SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
SPEAKER 2: Thank you so much for taking the time trekking to Africana here. I know it's getting very busy in the semester. So many events going on. So we're really grateful for everyone who's taking the time to join us today. And more specifically, to join me in welcoming Professor Marcus Rediker, who is not a stranger to Cornell. And we are happy to have him many times.
We are also pleased that the project he's going to be speaking about today, we have seen the earlier incarnation of it. And we're happy to see it as a book. I remember very well when it was just the beginning of the project itself. And it's great to see now is not just a book but added to the many wonderful works that you have done before.
I think Marcus is known to many people here, and I'm sure the audience. Well, this kind of presence attests to that. But I will say a few words about him.
He taught at Georgetown University. He's a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. And I'm glad that we're sharing something. I graduated from there too. He taught at Georgetown University from 1982 to 1994. He lived in many places but [INAUDIBLE] few. Moscow, of all the places.
He also lectured in many places, from Amsterdam, Paris, Milan. Many of his works are translated to many languages. He has been a Guggenheim fellow among many other awards and honors that he had, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, among many other prestigious foundations.
But most important, I must say for us, that he is the father of an Africana major. Zach, who's actually a wonderful person, and he's one of those people I met when he just visited from high school exploring Cornell-- and from the beginning declared Africana as a major. So thank you for bringing him here, or to the world first.
Marcus is also known for many wonderful, important contributions, and books among them. Several books, including five that I'll mention here-- Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea-- looks like a title of a movie. And Who Built America, The Many Headed Hydra, Villains of All Nations, and the Slave Ship, of course, A Human History. And based on which today he will give a talk-- the slave ship, ghost ship. So please join me in welcoming Marcus.
MARCUS REDIKER: So I'll thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here. It's good to be back at Cornell. I'd like to thank Tim Murray and the Society for the Humanities for having me here in residence this term. And I would certainly like to thank all of you for coming out for this event.
OK, is that better? Can you hear in the back? It's OK? Maybe even a little higher. That's as high as it goes. OK.
How's that? Is that better? OK. Very good.
OK. I want to speak with you about this book that I published just over a year ago called The Slave Ship: The Human History. And I'd like to begin this discussion with an image that is known to many of you.
This is an engraving by William Blake, the great English poet and artist. And it's depicting a man who was executed in Surinam around 1776. Very powerful image.
And the reason I want to begin with this is because this image prompted, or was in some ways the most profound question I have ever been asked in almost 30 years of making presentations like this. This was at Rutgers University in the year 2000. And this image was shown because it was kind of the epitome of a book that [? Salah ?] mentioned called The Many Headed Hydra, which I wrote with Peter Linebaugh, a book about the origins of Atlantic capitalism and the many sided resistance to it.
One of the themes in that book was the terror required to build this new Atlantic capitalist system, but also the resistance therein too. And you can actually see both of those things in this image.
So this image was being projected on a screen just like this when an older man, who introduced himself as Reverend Taylor, asked a question. Reverend Taylor looked at the image and he looked at me, and he said, Professor Rediker, can you forgive the people who did this?
Now I must admit, my mind started to race. The first thing that came to it was that Reverend Taylor knows that I'm a lapsed Baptist. And he wants to have a conversation with me about Christian forgiveness.
And so, not knowing what to say, I did what probably most of us would do in that situation. I said, I don't know, Reverend Taylor. Can you forgive them? And his answer I will never forget.
He told a biblical story, a parable, which was quite long. But the gist of it was this. He said, I try very hard to forgive them for five minutes each day. That's the best I can do.
Now what I loved about that answer was its insistence that this history is still with us. We're very far from having gotten beyond it. And Reverend Taylor said, this image, this history, haunts me like a ghost every day of my life.
Now I want to submit to you that it haunts all of us, whether we are admitting it or not. This extreme and violent history associated with slavery on this planet is with us every day.
So it was with this in mind that I decided to study the slave ship. To tell you a little bit about the origins of that book, I was visiting a man on death row in Pennsylvania, who may be known to you. His name is Mumia Abu-jamal. A political prisoner.
There are seats down in the front for you folks. Come on in.
A political prisoner who has been on death row since 1982, falsely convicted of killing a police officer. And in these visits, we would sit in a small cubicle with Plexiglas in between us. He would be in the orange prison jumpsuit with his hands manacled, his feet shackled. And on one of the visits I made, he was actually under a sentence of death. He had a date to die.
And so we had a conversation about race and terror and about the ways in which the history of race in the United States, and in many parts of the world, is a history of terror, of violence of the kind that you see in just this image.
And it occurred to me, in these extreme circumstances of sitting with this man on death row, that I might be able to make a contribution to the understanding of that relationship between race and terror. Because it occurred to me that one of its most profound moments was on the slave ship-- that in some ways, an origin of race and terror began right there. So that's why I wanted to do this study, to think about that relationship.
Well, as Salah said, I think I spoke about this project at Cornell in 2003, when it was really just beginning. The book was finally published in Fall 2007. I've learned a lot since then, so I have some new things to report.
Briefly, what the book is about, to summarize it, it's a book about British and American slave ships for the period roughly 1700 up to 1808.
The slave trade was abolished by the government of Great Britain in 1807 and by the government of the United States in 1808. Last year, we passed the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade with very little discussion of this historic human achievement. That's one reason I wrote the book, to try to contribute to a discussion of that event.
Anyway, this is a big and much studied subject, the history of the slave trade. My small part of this particular study is to concentrate on the 18th century British and American slave ships, who transported probably in this period roughly a quarter of all those people transported out of Africa to the new world.
So we're talking about a very large percentage of the total. We're also talking about the period, the 18th century, when more people were transported than any other.
And what I learned very quickly is that the slave ship had a cast of characters beginning with the slave merchant, the slave ship captain, the officers on board the ship, the sailors who ran the ship, and then the millions of those people who were captive and being transported to the plantation system of the New World.
Now what's important to realize is that what we know of each of those groups is precisely inverse to their numbers. The most about the merchants, second most about the captains, then about the officers, much less about the sailors, and vastly less about the enslaved.
And let me just give you one example of the problem of sources. The slaving port called Ouidah in Benin was a place I'm sure some of you know, where roughly one million souls were loaded onto slave ships to send to the Americas.
