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Transcript of The Floating Dungeon: a history of the slave ship
Marcus Rediker is introduced by Tony Tibbles, Keeper of the Merseyside Maritime Museum.
Tony Tibbles: I would like to welcome you to the Merseyside Maritime Museum for this special lecture by Professor Marcus Rediker on the slave ship. We are very pleased to see you here today. I first met Marcus in rather surreal circumstances on the Caribbean island of Curacao where we were both attending a conference on maritime museums, and were staying at a beach hotel, so it wasn’t the sort of location you would expect to hold a professional conference, but I think we can say that we enjoyed that particular conference. And one of the reasons I enjoyed it was because Marcus was speaking. And he gave us two papers â€“ one on pirates and one looking at maritime history more generally. And looking at maritime history and what it was like to be at sea from the bottom of the ladder. Not looking at the admirals and all the other merchants who often get attention, but looking at it from the point of view of seafarers â€“ those people who were at the sharp end. What it was really like to be involved in the 18th century maritime world. And he really extended that interest â€“ I’m sure many of you will know his book that he co-wrote, ‘The Many Headed Hydra’. He has expanded that interest into looking at slavery and the slave ship. I think lots of people in Britain know about the slave trade but very few have written about the experience of being on board the slave ship. I think a lot of us will know Equiano and his description of life on board a slave ship that he gives us, and probably through a lot of people that’s maybe as far as they go, but Marcus has been assiduous in going through the archives, not only here but across the diaspora, and he’s produced a fascinating book and I’m sure he’s going to give us a fascinating lecture today. So I’m going to hand over to him without any more comment from me. Marcus Rediker.
Marcus Rediker: Thank you, Tony. Thanks everyone for coming. It is a special pleasure to be here, to be at this particular institution and for two different reasons. One is that I did research here; the archival holdings of the museum are quite a significant part of what I did, so I’d like to acknowledge that. There is something else I would like to acknowledge which is the role that that this institution played in opening up the slave trade to the world of museum-going public. Now, in this day in which we celebrate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade we forget that in the early 1990s it was tremendously controversial to open an exhibit on the slave trade. A great many people said, “Well, why do you want to bring that up?” Well now we know - because the gallery in this museum has proven to be so popular and so educational and so important that other museums around the world have begun to follow suit. So I would like to tip my hat to Tony in particular who was the curator of that first gallery and to the Merseyside Maritime Museum in general for performing a tremendously important public and democratic function about discussing the past. I really thank you earnestly for that.
I began to work on tall ships and people who work on them more than 30 years ago. It’s been a long time now. And one of the things I discovered in doing this work is that many of us have a tremendous romance for the tall ship. They are beautiful things aren’t they? They are majestic. They are magnificent. And no wonder we do. But what I discovered in writing this most recent book is that we have a romance for all tall ships except perhaps for the most important one and that is the slave ship, which was perhaps the most important and the most world-changing European tall ship to be found. I was surprised when I found that there’d been so little work on slave ships, because as Tony said there’s been a tremendous amount of high quality research on the slave trade. But the ship itself kind of escaped our grasp.
So let’s begin with an image of a tall ship from right here in this gallery. I think this one is familiar to everyone. This is a painting by the Liverpool artists, William Jackson, roughly 1780 and this is a slave ship, a Guineaman. We probably have some experts in the crowd, so I’m a little bit worried about asking this question, but can anybody, except Tony, tell me how you would know that it’s a slave ship by looking at the image? Yes?
Marcus Rediker:The lower deck and especially the airports just above the waterline! You know if you are carrying sugar or timber or manufactured goods you don’t need to ventilate that lower deck, but if you are carrying a human cargo you do. So this is a beautiful tall ship with a malevolent purpose beneath. And it was ships like this that transported millions of people from the west coast of Africa to the Americas, over a period of almost 400 years. Now just a word about that. As many of you know the best recent estimate are that between 12 and 15 million people were loaded onto slave ships in West Africa and somewhere between 10 and11 million plus were unloaded alive on the western Atlantic. About 15% of them died along the way; their bodies thrown over the side of the ship to the sharks that would follow all the way across.
