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?

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.


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