Guess how many first person accounts by Africans we have of that one million? Two. The number of sources that we have for the entirety of the slave trade is very limited, at least from the point of view of Africans who suffered the most.
So the great challenge of this project is how to write this history-- which is literally a history from below-- that's the kind of history I do, people's history. In this case, history from below decks. How to make the documents of repression disclose the history of the people who are suffering extreme repression? That, in a word, is the challenge.
What I decided to do in this book was to talk about the slave ship and the experience of transoceanic transport as a social and cultural process, or to put the same thing another way, to try to write a human history of an inhuman technology.
I saw the slave ship as a machine. In fact it was called so, frequently in the 18th century. And an unusual machine it was. It was one part war ship, one part prison and one part factory. That combination is its malevolent genius.
And you might wonder, what did the factory make? I've argued that the factory made two things in particular. The factory made labor power, which would essentially move the world economy in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries-- and in the process of creating labor power, the bodies of the workers that you see in this image, the slave ship also created categories of race.
Let me just illustrate that briefly. A motley crew of sailors who might be English, French, Dutch. Some were African-- would board a slave ship in its port of origin and sail to the west coast of Africa.
When they got to the west coast of Africa, guess what they became? They were called, no matter what the actual phenotype of skin color-- they were called the white people. They're called the white people because they are in control of that technology, that ship.
So there is a kind of racialization of identity. In parallel fashion, the multi-ethnic Africans who are being forcibly boarded onto these vessels consider themselves to be, in many cases, not African yet, but Mandingo, Fante, Ebo. But at the end of the voyage, they are going to be unloaded as members of a so-called Negro race.
And they're going to discover on this ship that they have a lot of things in common-- most powerfully common enemies. So I was very interested in the way that the slave ship created categories of race.
But what I want to talk about today is not something that I've already done in the book. That would kind of be boring.
I want to talk about a question I did not address in the book, but one that I'm still thinking about and one that I would like to invite you to help me think about. It is a curious sort of matter. In fact, I regard it as a mystery. And it involves a relationship among several things.
First of all, social movements, historical sources, scholarship and mentality. So what I want to address today is really a problem in the sociology of knowledge.
It has to do with the ways in which the slave ship is a ghost ship-- how it functions that way in the present.
OK. The ghost ship. Let me begin with the mystery, or a puzzle, you might call it. And I'll begin this way.
We have, as I'm sure many of you know, a very rich historical literature on the slave trade. We know a lot about the slave trade. We know a lot about its origins. We know a lot about its timing. We know a lot about the flows of people. We know a lot about the rates of profit. We have very important works done by people like Philip Curtin, Joe Miller, Hugh Thomas, Robert Harms David Eltis and of course now we have the transatlantic slave trade database, which is quite a remarkable achievement.
And yet, within this impressive scholarship, the slave ship itself has been strangely neglected. It flits in and out of the historical literature like a ghost.
This, by the way, as I'm sure many of you know, is an image of a slave ship drawn by the abolitionist movement to try to make real to people what was going on aboard these ships, so they would lend their support to abolishing it. I have written a chapter about this particular image. And it's quite profound.
This is an actual ship. It's called the Brooks. The slave ship Brooks out of Liverpool. We know a lot about it. It carried about 10,000 African people into bondage. It's actually drawn to scale with bodies in relation to space. And believe it or not, folks, this is actually a graphic understatement.
You've got 482 men, women, and children here. We know for a fact that on one occasion, the slave ship Brooks carried not 482 people, but 609. And on another occasion, 638. And on yet another voyage, 740, which is 252 more than you see right here. And I defy you to tell me where you would put them. Bodies piled on top of bodies.
Well, this vessel, as is very widely known, the slave ship, was the mechanism for history's greatest forced migration. It was literally an engine for an entire phase of globalization. It was part of what is often called commercial revolution, meaning the origins of plantations and empires-- eventually, industrialization, and crucially, the rise of capitalism around the Atlantic in the 17th and the 18th century. Everybody knows the slave ship is critical to that. To all of that.
And yet we have four books on the slave ship. Two of them published in France. One by a man named Jean [? Boudreaux ?] which is a book about one particular slave ship for which he found the plans of the naval architect.
We have another book by a man named Patrick [INAUDIBLE] which is a rather strange coffee table type book. We have a book that I've actually only fairly recently learned about, published in the German Democratic Republic in 1981, by a man named Heinrich Loth. And the only American publication dates from 1927. A man named George Francis Dow wrote a book called Slave Ships and Slaving. It's kind of a mixture of primary sources and some sort of stories, analysis.
So why only four books? Or let's put the question in even a more provocative sort of way. If we think, as I do, that the two main institutions of modern slavery were the plantation and the slave ship, why is it that we have hundreds of studies of plantations and plantation systems-- I mean hundreds-- and four studies of slave ships? Why is that?
To add another dimension to the ghostly problem, novelists have made the slave ship quite central to work that they do. We think of Toni Morrison. We think of Charles Johnson. We think of Barry Unsworth. We think of Fred D'Aguiar. Manu Herbstein, a Ghanaian novelist.
We think about the way in which the slave ship has functioned in terms of not only literature, but art. JMW Turner's great painting called Slaver Throwing Over the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On. This is actually a painting representing the story of a particular slave ship called the Zong. You may know it, which in 1781, threw 132 people overboard, while living in order to try to collect insurance premiums on them.
This was denounced by an African sailor named Olaudah Equiano. It became a great cause in the abolitionist movement, and actually, I think was a formative event in opposition to the slave trade.
We have-- is Cheryl Finley here? Well, Cheryl-- Cheryl Finley is actually writing on the use of the slave ship in more or less contemporary art. And of course, this is very important work. And I'm very glad Cheryl is here because if you have any really hard questions, I'm just going to address them to Cheryl.
So we see that the slave ship operates within literature, within art, also within poetry. So what's going on with the historians? Why have historians been reluctant to treat this question? That's the mystery. OK.
I want to put that aside for a moment. And I want to talk now about not a mystery but a drama. A drama. I want to begin by talking about a famous quote by the great African-American scholar-activist WEB DuBois, who said, the slave trade was the most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history. The transportation of 10 million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new found El Dorado of the West. They descended into hell. This is what DuBois wrote.