That transport of human beings made the slave ship one of the most significant mechanisms in all of world history. It created the world’s greatest forced migration. It was itself an engine of globalisation. Now, if we think about that as something that has a very long history, although I think many journalists think it was invented 10 years ago â€“ it’s been going on for hundreds of years. The slave ship was also a crucial instrument to the formation of empires, plantations, the rise of capitalism itself, because the labour power that was brought across the Atlantic on ships like this literally powered the world economy in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Producing an accumulation of wealth that is almost impossible to describe. The great West Indian writer, CLR James said, “It was the greatest planned accumulation of wealth the world had yet seen.” In Britain one effect of it was the sugar planters - those people who owned sugar plantations in the West Indies and who lived in England, especially around London where some of them sat in London â€“ they were known to be the wealthiest of the wealthy with a long train of servants and the most gorgeous gilded carriages. This was wealth that was just mind-boggling at the time, and in retrospect, and the slave ship made it all possible. So we are talking about a piece of technology, that was what a slave ship was â€“ a machine â€“ that was really central to the world in which we live. And one of the arguments of this book is that we are still living with the consequences of it. The slave ship and the institution of slavery are still very much with us. We live with inequalities that they helped to create. So one of the things I’ve said in this book is that the slave ship in a way is the ghost ship of our modern consciousness. It is kind of sailing on the edges. We can’t always get it into focus but I think it is critically important and I think one of the issues raised â€“ I know there has been quite a bit of discussion about this in this country â€“ is that the slave ship is part of a monstrous historical injustice. So the question is, what are we going to do about it? Because we still live with its crippling effects every day. All around the Atlantic world the effects of the slave ship are still felt.
This is an image I think everyone has seen. It is a very famous one. Certainly at the end of the bicentenary year in England where there has been a lot of discussion of the slave ship I am sure you’ve all seen it. This is the first drawing, as far as we know, produced in Plymouth in November 1788 by a local abolition committee. It is actually a drawing of a Liverpool ship; The Brookes, which is named for a well known Liverpool slave trading family. The image was not however, what you might think. You might imagine that this was created by a naval architect in the pay of the slave trading merchants. On the contrary, this was created by abolitionists â€“ people who wanted to get rid of the trade in order to make what happened on the slave ships real to a reading public. And we know about the Brookes because it turns out that the Brookes was measured in every aspect, top to bottom, by someone despatched on the eve of parliamentary hearings. Thomas Clarkson, the great abolitionist, then took that knowledge and other knowledge that he gathered â€“ I’ll say more about that in a moment â€“ to produce this print and lots of other propaganda, which would be most useful to this social movement that wanted to get rid of the slave trade. So here you have I think, the most famous image of the slave ship ever produced. You’ll notice that it’s sectioned. The enslaved men are in the forward part of the ship. You’ll notice they are shackled at the ankles â€“ that’s one person to one other person, not to larger numbers. And by the way, I should say nobody was chained to a particular place. That couldn’t be â€“ you know why? They had to be able to move around to get to what they called the necessary tubs. OK? The men here, bulkheads here, the boys as you can see the smaller figures are in midship, the women here, not shackled. The men would also be manacled, one wrist to another and then here you have the girls. Rigidly demarcated. Now on most ships the women and the girls were mixed together. The boys were kept separate for the men, and this is pretty much the way the lower deck of most slave ship would have appeared â€“ men’s room, boys’ room, women’s room. Store rooms were frequently gun rooms located as far as possible from the men who might know how to use them. And in those instances in which men were able to get out of their chains and rise up an insurrection, their first objective was always to get to the gun room. Many of these men would have been trained in their youths in West African armies.
