The Transatlantic Slave Trade Ships: Trajectories of Death and Violence Across the Ocean

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Ships trajectories might only scar the Ocean superficially, but the wakes of the transatlantic slave trade ships have forever marked the Atlantic. Marcus Rediker has dedicated an entire book to these ships and their role in the deadly Middle Passage. With him, we talk about their violent architecture, but also about the millions of kidnapped Africans’ continuous forms of resistance on-board.

Rediker Funambulist 2
Plan, profile and layout of the ship The Séraphique Marie of Nantes, outfitted by Mr Gruel, for Angola, under the command of Gaugy, who dealt in Loango, whose sight is below the quantity of 307 captive (1770).

Léopold Lambert: Your work focuses on several aspects of the history of the Atlantic Ocean. In this conversation, we’ll focus mostly on that of the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage. To describe the crucial complicity of my discipline, architecture, with the various programs of industrialized death, I often take the example of the slave ship. (Naval) architects may not have invented the transatlantic slave trade, but without them, and through the design of these death ships, the forced displacement of over 12 millions African people from the Continent to the Caribbean and the Americas is simply impossible. You dedicated a full book to these ships. Could you tell us in what they consisted both in terms of design and infrastructure to the slave trade?

MARCUS REDIKER: The first thing to be said is that most any deep-sea vessel could be a slaver, from a small sloop that might carry twenty enslaved Africans to a huge three-masted ship that could transport 900. Slowly, beginning around 1750 in Liverpool, the world’s leading port of commerce in human beings, vessels began to be built specifically for the slave trade. These vessels had several defining features. First and foremost they had a lower deck beneath the main deck, where an average 300+ enslaved people would be incarcerated for the 8-12 week Middle Passage. Slave ships also had air ports carved out of the hull above the water line so that the living human cargo could breathe. Nettings would be installed around the ship’s rails to prevent the enslaved from jumping overboard in defiant acts of suicide, in the belief that their souls would “go home to Guinea.” A final and truly distinctive feature of the slave ship was the “barricado,” a wooden barrier built at midship behind which the crew could retreat in the event of an uprising and above which they could fire their guns and small cannons down onto the bodies of the insurgents.

One result of this specific architecture is that the larger slave ships would easily be identified by anyone who knew these features. There would, for example, be no reason to cut holes into the side of the hull if the ship were transporting textiles, sugar, or lumber. Then again, visual identification was not always necessary because slave ships were instantly recognizable by the stench they emitted, caused by various kinds of human excreta: urine, feces, vomit, or pungent, fear-filled sweat. It was said in Charleston, South Carolina, when the wind was blowing in off the water, that one could smell a slave ship before one could see it.