Slave Ships: Human Commodities, Floating Dungeons and Chimeral Manifestations


Text by Eze Imade Eribo, Artwork and postface by Rasheedah Phillips

Bodies are subject to space; space is subject to us, and architecture is the negotiation between the two. In the 15th to 19th century, space took the form of a designed instrument that transformed more than 12.5 million human bodies into perishable commodities. Bodies were traded for manufactured goods from Europe on the coasts of West Africa; the same bodies, in a new form as labor power, were traded for raw materials from the Americas. The successful “Triangular trade” of bodies and materials, bodies as materials, was made sacrosanct by a singular designed instrument; the slave ship.

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The slave ship, a human construct, became a mystified space that subjectivized bodies into capital, into the workforce, into occupational sites of commerce, as objects of labor, as beasts of burden, and, ultimately, into sites of violence. Its enclave became the new global classifier that eternally demarcated bodies into two groups: the bodies of slaves and those of the slave masters. This new delineation was based on race and not on class or social standing like during the time of antiquity. These two groups, bodies of slaves and slave masters, existed and inhabited two levels, both physically and metaphorically: slaves below the datum line (below the deck) and masters above it.

Above the deck, tools for ascendance became the intermediary in maintaining the sacrosanctity of the datum line. Chains, locks, shackles, manacles, neck rings, thumbscrews as well as the speculum oris; a scissors shaped metal device meant to open the jaws to force feed slaves with a desire for suicide via starvation, became manifested as bodily extensions of the ruling hand as well as the bodily extensions of the oppressed body. For bodies that desired the mercy of suicide by drowning, nets were fitted alongside the lengths of the ship to catch them.

For further demarcations between bodies of slaves and bodies of masters, barricades were erected on and below the deck. The cooking area shifted from below the deck to above in the prevention of “fiery tools” heralded by the “wrong hands.” These tools and modifications became the integral designed requirements in the maintenance of this vessel of organized terror. They became the elements that presented the coerced performative negotiations between the bastions and the captives while the vessel itself embraced dual roles of being both functional and representative. A well-designed symbolic iconography of the slave trade, as well as the site of its embodiment recalled and remembered terror.

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Image by Rasheedah Phillips

The ship as an architectural force can be said to be a unique generative form of new design elements and the modification of old ones that seamlessly added to its proper functioning. The architecture here, is thereby an embodied metaphor that is reactive to the actions bestowed upon it even in simplicity, as a designed abode that allowed both physical and mental effects on the body. In the alterations of the slaves, striped and displaced multicultural African bodies became coalesced into a new community, a forced new hybrid and social order of a mixed language’d, mixed cultured, forced routine body, whose first and major subdivision was that of commodity; where life and death was directly proportional to profit accrued. In situations where the original crewmen had succumb to diseases and death, these slave bodies were instantaneously altered to become replacement workers. In other instances, slaves became an on-site production workforce of both life and food production — slave women had to manually husk, mill and grind cereals on a large scale before they were deemed fit to be prepared for consumption — and when trained, they served as warriors and defenders of the ship-turned-war-machine against other fellow human-cargo-and-goods sea robbers; defenders of this new moving geography they had been forcefully impressed upon; this landscape of no escape where slave bodies became like the generative soil upon which produce, labor, capitalism, colonialism were birthed from. In protecting the slave home and its commodities, they were indeed protecting themselves, the commodities. All of these alterations were direct responses to the ever changing multifunctional slave ship; as factory, as war machine, as jail house, as a site of business transaction, as sites of the manifestation and practice of human denigration and evil. 