Well, this particular passage has been very influential to me, because what I've tried to do in my book is talk about the decks of the slave ship as a place where human dramas were enacted. The greatest drama, that DuBois talked about, was made up of many hundreds of thousands of smaller dramas. And I want to talk about one of those here today.
I want to talk about the case of a slave ship called the Polly. This is a case from 1791. The Polly.
It is based on a document that I discovered tucked away in box 43, folder 24 in the Newport Historical Society of Newport, Rhode Island. There I found a handwritten document by an 18th century court scribe which said, at the top, John Cranston's testimony to the grand jury. June 15, 1791.
Unremarkable at first. But then the next line immediately makes it more interesting. Information against James DeWolf, master of the bark Polly concerning a Negro woman said to have been thrown overboard the said vessel while living.
John Cranston, a common sailor, went to the grand jury of Newport, Rhode Island, and accused his captain of murder. Who was John Cranston? We know very little about him.
He was a sailor. A common sailor. And I would add a courageous common sailor.
We know quite a bit more about James DeWolf James DeWolf was a member of America's leading slave trading family. The DeWolf family of Rhode Island. He was both a slave ship captain and a merchant.
So Cranston is going up against a very powerful man. Everybody knows it.
The document itself is interesting because it takes the form of an interview involving the foreman of the grand jury and this sailor John Cranston. So part of the interest of it is that we can actually hear the voice of a common sailor talking about what happened aboard a slave ship.
Cranston makes an opening statement describing the voyage, which sailed from Rhode Island to what was called then the Gold Coast of West Africa-- present day Ghana-- where a human cargo was picked up and then transported to Havana, Cuba.
The foreman asked Cranston, quote, "did anything uncommon take place on board the vessel during her passage from Africa to the West Indies?" Answer. "Yes, there was something that happened more than common." Question. "What happened?" Answer. "A slave was taken sick which we took to be the smallpox. The captain ordered her to be put up into the main top for fear she should give it to the rest."
See that platform? That's the main top. She was actually hoisted up there to isolate her from the many other enslaved people on the lower deck. OK. She's tied up, up there on the ship, in the high seas, which is rolling and rolling.
Cranston continues, "she was there two days. Then, at four o'clock in the morning one night, Captain DeWolf," says Cranston, "called us aft and says he"-- now, this is literally Captain DeWolf speaking. Captain DeWolf says, "if we keep the slave here, she will give it to the rest", meaning the sickness. "She will give it to the rest and I shall lose the biggest part of my slaves." In other words, he is going to lose his profits on this voyage.
Cranston and then says, "he asked if we were willing to heave her overboard. We made answer, no. We were not willing to do any such thing." Then Cranston says, and this is a quote, "upon that, he run up the shrouds."
You see on the edge here? Up the shrouds, to the fore top, or the main top. And he's saying, he's quoting him here, "she must go overboard and she shall go overboard." And he apparently ordered a ship's boy to go with him up to get her.
Then, says Cranston, when he was up there, he lashed her into a chair and tied a mask around her eyes and mouth. And there was a tackle hooked up on the slings. And then the chair was lowered down and she was dumped into the ocean. Now is everybody with me?
An African woman comes down with the smallpox. The captain tries to isolate her by putting her up in the main top. He calls a meeting of the crew at four o'clock in the morning. He asked if they will assist him in throwing her overboard. They say no. And so he basically does it himself.
Cranston said, as the captain started to do this, he said, quote-- "we went right forward and left them." Meaning they turned their backs on the captain and walked to the forward part of the ship.
The questions from the foreman of the grand jury continued. "Was the slave a male or a female?" Answer, "yes. It was a woman slave." Question. "Was she young or old?" Answer. "About middle aged." Question. "Had she any vittles while in the main top?" Meaning, food, provisions. Answer. "Yes." Question. "Was she alive when she was let down?" Answer. "Yes." "Did you hear her speak or make any noises when she was thrown over, or see her struggle?" "No. A mask was tied around her mouth and eyes so that she could not. And this was done to prevent her from making any noise so that the other slaves might not hear, least they should rise."
Note this. The captain is going to kill this woman quietly because if it's known what he's doing, he knows that everybody else on the vessel will do what they can to come to her defense.
And then this question. "Do you recollect to hear the captain say anything after the scene was ended?" Answer. "All he said was he was sorry he had lost so good a chair."
Now I'm going to come back to this. But let me summarize what happened after Cranston gave this dramatic testimony. The grand jury indicted Captain James DeWolf for murder.
DeWolf, however, saw it coming, and quickly left Newport on another slaving voyage, off again to the Gold Coast. And he began to prepare his defense.
In October 1794, more than three years after this incident, he arranged for two members of the crew of the Polly to go before a judge to give depositions. Not in Newport, but actually in the slave trading port of St. Eustatius in the West Indies.
I found evidence to show that Captain DeWolf actually bribed these sailors. You know how I found out? I searched for their names in the DeWolf family records. And guess what? One of them turns up as a captain of a slave ship. He got his just reward.
So the captain's strategy apparently worked. But so too did the extraordinary political power of his family, who were working behind the scenes in order to get the charges dropped. They were dropped. OK. So that's the story of the Polly.
Now, let's go back to the mystery that we started with. Why there have been so many studies of the plantation system and so few studies of the slave ship-- or, to ask the same question in a different way, what is the logic by which we have written the history of the slave trade that do not by and large include dramas like the one I've just described? Why do we leave those things out?
Well, I don't pretend to have solved this puzzle. But I would submit four reasons why there have been so few studies of the slave ship. I will be very curious to know what you think.
One reason why I think historians, at least, have been disinclined to study it is because of the extreme violence and terror that took place aboard these ships. What happened there was really very hard to contemplate. I think people instinctively turn their heads away from images like the ones that we've seen-- the idea of a woman bound, gagged, masked, lashed to a chair and lowered into the ocean and thereby murdered.
But I want to insist that historians have faced other human catastrophes and situations of extreme violence and terror. So this cannot be a sufficient explanation. But I mention it as one factor.