Here’s another image of the slave ship. Again this is the Brookes. This gives a more precise view of how it worked, and actually the number of people drawn is rather different. This is an image that was produced in London about a year after the previous one. Just so you understand how it works, here’s the lower deck â€“ men, boys, women, girls. And this is a platform which you have to superimpose on this image. In other words you can see it here â€“ it’s built all the way around so that more people can be located in this lower deck. See it? Here’s a few people on the higher deck. Here’s the captain’s cabin, which not coincidentally opens up into the women’s chamber. We actually know precisely what the distance was between decks. On the Brookes it was 5’8”, which means that if you were beneath a platform or on a platform you would have about 2’6” head space, with the platform itself taking up several inches. Which meant you would not even be able to sit up. On this image there are 482 people drawn. What’s interesting about this is that this is a graphic representation of the slave ship after parliament intervened to limit the number of people you could carry on board. This is the supposed humane regulation after the regulation Act of 1788. Now I want to think about this reality right here. Think for example about the effects on human capacity to breathe oxygen. Almost all of the efforts to ventilate the lower deck were extremely limited. Wind sails, airports, ventilation machines. Numerous physicians on board these vessels talk about how people would die of asphyxiation.
Another thing I would ask you to imagine is the smell. Tony mentioned Equiano â€“ this is one of the things he emphasises in his account when he was as a 12-year old boy taken aboard a slave ship. By the way, that too was not uncommon. About a quarter of the people on board were children. About a quarter! So imagine that. Equiano complained of the smell of the slave ship. It made him sick. You’ve got to remember you’ve got lots of people crammed into a small space. You have seasickness., people vomiting. You have physical sickness like dysentery, diarrhoea. You even have the smell that the human body makes under conditions of extreme fear. All of these created the characteristic smell of the slave ship. It was said in Charleston, South Carolina that when the wind was blowing a certain way off the water you could smell a slave ship before you could see it. So we have to try to imagine this horror.
Now let me tell you that on the voyage before this illustration was made the Brookes carried not 482 people but 609. Now these are the precise distances for and aft, side to side of the ship. It’s about 100ft long and about 25ft wide. And on one voyage I want to tell you, the Brookes carried 740 people. Now, I want you to look at this image and tell me where you could put another 252 people. One man who had worked as a sailor aboard a slave ship said, “The bodies were so tightly packed that you couldn’t get the point of a stick through them down to the deck”. So this is human reality we’re talking about. This part of the human reality, like everything else I think, speaks to one central issue â€“ it is an issue I’ve made central to my book. It is what one group of people, or actually several groups of people, are willing to do to another for money. It’s all about money.
One of the things I wanted to do in writing this book was to present a human story. I’m interested in the numbers but I think we take refuge in numbers. I think it can be a comfort to think about the slave trade abstractly, so I wanted to forgo that comfort and tell as many human stories as I could. One of them concerns a man named John Newton who is well known to all of you I think. Even if you don’t know him by name I guarantee you know how to sing one of his songs, because he’s the man who wrote Amazing Grace, the famous hymn. Well there is a myth out there that John Newton was working in the slave trade, and one day had a revelation from God about the ungodly way he was living, that he ceased and desisted from the slave trade and wrote Amazing Grace as a kind of penance. “I once was blind but now I see”. Well, I’m afraid the truth is not kind to that story. The actual history goes like this, and it’s recounted in the book because there’s an entire chapter on John Newton. John Newton had his conversion to Christianity when he was working as a first mate aboard a slave ship. He then went three more voyages as a captain, and as a proper Christian. In fact there’s correspondence from John Newton to a man named David Jennings, a Church of England minister, in which Newton says, “You know I used to be a wretch but now I have a godly calling as a captain of a slave ship. I once was lost and now I’m found”, as he was gathering human bodies to carry into bondage. He never actually made a decision to leave the slave trade. After three voyages as captain he had a stroke. He was already preparing to go back for yet another slaving voyage - this was all out of Liverpool by the way. He has a stroke and was advised by physicians not to go back to sea so he retired from the sea, and then 19 years later he wrote Amazing Grace, and then 14 years after that he finally made his first public statements against the slave trade. So it’s not the way the myth would have it, but I would emphasise this; when he did turn against the slave trade he was a most effective witness because he knew what happened on those ships. And he declared himself a sinner who had seen the error of his ways. So he wrote a pamphlet, ‘Thoughts on the African Slave Trade’. He testified twice before parliament to talk about the horrors. He talked specifically about the sexual terror used against the African women on board the ship. Most people were afraid to talk about that but he did and I give him credit for that. Very important part of the story. That’s John Newton, who did probably write more from the decks of the slave ship that any other person in the 400 years of the trade. He kept the ship’s log; he wrote dozens of letter to his wife; he wrote to David Jennings and other people; he kept spiritual diaries. You can actually go to these spiritual diaries and read the prayer that he said in the aftermath of a failed slave insurrection. So quite a remarkable person through which we can learn about the experience of the captain on board the ship.