In John Hawksworth’s 1823 engraving of the plan and section of the French Slave Ship, La Vigilante, he depicted by virtue of illustrations, nearly three hundred and fifty bodies, shackled and crammed in spaces of unconscionable proportions. This representation of the slave ship as an architectural was so disturbing that it became one of the documents heralded by Anti-Slavery lobbyists towards the abolition of slavery. The shear inhumanity as depicted delivered the reading of layers and layers of compressed injustice made apparent upon a single illustrated sheet. An architectural articulation of horrific interior desires. This is perhaps the most painful and shocking relic of the slave trade visually available. An image, like many other images, requires our emotive interaction and response of and to it to invoke empathy. Skin in too close proximity, hard metal handcuffs, chains, bondage tools, slicing strips away and eating into flesh, the harsh cradling of the ship by the sea turning floor boards into sanding devices, grinding away the flesh from black elbows, hips and knees till white bones are seen, of eventually losing singular identities, merging into large cargoes, shackled in pairs, transported, marked, branded, sold… ultimate expressions of a final delineation of self-ownership.

In this architectural representation of evil condensed in an image, since we cannot or willingly will not subject ourselves to such conditions, it is the image that haunts us, that we encompass on this scale to our own bodies. It is imperative to look at this designed element in relation to its site, in an extension from sea to land. In the coastal parts of Africa, architectural structures as extensions of this design for racism became the interstitial points linking the land to sea; these slave castles and forts serving as marked pointers and mediators, though stationary replicas of the slave ship, like the Elmina and Christiansborg Castles in Ghana (as well as over sixty others along its coast), Goree Island in Senegal, Cape Coast Castle. And as many of the millions of slaves captured came from the hinterlands of Africa, often with the help of local, Africa slave traders and figure heads, the journey of the multitudes created intangible traces of the threaded routes of slavery; earth paths continually charged as paths of degradation and tainted with the death of numerous bodies in the forced displacement from the hinterlands to the coastal extensions of the slave ship on land; the transition ports towards embankment.

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Image by Rasheedah Phillips

In the longitudinal sections of Hawksworth’s engraving, we find crouching bodies, subject to the spaces offered them and also symbolic of the new identities projected unto them by their captors as bestial forms. Diminished in size and posture in a deliberate attempt at emasculation and placed one level above the supplies, in a shameless spatial disproportion that leaves a strong sense of unease when every slave space is filled to capacity by bodies. In the longitudinal reading of ship to land, we are presented with an eerily familiar chimera. An image as that of a digestive tract. Points of capture as mouths, paths as extended orifices, the architectural monuments as churning machines not unlike teeth, delivering the first bouts of torture. The Ship as a body, below the deck; its belly. It is the third body albeit the encompassing one. In its belly, black bodies as disemboweled waste are slowly masticated and eventually regurgitated, never ever again as a whole being, but as an amalgamation of hybrid bodies, hybrid memories of past lives, new shared experiences of torture and woe; exquisite corpses. The ship is a man-made body though like ‘every-body,’ the senses too give off their unique entitlements. Sounds released from this body are a cacophony of metal chains, whiplashes, cries; of torture, of rape, of hunger, sounds of woe, agony, curses, barked commands, gunshots, wind-swept sails. And music; horrible sounds filtering through the sharp contrast of the jocosities of the superior group over the restrained remonstrance of the other. Smells emanating from its pores, the putrid mix of blood, sweat, sickness, excrement, stale air, rotting flesh, metal, gun powder, oak and leather and though beautiful in Sight, as most ships are, it is deceitful till you draw close to its depths and unpeel its “rot resistant white oaked layers” and witness what former Slave ship crew member, James Field Stanfield, described, “a slaughterhouse.” I daresay its touch too was cold and deathlike. The slave ship as a body-turned-machine meant to house souls already housed in bodies of visual bondage, is unto itself a catastrophic body, as it too is subject to an even greater master, the Atlantic Ocean, guided only by a distorted moral compass. And subject to its own captivity and destruction, sharks, natures’ allocated sea-men, striding alongside its body, devour the spoils from the ships. Spoils as in bodies, both dead and alive.