Second, why there have been so few studies of the slave ship. The problem of sources. Now it is true that this is a problem. And I must admit that my own ability to do this subject, or study this subject in the way that I did, depended on about 30 years of experience working in maritime archives.
So this was a great advantage. The body of sources about the slave ship is highly fragmentary and dispersed. But what struck me as equally important is that many of the sources I used, and many of the most important sources I used, were already very well known to a great many scholars. But they had simply never been used for this purpose of trying to describe the human reality of the slave ship. So I conclude that this cannot be a sufficient explanation.
As a third factor, I would mention something that I call the dialectics of scholarship, which begins with the abolitionists who created images like the one we saw earlier, of the slave ship Brooks. The fact that the abolitionists were successful in abolishing the slave trade meant, I think, that a new common sense about the slave trade and the slave ship was fairly broadly established in political society, causing many people to think, well, we know what happened on those slave ships. We don't need to look any further.
So in a way, you could say the victory of the anti-slave trade movement made some people disinclined to study the matter further. But that's only one part of the story. The other part is, when professional historians came along to study the slave trade-- influenced, I might add, by modern social science-- they were distrustful of what the abolitionists had written. They considered it to be propaganda. And indeed it was propaganda in certain ways.
So they wanted to escape the emotional charge of the study of the slave trade, and the slave ship in particular. So their response was to count. Account the numbers. The bodies. The mortality rates.
I think Philip Curtin's book, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, 1969, inaugurated what must be regarded as the dominant way of studying the slave trade. And that is a statistical way.
Now I regard this scholarship as extremely valuable. But I also regard it as extremely partial. With a predominantly statistical approach to the slave trade comes something else. Something that I call the violence of abstraction. In that we no longer think about what happens on those ships in human terms. And partly my book was written to really write against that sort of tradition of writing.
So that's the dialectics of scholarship angle. Abolitionists, modern scholars. Modern scholars reacting against what the abolitionists had done, producing a new kind of study of the slave trade, but not a study of the slave ship, which was the locus of terror.
And then finally, a fourth factor I would submit to you to think about why there have been so few studies of the slave ship. And this one is admittedly complicated and hard to explain. And I think it may be the most important reason of all, primarily because it operates subconsciously.
I think most people, in this day and age especially, have a view of the oceans and seas of the world that thinks of them basically as unreal places, kind of as voids between the real places which are landed and mostly national.
And therefore, we are not accustomed to thinking about oceans as places where history happens. Oceans are historical voids. History happens on land.
Now, of course, there's a very powerful counterpoint to this. I think a lot of Caribbean writers have known for a long time that history happens on the water. And of course I would mention the famous poem by Derek Walcott, the Sea is History. Where are your monuments, your battles, your martyrs? Where is your tribal memory, sirs, in that gray vault, the sea. The sea has locked them up. The sea is history. We need to think of history as happening at sea on places like slave ships. I think lots of people don't think of it that way.
OK. Now let's come back to the DeWolf case, the John Cranston case, and let's talk about what is lost by not thinking of the slave ship as a place where history happens. Because in fact, crucial historical processes were taking place on the decks of the Polly.
Now this is an unusual case. And I want to emphasize that. But it's also one that reveals a lot about what is happening in the slave trade and in the abolitionist movement.
The first thing to emphasize about this case is its moment in time. 1791. The most intense agitation about the slave trade, against the slave trade, happened between the years 1788 and 1792. This event is happening in the middle of that moment. The peak of agitation.
And this matters in several ways. One way it matters-- notice the limits of the captain's power. Calling a meeting of sailors to ask their consent.
Now folks, this was most uncommon. Captains did not usually ask their sailors to do something. They simply ordered them to do it. And sailors did not usually resist when they were ordered to do something, because to refuse to do it could be mutiny, which could be something to get you hanged. Such was the concentrated power of the ship captain.
For the most part, sailors would have complied with an issue to throw overboard enslaved Africans. And in fact, they did that on numerous occasions. The Zong being one very good example of it.
But we also have to ask, if this kind of thing had been happening for a long time, how was it that in 1791, it might appear to a common sailor as murder? Well, here we have to go back to the case of the Zong.
Because when it became known through the work of Olaudah Equiano that 132 people had been murdered, Granville Sharp and another large number of abolitionists took to the press, took to the court rooms and said, this is murder that happened on this ship. 132 people were murdered on this ship. These are human beings. They were murdered. This is not cargo. This is not property. This is murder.
Now what's fascinating about the case involving Cranston is that it shows that the ideas of the movement opposing the slave trade are getting into the minds of the people who are charged with carrying it out. And folks, you know what this is like? This is very much like the effect of the domestic peace movement in the United States on soldiers fighting in Vietnam. It's the same kind of thing.
Soldiers with peace symbols on their helmets refusing to do what their officers told them to do. It's part of the hidden power of social movements. And that's part of what's significant about the way history is happening on this vessel, the Polly.
And another major point, which is profoundly historical. Note how the crew and the captain feared the enslaved people on board the voyage.
Folks, this right here was every slave ship captain's greatest nightmare. An insurrection. You see, people have gotten free of their manacles and shackles. The crew have retreated behind a baracaddo, as it's called. Every slave ship had one, a defensive bulwark that you could get behind and fire down on the people rising in insurrection. You see some jumping overboard.
This is why Captain DeWolf wanted to kill this woman quietly. Note his assumption that all of the others on board would come to her defense if they could. Note the assumption of self-defense, which then required a secret execution.
And here, one of those testimonies given by another sailor from the Polly, after DeWolf bribed him, was extremely interesting, because this sailor said, in his testimony, he said, the people on board were all Coromantee, a nation famous for its insurrections.
This basically is a group of people, Akan speakers, on the Gold Coast, who are in fact loaded on board the ships and would then, from the period roughly the 1740s and 50s up to the end of the century play leading parts in practically every New World slave revolt that takes place.
The crew knew it. Many of these Coromantee people had military experience. They knew how to fire guns. Some were warriors who had been trained to fight in difficult circumstances. The crew knew it. The captain knew it. And that's why they had to execute this woman . Secretly
So what we see on the Polly is that three forces that will end up bringing the slave trade to an end have intersected-- rebellious enslaved Africans, dissident sailors and middle class abolitionists who were producing these images of the slave ship. Each an independent vector, all intersected on that vessel in the middle of the ocean. That's how history was happening there.
