rediker believe that it is time to recapture the subjectivities of the trade, defined as they were by systematic dehumanization, strict hierarchies, high mortality, arbitrary power, and excessive brutality.

Title and Organization:

Although Rediker never addresses this parallel, The Slave Ship likely draws its title from the homonymous, Romantic maritime artwork by G.M.W. Turner (1840). This oil-on-canvas painting depicts a barkentine slaver floundering in churning waters amid a stormy sky, with black slaves, still wearing their shackles, drowning in the foreground. The painting was inspired by the Zong massacre, in which the slaving commander Luke Collingwood threw 142 live slaves overboard in the Caribbean in 1781 and then filed a law suit to collect the insurance money. The Zong case is mentioned several times in the book, and Turner’s painting was used as cover art on one version of the text.

The Slave Ship is organized in ten chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. One of the chapters discusses the horrors of the slave ship as a “vast machine,” one of them discusses the evolution of the slave ship as maritime technology, four of them approach the slave trade from different perspectives via memoirs, four of them discuss how sailors and slaves ended up on the slave ship and how they resisted the slave trade, and a final chapter discusses the rise of abolition through the dissemination of transatlantic imagery (diagrams of the slave ship Brooks) upon metropolitan readership.

The Carceral Slaver:

Those familiar with Rediker’s work will quickly recognize his trademark emphasis on the intimate relationship between performed terror and Atlantic capitalism in the early-modern era. Using the metaphor of the “wooden world,” popularized by the historian Nicholas Rodger, The Slave Ship takes this emphasis to new extremes by exploring the ship as a “big tool of torture.” According to Rediker, the “slave ship was a linchpin of a rapidly growing Atlantic system of capital and labor.” It served as both a floating prison, for seaman and slaves alike, and a moving factory that produced docile bodies for sale in the New World. Slaves were stripped, inspected, chained, numbered, separated by gender and age, stowed below decks, and forced to “dance” for exercise. When the slaver approached its destination, they were groomed for sale; sailors cut and dyed their hair, applied caustics to hide their sores, and used palm oil to rub down their bodies. This process symbolizes the powerful dichotomy of the slave ship, as a place that served to both imprison individuals and reshape them for the labor market.

Anatomy of a Slaver:

Rediker excels at describing the anatomy of the slave ship. Ranging anywhere between 10 and 566 tons, the Anglo-American slaver could be a schooner, snow (or snauw), brigantine, or Guineaman. Its design evolved from the Portuguese carrack and caravel, which outdated the Mediterranean galley for deep-sea sailing. Most of these ships were made of oak, and later pine and mahogany. They were financed by chartered companies and later private merchants, and they were built “upon the sticks,” from the keel and ribs, in port-side dockyards by a diverse cast of artisans. Glaziers made and set the stern windows, shipbuilders and oar makers constructed the side boats, shipwrights erected the masts, masons laid brick to support the galley, butchers, bakers, and grocers provisioned the hold, ropers supplied the cordage, canvas makers wove the sails and riggers hung them, caulkers filled the seams, coopers built the casks, joiners set the bulkheads, tinmakers lined the scuppers, ironworkers forged the anchor and cannons and hauled them aboard, and painters, wood-workers, and upholsterers personalized the vessel. Without a doubt, the slave ship was a lucrative business before it ever left its berth.

Each slaver contained a quarterdeck, poop deck, main deck, a gallery, gunroom, mates quarters, provisions rooms, furnace room, and the captain’s cabin. The lower deck was separated by bulkheads into at least four compartments, for men, women, girls, and boys. The men were kept in the fore; the women were kept in the aft. These compartments had beams (carlings) to support platforms so that slaves could be stacked on top of one another. As the century progressed, scuttles or air ports were cut into the hull to allow ventilation. The lower deck featured tubs for relieving waste, as well as gratings and buffer layers to prevent slaves from escaping the hold. The ship was wreathed with netting to prevent unwanted suicides.  Finally, the hull of the vessel was sheathed with copper and stocked with oakum, tar, and chalk to delay rotting, plug leaking, and prevent the boring of tropical “Guinea worms.”

The Hardware of Bondage:

Basic anatomy aside, what is most important to Rediker are the technologies of terror that constituted these “floating prisons.” Foremost among these, the decks of each slaver were separated, fore and aft, by an 8-12 foot wooden wall known as the barricado. This was built and repaired by the ship’s resident carpenter. It featured spikes and swivel guns on top, gun holes in the sides, and a single door in the center. Whenever the male slaves came aboard the main deck (for air, food, work, or exercise), the ship’s gunners trained these weapons upon them. But, while the barricado was the primary obstacle against slave insurrections, it was not the only technology used to oppress sailors and slaves. As Rediker demonstrates, slavers stocked masks, gags, chairs, tackle, fishgigs, hooks, cutlasses, pistols, cannons, blunderbusses, marlinspikes, staves, paddles, muskets, straps, ropes, whips (the ubiquitous cat-o-nine tails and the horsewhip), shackles, manacles, padlocks, neck rings, collars, branding irons (namely, the white-hot “tormentor”), bilboes, thumbscrews, and feeding devices (horns, balus knives, and the speculum oris). All of these instruments were employed for torture and submission. Slavers even fed sharks carcasses, offal, and rubbish to encourage their company, serving as a deterrent for jumpers.

Hierarchies of Terror

By taking a class-based analysis, Rediker demonstrates how “terror cascaded downward” from authoritarian ship captains (the architect of terror) to first and second mates, petty officers, common sailors and, finally, to slaves. He depicts the sailor as both “victimized and victimizer,” the subject of violence and manipulation by ruthless captains and deceptive crimps, clerks, and press gangs, as well as the author of violence among slaves. He concentrates on the vertical and horizontal hierarchies of the ship. For example, while all sailors were employed in the common cause of making the vessel go, many of them (cooks, apprentices, foremast men, landsmen, and common sailors) were subject to the arbitrary power of the captain and his mates. This hierarchy changed when African slaves boarded the vessel, and all crewmen, regardless of their color, suddenly became “white.” In general, Rediker must be given praise for devoting equal space to both sailors and slaves. In two brilliant chapters that take place on land, Rediker demonstrates how Africans came to be enslaved and how Europeans came to be sailors. Many times, both of these parties were brought together by forces beyond their control.

The Sailor and the Captain

 Sailors on Anglo-American vessels were typically recruited from British territories like Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, and the overseas colonies; however, muster roles also featured a smattering of people with other European ancestry as well as mixed-race, African, and Asian [lascar] peoples. Some of these individuals were also young boys apprenticing in the trade, and landsman who were working their way up to sailor status. Many of these people were recruited in dockyard taverns and bars, forced by local toughs or mendacious clerks into taking debt and signing contracts. Their roles ranged from the gunner, to the surgeon, to the violinist, who played for the slaves while they were forced to exercise. Captains, on the other hand, typically received promotion after attending voyages as mates and petty officers. Many of them came from high social pedigrees, and they were placed into slavers built and financed by merchants, who also drew up contracts and supplied salaries.

Morbidity and Mortality:

Aside from violence, sailors and slaves were subject to high morbidity and mortality. The “texture of the slave vessel” was defined by diseases, infections, and untreated wounds. Malaria, yellow fever, influenza, dysentery (flux or the bloody flux), dropsy, scurvy, smallpox, measles, fevers, sores, yaws, lacerations, breaks, starvation, insanity, and seasickness all wracked those who worked aboard the slaving vessel. Rats were pervasive, water and food shortage were common, and sailors frequently mutinied, committed suicide, turned pirate, deserted, or were discarded by their captains upon reaching their destination. Many of these destitute seamen suffered from unhealed wounds, swollen limbs, blindness, gangrene and rotting appendages, arthritis, bruises, burning ulcers, sweats and shakes, blotchy skin and bloody gums.  Poor, infirm, and unwanted, some sailors became “wharfingers,” “scow bankers,” and “beach horners,” simply crawling into open hogsheads and waiting to die. Other sailors, such as those in Liverpool in 1775, organized large-scale revolts and strikes against the tyranny of the  merchant, slave-trading class. Others were killed outright in slave insurrections.

