Book Review: The Slave Ship

by Donald R Barbera, October 30, 2012

Rating: Five Stars of Five


Among abominations, American slavery holds a particularly odious distinction among atrocities not only because of its brutality and cold-blooded barbarity, but also because of the ill-gotten gains that fueled the growth of one of the greatest nations in history.


As an African American, my interest in the subject has been lifelong. Even as a child, I wanted to know why and how it happened. Over the years, I have become somewhat of a scholar on the subject reading hundreds of articles and books, as well as looking at films and movies on the subject.


Nevertheless, I never ran into one source that captured the slave trade's inhumanity and ruthlessness in one place, until I read "The Slave Ship: A Human History" by Marcus Rediker. After I finished reading the George Washington Book Prize[1] winner, I fully understood why.


Not only is the book well-researched and written, it is a searing indictment of a system that helped make many men rich and powerful off the blood of fellow human beings. "The Slave Ship" reveals the horrors of human bondage starting from the moment of kidnapping of men and women in the prime of their lives to their sale at the auction block into back breaking uncompensated and often fatal labor.


Rediker characterizes slave ships as floating prisons or torture chambers for both whites and blacks. According to Rediker's research, white crewmembers were just as much captive as the Africans they helped remove from their homes and families. In many cases, the book makes it clear that the sailors charged with guarding against insurrection or mass suicide attempts had even less influence than the African captives because the seamen were considered expendable while slaves were valuable property.


Reading through the horrid details of floggings that could last until the whip-wielder wore out or the slave died are detailed in their brutality and malevolence. Tortures included severing limbs, burning and literally rubbing salts into wounds. Rape of girls as young as eight or nine-years-old was also common on slave ships. Slaves and sailors that died of torture or disease became fish food as sharks routinely followed slave ship and fed on the bodies thrown overboard including many still full of life.


Rediker also makes it clear that captive Africans were not passive, but resisted in every way possible including armed insurrection, mass suicides, hunger strikes and even cutting their own throats with pieces of wood. According to his research, captured Africans speaking different languages found ways to communicate and plan in creative ways such as song or drum beats. 


The book details each step of the slave trade in vivid and gruesome detail and no review will be able to capture its scope or depth, but for those interested in knowing what the slave trade entailed, including its affects on the captives and the captors, this book is magnificently substantial. Even the capitalistic nature of the trade receives close examination with measure of costs, profits and losses. Anyone seeking to know the details of the slave trade from nearly every perspective possible will find "The Slave Ship" more than sufficient in filling in the blanks.

[1] The George Washington Book Prize was instituted in 2005 and is awarded annually to the best book on America's founding era, especially those that have the potential to advance broad public understanding of American history. It is administered by Washington Colleges C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and sponsored by Washington College in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and George Washingtons Mount Vernon. (George Washington Book Prize, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,

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Comment by Frankie Dapper on October 31, 2012 at 1:28pm

Christians must have roundly condemned such practices. At least when they had the time, what with tending to the slave trade and going to church.



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