Now to conclude, let's ask what happened to the players in this drama on board the Polly. John Cranston disappeared into the waterfront. I'm sure he did it quickly. Going up against someone like James DeWolf would be a little bit like going up against a mafia Don. They will kill you, just as he did that woman aboard his ship.
I suspect he was probably smuggled away by some abolitionists in Newport. I suspect that he was willing to give his testimony in the first place because some abolitionists heard the story of the murder circulating on the waterfront and they helped him to go to the grand jury. Can't prove that. But I suspect that's how it happened.
What happened to the people who were on board the vessel? Well, the woman we know, the enslaved woman whose name is lost to us, she died struggling against that chair that Captain DeWolf loved so much. Her shipmates were delivered to Havana in early 1791. They would have carried on their tradition of resistance.
And James DeWolf. James DeWolf went on to gather great riches in the slave trade. He remained involved for the rest of his life. He became one of the richest men in Rhode Island. He became one of the richest men in New England. He became one of the richest men in the new nation called the United States. He used his wealth to build a family mansion called Mount Hope. Get that.
And then Captain James DeWolf became a United States Senator. So here's what I want you to remember. The hands that tied the mask around that woman's face, and the hands that lashed her into the chair, were the same hands that crafted legislation, no doubt in an elegant hand in the United States Senate.
Now, this is a fairly poor image of James DeWolf. But I think you can see this man has a very hard look. And we know where it came from.
And as a very final thought, let's talk a little bit about the ghostly image of the woman in the mask, the almost unspeakably powerful symbolism of her struggle for voice. The muffled cries of this woman as symbolic of the many voices lost to us in the slave trade, the many millions.
My friend, the brilliant playwright Naomi Wallace, wrote to me about the story of this woman. And here's what she said. She said, "this image of this woman will always stay with me. This woman tied into a chair and lowered into the ocean. In my mind she is suspended there in that wide water. She is not yet, she is not ever drowned. She resurfaces over and over. She lives on. She refuses to die as long as we tell and retell her story."
So folks, this is the reason why I think in the end, we have to study the slave ship in order to find the ghosts and let them live again. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]
SPEAKER 2: Thank you so much [INAUDIBLE] the questions, so now is your chance to ask.
MARCUS REDIKER: Could I ask the questioners to please introduce yourselves?
ROBERT HARRIS: Yes. My name is Robert Harris. I teach African-American history here at the Africana Studies Research Center. And I believe from the study that was done in Brown University, that DeWolf was a major benefactor of both Brown and Harvard Universities. In fact, there's a DeWolf Hall at Harvard right now.
But two questions. One, what do you think of the work of Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, of Mannix and Cowley, Black Cargoes, Marvin Davidson-- seems to me that all of them address this issue of what happened aboard those ships. And then secondly, the reference to them as slave ships. I have a question about that, because the apologists for slavery basically tried to justify enslavement by saying that all they were doing was transporting slaves from Africa to the New World.
It seems to me that it would be more appropriate to call these individuals captives. They weren't slaves yet. They were later enslaved in the New World. And I just wondered what did you think of that?
MARCUS REDIKER: Yeah. First as regards earlier scholarship. I'm well aware that there have been certain aspects of the story of the slave ship told and told very well. OK. So I do not wish to diminish in any way the contribution of works like Black Cargoes and the rest.
But what I guess I wanted to emphasize in presenting this mystery about the slave ship is why we never actually studied it as a social world, and tried to study the relationships of all the people involved in it. So that's kind of my question.
With regard to Eric Williams and others, I regard Capitalism and Slavery as one of the truly great books of modern times. I think in fact it was Williams and CLR James and several others who kind of invented the Atlantic history that lots of people are now pretending to have just discovered. So that's a different conversation. But one we might have.
I am actually very much in agreement that the people on board these vessels are captives. I think they are technically enslaved even though they are not actually working to produce value on plantations as yet. So I would think that this matters.
I am keen to say that they are, in fact, not inclined to accept this designation about themselves. And that the resistance on board the ship, which takes every conceivable form, is crucial to the experience. This too I think has not been adequately studied.
In other words, there were vastly more slave revolts than we've known. There were many kinds of resistance going on aboard the ships. So that must become part of the story. And in fact, that's the only redeeming part of the story. The fact that this reality was never accepted by those who were forced to experience it.
So I think in talking about the slave ship, I don't think that reflects the view of it that all people had. But I think that does describe its place in an international system of capitalism. And that's something I also wish to emphasize.
ALFRED PHILLIPS: I'm Alfred Phillips. [INAUDIBLE] My second question is this. [INAUDIBLE]
MARCUS REDIKER: I did.
ALFRED PHILLIPS: Very impressive in fact. [INAUDIBLE]
MARCUS REDIKER: Thank you Mr. Phillips. Good questions. In terms of why sympathetic accounts of this history are now being written by white people, let me just say that I am keenly aware that there is a politics of race involved in my speaking about this subject in this sense.
I am freer to say things than any black writer would be, because any black writer who says the kinds of things that I emphasize in my book would be accused of exaggeration, special pleading. I think there's a very real issue here. And I do agree with you. I've known some very good work by black writers on this subject which have not been published. So I think this is a very serious question that we may wish to discuss further.
I mean, I can speak about my own motivations for writing the book. They have to do with, well, the instance I recounted at the beginning of the talk of knowing a man on death row and being involved in a struggle to abolish the death penalty and understanding how race and class operate in the contemporary criminal justice system. Understanding that concretely.
That's another thing about the book, which is to emphasize there is a great difference between abstract knowledge and concrete knowledge. For people to say that the slave trade is bad is one thing. To understand what it actually did to people is something quite different.
So in a way, it's about modes of knowing. How can we best know? I believe we need to know what actually happened if we are going to ever overcome the legacy of slavery in this country. I think that's crucial. We need to face it. I think it's a very interesting moment in the history of our country in terms of whether we can face it.