Arrival and Fictive Kinship

As Rediker shows, African slaves in the Anglo-Atlantic world came from six different regions on the West African coast: Senegambia, Sierra Leone/Winward Coast, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, and the Bight of Biafra. They became slaves as a result of debt, criminality, war, famine, kidnapping, or economic pressure. They were brought aboard vessels by longboats, yawls, and African canoes, or they were bought from factories, castles, and forts. Many of them, like the Igbo of the interior, traveled hundreds of miles and were sold many times before they arrived at the slave ship. Upon purchase, Africans were inspected by surgeons or traders who looked for film in their eyes, sores on their bodies, distended bellies, sallow skin, bloody gums, and damaged limbs. They were then inspected for their “country marks,” and separated according to their likelihood of resistance. Coromantee slaves were considered rebellious and needed to be chained, while Angolans were considered passive and Igbos were considered prone to “fixed melancholy” (depression) and suicide.

Once in the hold, Africans found themselves alongside members of their immediate families, members of their linguistic community, and complete strangers. Throughout the 8-12 week voyage, these captives developed a form of “fictive kinship” based on shared experience (and were not psychologically eviscerated as Stanley Elkins has previously argued). Through song, stories, dance, work, various forms of resistance, and other ways of communication, they became “shipmates,” creating lasting bonds that were often reflected in the language of West Indian slave communities.

Slave Insurrections:

Despite the technologies of advanced terror on board the slaver, many vessels (roughly 10%) experienced slave insurrections. Even though slaves generally outnumbered their captors ten to one, plotting an insurrection was an extraordinarily difficult undertaking. Slaves had to escape their chains, build forms of communication from completely different languages in a climate of extreme fear, obtain weapons, overpower the crew and their defenses, and acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to operate the vessel. All of this had to be done without alerting or recruiting whistle-blowers and while negotiating preexisting ethnic antagonisms among slaves (such as between Fante and Igbo, or Ibibio and Chamba).

As Rediker notes, many of these insurrections were aided by women and children, who were generally allowed to remain unchained while on the ship. Other significant forms of resistance included hunger strikes (collective and individual), musical expression, and suicide. Overall, Rediker portrays the experience of slaves as a process of African expropriation and enslavement that began on the continent, and eventually led to European enslavement on the colonies. The space in-between was a carceral experience, punctuated by rape, floggings, beatings, compression, forced silence, humiliation, and struggles to maintain humanity. Despite the infinite modes of violence used to create commodities out of people, Rediker concludes that slaves “had the most inclusive and generous conception of humanity.” Although evidence is still speculative, there is cause to suggest that black slaves buried white sailors who had become common victims of the slave trade.

Africans as Non-Slaves

To his credit, Rediker refrains from conflating the experience of black individuals in the slave trade with the slave experience. He is careful to note that black and mixed-race individuals worked upon slavers as mistresses, sailors, fighters, cabin boy’s, servants, apprentices, cooks, and landsmen. Once African slaves came aboard the ship, there is evidence to suggest that these individuals were considered “white.” Many of them found a relative form of liberation working upon slavers. One or two Africans, like Job Ben Solomen, were also repatriated to their communities after being captured. Rediker also features African slave traders like Kabes and John Konny, who were known as the “Big Men” [abirempon]. It should also be noted that West African industries were responsible for producing provisions for the voyage, most commonly yam and rice. These are just some of the many ways that Rediker employs the full experience of black individuals in the Atlantic world to demonstrate how race was created through the institution of slavery, and not the other way around.

The Rise of Abolition:

In the closing paragraph, Rediker portrays the rise of the British abolitionist movement in the 1780s. He approaches the subject from the iconic and oft-reproduced image of the slave ship Brooks, a diagram of a slaving vessel packed tightly with black cargo, like “herrings in a barrel.” Rediker also focuses on the efforts of the Reverend Thomas Clarkson, who collected interviews from common seamen in the sailing communities of Bristol and Liverpool. The results of this field research produced the factual text that accompanied the image of the Brooks. What is most interesting about this chapter are the ways that the diagram and its text were changed depending upon the audience, publisher, and venue. American abolitionists saw fit to emphasize different arguments that British abolitionists, all while using the same image. Both audiences, at different times, saw fit to appeal to their readership by ironically emphasizing the plight of the sailor over the violations of the enslaved. Regardless, more than any other illustration, this image penetrated the greater consciousness of an emerging, transatlantic metropolitan readership. It brought the hidden atrocities of slavery to light among everyday people, and it galvanized parliament to expand their debates.

Parallel to the Prison Complex:

Rediker has stated that his idea for The Slave Ship emerged from visits in the 1990s with death-row prisoners in Pennsylvania, and, although a direct comparison is never elaborated, readers will sense a consistent, underlying comparison between the slave trade and the modern prison industrial complex. In this regard, the Foucaultian idea of producing docile, laboring bodies through a combination of confinement, terror, and subjugation is the main thread. Like the maximum security prison, the slave ship is a carceral facility. It “not only delivers millions of people to slavery, but [it] prepares them for it.” Similarly, the process of incarceration and the process of enslavement both depend upon a “violence of abstraction,” where the general public is removed from the daily atrocities of their commercial system.


Like the image of the BrooksThe Slave Ship was intended for public audiences so that it could break the barrier of academic abstraction. Some critics have argued that it does not offer any new scholastic insights to slave-trade historians, but those scholars have failed to realize that the book was not intended for them. Far and away, Rediker’s greatest achievement is offering an honest, comprehensive, critical, and engaging overview of the slave trade to non-historians. In beginning the book with a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, he has inspired us to remember that “the most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history” was so magnificent because of the people who made it possible, not because of the numbers that made it profitable. In closing the book with a call for a “new, social movement of justice,” he has asked us, where does the most magnificent story of the next thousand years take place? Who are its participants? Who are its abolitionists?


Review of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams

ERIC WILLIAMS. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944. Pp. ix, 245. $29.95.

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Capitalism and Slavery is the first and most important work by the late Trinidadian scholar and statesman, Eric Eustace Williams. Based on a dissertation written at the University of Oxford in 1938, entitled “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the British West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” the work is an “economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the industrial revolution in England and of mature industrial capitalism [eventually] destroying the slave system.” More generally, the book documents the historical shift of Britain’s political economy from monopolistic commercial mercantilism based on tropical, Caribbean islands with black-plantation slavery to laissez faire commercial capitalism based on white free-labor factories in temperate, Continental regions. In doing so, it challenges one-hundred years of British imperial historiography by making the controversial argument that the causes of abolition and emancipation were economic, not humanitarian. Although too cynical in its conclusions, and slightly contrived in its teleology, Capitalism and Slavery is one of the most effective, creative, powerful, and influential history books that has ever been written.

For sources, Williams has relied heavily upon the archival research that he conducted for his dissertation, which covered the years 1783-1833. This research drew upon the Colonial Office Papers, Chatham Papers, Foreign Office Papers, and Custom Records in the Public Record Office of London. Williams has also studied the Liverpool Papers, Minute Books of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the Auckland Papers, and the Huskisson Papers at the British Museum, and he has pursued sources at provincial libraries, like the Liverpool Public Library, the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and the Rhodes House Library in Oxford. He has reviewed parliamentary debates, stock ledgers, custom receipts, correspondence and memoranda, pamphlets, legislation, committee reports, and the material record of the slave trade, exhibited at the Wilberforce Museum in Hull. Finally, he has emphasized the writings of contemporary historians, theorists, mercantilists, planters, politicians, and abolitionists. Foremost among these are Thomas Clarkson and Herman Merivale, Adam Smith, Malachy Postlethwayt, Charles Davenant, William Pitt, and William Wilberforce.

Capitalism and Slavery represents a dramatic departure from traditional, British imperial historiography as it had been written since the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. For inspiration, Williams has cited, among others, the oeuvre of Lowell Ragatz, an influential American historian of the British Caribbean, as well as the work of Frank Pitman. He has recommended Paul Mantoux and John Clapham for the subject of British capitalism, and the Caribbean historian C.L.R. James for its relationship to slavery. As a foil, Williams has singled out the work of the British scholar of African history, Reginald Coupland. Coupland, says Williams, “represents the sentimental conception of history,” and “ his works help us to  understand what the abolition movement was not.” In general, Williams supports economic materialism, aligning himself against those who situate moral causality, ideological humanitarianism, and poetic sentimentalism at the center of the abolition movement. In a chapter entitled “The ‘Saints’ and Slavery,” Williams goes so far as to call English abolitionists hypocrites and the “unconscious mouthpieces” of the “new industrial interest.”