If John Newton is well known this is a character who is very much unknown. And I would be very happy if I could help him become better known because I think he is one of the heroes of the abolition movement. This also has a Liverpool dimension to it. James Stanfield was a man born in Ireland around 1749/1750. He went to France where he was studying for the priesthood sometime in the late 1760s. He had a sort of secular awakening of some kind â€“ that’s what he called it â€“ and decided to run away and go to sea. He became a common sailor, although he was well educated, and in choosing common sailor I don’t think he could have picked an occupation more different to that of priest, because sailors were roaring and profane. Notoriously so. He became a common sailor, travelled to many different parts of the world, then in 1774 he signed on for a slaving voyage from Liverpool to Benin. Now this voyage was a nightmare. They were all nightmares but this one worse than most. The mortality rate was just off the chart for both sailors and the enslaved. Of the original crew that went out - I think it was 33 or 34 men â€“ 4 of them returned. That voyage was over in 1776 and James Field Stanfield sometime thereafter quit and became an actor, and quite a good one. But when in 1787 a movement to abolish the slave trade emerged, Stanfield stepped forward and said, “You want to know what happened on those ships? I can tell you what happened on those ships”. So he wrote a series of letters to Thomas Clarkson, the London abolitionist, and these were published. I would highly recommend them to you. They are graphic and uncompromising in the extreme. Because Stanfield had such a dramatic sensibility, honed no doubt through his years in the theatre, he was able to produce some just startling descriptions of things that were happening on these ships. Like the chief mate with long hair lying on a cask as he dies; his pony tail going back and forth in the clotted filthy on the deck of the ship. Or the look in the eyes of certain African people when they are brought up on deck; some showing resignation, others showing bitterness and hatred and desire to fight.
Well Stanfield, I think, has not figured in the histories of abolition partly because we think of abolition as a saintly occupation involving middle and upper class people. People like William Wilberforce for example. Some of you no doubt saw the movie, Amazing Grace. Well, what I found in this book is that without sailors like Stanfield it would have been very difficult to educate the public about what actually happened on these ships. And here I would like to just read you one small portion of the book. Thomas Clarkson, when he and a few other men met in London in May 1787 and decided that they were going to try to abolish the slave trade â€“ I mean it was a pretty ambitious thing to do, just this handful of people. When they decided to do it, then they confronted the dilemma. And the dilemma was, ‘we want to abolish the slave trade but in truth we don’t know much about it. So how are we going to learn about it?’ And Clarkson stepped forward and said, “I volunteer to go to Bristol and Liverpool to gather information on the slave trade.” And the other people said, “Ok, Thomas, go ahead”. So off he goes to Bristol, then he comes to Liverpool. He was very naÃ¯ve. He thought he was going to go and talk to merchants and ship captains, and of course those would be the logical people for him to talk to as they would be of his class. He was a Cambridge-educated young gentleman. But guess what? When they found out he wanted to abolish their livelihood they were not eager to talk to him. So he said, “When I pass them in the streets they crossed over to the other side as if I were a wild beast of prey”. They even forbade their employees to talk to him because they were sure the information would be used to try to abolish the trade, and of course that was Clarkson’s purpose. Well, lo and behold, when the gentlemen would not talk to him it turned out somebody else would and guess who it was? Common sailors.