I'll tell you from my own experience that in writing this book, I've received many different kinds of reactions, including a fair amount of racist hate mail from people who are angry at the suggestion that slavery might be an injustice that we have yet to overcome. So I think this is just part of the force field of trying to discuss this issue at this moment in time. So I think that is certainly part of the story.
Now remind me. Your second question was about?
ALFRED PHILLIPS: My second question was, is it because of black virtue or capitalism that Black people helped the White sailors who were [INAUDIBLE]
MARCUS REDIKER: Yes. Thank you. What Mr. Phillips is talking about is that at the end of the book, I discuss the way in which sailors on board the slave ships who are frequently sick, and once the human cargo, so to speak, as they called it, was delivered, you suddenly had-- the captain suddenly had a much smaller need for labor.
So captains actually tried to drive these sailors off the ship to make them desert to save on wages. Many of them were in such bad physical shape that they couldn't work any way. So they became, in practically every Caribbean port city, beggars. Very ill. They became beggars.
Well, I came across this really extraordinary evidence from several different sources, that these poor sailors were being taken in by former or current enslaved people and nursed back to health. And African women were given a special notice in this evidence, that they were taking care of these sailors.
Now, I think there are many things to be said about this. I think it represents a kind of compassion that I find just extraordinary, because these people who took in the sailors, they knew who they were. They might have known some of them personally. And yet they had the humanity to do it.
And even when those sailors died, it is noted that they were frequently buried in the African burial grounds. I find this to be just extraordinary. It's the most hopeful thing I found in doing all the research on this book.
Now, is there another part of this? I think there was something else going on in addition to compassion among those who took these sailors in. If you were an enslaved person in Jamaica and Barbados and you managed to save the life of a sailor, then suddenly you had someone with a lot of freedom who really owed you something.
That person, that sailor, might then smuggle someone to freedom, get someone on board the ship. Might do something that would be necessary based on a relationship of trust, which came out of the medical care given when that person was sick. So there is a political side to this as well as what I would call a sort of compassionate side.
But I think what I say in the book is that some of the African people who found these sailors in this desperate condition knew that a slave ship was so horrible for everybody involved that they were big hearted enough to show sympathy.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] First I want to say it's a very, very powerful book. I can't say it's the kind I enjoy reading, but it's extraordinarily powerful, and not only do you take this aspect of the slave trade around traders and the captains and sort of reverse it so that the bottom is on top, but you put the human face on the terms of the resistance that takes place. [INAUDIBLE] this sense of tension and struggle every step of the way [INAUDIBLE]
That being said, I want to ask a couple of questions. I want to ask you, as Professor Harris mentioned, but more specifically about [INAUDIBLE] Because one of the things that runs through the book is the significance of global capitalism during an era called the commercial revolution. And abolitionists struggled within that era to end the trade. And yet in both England and America, these abolitionist families [INAUDIBLE] It's not all that altruistic. [INAUDIBLE] something we call industrial capitalism.
And [INAUDIBLE] But [INAUDIBLE] seeing some other connection there. [INAUDIBLE] These are the people such as the DeWolf family, [INAUDIBLE] And also the abolitionists. So I think they have another agenda other than [INAUDIBLE] ending the trade.
The other point I wanted to make was [INAUDIBLE] you use the word migration [INAUDIBLE] And I just wanted [INAUDIBLE] referred to African capitalists as migrants. Seems to me to be a little strange. [INAUDIBLE] And I was so happy I didn't see that world. [INAUDIBLE] And it's another way, in my opinion, of [INAUDIBLE] to use that word instead of saying what they really were, [INAUDIBLE]
So I'm just curious as to what your take is on that word. Because it's very common in the historical analysis these days.
MARCUS REDIKER: OK. Thank you. [INAUDIBLE] with regard to your first question, I was-- let me answer the question this way. What I wanted this book to contribute to, in terms of the study of abolitionism, was basically to suggest that people think about that movement differently. Not just as William Wilberforce and a few gentlemen in England who are forming the society to effect the abolition of the slave trade, but to think of it as a very complex social movement. I think scholarship is certainly moving this way-- that consists of rebellious Africans, dissident sailors, factory workers who sign anti-slave trade petitions, strategic people like Olaudah Equiano who makes connections between different parts of the movement, and to talk about these groups of working people as ones who essentially put the middle class abolitionist in motion, is what I wanted to say.
So I was not really very concerned with what is traditionally understood to be the abolitionist movement, meaning those upper class or middle class white men. Now, you're absolutely right that they had another agenda. And that agenda leads to both imperialism and capitalism. No question. Industrial capitalism. No question. I would agree with you 100% there.
But at the same time, I think it's important for us in the present to know that abolitionism was something much bigger than those people, which is one reason why I hated that movie Amazing Grace. I don't know how many of you saw it, a movie about William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade. Well William Wilberforce is this saintly character who loves animals. He loves his servants. He loves poor Africans. And the abolition of the slave trade was an aristocratic gift of grace.
Well, I'm sorry. It wasn't. Millions of people died in that battle and we have to remember them. So I'm completely sympathetic to the way in which you say that the abolitionist movement, or to use Chris Brown's term, the accumulation of moral capital, which is then used to other ends, is extremely important.
But you'll notice I concentrated only on the abolitionists who were in touch with the sailors and the slaves. That's what interested me. I wanted to know how those two groups on the front lines of this war were educating everybody else, especially through Clarkson.
That's how we can recover part of their agency in bringing the slave trade to an end. So I agree with you. And maybe I should have done something a little differently. But I wanted to try to, in a sense, recenter the gravity in studying abolition to include a much broader mass of people.
With regard to your second question, you're absolutely right. I don't use the term migrants. I wouldn't think it appropriate. I think anybody who understands concretely what that trade actually meant couldn't conflate it with migration that other people made.
I use the term forced migration simply as a way of getting people to recognize the massive number of the millions of people who traveled on these ships, or who were forced to travel on these ships. In terms of the politics of migrant movements, I think this is actually a very interesting area of activism right now. I have a number of friends in Europe who are working on it. So I think they would probably have more interesting comments than I on the use of that term.
Do yourself have any? What would you put in the place of migrant?