In a change from his dissertation, Williams places the year 1783 at the halfway point of Capitalism and Slavery. Like many historians before him, he has identified the American Revolution as the turning point of his analysis. Prior to 1783, “all classes of English society,” with the exception of a few voices of Cassandra, “supported the slave trade.” The country was under the thumb of the West Indian Interest, a “solid phalanx” of slave society composed of the landed aristocracy, the commercial bourgeoisie, the ecclesiastical authorities, and the political elite. Profits from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantation complex penetrated all aspects of English society, and protectionist legislation and military force were marshalled to ensure that capital accumulated by England remained in the British economy. Politicians had vested financial interests in the slave trade, its Caribbean commodities, and its many ancillary industries, including, but not limited to, shipbuilding, dock building, sail making, cask making, rope making, gun making, coal mining, distilling, refining,  iron smelting, weaving, banking, licensing, insurance providing, investing and underwriting, and manufacturing. These politicians passed high import duties and embargos on foreign products, banned colonial trade with foreign nations,  and demanded that all aspects of overseas trade be nationalized: performed with English ships, English crews, and English victuals, supplies, and naval stores. As Williams describes, this was the economic “infrastructure of mercantilist England,” and it was far more important than the “ideological superstructure” of humanitarianism.

By citing annual import-export profits, national emoluments, and personal connections, Williams shows how capital accrued from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantation complex financed the construction of English estates, seaport towns like Bristol, Liverpool, and London, and their manufacturing counterparts like Manchester. The triangular trade, of which the trade in black human bodies was one inextricable component, stimulated the domestic economy and lowered unemployment by establishing new overseas markets with high demands that needed a source of supply. While the Caribbean colonies offered sugar, tobacco, indigo, ginger, and wood to England, the English textile industries supplied woolens, linens, and cloths to the colonies; meanwhile, the English fisheries in Newfoundland and the mainland colonies of America supplied the necessary provisions. This last fact permitted West Indian planters to specialize exclusively in lucrative cash crops while their absentee landlords lobbied for their political interests in Parliament. Finally, English foundries and furnaces emerged to supply the necessary instruments of enslavement and cultivation while English production centers emerged to supply the diverse, sundry items of the African trade. In this way, the infrastructure of industrialism was galvanized by the market forces of slavery.  To borrow a phrase from Karl Marx and The Communist Manifesto, by supplying the necessary capital for the industrial revolution, West Indian planters were, in a sense, becoming their “own grave-diggers.”

Although Williams tends to cite the annual flow of capital into English ports to show the accumulated wealth of the slave trade, he does occasionally offer more explicit connections. For example, he states that overseas markets and slave-trading capital motivated the cost-reducing technologies that came to define the English Industrial Revolution. Specifically, this includes the steam engine, the rotary engine, the steam loom, the railroad, and the hot blast and the puddling process in iron smelting. Profits fertilized the slate industry, the mining industry, the spinning jenny, the water frame, the construction of iron bridges, ships, and factories, and the beginning of interchangeable parts in the manufacturing process. Overall, Williams argues that it is not a coincidence that slavery and the slave trade became unattractive as domestic production (secondary production) replaced foreign trade (barter or primary production) as the engine of the British economy.

According to Williams, the demise of British mercantilism, the West Indian Interest, and the Caribbean planter class was a process of creative destruction that began with the American Revolution, and was epitomized by the synonymous publication of two capitalist-era texts, TheWealth of Nations and The Declaration of Independence. In short, “American independence destroyed the mercantile system” because it made America a foreign nation subject to the economic restrictions of the British Navigation Laws. It left the Caribbean colonies starved for supplies because it eliminated the provisions market, it engendered renewed competition between the soil-exhausted English islands and the relatively virgin territories of foreign nations (think Saint-Dominique, Cuba, Brazil, and the Cotton Kingdom of the United States), it created conditions of overproduction in England which could no longer be filled by the diminishing markets of the Atlantic slave trade, and it created an economically weak position from which colonial slave rebellions became more bold and more frequent. All factors considered, by the early nineteenth century, the slave trade and the institution of slavery had lost all of their economic viability and, for the first time, humanitarian protests became aligned with the material realities of British capitalism. In other words, the institution of slavery was no longer profitable, and Britain began to “cut its losses.”

Capitalism and Slavery

Unlike his dissertation, Williams spends the first half of Capitalism and Slavery tracing the origins of the English slave trade from the late sixteenth century—the expedition of the privateer John Hawkins—to the year 1783. Particularly, he discusses the rise of slaving interests from the English Civil War to the formation of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa in 1752. While this section makes interesting exposition, its three major claims are less than controversial today. Williams shows that the “origin of Negro slavery was economic not racial;” he debunks the “climatic theory” that white people could not perform adequate labor in the tropics; and he also shows that “white servitude [and we might add Indian labor] was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed.” Today, most historians [David Brion Davis excepted] believe that racism emerged from the unique circumstances of Atlantic slavery and not the other way around. Africans made ideal slaves for whites because “they were conspicuous by their color and features,” they were ignorant of European languages, customs, and laws, they were cheap to obtain by trade, there were existing structures in place for their acquisition in Africa, they could be deracinated from their home environments, and, in relation to Indians and Europeans, they seemed to possess a hardy constitution.

Today, historians have also accepted the claim that the Middle Passage was a horrific experience for both white sailors and black slaves. However, many scholars are more reluctant to accept the claim that the victims of plantation slavery were “the Negroes in Africa and the small white farmers.” Of course, by “Negroes in Africa,” Williams is referring to those individuals who were captured and shipped to the New World as slaves. By “white farmers,” he is referring to the yeomen laborers who wanted to work the land themselves but could not compete with the monopolistic, economic structure of plantation slavery. Historians find a similar theme in the American abolitionist narrative, where white northerners supported the ban on slavery not for humanitarian or egalitarian reasons, but because they knew that wage labor could not content with the profit margins of free, slave labor.

Many historians have critiqued Capitalism and Slavery as being too harsh on the English abolitionists, too cynical about their intentions, and too eager to dismiss them as collaborators with the regime of industrialism. This critique is, at its base, completely true. Of course, we can accept the fundamental claim that humanitarian agitation was not the sole (or even the central) cause of abolition and emancipation without completely dismissing the abolitionists as irrelevant. First, we must remember why Williams wants to warn readers about the abolitionists in the first place. He believes that the “splendid moral isolation” of the abolitionists, the very idea that they were valiant heroes who won an uphill battle against racist imperialism, encouraged English society to believe that it could do no wrong in the future. In this sense, the traditional abolition narrative served to justify the repetition of oppression. If racial imperialism was overcome by the abolitionists in the early nineteenth century, Williams asks, then how do we account for the East Indian replacing the “Negro” on English plantations between 1833 and 1917? How do we account for the brutal mistreatment of the English industrial workforce, the imperial violence of the Boer Wars, and the systematic colonization of the African continent? Unfortunately, the abolitionist-hero narrative has no easy answer for these problems.

Williams wants us to recognize that there is a formula for historical progress that involves humanitarian agitation and economic development. In doing so, he is unfair to the abolitionists. As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, many white people with good intentions were trapped in historical and economic relationships that they did not understand. Just because their agitation was not the factor that forced the hand of the British government, does not mean that their hearts were in the wrong place. We cannot condemn the powerless for being unable to affect change; many of them wanted to affect change, and so they did what they could in their limited circumstances. That is what matters. Can we blame abolitionists for not toppling the economic infrastructure of imperial Britain any more than we can blame modern-day protesters for not redistributing the wealth of Wall Street? Ultimately, their agitation, combined with the agitation of black slaves on plantations, was an important factor in articulating a new demand, both to the government and to posterity. Although most people could not predict the horrors of the industrial mineshaft, more and more people were beginning to feel that the horrors of the plantation were no longer conscionable.

Many other  scholars are critiqued Capitalism and Slavery for its teleology, stating that British plantations continued to remain profitable long after the dramatic upheaval of the American Revolution. In this sense, they accuse Williams of fast-forwarding the historical decline of the British plantation economy in order to fit his chronology. Unfortunately, I am not qualified to argue the profitability of the British plantation complex in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, although I suspect that there is validity in this critique, as the British empire continued to suppress slave revolts with terror and violence until the eve of emancipation. In this regard, I think Williams owes much more credit to the slaves themselves, who found unique and varied ways to lobby for their own freedom in the Atlantic world. To be fair, much of the work on black resistance to slavery had not yet been done in the 1940s, and it was quite fashionable to place the American Revolution as the impetus for greater historical change.

