You have written many books on maritime history. In the introduction to The Slave Ship you say that this was a painful book to write. Why was that?
Life at sea was violent for everybody. And I was no stranger to all that. In previous books I had witnessed the brutal killings of sailors, the press gangs, the desperate resistance, but I have to say that the slave ship was different, because you have hundreds of people subjected to terror on a daily basis. In fact that terror is the fundamental operating principle of the ship. That was one of the things that was daunting about the project and that made it so painful.
The genesis of The Slave Ship came to me as I was doing work with people on death row in Pennsylvania. I worked on the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther who has been on death row for 26 years now for a crime he didn’t commit.
I talked to Mumia a lot about history; I saw the death penalty as a modern system of terror and how closely it was connected to issues of race. Race and terror have long gone together and it suddenly hit me that it all began on the slave ships.
Karl Marx talked about how at the start of capitalism Africa became “a warren for the hunting of black skins”, and one of the things you are trying to do is tie slavery back into its relationship with the profit system.
I wanted to talk about the slave trade and slavery generally as a critical part of the rise of capitalism. We sometimes think of slavery as being pre-capitalist or non-capitalist, and that capitalism only really begins with free waged labour, but I think that blinds us to a lot of very important processes.
People were expropriated in one setting and then moved to a more market-orientated setting where their labour was exploited through usually quite violent means. In that way the slave trade is emblematic of a larger process that is happening to workers everywhere.
All these enslaved Africans were moved to the western Atlantic plantation system and their lives would be consumed by producing sugar, tobacco and rice for the world market. I like to paraphrase the great Guyanese scholar and activist Walter Rodney who said that in the slave trade capitalism paraded without even a loincloth to cover its nakedness.
In the book you describe how objects and people are transformed. The ship started out as a thing of beauty, becomes a factory as it sails towards Africa, and then when it reaches Africa it becomes a dungeon. The roles of groups of people change simultaneously. The sailors are incredibly badly treated but then at a certain point they too become the oppressor.
The malevolent genius of the slave ship lay in its combination of many different roles. On the one hand it was a warship; a huge powerful vessel loaded with cannon. It was also a factory producing labour for the world economy. (It also makes categories of race.) And it was a moving prison. That means the sailors played various roles.
The ship itself was transformed. On the outward passage the crew would build the platforms on the lower deck to increase the numbers of people who could be stowed there; they would build the barricade – the defensive structure behind which they crew could retreat in the event of a slave insurrection. When they had transported the slaves they would take those structures down so that they could load sugar casks between decks, so that when the ship arrives back in port it did not look like a slave ship any more. The ship itself and its physical structure are a very important part of the story.
There are three groups to your seaborne story, the sailors, the ships’ captains and the slaves themselves.
The sailors’ was a world of grave contradictions. The reasons they served on slave ship voyages were many and complicated. The slave merchants, captains and tavern keepers would conspire to run sailors into debt, and they would either be thrown in jail or sold directly to the slave ship captain. A big recruiter was hunger and poverty; sailors were among the poorest occupational groups of the 18th century.
For those sailors who wanted to move up in the world, you could become a skilled worker on the ship, maybe a second, third or fourth mate, because the people above you on the maritime ladder are dying and falling off. Finally, some people were motivated because they had sadistic personalities, they liked the idea of wielding power and some liked the idea of having unlimited access to the bodies of enslaved African women.
Once they were on the ship what kind of life was it?
It was a hard life and the captains established their power very quickly. But when they arrive in West Africa and the slaves start coming aboard it’s a whole new situation. The captain and the crew discover that they have something in common – fear.
They realise they have a vast body of people on board who will kill them given half a chance. This tends to drive the captain and the crew together. From that point on, until they get to the New World, the sailor is going to be in this antagonistic relationship with the slaves.
But about three quarters of the way through the voyage the captain starts to act differently. You need a big crew to get to the coast of West Africa and guard the slaves, but you don’t need such a large crew for the last leg of the voyage home, so the captain drives the sailors very hard with the hope that they will desert and he will save on their wages.
The crew is getting sick and sicker. They would catch diseases – yellow fever and malaria were most common. The sailors died in proportions equal to or greater than the slaves – 15 to 20 percent – and on some voyages the entire crew was wiped out, leaving a ghost ship.
In every slave trading port these poor diseased sailors were a major social problem. They had no money or food, so they survived by begging.
Some of the most stunning evidence I found was that many marooned sailors survived on the charity of enslaved people. We have testimony describing how in some cases slave women would try to nurse them back to health. There is evidence to show that when these sailors died the enslaved buried them in the African burial grounds in places like Jamaica. There was a compassion shown for people who had literally been their prison guards. It’s the most hopeful thing I found in this whole subject.
One of the strengths of your book is that you dispel forever any notion that the slaves were passive in the face of their misfortune.
Every captain assumed that the enslaved would do anything to escape. Everything was geared to overcome resistance, whether it was the manacles, the chains, the whips, and the barricade at mid-ship – all these things were in anticipation of resistance. The slave ship was a war zone and people constantly fought for freedom.
I was inspired by the variety of resistance. All the new research shows that insurrections aboard the slave ships were vastly more common than we thought. One out of ten vessels had an insurrection so great as to lead to a loss of life, and there must have been two or three times as many that did not get that far.
The ability of Africans from differing backgrounds to communicate on board the ship was also much greater than we thought. Boys would take messages from the men’s chamber to the women’s chamber. People would sing to each other back and forth. They would exchange information; Where are we going? What will we do when we get there? In that communication rose up a cooperation against their common oppressors.
Both patterns and methods of oppression and resistance are carried ashore onto the slave plantations. African-American culture in the broadest sense begins on those ships; multi-ethnic people are finding ways to cooperate and a huge part of that is common resistance.
There is very strong evidence to suggest that the frequency of insurrections increased the cost of investment, made the trade less profitable and discouraged future investors. One historian has suggested that the number of insurrections may have saved another million people from being enslaved by reducing demand and capital investment.
How has your book been received?
I have been gratified by the reception so far. I wrote this book hoping that it would get into the hands of activists and that people would use it in their own struggles for justice. That’s the best way of honouring the legacy of those on the slave ships, by making their struggles real again in the hope of a better world.
The Slave Ship is published by John Murray, £25
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