AUDIENCE: I can't reconcile the idea that [INAUDIBLE] in fact [INAUDIBLE] abolitionist movement, once it's no longer from that [INAUDIBLE] realm, and it's taken over by ordinary people. But I think it's really important to not get caught up in transposing words so that it makes us feel better about a historical period.
And I don't know if [INAUDIBLE] I think you calling the slave people migrants, or referring to the domestic slave trade as forced migration--
MARCUS REDIKER: [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: Conveys the same reality as families being separated and never seeing each other again and [INAUDIBLE]
MARCUS REDIKER: I hereby strike forced migration from the record.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] I'd like to thank you for writing and giving us an opportunity to think about the slave trade. I just want to speak to this point about white people writing about the slave trade, to just mention my own experience in exploring the slave trade, reading the archives.
I found it interesting that most [INAUDIBLE] that are most informative are those [INAUDIBLE] young boys, white boys, working on the slave ships, boys of 13 or 14, 15, writing to their mothers.
I do want to say that I have never shared what I read at the time because of the trauma of the way the [INAUDIBLE] was constructed. It also affected young people who committed their accounts. And writing, you know, in the way you write to your mother-- it just has so much-- I know that after reading that, when I came out of the basement, as I was in the archives [INAUDIBLE] I was just so traumatized. I agree with what you say, that the slave trade was traumatic for everyone [INAUDIBLE]
I just wanted to ask if you did work on these narratives on young boys.
MARCUS REDIKER: Yes I did. I think it's the youth of many people involved in this horrendous trade is an important part of the story. I think it's very significant to know that about a quarter of the enslaved were children.
I think it's also important to know that many of the youths who were working aboard the slave ships were not there by choice. One of the big questions I tried to wrestle with in this book is, knowing, as many people did, that the mortality rate for the sailors was as high in many instances as the mortality rate for the enslaved-- why would they go?
Well, I found that a lot of them didn't make a choice to go. A lot of people who ended up working on slave ships had been tricked into spending money and falling into debt, sent to jail. And the slave ship captains would turn up and agree to pay their debts to get them out of jail, if they would agree to go on the slaving voyage.
This is very common. Quite a few of the boys of the kind that you mention are apprentices. They're not there by choice. They're sent by their families as an apprentice to the captain in order to learn a trade, to learn a line of work. They frequently die.
One of the most powerful descriptions of the slave trade was written by a young boy who was actually crippled by a beating given him by one of these slave trade captains. He talks about how naive he was when he went away to see onboard the slave ship, and how once he left that ship, he was a bitter, crippled man.
So the question of youth and trauma, I think is very important to this. Of course, we don't have very many sources with which to understand the interior experience of all that. But the other thing that I've emphasized, which I think does speak directly to your question, is that the torturers and terrors of the slave ship were all staged in public so as to maximize their psychological effects on everyone, including children.
So slave ship captains were very conscious in inflicting this sort of damage on everyone, which they thought made them more governable, less inclined to resist. I think they were deluded about that. But I think this was part of their strategy of ruling on board the ship.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] I'd like to make a comment or ask a question [INAUDIBLE] It is quite significant that the person or the person who chose to illustrate the argument was a woman. And he had to tie that rope or that piece of cloth on her mouth. It's quite significant, that the African woman from the African soil will cross the ocean to here, never accepted her situation. She fought. And in all that period, all running through the informal colonization period through the colonial era or the recent fight against Apartheid, the African woman has always faced the white man who controls everything.
And when you were saying that I was thinking about this book [INAUDIBLE] about the [? role of ?] woman in the Caribbean. And so the struggle, I wanted to represent in the contemporary scholarly words, you talked about this abstraction and their refusal to acknowledge that reality, that the African woman who was a powerful woman who refused, many of them jumped overboard. Or did choose to, because they refused to make that trip and see what happened on the other end.
Where if they didn't decide, they will not go overboard without a fight. [INAUDIBLE] so that represented the powerful statement by the African woman [INAUDIBLE]
And so the articulation was then feminist, [INAUDIBLE] some of us have been marginalized by articulating that there were different realities, objective realities, historical realities that existed. And many of us have to pay a price when you say that, because you're supposed to have realized the missing woman. You have [? colored ?] history. And you have to [? line this up ?] with the articulation of the history of the Western European. That's my first comment.
MARCUS REDIKER: Can I just support your point by saying, one of the things I didn't talk about here, but one of the other common features of a slave ship was that the captains would put netting all the way around the rails to prevent people from jumping overboard to commit suicide. So common was this desire to do it that netting became a common part of the slave ship.
And there are these really moving descriptions by the way, of people who somehow managed to climb up the netting, or cut the netting, get through the netting, and get into the water. Even though they're surrounded by sharks and they know they're going to die. They are exulted in happiness that they have escaped. Laughing, that they have escaped the slave ship.
So one of my arguments in the book is that the very structure of the slave ship reflects the fact that resistance was assumed and was constant. So, please.
AUDIENCE: The second aspect is the slavery dividend. In so [INAUDIBLE] you were talking about how [INAUDIBLE] but there are many ways in which people who benefited are still benefiting. So there is not enough time. However, I would like to know your take on the necessity of, you can never repay what happened.
MARCUS REDIKER: In the conclusion of the book, I basically say that this should happen and must happen. I am in favor of reparations. I think there must be a big debate about what that would consist of. I don't think it's as simple as money payments. Because justice can't be reduced to money.
But this is a historic injustice that must be addressed. I mean, it is increasingly common around the world that people talk about slavery as a crime against humanity. And in my view, if it is a crime against humanity, there are criminals against humanity. And those criminals must be brought to account in this ongoing struggle. It must be.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] you talk about using [INAUDIBLE] to try to reconstruct the voice [INAUDIBLE] My question is that within your book, you talk about to say that in the coast of Africa, that there were some Africans that were able to escape. I'd like you to comment, if you could a little bit, to say, why did you use those words to try to reconstruct what they felt like on the slave ship? I read about [INAUDIBLE]
The second question you can comment on would be, if you have to use another term other than slave trade, what would you use?
AUDIENCE: I just wanted to ask a quick question [INAUDIBLE] because of time. [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: Thank you. Hi. My name is James [INAUDIBLE] I was wondering if you could comment because you mentioned something about the increasing-- some artists depicting the experience on the slave ship. And I'm sure you're probably aware of Tom Feelings' last major work-- sort of, in a sense, his life's culminating work, on the depictions through his vision of life on the slave ship.