On another note, there is an undeveloped argument in Capitalism and Slavery about the relationship of the artist to the consciousness of society. When listing a few of the unheeded voices of early abolition—the voices of Cassandra or the jeremiads—Williams constructs a list that is composed entirely of poets and novelists. There is Daniel Defoe, James Thomson, William Cowper, William Black, and Robert Southey. Although he does not remark on the significance of this trend, it seems worthwhile to investigate. Why were there so many artists willing to explore critiques of slavery and the slave trade in their works? What was significant about the artist that gave him or her a certain personal liberty in an economic system that seemed to encompass almost everyone else?  As a final critique, Williams states that “the British abolitionists exaggerated the horrors of the Middle Passage.” To this claim I would disagree. As in most historical tragedies, I strongly believe that the worst horrors of the slave trade are those which never reached a larger audience. While historians can debate the representativeness of transatlantic horror stories for eternity, the fact remains that representativeness simply makes no difference to the individuals who suffers.

Capitalism and Slavery is one of the most important history books that has ever been written. It is also one of the few history books that is still being read, after seventy years, with sincere respect. Written by a black West-Indian scholar and future Prime Minister on the eve of global decolonization and in the midst of profound racial segregation in such places as South Africa and America, the book is a lesson in history itself. By challenging the incumbency of a self-serving, British imperial narrative that lauded the historical perpetrators of slavery for overcoming their past, Capitalism and Slavery became an enduring manifesto of anti-imperialism. It was integral to the founding of the University of the West Indies, which has cultivated so many brilliant thinkers since its inception. It is succinct and concise (only 212 pages without notes), but it remains deceptively complex. Most of all, it reminds us that the ongoing struggle for global equality cannot be diluted to binaries. As they were in the early nineteenth century, the oppressors of the modern era are also humanitarians. Despite what they say, both of these groups are caught within a larger, tangled web of economic relationships from which they cannot easily escape. For this reason, Williams implores us to think, “What is my position, and how can I get free?”

Picture of Eric Williams as the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, from 1962-1981

Review of Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers

JANE LANDERS. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Forward by Peter H. Wood. (Blacks in the New World.) Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Pp. xiv, 390. $29.00.


Cover for LANDERS: Black Society in Spanish Florida

Black Society in Spanish Florida is the first book written by Jane Landers, colonial Latin Americanist, historian of the Caribbean and the Hispanic southeast, and assistant professor of History at Vanderbilt University. Inthe text, Landers presents the first English-language, conceptual history of black society on the Florida peninsula during the first and second Spanish tenures (1565-1763, and 1783-1821). After addressing precedents for Afro-Floridian history on the Iberian Peninsula and in the Spanish Caribbean, and covering activities through the British interregnum (1763-1783), Landers organizes her study into six conceptual chapters on the remaining years: entrepreneurs and property holders, religious life, the lives of women, slaves and the slave trade, crime and punishment, and military service. Landers then ends with a critical chapter and afterward on “the demise of Spanish Florida,” and its historical consequences, as a result of American expansionist policies. Overall, Black Society recaptures not only the shared, tri-racial history of Spanish Florida and the extraordinary “cultural diversity and adaptation” of its black inhabitants, but it documents the conquest of a better model of multiculturalism by the prolonged, racist imperialism of Anglo-American societies.


For sources, Landers relies upon military, criminal, civil, notarial, manifest, petition, and census records, as well as parish registers (separated by race after the year 1738) that fastidiously document baptisms, marriages, and burials. In this regard, Landers benefits from the “meticulous” and “distinct” record keeping of the Spanish Crown, inspired by its corporatist/state structure and its medieval traditions of cultural assimilation and integration. Landers also draws upon Florida land grants for the second tenure, housed at the Florida State archives at Tallahassee. Also within these archives are the East Florida Papers, which include the unpublished letters of the Spanish governors and other officials. Landers has also culled much from the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida, the St. Augustine Historical Society, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and other colonial archives in Madrid, Simancas, Seville, Havana, Matanzas, and Mexico. Finally, Landers draws upon archaeological and zoo-archaeological findings from excavations at such historic sites as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé and the “Negro Fort” at Propsect Bluff on the Apalachicola River.

Historiography and Area of Expertise:

Black Majority

Landers has identified Peter Wood as the American “historian whose work has most influenced” her own. The signal achievement of Wood’s career was Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1974), a monograph which casts its shadow upon Black Society, particularly in the first few chapters. Among other achievements, Black Majority recaptured the unique contributions that West Africans made to the plantation culture of the Carolina low country (such as introducing rice cultivation). In a similar way, Landers devotes herself to uncovering the contributions that people of African descent made to the history of Spanish Florida. Also, like other historians of the black colonial experience, such as Ira Berlin and Matthew Restall, Landers is motivated by Frank Tannenbaum’s controversial thesis about the “relative severity of slavery” in different colonial models. For this reason, a direct and critical comparison between Anglo and Iberian slave systems is central to the thesis of Black Society.

In the first third of Black Society, Landers sketches a rough chronology of the black presence in colonial Florida during the first Spanish tenure. Although she acknowledges that “records for the first Spanish period are less complete than those of the second,” it should be noted that Landers wrote her dissertation on “Black Society in St. Augustine,” the provincial capital on the St. John’s River, during the second Spanish tenure (1784-1821); given this fact, readers should not be surprised to discover that the bulk of her study focuses on these four, twilight decades. A quick browse through the twelve appendices of tables, replete with individual names and relationships, will suggest that almost no information can be gathered for the first one hundred and twenty years of Spanish rule, and very little can be obtained before the year 1752. Similarly, although the majority of the peninsula was unoccupied by Spaniards during the colonial period, readers cannot help but wonder whether the northeast corner—St. Augustine, Amelie Island, Fort San Nicholas, and Fort Mosé—receive special attention as a result of Landers’ expertise.

Historical Chronology:

The black presence in Spanish Florida began during the first European expeditions of 1513 and 1521, with free black servants, slaves, and conquistadores like Juan Garrido, Juan González Ponce de León,and Esteban de Dorantes. When Florida became an official Spanish province in the year 1565, under the governorship of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, blacks began serving in St. Augustine as captured or condemned slaves [esclavos forzados], servants and domestics, artisans, soldiers, and laborers. These individuals ranged from “country-born” Africans [bozales], to African-Americans [criollos], to Spanish-speaking, Catholic Africans [ladinos]. They played crucial roles in the clearing of arable land, the harvesting of crops, the building of fortifications (like the coquinaCastillo de San Marcos), and the colonial defense against privateers, slave catchers, and pirates.

Seventeen years after the Barbadian colonization of the Carolinas in 1670, runaway slaves began “voting with their feet,” and entering Florida through its northern border. The Spanish Crown issued a royal edict [cédula] of sanctuary for these slaves in the year 1693 (a proclamation which the monarch reiterated in 1733 and did not abolish until 1790). On a consistent basis, fugitive slaves relocated to the approved mission/satellite village [doctrina/reducción] of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé (just two miles north of St. Augustine), where they served as a crucial military buffer against Anglo expansion from the Carolinas and Georgia.

After decades of cross-border warfare, Fort Mosé was finally destroyed by the English and their Indian allies in 1740, and its black inhabitants relocated to the urban environment of St. Augustine, where they received town lots [solares]. In 1752, the Spanish government rebuilt Fort Mosé, and the black community returned until the British acquired Florida as a trade for the confiscated Cuba in the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War. At this time, the black community relocated to Cuba, where they became new citizens [nuevos pobladores] and received plots of destitute, uncultivated land [caballerias] near the provincial capital of Matanzas. As far as the record indicates, none of these individuals returned to Florida when Spain received the province again in 1784.

The second Spanish tenure was defined by increased activity in the Florida slave trade. This occurred, first legally and then illegally, through the Atlantic port of Fernandina on the northern corner of Amelia Island at the St. Mary’s River. The second tenure was also defined by regular military conflicts with the fledgling republic of America and their Indian allies; these included the French-inspired Genêt invasion (1795), the Indian wars (1800-1803), the Patriot Rebellion (1812-1813), the Creek War (1813-1814), and the First Seminole War (1816-1818). These conflicts were fueled by renewed waves of runaway slaves who established feudal, “Black Towns” alongside Seminole Indian settlements. By 1821, black and white forces in colonial Florida were defeated on both coasts, and the peninsula was transferred to American ownership. At this point, black individuals either relocated to Spanish Cuba for the second time, or else they remained in the American province to test their odds against a new regime of white supremacy, plantation monoculture, chattel slavery, Indian removal, and a strict racial system that undermined the existing free black class.