Clarkson began to walk the waterfront and talk to common sailors. His first informant was a black sailor named John Dean who showed him the scars on his back where he had been flogged by a slave ship captain for no reason, and then has molten lead poured into the scars. Clarkson was very moved by this. More sailors began to turn up. He stayed in the King’s Arm Tavern. Sailors began to turn up in ones and twos to say, “We have some things we could tell you”. Well, Clarkson was so open to these people he said, “Can we gather evidence so that we can prosecute the captains and the merchants who did this?”, and they said, ‘”Sure we can, I’ve got several mates who can give you evidence on this”. Clarkson then goes back to the middle class abolitionists he’s staying with and says, “We’ve got information to prosecute people in the slave trade”, and they say, “Are you out of your mind? You’ll be murdered. The place where you’re staying will be burned down. You can’t do this.” He says, ‘I’m gonna do it’. So he gathered these stories of sailors and brought charges in court on behalf of several of them and he even paid out of his own pocket to keep the sailors in town so they could give evidence when the cases came to trial. In all of the cases the merchants and the captains settled out of court. He won settlements for these sailors and in some cases for their families because they had been killed. But imagine the effects of this on the waterfront. There’s this fearless young gentleman in town who is taking the side of sailors in the struggle against the rich slave trade merchants. Well guess what happened? They start lining up to tell their stories. Clarkson has to go around with an armed bodyguard. Despite that, one day in Liverpool slave trade merchants tried to have him killed. He fought off a group that was trying to throw him off the end of the pier. He survived and he refused to leave town, saying that this might reflect badly on my cause. I’m going to stay here. I’m going to fight it out and the sailors just kept coming.
Well, folks, the information that these sailors provided is what Clarkson would use to educate the reading public. They are the ones who explained to him how people were stowed. They were the ones who explained how people were brought up on the main deck for exercise. They were the ones who explained something about the mortality rate that affected both sailors and slaves. Without that information, which Clarkson then used to educate Wilberforce and others, I’m not sure how far abolition would have gotten. Because what Clarkson believed, and I think he was really right about this, abstract moral denunciation won’t get you anywhere. You need to make what happened on these ships real to people. And you can’t do that unless you’ve got somebody who’s been there. The sailors had been there. Clarkson had a phrase for this. He said “what we needed was first rate nautical knowledge”. And that’s what he got. I’ll just read brief passage about Clarkson’s first encounter with sailors. This happened in Bristol rather than Liverpool but it conveys something of his feeling and the very wise decision to make the death of good British sailors part of the struggle against the slave trade. Here’s what Clarkson said. He wrote this in a private journal as yet unpublished. He came across a group of sailors in a ship’s boat â€“ the ship was called the Africa â€“ and it was painted on the stern of the boat, the long boat. They were gathering cargo or something, and he hailed them and wanted to have a conversation with them. He asked them if they were not afraid to go to Africa because the death rate was so high for sailors. One man with a kind of cosmopolitan fatalism replied, and he wrote this down, the sailor replied, “If it is my lot to die in Africa, why I must. And if it is not, why then I shall not die though I go there. And if it is my lot to live why I may as well live there as anywhere else”. Later on Clarkson wrote this in his diary, he says:
“I cannot describe my feeling in seeing those poor fellows belonging to the Africa. They were seven in number, all of them young, about 22 or 23, and very robust. They were all seamen and I think the finest fellows I ever beheld. I am sure no one can describe my feelings. When I considered that some of them were doomed and whatever their spirits now would never see their home again. I consider also how much the glory of the British flag was diminishing by the destruction of such noble fellows who appeared so strong, so robust, so hardy, and at the same time so spirited as to enable us to bid defiance to the marine of our enemies, the French.”
Well, I think there was a touch of homoeroticism to this, if you want to know the truth. There is certainly more than a touch of nationalism. The most effective response that the pro-slave trade folks could make whenever abolition was broached was to say, “Do you really want to give it to the French?” But Clarkson here had hit upon a very important point â€“ that sailors were dying in large numbers on these ships. And modern scholarship has proven it to be true.