Introduction to the images by Rasheedah Phillips

Western linear time found its early legitimacy through advances and events in science, technology, and transportation, such as the development of the railroad system and innovations to the telegraph. Many of these milestones in the history of Western temporality intersect with, or are simultaneous to significant events of the TransAtlantic Slave trade. In fact, the very first journey of the TransAtlantic slave trade was one necessarily mediated by time, as an accurate measurement of time was crucial to maritime navigation — “there is no other physical principle determining longitude directly but with time,” as Wikipedia notes. Although you can measure latitude (North-South) by reading the sun, ship navigators had to guess in order to measure longitude, which often lead to grave inaccuracies on long voyages. You essentially needed a clock or timekeeping device in order to measure longitude (East-West). Large financial rewards and prestige was offered to scientists and thinkers who could develop a practical method for measuring longitude, while Galileo himself worked on the problem without much success. Cracking the mystery of accurate longitude measurement would become another step in man’s conquering of space-time, and the beginning of his conquering of the future. Stephen Kern writes of relationship between “the future” and imperialism and colonialism, noting how the “annexation of the space of others” and the “outward movement of people and goods” are examples of “spatial expressions of the active appropriation of the future.” (The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918, 2003). If this is true, then the outward movement of people as goods — chattel slavery — must be the most potent example of the appropriation of the mode of time known as the future.

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Image by Rasheedah Phillips

Modern-day mechanical clock time and linear, temporal consciousness were encoded into the enslaved Black African by means of the whip and other forms of torture and violence beginning on the slave ship. The events that took place there comprised the first great Indigenous African Space-Time Splintering, a long wave form of trauma that continues to spread, touching upon the present day. Prior to this splintering, the past and present overlap in traditional, Indigenous African conceptions of time; the present swallows up the future and the past swallows up the present. Time in this tradition is a component of events and an experience that can be created, produced, saved, or retrieved. Life is made up of events, and events are defined by certain relationships, patterns, and rhythms.

The so-called emancipation of enslaved Africans from bondage did not automatically free them of the Master’s clock. At the point of emancipation, the Western, linear construct of space and time was already encoded into every aspect of the American way of life, social order, economy, transportation, and communication. Time continued to be used as another form of social control against oppressed communities. As a result, oppressed Black peoples today are the stark embodiment of temporal tensions, a disunity between cultural notions of time, many of us occupying “temporal ghettos” as well as physical ones. These images overlay slaveships with microchips, circuit boards, and public housing architectural layouts, attempting to capture a psychic space superimposed upon physical space — one that transcends the temporal order, co-mingling with past, present, and future.

Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Black Star Line, found history to be a hopeful precursor for the future, one that was subject to the creative force of the oppressed. “We have a beautiful history, and we shall create another in the future that will astonish the world.” The future for oppressed Black diasporic peoples was in the very place we had come from, and only there could a future history be forged. He envisioned a return, a reversal of time and space that could only be traversed the way we had come here – by ship. The SS Yarmouth, the first ship purchased by the Black Star Line and rebranded the SS Frederick Douglass, sailed for three years between the U.S. and the West Indies. These images incorporate the Yarmouth/Douglass as a site of retrocausality and retrocurrence (a backwards happening, an event whose influence or effect is not discrete and timebound — it extends in all possible directions and encompasses all possible time modes), intermixed with route maps and temporal/tense cues. The ship images are superimposed over architectural plans and landscapes visions from the Marcus Garvey affordable housing communities in New York. The rooms in the housing projects, the cabins of the ships, the slave holds are re-implicated as sites of recurrence of events and experiences locked into Einstein’s space-time.

The corresponding themes in the images are presented using Black Quantum Futurism as a lens, fusing ancient African philosophies and rituals with quantum physics, mirroring the present artifacts of Black temporal consciousness, and dismantling oppressive social temporal constructs. BQF explores the history of linear time constructs, notions of the future, and its contrast to indigenous African traditions of space, time, and the future. BQF focuses on recovery, collection, and preservation of communal memories, oral futures and histories, and documenting displacement and erasure.