MARCUS REDIKER. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Press, 2007. Pp. 434. $27.95.
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. Continue reading “Review of The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker”