Monday, 27 January 2020

Seminar report - The Slave Ship (2008)

Marcus Rediker, "The Slave Ship"
Written By: Seminar report
Date: January 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 30: Lent 2008  

On Tuesday 6th November 2007, at an LSHG event jointly held with the Raphael Samuel History Centre at UEL, Marcus Rediker spoke about his new book The Slave Ship at the Institute of Historical Research.

Marcus Rediker’s session was chaired by John Marriott of the RSHC and it saw the Pollard Room packed to bursting with historians and activists keen to hear Marcus on his short British tour to promote the book.

Marcus began by noting that he planned to talk about a different maritime tradition, not one to celebrate, but one that used terror to enforce discipline and provoked resistance to it in the process.
The book had its origins in papers originally looked at in the Public Record Office 30 years ago and the idea to write it had crystallised in visits that Marcus had paid to the US Death Row prisoner Abu Jamal. A focus on capital punishment, race and terror led to consideration of whether it was possible to do the subject of slave ships justice and to live with the material over a number of years.

Marcus underlined that violence is central to the rise of capitalism and the slave ship was the epitome of this process. The great historian Walter Rodney had said that in the slave trade capitalism was naked.

The seminar was divided into three sections. Some background, a puzzle about the slave trade and a specific drama that Marcus had uncovered in the archives.

The Transatlantic slave database covering the period from the 1500s to the last voyage in 1867 shows evidence for 12-15 million African slaves of whom 15% died on the journey. There were quite small numbers of sailors, 180-200 thousand. A lot is known about the captains but little about life below decks. Marcus asked how documents written by oppressors could yield information here.

The puzzle was that in the huge literature on the slave trade and business records for 24 thousand voyages we know very little about slave ships. There are three volumes on the subject, none definitive, yet the slave ship was essential to the first phase of globalisation. Marcus asked why this was.

Turning to the drama, Marcus noted that WEB Dubois had called the slave trade the most significant drama in 1000 years of human history. They had descended into hell and on the slave ship a human drama was played out involving captain, sailor and slave.

The slave ship was an instrument of terror and captains ruled through the use of terror. Marcus referred to an archival document from 1791 he had uncovered about a sailor’s evidence to a Grand Jury regarding a charge against Captain James D’Wolfe for throwing an ill female slave overboard to her death. Marcus queried how a captain could be charged with murder when slaves had no rights and concluded that at this peak period of abolitionist agitation its influence had been felt amongst sailors similar to the way that anti-Vietnam war sentiment found its way into the army.

Marcus noted that the three forces to end the slave trade had been rebellious Africans, dissident sailors and middle-class abolitionists.

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