Friday, June 6, 2008

The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker: A Review

Barack Obama's speech on race and racism has quite honestly triggered an avalanche of interest in the whole issue of slavery. I recently bought Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: A Human History and having read this wonderful book would like to share my thoughts with the blogger on this site.
Dr Rediker is currently the Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh and has taken his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a noted maritime historian and has an earlier work on slavery entitled The Many-headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the hidden history of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Like Simon Shama, Rediker has been exploring the history of Afro-Americans in the Revolutionary era.
All these new works on slavery starting with Phillip Curtin's The Atlantic Trade are essentially commentaries on the famous line of W E B Dubois, "the slave trade was the most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history". In fact Rediker takes the phrase "human history" from this line of Dubois. He deals with the period stretching from 1700 to 1808 when the slave trade was regarded as the most profitable commercial venture, yielding returns as high as 700 to 1000%.The English Parliament abolished slavery in English sea going vessels in 1835 under pressure from William Wilberforce and other abolitionists.
Marcus Rediker is a hard nosed historian and therefore does not confuse the issue with mushy sentimentalism. In fact the book documents very carefully the "historical context" in which the trading in "human cargo" was carried out. The eighteenth century opened when Africa was being criss-crossed by Arab traders who followed the ancient caravan routes to the west coast of Africa. Here too trading societies which until a few generations back were mere fishing villages were beginning to see opportunities in state expansion and trade both fuelled in part by the artillery and gunpowder that the Europeans, particularly the Portuguese and the dutch introduced. Africa in the turn of the eighteenth century was as Rediker is at pains to argue a mosaic of stateless societies and more sophisticated war polities in which capture in war meant a life of servitude. Slavery was an established institution in Africa and it was not introduced by the Europeans. In fact the Europeans only took advantage of pre-existing relations and structures in order to acquire slaves. In the 18th century, the raiding and trading parties were confined to the coast, an area known as the Bight of Biafra. As the century proceeded the areas of the interior were also coming under the baleful influence of the slave trade and this expansion in the range and scope of them trade was driven by the expansion of the Dahomey, a kingdom created by the wealth of the slave trade.
The narrative is gripping and is full of insight. Marcus Rediker has drawn on contemporary slave autobiographies and narratives in order to give the human dimension to the Atlantic Trade. It must be said that the African elites and the Arab Muslim merchants were as much part of the nexus of slave trade and plantation economy and it is worth emphasising this point.

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