The Slave Ship

A Human History

By Marcus Rediker

Viking. 434 pp. $27.95


Reviewed by Steve Weinberg


For The Inquirer

Decades before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, slavery led to divisiveness throughout America and the rest of the globe. Abolitionists in Pennsylvania managed to approve a law in 1789 limiting the slave trade, as did those in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

But legislation cannot always alter human behavior, and the slave pipeline from Africa to the Americas continued to operate year after year until the Civil War was settled in 1865.

Lots of books have covered the inhumane global trade that thrived especially virulently from the 15th through the 19th centuries. A sampling of those books includes

Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route

by Saidiya Hartman;

The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census

by Philip Curtin;

Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830

by Joseph Miller;

The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870

by Hugh Thomas; and

The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade

by Robert Harms.

Marcus Rediker had no desire to duplicate the vast literature. But as a University of Pittsburgh history professor who tends toward studying long-ago events on the Atlantic Ocean, he could not resist reopening the discussion about the depth of human cruelty - but from a new angle.

Rediker uses the scholarship of others plus his original findings to examine the slave trade from an unusual perspective: the decks of a slave ship. Those massive ships become characters in the drama as set out by Rediker, who knows the vessels so intimately that he verges on anthropomorphism in writing about them.

By adopting his perspective, Rediker employs the micro story in the service of the macro story. The book contains not just a cast of thousands but, by implication, a cast of millions. In the nearly 400 years covered by the book, Rediker estimates 12.4 million individuals "were loaded onto slave ships and carried through a Middle Passage across the Atlantic to hundreds of delivery points stretched over thousands of miles. Along the dreadful way, 1.8 million died, their bodies cast overboard to the sharks that followed the ships. Most of the 10.6 million who survived were thrown into the bloody maw of a killing plantation system, which they would in turn resist in all ways imaginable."

Viewing the horrifying commerce from the decks of the ships, Rediker expands the cast, necessarily, to include chapters about the ship owners, the ship captains, the sailors and the abolitionists, as well as the mistreated human cargo. Rediker makes no excuses for the enslavers, but helps explain why they did what they did, and how they managed to sleep at night through such cruelty.

Rediker devotes some of the chapters to individuals, as he departs temporarily from the huge numbers of the carnage to achieve the biographical. One of the most memorable, and significant, personages is James Field Stanfield, described in part like this: "He had made a slaving voyage, and a gruesome one it was, from Liverpool to Benin and Jamaica and back during the years 1774-1776, and he had lived for eight months at a slave-trading factory in the interior of the Slave Coast. An educated man, he was a writer who would over the course of his lifetime acquire something of a literary reputation. And he was, perhaps most tellingly, an actor, a strolling player, whose work in the theater probed the triumphs and tragedies of humanity. So in the late 1780s, when Stanfield, encouraged by a nascent abolitionist movement, decided to write about the horrors of the slave trade, he had a unique combination of talents and experience at hand." Character setups like that are difficult to resist.

Still, for many reasons, I wish I had not read the book. Or, perhaps more precisely, I wish the evils of the world had not caused the need for this book to exist. Rediker understands such statements. "This has been a painful book to write," he confides at the end of the introduction, "and if I have done any justice to the subject, it will be a painful book to read. There is no way around this, nor should there be. I offer this study with the greatest reverence for those who suffered almost unthinkable violence, terror and death, in the firm belief we must remember that such horrors have always been, and remain, central to the making of global capitalism." A 16-page center section of photographs and drawings helps achieve the reverence, but simultaneously heightens the horror.

For many other reasons, I am grateful to have read the book. Rediker broadens the discussion of race-based inhumanity. Most likely, such broadening is necessary before meaningful healing can occur.

Steve Weinberg is a biographer and a director of the National Book Critics Circle.