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



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.

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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.

Shipbuilders were deeply complicit in the entire slave system. Without their labors the historically-specific system of Atlantic capitalism could not have operated. No slave ship, no plantation complex, no world market; it is as simple as that. We can push the argument further and say that the deep-sea sailing ship was the key machine in the rise of global capitalism. Shipbuilders created the technology that allowed Europe to conquer the world.

Shipbuilders were deeply complicit in the entire slave system. Without their labors the historically-specific system of Atlantic capitalism could not have operated.

LL: You often say that you’re practicing “history from below” — we’ll come back to it at the end of our conversation. The term “below” hits me in the context of the slave ship and its hold. It is of course crucial that we always insist on the absolute horror of the life and death conditions in the hold and on the death of over 1.8 million African people during the Middle Passage. Yet, it’s also important to not describe the people who are prisoners of it as passive bodies. Could you tell us about what I believe you call yourself the cultural production that happens in it.

MK: My study of the slave ship is literally a “history from below” — a history of those down below, on the lower deck, in that dark dungeon of despair. I felt it was important to show the horror of the lower deck as concretely as I could, that is, to show real, suffering human beings rather than abstractions such as mortality rates, for example. If we want to wrestle with the legacy of the slave trade, it crucial that we understood what it actually meant in human terms.

The pervasive horror makes it all the more remarkable that enslaved people were able, under such extreme circumstances, to be creative. When 15 to 20 different ethnic or national groups of people, many of whom could not understand or speak the languages of the others, were forced together aboard the vessel, the problem of communication presented itself on the lower deck. Slave traders consciously mixed different language groups to try to limit cooperation and collective resistance. But new kinds of communication nonetheless emerged from below: the enslaved sang new songs, danced new dances, invented new words, and spoke new, usually pidgin languages. New music was especially important as a ship made entirely of wood could be used as a percussive instrument: drummers could drum anywhere. Social accommodations evolved alongside the cultural: coming from kin-based societies the expropriated Africans rebuilt what anthropologists called “fictive kinship,” calling each other “brother” and “sister” even though they were not biologically related. This creativity for the sake of survival teaches us a lot about what it means to be human.

LL: Going further, there is also what we may call “political organizing” that happens from the hold to the deck of the ship, and many revolts of people who are not yet enslaved. Could you please tell us about them?

MK: Perhaps the main unifying language of the lower deck was resistance. Any action taken against the oppressors aboard a slave ship could be understood by anyone and everyone, regardless of cultural or linguistic background. When, for example, someone refused to eat, everyone understood what this meant. And this kind of resistance was common: the slave trade was in many ways a 400-year hunger strike. On one vessel after another Africans refused to eat to protest their treatment. The practice was so common that slave ship captains always carried with them a device called the speculum oris, which was forced down the throat of a hunger striker and to open it from within so that gruel could be poured in. This was one struggle among many.

When, for example, someone refused to eat, everyone understood what this meant. And this kind of resistance was common: the slave trade was in many ways a 400-year hunger strike.

I have already mentioned the nettings raised along the rails to try to prevent suicide, another major form of resistance. I found a surgeon’s report of an enslaved man who managed to elude the sailors, slip through the nettings, and leap into the ocean, where he became exultant over his escape, even though he knew that death was now a certainty. He was probably eaten alive by sharks, but he had liberated himself from the slave ship. I suspect those who watched this event memorialized it in stories of resistance they told for years afterward.

The most powerful form of resistance was the collective insurrection, in which the enslaved would do one of two things: either try to capture the ship or jump overboard in a mass suicide. Since very few among the enslaved had any idea how to sail a tall ship, even a successful uprising might result in death for everyone. Ghost ships of this kind were sometimes found bobbing on the high seas, with bodies dead of starvation lying all over the main deck after what had apparently been a successful capture of the ship.

For many years, scholars thought there had been only a few uprisings on slave ships; the accepted number for many years was 55. Now we know that major revolts erupted on at least one voyage out of ten, which is to say on thousands of ships, even though the vessels themselves were built and organized to prevent precisely this kind of resistance. The commonplace “political organizing” that transpired on the lower deck was the slave ship captain’s greatest nightmare and the abolitonist’s greatest argument for the irrepressible African will to freedom.

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A History of the Amistad Captives. / Color Engraving and Frontispiece from John Warner Barber (1840).

