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.

Introduction:

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.

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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.

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