Who Were Blacks in Spanish Florida?

As Landers argues, blacks in colonial Florida, whether free or enslaved, were highly politicized international travelers of the Atlantic and circum-Caribbean world. They traveled as “Atlantic creoles” (Ira Berlin’s definition of people with “linguistic dexterity, cultural plasticity, and social agility”) through a geographic region that Landers calls the “circum-Atlantic periphery of Florida.” This region includes places like Santo Domingo, Saint-Domonique, Cuba, Yucatán, Savanah, Charleston, Louisiana, New York, Trinidad, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Bahamas. Moreover, these individuals leveraged their military, “linguistic, diplomatic, and artisanal skills into citizenship and property rights” on the contested frontier of a Spanish borderland. Although they were constantly uprooted by political turmoil, and often restricted by the general prejudice of slavery, they managed to obtain a legal and social standing in Spanish Florida that was unprecedented in the Anglophone colonies of the Caribbean and North America. Sadly, this status would be destroyed and written out of history after the American acquisition of Florida finally eradicated the international border in 1821.

Caribbean and Atlantic diving destinations map

Black individuals played a litany of roles in Spanish Florida: carpenters, masons, ironsmiths goldsmiths, stonecutters, cartwrights, coopers, lumberjacks, farmers, orchardists, trackers, foragers, cobblers, hostelers, hosts, hawkers, hucksters, venders, prostitutes, musicians, fishermen, turtlers, boatmen, sailors, pilots, butchers, stevedores, officers, militiamen, translators, Indian agents, ranchers, cooks, servants, maids, laundresses, shop owners, clerks, sawyers, tailors, soldiers, and even slave owners. In addition, they petitioned for titles, posts, salaries, subsidies, pensions, tax exemptions, and land grants, which they often won. Many of them were literate, held personal property [peculium], attended school, received baptism, celebrated festivities, loaned credit, were allowed to carry weapons in public (a mark of significant distinction in Spanish society), and were provided legal recourse to sue their masters for manumission or abuse, testify in court, and purchase their own freedom [coartación]. Additionally, slaves were organized around the task system (as opposed to the gang system), which allowed them spare time to cultivate a social life and tend to their personal needs. Others were allowed to hire themselves out and collect day wages [jornal] in their spare time. Although slavery was still punctuated by brutalities, and legal systems tended to favor the white Spanish elite, Landers reminds us that all of these privileges were virtually unknown in the English colonies.

What Factors Contributed to the Unique Position of Blacks in Spanish Florida?

Black society in Spanish Florida had precedents in the Castilian slave law, known as the Siete Partidas, as well as the official sanctioning of black barrios, black religious fraternities, and Indian satellite villages [cofradías, cabildos, andreducción]. It also drew upon the multicultural nature of reconquista Spain, which incorporated subject Muslims [moriscos], converted Jews [conversos], and gypsies. In this context, Africans existed as both registered citizens [vecinos] and members of the unemployed underclass [gente de mal vivir]. Moreover, Spanish culture attached great value to a life of stable urban communities [vida politica] as well as an official policy of populating [repoblación] empty territories [tierras baldias] threatened by foreign encroachment. Finally, Spanish society was built around reciprocal obligations of extended kinship groups [parentela and clientela], god-parentage [compadrazgo], and military exemptions [fuero militar]. Taken together, these institutions and traditions created social mobility, and relative freedom, for blacks in Spanish Florida.

funeral procession

But to fully understand the relatively privileged nature of black society in Spanish Florida one must also understand the political situation of the province. Florida was both chronically underfunded and undermanned throughout the colonial period. Unlike Peru and Mexico, the peninsula yielded no mineral wealth, and so it survived upon a subsidy [situado] that was acquired from the taxation of Peubla, a province in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and brought annually on royally chartered ships of the Havana Company. As a result of regular hurricanes and incessant warfare, the province was often forced to go without this subsidy for years, and the metropolis lived in a state of perpetual bankruptcy. Also, as a marginal and underdeveloped province, Florida received the dregs of military and naval forces. When they actually filled their posts [plazas], the Third Battalion of the Infantry Regiments of Santiago and the Hibernia Regiment from Cuba were described as cowards, deserters, incorrigibles, and ne’er-do-wells.

To make matters worse, massive native depopulation as a result of enslavement, disease, warfare, and overwork created vacuums of space that the Spanish administration struggled to fill throughout both of its tenures. In fact, most of the province’s history was defined by a three-pronged military pressure: Indian nations to the West, Anglo-American forces to the north, and European forces to the south. After plantation agriculture was introduced to the peninsula during the British tenure, the Spanish government had to contend with internal agitators of Anglo and protestant extraction. All of these obstacles inspired the colonial government to encourage the unrestricted importation of African slaves (even though this importation was extraordinarily minor in comparison with other colonies, especially before 1763) and the continued enfranchisement of free black militias and independent black homesteaders.


To conclude, Black Society in Spanish Florida is a comprehensive history, woven together with personal narratives of dynamic historical figures who helped to shape “interest-based communities” against tremendous odds. Readers will learn about Francisco Menendez, who ran away from slavery and served as the captain of the Fort Mosé militia for more than forty years. They will learn about Felis Edimboro, who worked as a maidservant but also hosted balls and dances for the black community on the upper floor of her house on St. George Street. And they will learn about Jorge Biassou, the Haitian revolutionary leader [caudillo] who drank regularly, practiced vodun, dressed in military regalia, and relocated to St. Augustine with an entourage of twenty-five personal attendants. Lastly, while the demise of Spanish Florida is an unfortunate story of military violence, forced relocation, legal disenfranchisement, and historical erasure, Landers is sensitive to end her work on a positive note. After regaling her readers with contemporary advancements in public history, she assures us that the experiences of black individuals in colonial Florida are “neither anonymous, lost, nor irretrievable.”

Review of Villains of All Nations by Marcus Rediker

MARCUS REDIKER. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004. Pp. 240. $20.00.

Villains of All Nations is the third book written by Marcus Rediker, a prize-winning American historian of the early-modern era and the Atlantic world and a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. In Villains, Rediker explores the social, political, and cultural history of the nearly 4000 pirates who sailed on roughly 80 pirate ships and captured approximately 2,400 vessels during the late period of the Golden Age of Piracy, from 1716-1726. Organized in conceptual chapters with engaging historical anecdotes, Villains answers the essential questions about piracy in the early eighteenth century: who pirates were, where they came from, what they stood for, why they became pirates, how they were organized, how they treated others, how they were portrayed by outsiders, and, ultimately, how they were destroyed by an international campaign of imperial terror. Despite tending towards the romantic, and lacking contextualization at certain moments, Villains is by far the most comprehensive and thoughtful historical overview of piracy in the late Golden Age.

Rediker divides the Golden Age of Piracy into three distinct stages from 1650 to 1726. The first stage (from 1650 to 1680) was defined by buccaneers and “protestant seadogs” like Henry Morgan who preyed upon the shipping of Catholic Spain and Portugal. The second stage (during the 1690s) featured pirates like William Kid and Henry Avery who are known as “rovers” because they operated around Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. The third phase (from 1716-1726) featured swashbuckling, former-privateers like Edward Teach, who plundered ships of all nations. These pirates originally established their home base, at 800 strong, on the ungoverned Bahaman Island of New Providence, but, after the installment of royal authority in 1718, they spread across the Caribbean, the western coast of Africa, and the Indian Ocean. This late period of piracy peaked between 1717 and 1722, at which time Atlantic nations ramped up their resistance with naval forces and “high public displays of terror” [gibbets, chains, and gallows], and pirates began a desperate fight for survival that lasted until their collapse in 1726.

For sources, Rediker mines Anglo-American archives from the High Court of Admiralty (HCA), the Public Record Office (PRO), the Admiralty and Secretarial Papers (ADM), the Colonial Office Papers (CO), and the Calendars of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and the West Indies, 1574-1739. He combines these with trial records, execution sermons, royal proclamations, plays, novels, paintings, contemporary books, and, in one rare instance, an extant letter from the unrivaled pirate Bartholomew Roberts. The letters of crown-appointed, colonial governors like Alexander Spotswood, Woodes Rogers, and Nicholas Lawes are featured heavily, as are the writings of the reverend Cotton Mather. For newspapers, Rediker relies upon the American Weekly Mercury, the Boston Gazette, and the Boston News-Letter. He also emphasizes narratives from several captains and ship owners, like Philip Ashton and William Snelgrave, who survived capture by pirates. Lastly, Rediker draws upon a contemporary genre of criminal biography that includes the works of Captain Charles Johnson and Arthur Lawrence Hayward.