LL: You dedicated an entire book and a film to the 1839 Amistad rebellion in particular, which we may want to consider as a Revolution of its own, even if the society it fundamentally transformed was the microcosm of a ship. The film, interestingly, shows you and two other colleagues visiting the Sierra Leone villages where some of the rebels were from, and where they returned three years later. This shows how the history of the Ocean is also a continental history. Could you describe the rebellion and what this visit on the Continent taught you about how the revolt was organized?

MK: I published The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom in 2012, offering a new interpretation of the uprising of 1839 by placing the African rebels, rather than white abolitionists, at the center of the story. In doing research on The Slave Ship, I had seen how one uprising after another was violently repressed, their leaders often tortured to death in full public view by the slave ship captain, to send a message: if you dare to resist us, we will kill you. The overwhelming majority of slave ship revolts failed. I wondered, how and why did the revolt on the Amistad succeed? The key lay in the history and cultures of the Sierra Leonean people who rose up to capture the vessel. Owing to the wars over the slave trade in their native land, all men on the Amistad were trained as warriors to protect their villages. Moreover, those experienced warriors came from cultures governed by an all-male secret society called the Poro Society, which made decisions about when to go to war. A Poro meeting in the hold of the Amistad resulted in a decision to try to take the ship and sail it back to Sierra Leone.

In May 2013 I went with historians Konrad Tuchscherer and Phillip Misevich and filmmaker Tony Buba to Sierra Leone with two objectives in mind: first, to visit the villages where the Amistad rebels had originated and to ask village elders if anything about the revolt had been preserved in the local oral tradition. Second, we sought to find Lomboko, the place where the Amistad Africans had been held by slave trader Pedro Blanco and loaded onto a slave ship to cross the Atlantic. No one had been able to find Lomboko for some 50 years.

In the ten villages we visited, several had no memory, a few had limited memory, and two had a lot of memory. In Folu, home of the Amistad Poro leader Grabeau, we found one of his direct descendants, an elderly woman named Fodie Haloa Kallon, and we heard a number of telling stories about him. His fellow villagers had changed his name to “Johnny” after he had spent three years among the English-speaking people of America. We found the island of Lomboko with the help off the fishermen of a village called Toko. They carried us there in their canoes through a crocodile-infested mangrove swamp. One of their elders, Vandi Massaquoi, knew from his father and grandfather a tremendous amount about the Amistad story.

What did we learn in Sierra Leone that had not been in the documentary record of the Amistad case? We learned from Ernest Ndomahina, a member of the Mende Secret Warrior Society, that the Poro Society would have been the primary means of self-organization among the rebels. We learned from Vandi Massaquoi that the leader of the revolt, Sengbe (called Cinqué in America) led a revolt at Lomboko in which he made the same speech he made before the subsequent uprising aboard the Amistad. He appealed to his fellow bondsmen by saying that it would be better to fight and die than to be a slave for a lifetime. As it happened, the spirit and the experience of revolt were already in the bodies of the enslaved men who boarded the Amistad. They were, in the words of the hip hop group Public Enemy, “rebels without a pause.”

LL: To conclude, importantly, let’s go back to this concept of “history from below.” I’d like you to explain what it means, but also — and I’m thinking of my own very imperfect practice of it myself — how do we make sure that this movement “from below” is one that also returns “to below” once the historian’s work is done (or while it is being accomplished)?

MK: History from below is all about the ordinary working people who are usually left out of the elite, top-down accounts of the past. It seeks to recover the experience of people like those forced aboard slave ships and it also explores how those people made history, how they wielded agency. No one could have imagined that the 53 Africans who rose up against slave ship captain Ramón Ferrer on the Amistad in 1839 would create such a controversy that some of the most powerful people in the world — U.S. presidents and Congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, the Queens of Spain and Great Britain — would debate the meaning of what they had done. Their rebellion reverberated around the world. History from below can surprise us!

[History from below] seeks to recover the experience of people like those forced aboard slave ships and it also explores how those people made history, how they wielded agency.

The most important thing we can do to make sure that “history from below” returns to its source and nourishes movements from below is to create history in the most democratic forms possible: in books, films, graphic novels, art shows, museum exhibitions, and plays aimed at activists in particular and mass audiences in general. I have worked through all of these cultural means to produce history “for the people.” The most important thing is to have the political will to do it, to break out of the academic style of writing and audience. I am proud that my books have been used in a variety of movements around the world — for class and racial justice, for retaking the commons, against capitalist globalization and the death penalty, to name but a few. We can use history from below to show us how people have resisted in the past and how we might build a more humane future. We can use their freedom dreams to fuel our own. ■