‘Slave Ship’ navigates a savage sea

Times Staff Writer

Abraham Lincoln famously remarked, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”

In the many years since, something of the Emancipator’s moral point has been lost, along with the memory of what benefiting from slavery entailed. No one who reads Marcus Rediker’s searingly brilliant “The Slave Ship: A Human History” can have the slightest doubt concerning the real point of Lincoln’s aphorism.

Rediker is a distinguished maritime historian whose previous books have used long-neglected primary sources to shed important new light on life around the 18th century Atlantic. In this book, he uses a similar technique to recover in horrific detail an economic system that brought more immigrants to the New World than any other in that era. It’s a beautifully timed book, since last year marked the bicentennial of England’s abolition of the slave trade and this year marks ours.


Rediker’s book makes it possible for us to understand in an entirely fresh and disturbing way precisely what those anniversaries signify.

Part of the book’s power comes from the author’s mastery of sources and part from his sophisticated appreciation of the way technology, economics and avarice conjoined in moral infamy. As early as 1740, the British merchant Malachy Postlethwayt, arguing for parliamentary subsidies for slave trade as essential to English prosperity, described the trade’s “triangular nature.” British ships carried manufactured goods to West Africa, where they were exchanged with local rulers for slaves. Hundreds of these slaves were packed into the ships and carried to the West Indies -- the so-called “middle passage” -- where they were sold and the proceeds used to buy sugar and rum, which the ships then transported back to England.

Rediker uses his experience as a maritime historian and his mastery of the contemporary documents to re-create all three legs of the triangle, often in the very words of the participants -- captains, seamen and slaves. It is a stunningly immediate, brutal portrait and enlightening in unexpected ways. Torture and sexual abuse weren’t simply commonplace but institutionalized. Rebellion was more frequent than conventional opinion allows and the lives of ordinary seamen much harder. Often, they were cheated of their wages by avaricious captains and abandoned after the middle passage, since fewer were needed to bring the ships home.

Rediker devotes a bracingly unsentimental chapter to John Newton, the slaver-turned-Christian-turned-abolitionist, who wrote that famous hymn of the justified sinner, “Amazing Grace.” He draws on Newton’s extensive public and private writings, never with more effect than in the chapter devoted to the slave ships’ maritime masters and titled “The Captain’s Own Hell.” As the author points out, when Newton wrote to and for others concerning the outrages he had “witnessed,” he often was describing acts in which he had taken part, including executions by dismemberment and the application of thumb screws to rebellious children.

As Rediker notes: “Newton developed a theory about why violence, cruelty and terror were intrinsic to the slave trade. . . . He wrote, ‘A savageness of spirit, not easily conceived, infuses itself . . . into those who exercise power on board an African slave-ship, from the captain downwards. It is the spirit of the trade, which, like a pestilential air, is so generally infectious that but few escape it.’ Violence and suffering were so pervasive on the slave that the ‘work’ itself -- meaning the discipline and control of the human ‘cargo’ -- tended directly to ‘efface moral sense, to rob the heart of every gentle and humane disposition and to harden it, like steel against all impressions of sensibility.’ ”

Rediker is one of the most interesting of the American historians who acknowledge their participation in the 1960s New Left as fundamental to their intellectual formation. In part, one suspects, that was because he found in the movement insight that described his personal experiences as the son of working-class Kentucky parents and as a one-time factory worker himself. It’s a background that predisposed him to the so-called “people’s history movement” that sought to retell the Western story -- and good history always is a story -- through the lives of ordinary people, from the bottom up, as it were. In the hands of skilled practitioners -- whose methodology was informed by the French Annales School’s rigorous attention to overlooked documents -- it produces history of great power. It is a view of the past that seeks to recover not just facts, but the conscience that renders them sensible. Rediker is one of those skilled historians.

Still, this also is a history that relies -- unobtrusively in “Slave Ship” -- on a Marxist analysis of society and its economy. There are certain inherent dangers in that, mainly a blind reliance on economic determinism and a tendency to sentimentalize the solidarity of the working class -- indeed, to find that fellow-feeling where it may have never existed. From what he has said elsewhere about “Slave Ship,” it seems that Rediker sees in the history of the Atlantic slave trade not just an appalling sideshow of embryonic capitalism, but one of its foundational building blocks. There is, in fact, a good case to be made for that view -- the prosperity of the great 18th century English seaports was built to a large extent on slavery, and the capital it generated helped finance the Industrial Revolution. In other words, behind William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” was an even darker specter on which Rediker’s important book sheds new light.

The author also appears to intend “Slave Ship” as a cautionary insight into the ongoing problems created by our increasingly globalized economy. It’s a less convincing point. Still, even if one believes -- as this writer does -- that free trade and globalization are net gains for the human community, it’s vital to keep in mind that every mile of economic progress seems to bring with it attendant human wrongs.

One of the powerfully unspoken points made by “Slave Ship” is how easily those who prosper can ignore all those who suffer in the bargain -- when that suffering occurs out of sight. As Rediker demonstrates with great force, the Atlantic slave trade continued until a committed minority forcefully brought to the attention of a theretofore indifferent majority the physical realities of the business from which so many benefited.

These are points one considers not because ideology deforms Rediker’s history, but because it renders it so thought-provoking. There is nothing programmatic about his work, because Rediker is less an ideological Marxist than he is a phenomenological one. As a scholar and a writer, he is committed to a truth about experience that only can be interpreted through the aesthetic of solidarity.

In an interview not long ago, Rediker said, “To retrieve the bottom-up perspective is, in my eye, itself an act of justice. It is an expression of solidarity with exploited and oppressed people past and present. . . . I also believe there is a poetics of peoples’ history, and that if we can capture the poetry of struggle, the beauty and truth of what people have tried to do for themselves, often under the most difficult circumstances and at the cost of their lives, if we can bring them into the light of speech, we can take their example as inspiration and guidance. . . . This point is a star I steer by.”

In “The Slave Ship” Rediker has followed that star to a compelling, morally urgent destination. Many others ought to follow him there.