Rediker draws much of his inspiration from a radical tradition that includes historians like E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Jessie Lemisch, and Christopher Hill. Those familiar with either the book that Rediker co-wrote with the American historian Peter Linebaugh in 2000, called The Many-Headed Hydra, or some of Rediker’s earlier articles on piracy, will already be accustomed to his Marxist interpretation. Most importantly, they will be acquainted with his method of filtering bottom-up history through the “rhetoric of demonization,” or “the idiom of monstrosity,” articulated in writings from the higher social orders. Members of these orders include attorneys, investors, printers, governors, merchants, captains, propertied men, ministers, planters, and writers. These groups organized an international military and penal “campaign of terror to eradicate piracy.” In total, Rediker estimates that 627 pirates had been hanged from gallows by the year 1726. As a group, they were killed by the “African slave trading capital,” content on tapping the maximum potential of its recently-won Asiento contract, a monopolistic agreement to supply at least 4,800 slaves per annum to the Spanish colonies of the New World; in this way, the dominance of the English slave trade was contingent upon the demise of piracy.

Who were pirates during the Golden Age? As Rediker demonstrates, they were a “motley crew” of multi-ethnic, multi-national, and proletarian seafarers who organized themselves according to egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, collectivist, and democratic principles. They were mostly male, poor, childless, uneducated, unmarried, adventurous, and in their late 20s and early 30s; many of them hailed from port cities, and most of them had prior maritime experience; in fact, negative experiences onboard naval and merchant vessels generally fueled their piratical ambitions. Also, pirates “layed rough” (destroyed cabin divisions and slept wherever they wanted), and they employed four times the number of tars that were typically required to operate at 250 ton, merchant vessel. Rediker also demonstrates with a brilliant diagram that “about 90 percent of all pirates active between 1716 and 1726 fitted into two main lines of genealogical descent.” In other words, pirates were extremely fraternal; although some spawned sui generis from mutinies, most broke away existing bands that overextended their crews. In this manner, pirate customs were passed down throughout the late Golden Age.

As former seamen, pirates sought vengeance against the “violent disciplinary regime of the eighteenth-century deep-sea sailing ship.” They had experienced rotten food and poor victuals, payment fraud and low wages, cramped quarters, ill-ventilated conditions, untreated disease, high mortality rates, crippling accidents, impressment, and arbitrary abuse from naval captains and merchant ship owners. When these injustices are contextualized with several key historical factors—namely the English commercial revolution, the massive demobilization of armies and navies, the expiration of privateering contracts after the War of Spanish Succession, the dispossession of smallholders during the enclosure movement, and the development of colonial markets that were both far-flung and loosely defended—then the tremendous boom in piracy becomes clear. It also becomes clear why pirates earmarked “ready money” for food, drink, and healthcare, practiced equal distribution of resources, plunder, and discipline, engaged in democratic elections and common councils, signed articles of agreement, named their ships Revenge, and preferred to accept only voluntary recruits.

As always, Rediker is clear to sort out fact from fiction. Real pirates did not make their enemies walk the plank (their chosen method of punishment was shooting a captain tied up to the mainmast), they did not bury treasure, and, although they had the means to depose leaders, they did not use the “Black Spot” from Treasure Island. Real pirates saw fighting as a last resort; they preferred to pass time by “making merry:” singing, dancing, cursing, drinking, eating, “whoring,” and performing plays, sometimes of their own mock trials. While some pirates were skilled workers, like carpenters, coopers, cooks, and surgeons, others were slavers, felons, servants, fishermen, turtlers, bargemen, logmen (“Baymen”), and common laborers. Many hailed from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, but others came from Holland, France, Portugal, Denmark, Belguim, Sweden, and West Africa, particularly Calabar, Whydah and Sierra Leone. In addition, there have been at least four confirmed female pirates and six confirmed Native American pirates during the late Golden Age. Finally, there is evidence to suggest that pirates engaged in homosexual activity and close male relationships [matelotage].

Pirates viewed both the oceans and the ship as common property during a time when both were rapidly becoming appropriated by commercial empires. Each pirate crew sailed under its own version of the Jolly Roger flag, “the banner of King Death.” Among other traditions, this common ensign signaled an “advanced state of group identification.” Pirates also had other eccentricities: they drank “black strap,” a concoction of rum, molasses, chowder, and beer, and they embraced an “ethos of apocalypse,” the symbolism of limited time, and an “omnipresence of death.” Many of them vowed to ignite their powder kegs, and blow up their vessels, rather than die like dogs on the gallows. Others carried red, “bloody” flags that they would rig in order to signal their intention to fight to the death. Among these, pirates also carried a full stock of national flags, in case they should need to deceive an enemy vessel.

Unlike the buccaneers, privateers, and freebooters of the seventeenth century, pirates of the late Golden Age did not prey singularly upon merchant ships from Catholic Spain and Portugal. These pirates were “enemies of all mankind” [hostes humani generes], who stalked Dutch, French, and English vessels as well. Upon capturing a prize, they either burned, sunk, commandeered, or restored the ship. Their choice of action often depended upon the quality of the ship captain, whether he was “an honest fellow,” whether he treated his hands well, and whether he did not mete out physical abuse with a cat-o-nine tails. Upon boarding a prize, it was the responsibility of the pirate quartermaster to go about the “Distribution of Justice,” inquiring amongst sailors about how their captain treated them. Poor captains, like Captain Skinner, were punished, while good captains, like James Macrae, were rewarded.

At base, Rediker argues that pirates were not irrelevant oddities or marginal historical actors during the early-eighteenth century. On the contrary, their seafaring activities halted English shipping, frightened commercial and government officials, and “created something approaching a crisis in trade.” As he states, “commodities were the lifeblood of the capitalist economy,” and pirates stole them, redistributed them, squandered them, and destroyed them en masse. Even more, they became social bandits who fought against the capitalist economy; their moral admonishments in goals and gallows had profound implications for liberty, and their actions emboldened sailors, who often refused to resist and even joined their crews, and landlubbers, who periodically staged revolts in the wake of their executions.

In a conceptual chapter on female pirates, Rediker buries the greatest and most-novel sub-argument of the whole book. In a comparative analysis of two images—the frontispiece from the Dutch-language edition of Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates from 1725 and a painting called Liberté Guidant le people by Eugéne Delacroix from 1830—Rediker shows that the “image of piracy preceded the image of liberty by more than a century.” He also demonstrates that the brand of liberty espoused by female pirates was appropriated for nationalistic intentions. As he states, the liberty that women found beneath the Jolly Roger “took a strange, crooked path from the rough, rolling deck of a ship in the Caribbean to the polished, steady floor of an art salon in Paris.” However, by far the most impressive aspect of this argument is the way that Rediker uses historical methodologies to prove that Delacroix was inspired by specific writings about pirates as well as the Dutch frontispiece during the creation of his artwork.

Unfortunately, readers must lament the fact that Rediker does not devote a special chapter to pirates of African descent. Although he acknowledges that black pirates were “most fully hidden by the record keeping,” and “for some reason, record keepers simply did not pay much attention to pirates from foreign lands,” Rediker cannot use source difficulties as an excuse. Nearly as little has been written about female pirates, yet Rediker manages to produce an entire chapter about them. To his credit, Rediker does mention the special role that people of African descent had in relation to Atlantic piracy. First, piracy was attractive to black individuals because pirates “did not operate according to the black codes enacted and enforced in Atlantic slave societies.” Although many pirates were former slave traders, and pirates often sold slaves to Atlantic colonies for profit, they were also known to free, empower, and incorporate slaves.

Like white pirates who resented the hierarchies of deep-sea merchant sailing, black pirates “fit the bill for piracy” because they resented the conditions of slave society. Black pirates were often chosen for boarding crews because they struck a particular fear into the hearts of merchants who dealt in black commodification. Finally, black pirates were treated uniquely by colonial authorities, who “refused to give black pirates a trial, [generally] preferring to profit by selling them into slavery rather than hanging them.” Often times, white pirates would sojourn on the west coast of Africa, “visiting” with African women or attacking European slave forts; other times small communities of pirates integrated themselves with maritime West African communities, as they did with the Kru on the Windward coast in the 1720s.