He was criticized in many quarters in the art community as making it overly dramatic, gruesome and highly racialized. And I wondered what your comment might be if you've thought about it.
AUDIENCE: Just one more. A question.
MARCUS REDIKER: What is your name?
AUDIENCE: Yeah. [INAUDIBLE] What is your impression that this violence-- it doesn't make economic sense. So I'd like to hear your take on the explanation of it. Because the whole enterprise is economical. So how do you explain that?
The second thing that I really found very important in the focus on the ship, regarding other forms-- [INAUDIBLE] forms of slavery, like what happened in Sudan, only [INAUDIBLE] years ago, because it was exactly the same.
I'm not talking about trafficking, which can be seen as different from slavery. But slavery in this classic sense, in the same definition, involving the violent transfer-- the trip to the enslaving communities and then exploitation.
Because there we would also be-- the ship would be equivalent to that trip, where the group would [INAUDIBLE] in Sudan, would be abducted by-- categorized as Arab, would take them on that exact trip. So that would be equivalent of the ship.
MARCUS REDIKER: It would.
AUDIENCE: And then there has to be, even during that trip, the people who were abducted, captured-- were not yet slaves. That, technically, [INAUDIBLE]
MARCUS REDIKER: That's so many good questions. I hardly know where to start. First with regard to Equiano. And I'm sure you know there's a big debate now about whether he was actually an African or whether he was born in Carolina, as he himself said on two occasions.
In my view, the more one gets to know about the Igbo people, the more certain it is that he was actually African. And I think to me it's a major problem when probably the preeminent voice of the Black [? Atlantis ?] in this people is accused of being a fraud. This is a big problem.
Why did I use him? Because there's no other source in any way like what he gives us. And believe me I looked everywhere.
It's just so difficult to piece together what the variety of West African responses to this experience actually were. So in this case, I sort of plead the sources. I would wish for more. I've tried to use the fragments of sources to do detailed strategies of resistance that existed among the many millions of people who were nameless to us, who didn't write spiritual autobiographies.
But I think it is important that we try to humanize this story however we can with specific individuals, but also with the dramas that were enacted on the ship. In terms of Tom Feelings, I'm a great admirer of his work. And I daresay-- it hasn't really happened yet, but my book is going to be accused of exactly the same things that you said he was criticized for doing.
In fact, I'm sure there are some opponents of this view who are gathering their forces right now, simply because people will say-- I am sure they will say-- that my book is a neo-abolitionist text, to which I say, is there another position here, than to be opposed to the slavery and the slave trade? And if that's neo-abolitionist, what position is yours? You know, I would like to know.
With regard to the question here about the similarities of different slave trades, this is a fascinating question. And one of the things that I talked about in this book, and also in the book called The Many Headed Hydra, is that the term Middle Passage is not just a maritime term of description.
And people should know that it's a phrase-- every voyage would have an outward passage, a middle passage and a homeward passage. It's just a fairly technical phrase. But the movement to abolish the slave trade seized upon the Middle Passage as a way to dramatize the kind of the violence of the inhumanity.
But I think Middle Passage actually works as a concept to describe the distance between where people are expropriated in one place and how they are then moved to another to be exploited. And it seems to me that works on land as well as on sea. And that it would repay an effort to think about middle passages in this way. So I think that I'm very glad to hear your question about how this does apply to other more contemporary instances.
With regard to the violence, basically what I concluded was that violence was highly functional in this sense. Slave ship captains and slave ship merchants knew that it might be necessary to sacrifice a few to torture to realize the highest level of profits on the other end of the voyage.
So a deliberate strategy on the part of the slave ship captain would be to pick out one or two or three of the most rebellious and make them examples. Now, this is a very common way of doing things in the 18th century. It's very similar to what happens with public executions. It's very similar to what happens in the Navy, where mutineers are singled out and subjected to really spectacular punishments, with the idea that the terror created will allow the ruler to control the rest.
So most of the violence-- I'll give you one good example of how it might work. I talk about this in the book. There was a man who is known to us only through the name Captain Tomba, who was probably a Baga man, who had not only great authority within his own village and region, but was actively trying to stop the slave trade in Africa. He was organizing actions against the slave traders.
Well, he was captured. He was captured. He was whipped. He was sold. And on the vessel in which he was transported to the New World, he led an uprising that was quite bloody. The captain actually wrote about Captain Tomba. He was such a good piece of property, I decided to execute some others.
In other words, the value of this man in a slave market was so great that he wanted to pick others to use as the spectacular examples of torture and terror. So what I've suggested is that the violence and the profit motive work together. That it was not economically irrational to use the violence on board the ships.
AUDIENCE: I still think you wouldn't say that if [INAUDIBLE]
MARCUS REDIKER: In fact, I say exactly the opposite. I say, it is not an individual moral failure of a slave ship captain to be violent. It is a requirement of the job.
AUDIENCE: And then it wasn't excessive beyond what was necessary.
MARCUS REDIKER: In some cases it became excessive. But excess was also part of the strategy. Thank you.
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As early as 1740, the British merchant Malachy Postlethwayt, arguing for parliamentary subsidies for slave trade as essential to English prosperity, described the trade's "triangular nature." British ships carried manufactured goods to West Africa, where they were exchanged with local rulers for slaves. Hundreds of these slaves were packed into the ships and carried to the West Indies -- the so-called "middle passage" -- where they were sold and the proceeds used to buy sugar and rum, which the ships then transported back to England.
Marcus Rediker uses his experience as a maritime historian and his mastery of the contemporary documents to re-create all three legs of the triangle, often in the very words of the participants -- captains, seamen and slaves.
Dr. Marcus Rediker graduated with a B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1976. He went to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate study, earning an M.A. and Ph.D. in history. He taught at Georgetown University from 1982 to 1994, lived in Moscow for a year (1984-5), and is currently Professor and Chair in the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Marcus Rediker has written (or co-written) five books: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1987), Who Built America? (1989), volume one; The Many-Headed Hydra (2000), Villains of All Nations (2004) and The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007).