PITTSBURGH - Over more than three centuries, more than 12 million Africans were loaded on ships, bound for the Americas to be slaves.
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Aboard the slaver, or Guineaman, as the vessels were also known, the kidnapped Africans frequently had to travel in living quarters as cramped as coffins, and suffered savage beatings, outright torture and death to quell uprisings and forced dancing to keep them fit.
While the plantation system and other aspects of slavery have been widely studied, the history of the slave ship itself is largely unknown, says historian Marcus Rediker, author of "The Slave Ship - A Human History."
"What I'm basically interested in is how captains, ship captains, officers, sailors and the slave interacted with the slave ship. What was the actual reality? Of course, it was quite horrifying," said Rediker, a University of Pittsburgh history professor. "In many respects, the development of the Americas through slavery and the plantation system is unthinkable without the slave ship."
For a couple of hundred years, most people thought they knew what happened during the Atlantic crossing, Rediker says. Abolitionists had produced evidence of life aboard slave ships, but many scholars were suspicious of what they'd gathered, thinking it propaganda.
Perhaps the most significant reason for lack of scholarship, he says, is an assumption that "history happens on land, that the landed masses of the world are the real places and that the seas in between are a kind of void."
Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland professor who has written about slavery said Rediker's book addresses a difficult subject.
"And that is what happened to slaves and others in the middle passage. It speaks with great authority, and he's able to balance his knowledge with his deep anger with what has transpired," Berlin said. "It has an edge of moral outrage which gives it a certain kind of authenticity."
Rediker acknowledges a fascination with elements of the sea and seafaring, the romance and adventure of pirates and explorers, but says, "We're fascinated by all tall ships except the most important one, and that's the slave ship. And that one we can hardly bear to look at."
Slave ships arrived on the west coast of Africa, where it took an average of six months to gather the entire human cargo of slaves. The middle passage, as the journey to the Americas was known, could take eight to 13 weeks. Death was common. Some 1.5 million Africans died, either of sickness, suicide or by murder-as-example. Crews also faced death, either by illness, insurrection or sinking.
In one example in the book, an African man who refused to eat was tied up and lashed with a horse whip until he was raw and bloody "from his neck to his ankles."
After the beating, Capt. Timothy Tucker ate his dinner, then returned to inflict more punishment to prevent the man - who had apparently decided to end his life by self starvation - from inspiring others to starve themselves.
Tucker ordered a cabin boy to get his pistols. He pointed a pistol at the man's head and told him he'd kill him if he refused to eat. The man replied "Adomma" in his native tongue - "so be it."
Tucker fired into the man's forehead. The man clapped his hand to his wound, but did not die. Tucker placed the gun to the man's ear and fired again. Again, he did not die. Tucker then ordered another sailor to shoot the man through the heart, which finally killed him.
"Captains ruled this potentially rebellious mass of humanity by enacting terrible examples, enacting violence and terror on one in an effort to cow the rest," Rediker says.
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