Despite its unequaled value as an introductory guide to piracy in the late Golden Age, Villains of All Nations has some very particular flaws. First, Rediker wrongly dates the beginning of New Providence as a pirate haven to the year 1716. In fact, New Providence became a pirate haven at least the year prior, when Jamaican privateers like Henry Jennings came in pursuit of the wreckage from the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet. In attempting to return to their home islands, these individuals were expelled and forced to relocate to the Bahamas. In this regard, Rediker makes the mistake of beginning the late Golden Age of Piracy at least one year too late. Although the War of Spanish Succession ended in 1714, readers hear almost nothing about those first two years. Henry Jennings, so crucial to the establishment of the Bahamas, is never discussed.

Second, there are times when Rediker takes the mysterious yet un-ignorable author Captain Charles Johnson too readily, which is confusing because Rediker indicates his familiarity with the controversies surrounding Johnson in his endnotes. As historians of piracy know, Captain Charles Johnson is considered to be a pseudonym; the real identity of the author has been postulated as the novelist Daniel Defoe, the publisher Charles Rivington, and the journalist Nathanial Mist, but it is nonetheless still unknown. Regardless, Rediker seems to pick and choose in his quotes whether to use Johnson at face value or to qualify his claims. These instances are often where Rediker borders on the romantic. In one example, he relies entirely upon Johnson for his description of Blackbeard, “consciously cultivating an image of” Satan. Given what Rediker believes about the “idiom of monstrosity,” readers would expect this manner of speech to be questioned more closely.

Finally, as he does in The Many-Headed Hydra, Rediker glibly equates pirates with maroon societies. He states, “Pirate ships themselves might be considered multiracial maroon communities,” and he takes as evidence the fact that pirates appropriated the idiom of marooning in their conversations and ship names. Unfortunately, all this evidence proves is that pirates thought of themselves as related to maroon communities. It does not prove an actual likeness. It seems more logical that, although maroon societies and pirates were both byproducts of Atlantic empire, they were nonetheless predicated on fundamentally different philosophies. The latter wanted to emancipate themselves completely from commercial society, while the former wanted to frustrate commercial society through their periodic engagement.

Despite these minor critiques, Villains of All Nations is a superb and thrilling monograph that demonstrates how pirates in the late Golden Age “challenged conventions of race, class, gender, and nation.” Its signal achievement is demonstrating how, as the struggle between outlaws and empire progressed, pirates found themselves entangled in a “dialectic of violence” with the nation state. They strove to create a new, utopian social order that would reflect the unjust hypocrisies of Atlantic empire, but “they could not resolve the contradictions of their time,” and so they were compelled to resort to terror and violence themselves. Most importantly, Rediker reminds us that pirates were rebels, and that is why they have continued to fascinate our culture. “As long as there are powerful people and oppressive circumstances to be resisted,” he argues, the history of pirates is worth remembering.

Call for Papers: Eleventh Annual Loyola University Chicago History Graduate Student Conference

Originally posted on Loyola University Chicago History Graduate Student Conference:



Call for Papers

Eleventh Annual

Loyola University Chicago History Graduate Student Conference

November 15, 2014

Loyola University Chicago Water Tower Campus, Chicago, IL

Masters and doctoral graduate students in any field of historical study are invited to submit proposals to present individual research papers at Loyola’s Eleventh Annual History Graduate Student Conference.  Panel applications and individual papers focusing on borderlands and transnational studies, urban history, gender history, and public history are especially encouraged.  We also welcome papers about history projects in the digital humanities. The goal of this conference is to provide an opportunity for students to gain experience presenting original research projects and to receive feedback from their peers on their work.

Prizes of $150 and $50 will be awarded to the top two conference presentations.  Loyola graduate students are ineligible for these monetary awards, but an honorable mention will be given to the top Loyola presentation.

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Review of Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson

WALTER JOHNSON. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. 283. $25.50.


Soul by Soul is the award-winning first book written by Walter Johnson, an American historian specializing in capitalism, imperialism, and nineteenth-century slavery, particularly the internal slave-trade of the American south between 1820 and 1860. In the book, Johnson explores “the making of the antebellum south” through “the daily history of the slave pens” in the largest North American slave market: New Orleans, Louisiana. He approaches the domestic slave trade—which resulted in the relocation of one million enslaved persons from the declining, tobacco fields of the Upper South to the burgeoning, sugar-and-cotton plantations of the Lower South—from the conflicting viewpoints of traders, buyers, and slaves. The slim stature and narrow focus of this book betray its sheer brilliance; Soul by Soul is an outstanding work of history that recaptures the complex psychological processes involved in making the commercial abstractions of the political economy material in the form of human bodies.

As a foil, Johnson cites historiographical preferences for representing the slave trade graphically (e.g., The Transatlantic Slave Trade by James Rawley and The Atlantic Slave Trade by Philip Curtin). He states, “the very aggregations that have been used to represent” the trade—charts, arrows, lines, maps, and tables—have obscured its human history. Borrowing inspiration from W.E.B. Dubois’ Black Reconstruction, Johnson claims that the history of the domestic slave trade will remain incomplete until its story is told “from the perspectives of all of those whose agency shaped the outcome.” For this reason, Johnson devotes himself to articulating “the story of a single moment—a slave sale—from three different perspectives.”

For sources, Johnson relies upon the nineteenth-century narratives of former-slaves, their abolitionist publishers, and their amanuenses. Among these, Johnson emphasizes John Brown, William Wells Brown, Solomon Northrup, Charles Ball, and Moses Grandy. He also features escaped-slave interviews conducted by Benjamin Drew in Ontario, Canada, in the 1840s. Johnson compares these narratives with the docket records of 200 cases of disputed slave sales in the Louisiana Supreme Court, as well as Notarized Acts of Sale, slave advertisements, record books, and price lists. Because Louisiana law designated slaves as real estate, rather than personal property, these court records are extraordinarily comprehensive. Many of them are stored in the archives and special collections of the University of New Orleans, being used here for the first time. Lastly, Johnson relies upon the epistles and diaries of southern slaveholders, like John Knight, and northern tourists, like Frederick Law Olmstead.

While other historians might concentrate on the shocking brutality of the domestic trade, Johnson focuses on its intimate, perverse, and fragile psychology. The antebellum slave world fused people into an “unstable mutuality,” where all parties were constantly evaluating one another through a “visual grammar,” and manipulating each other through careful behaviors. Slaveholders, for instance, “made their selves out of slaves.” Only the market had the power to grant them “full participation in the political economy of slavery and white masculinity.” Ironically, it was through black reproduction that slaveholders passed on the legacy of white patriarchy, and it was through slavery that white families achieved (and constantly battled for) leisure, paternalism, gentility, honor, and status. By alleviating work, black slaves even had the power to make slaveholding women “white” according to prevailing social standards.

Johnson describes the process of “necromancy” by which traders dismantled slaves in the coffles (by exploiting their humanity) and then repackaged their bodies in jails, auction houses, pens, and showrooms. Sometimes, slaves were literally sold on the verge of death from ailments like consumption, scrofula, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Nonetheless, traders dressed them in new clothes, plucked their gray hairs, blackened their skin, oiled their bodies, tallowed their hair, hid their scars, cleaned their teeth, fattened their bodies, coached their speech, forced them to exercise, and, on occasion, even paid them incentives to sell themselves. In short, these slaves “were forced to perform their own commodification.” All the while, naïve buyers and contracted appraisers fondled their breasts, inspected their gums, teeth, and genitals, and asked them probing questions about their health and history; in the parlance of the day, these buyers were looking for the “likely” slaves that would fulfill their fantasies.

In the cotton kingdom, white slaveholders were measured by their ability to judge black slaves in the market, and so they lived in constant fear of being dishonored by an “imprudent” decision. Southern planters dreamed that their neighbors judged their success based upon the quality of their slaves, and so their lives became an ongoing attempt to “live through the stolen bodies of their slaves.” In this paradox, “relations of white slaveholders depended upon the actions and opinions of their black slaves.” For example, when buyers sued traders according to redhibition laws (buyer’s protection rights), doctors carried slave testimony into the courtroom as evidence against bad masters. Slaves that were sick, worked to death, committed suicide, spoke poorly of their owners, or were excessively beaten stood as damning evidence against the quality of a slaveholder. In one encapsulating quote, Johnson concludes that slaveholders “were not masters of the system. The system was the master of them.”

Typical of his three-dimensional approach, Johnson demonstrates that traders, buyers, and slaves all read somatic signs differently. While slaves saw bodily scarring as evidence of mistreatment and violence, buyers saw scars as indicators of recalcitrant behavior, and traders saw scars as an obstacle to salability. Nonetheless, slaves used songs, stories, family names, and religion to create (and constantly recreate) common cultures with complete strangers along the dusty roads, cramped steamboats, enclosed slave pens, and torrid plantations that defined their experience. But they also lived in profound psychological fear about whom they could trust, and so they constantly estimated their peers, often reproducing societal stereotypes. New plantation slaves judged the quality of a master based on the condition of his old slaves. Sometimes slaves even invoked the logic of southern planters, like the paternalist mutuality of a broken promise, in order to manipulate or prevent their sale. Overall, the logic of “the chattel principle,” a phrase coined by the ex-slave J.W.C. Pennington, demanded that slaves do whatever they could in order to avoid both physical deaths in the killing fields of the Lower South, as well as “psychic deaths” in the ideology of racial domination.

Overall, traders exploited the humanity of their slaves in order to get them to cooperate; buyers fantasized about erasing the humanity of their slaves, reducing them to smiling faces on a field and improving numbers on a ledger column; finally, slaves cherished their humanity, guarding it closely, but sharing it when their circumstances demanded. Most importantly, each of these parties gave concrete cultural meaning to an economy of people that defined the antebellum south. In Soul by Soul, Johnson has traced the physical and psychological journey of slaves, traders, and buyers throughout the annual season of the interstate slave trade, occurring after harvests in the late summer and fall. In doing so, he has masterfully revealed the tangled web of perspectives through which “the history of the slave trade was daily made.”

Review of History of the Upper Guinea Coast by Walter Rodney

WALTER RODNEY. History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (Oxford Studies in African Affairs)New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Pp. ix, 283. $7.00.

History of the Upper Guinea Coast is the refurbished dissertation of the late Guyanese historian and political activist, Walter Rodney. Originally written in 1966 for a PhD in African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the text is a chronological/conceptual history of a section of the West African coast (between the Gambia and Cape Mount) from its first contact with Hispano-Portuguese sailors in the mid-fifteenth century until approximately 1800. The book was a response to contemporary scholarship—which Rodney criticized as too scarce and projecting colonial boundaries onto the precolonial past—and a formative work in the “New Orthodoxy” of African History, dedicated to writing the history of Africa for its own merit, “not as an appendage to anything else.” As a work that traces a complex web of coastal African societies from pre-European contact through the early-modern era, History has no rival; it dispels popular misconceptions while offering a nuanced critique of both developing Afro-European commerce and inherent African social hierarchies.

Rodney focuses on a cultural and geographical region known as the “Rivers of Guinea.” This area is much like the Upper Guinea Coast described by John Thornton, except that it excludes the northern region of Senegambia. For sources, Rodney consults archival material in England, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Although the Dutch and French were significant presences on the coast, Rodney presents them as secondary to Hispano-Portuguese and English activities. These activities are mainly derived from two archives—the Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino in Lisbon and the Public Record Office in London. Rodney combines these with charts [roteiros],registers [registros], and writings from a diverse cast of contemporary Europeans: admirals, explorers, traders, printers, physicians, and missionaries. Among these, Álvares de Almada, Lemos Coelho, Jean-Baptiste Labat, and Nicholas Owen are a few of the most cited.

Rodney begins the book by describing the social, political, and environmental conditions of the “Rivers of Guinea” before European contact. Here he uses linguistic techniques to illustrate the central importance of both wet and dry rice harvesting on the riverine coast. Then he critiques H. Baumann, who saw the region as separated between coastal groups of the West Atlantic and interior groups of the Upper Niger. Rodney rejects the prevailing notion that coastal peoples were primitive because they “did not erect a superstructure of states.” He then positions the interior mountains of the Futa Djalon as a “crucial transitional zone between Western Sudan and the Upper Guinea coast.” The westward migration and conquests by centralized states, mainly of Mandé and Fula extraction, combined with European encroachment to overwhelm littoral societies by 1800. This two-way pressure forms the central conflict of the narrative.

Contrary to John Thornton, Rodney argues that West African societies did practice land ownership, and they were organized around social hierarchies rather than institutions of slavery. Although Mungo Park referenced widespread slavery in the 1790s, early Hispano-Portuguese writers spoke only of “incipient class distinctions” between African fidalgos [nobles] and plebeus [commoners]. For this reason, Rodney places the African portion of responsibility for the slave trade squarely on “tribal rulers and elites.” To do this, he argues that European chroniclers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not observing traditional societies. Rather, they were observing coastal groups that had been altered by centuries of profound change, namely the syncretic process of “Mandiguization” and prolonged exposure to European commerce. On this point, Rodney reminds us that Hispano-Portuguese traders had been exporting slaves to plantations on the Cape Verde Islands as many as 330 years before Mungo Park visited the Gambia. This early period of the slave trade provided ample time for West African societies (coastal and interior) to learn European notions of slavery. Lastly, Rodney uses the longue duree to reject the prevailing notion that firearms, famines, and alcohol played significant roles in the first centuries the trade.

Although Rodney agrees with John Thornton that Africans were treated equally as “personal contacts,” and Europeans had to recognize “the sovereignty of local rulers,” he argues that there could be “no equality in the commercial nexus.” Europeans and Africans approached commerce with fundamentally different motives: the former for profit (merchant economy) and the latter for hospitality (gainless barter). As such, the Atlantic trade was “entirely detrimental” to African societies because they were as a weaker stage of development. Although Europeans could not secure monopolies or political control—and they had to provide gifts [boonyar] and taxes while putting up with frustrating customs like palavers—they were ultimately the ones that accumulated capital.

By the eighteenth century, West African societies had become completely reorganized to serve a foreign capitalist system. African measurements, like the “country bars,” became instruments of European market economies; customs, like the sauce palaver, were restructured to support slavery; secret societies, like the Poro, became dominated by chiefs that supported the slave trade; and centralized states like the Susus, Fulas, and Mandingas were cultivating “slave towns” and leveraging Islam as a justification for enslaving infidels. In all of these critiques of Afro-European commerce, readers will notice precursors to Rodney’s controversial and more-famous monograph, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972).

Rodney’s diverse critiques of Afro-European commerce are encapsulated by his passing comparison between West African societies and the Spanish Empire during the early-modern era. Because Spain could not develop the complex financial infrastructure needed to secure its exorbitant wealth from New World colonies, those monies eventually flowed into the coffers of northern European states that were able to mobilize banking, insurance, and mercantilist industries. However, while appreciating Rodney’s nuanced condemnations of Afro-European commerce, it is also important to remember that European activities form only one half of the historical problem for coastal societies like the Sape, Bullom, or Beafadas. The other half of this problem is formed by the westward expansion of centralized, African states.

History of the Upper Guinea Coast is much more than just a systematic critique of Atlantic commerce. In an important chapter on “legitimate trade,” Rodney expands our notions of Afro-European relations beyond slavery, demonstrating the forgotten “potential for constructive innovation.” Reminding readers that English companies were trading in camwood, and not slaves, as late as the 1620s, is just one way that Rodney uses the longue duree approach to widen our historical perspective. Throughout the text, readers benefit most from Rodney’s expertise in both Hispano-Portuguese and English activities, as the experiences of these two cultural groups served as bookends to the institution of Atlantic slavery on the Upper Guinea Coast.

Finally, in sections about interstitial Europeans [lançados]“castle slaves” [grumetes]and Afro-Portuguese traders [filhos da terra], Rodney shows the crucial role that intermediaries played as the “middlemen of commerce.” He positions these individuals as a “cultural phenomenon” and “the most salient representations of a powerful social formation.” Living with a precolonial, DuBoisian double-consciousness, these individuals challenge our polarized notions about Afro-European relations in unique ways: they were multiethnic, they spoke creole languages, they wore Catholic rosaries, crucifixes, and West-African gree-grees, and they negotiated tense relationships with both European traders and African chiefs. Like the African groups of the Upper Guinea Coast, they remained suspended between two equally demanding worlds, hoping to survive and profit from the “violent contradictions” that defined them.