Ok, now here’s Olaudah Equiano, whom Tony mentioned. Part of the tragedy of the slave trade is that we know so little about the millions of Africans who were transported. In fact, if you figure for the 18th century - the period I studied â€“ there are about 3-4,000 ship captains, somewhere between 180-200,000 sailors and 6-7million enslaved Africans. Of that 6-7million we have maybe a dozen first hand accounts â€“ almost none. What we know is directly inversely related to the number involved in the trade. So one of the challenges of writing this book was to try to reconstruct the history of the enslaved from the records produced by the enslavers. Well, Equiano provides a human face to all this. As I said he went abroad a slave ship, Arden, yet another Liverpool ship (all three of the people I’ve written individual chapters about had a connection to Liverpool). He was only about 12 years old. He talked about the stench, he talked about the fear. When he first saw the slave ship he said, “I was gripped by astonishment that was soon converted to terror”. Astonishment and terror. I think that is actually a perfect description of what one of these European tall ships would have produced as a reaction in someone who had never seen one before. One European empire builder, by the way, said, “Well, the very sight of our ships and the sound of our cannon is enough to make savages all over the world worship Jesus Christ”. Well you’re talking about a technological wonder. He saw it. One event that he described soon after he went board was going below decks and then immediately becoming sick. The stench is what made him sick. He became weak and soon thereafter, some sailors bought him some food which he waived off â€“ he couldn’t eat it. They thought he was refusing to eat for another reason, and so what they did was grab him and take him up on main deck, tie him up and then began to flog him with a cat o’ nine tails. Equiano remembers this years later when he wrote his autobiography, and he said, “My first thought was to fly over the side of the ship or try to”. But lo and behold the slave ships captains knew that the enslaved wanted to do that so they put netting round the outside of the ship in order to prevent them committing suicide that way. He got the lashing. What is fascinating to me is that his first experience is one of disciplinary violence coupled with resistance â€“ the will to resist. The desire to resist. And I must say one of the things that impressed me the most in doing this research is that the enslaved fought back under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Even when they were in the middle of the ocean without a clue about how to sail the ship they fought. They fought in every way they could think of. One of the things I’ve suggested in the book is that the slave trade was in many ways a 400 year hunger strike, because the enslaved routinely refused to eat. They came board the ship and immediately refused sustenance. But he did even more â€“ he cut his own throat when the physician was summoned â€“ man named Thomas Trotter â€“ he found the man had succeeded in cutting the jugular vein on one side but he stitched him up and then next night the man cut his throat on the other side. But in both cases he lived. Trotter commanded the sailors to go search the men’s department to see if they could find the knife or metal tool he had used to cut his throat. And they searched and came back and said they couldn’t find anything. So Trotter had a closer look and discovered that there was blood all over the man’s finger tips and under his finger nails. And the wounds on his neck were jagged, and he concluded he had cut his own throat using his finger nails. This kind of thing prompted some captains to clip the finger nails of slaves because those too could be weapons in the struggle to resist. Another kind of resistance, jumping overboard which I’ve already mentioned. But remember we are talking about jumping overboard in the middle of the ocean with sharks trailing the ship. To certain death. And when people sometimes get into the water we have descriptions that say, “When they get into the water they are exultant. They are happy because they’ve escaped us”. Even though they know they’re going to die they’ve escaped. And of course the biggest kind of resistance was the insurrection. I’ve more to say about that in a moment.
I should also say Equiano is a man about whom there is a bit of current debate about whether he was born in Africa like he says. Literary scholar Vincent Carretta has found two pieces of evidence in which Equiano told people that he was born not in Igboland â€“ present day Nigeria as he says in his autobiography â€“ rather in South Carolina. And Carretta has used this to raise questions about the most famous account we have really, of the slave trade and one of the most famous of the African diaspora. I won’t enter into that dispute except to say that the more one studies the Igbo, the more one is convinced that Equiano is who he says he was because there is no way that he could have known what he knew about that culture by living in South Carolina, because there was no substantial Igbo community in South Carolina. There was one in Virginia, interestingly enough at this time, but not in South Carolina. There are also some problems with evidence Carretta produced but my point is this; Equiano either was who he said he was, in which case he’s narrating his own experience, or he was a collector of the law and experience of the slave trade of his fellow Africans, and thereby a kind of oral historian, or the keeper of the common story, a griot. In that way his account is no less valuable than if it were simply his own story, but for my money I think it is both. He listened to stories and he had the experience. We can go into that in the Q&A if anyone is interested.
OK. Here’s where we get down to the deepest and most fundamental reality of the slave ship. One of the elements of this book is that the slave ship itself was one big instrument of terror. The terror is the operating principle of the slave ship. Now this in partial contrast to a body of scholarship out there that has tended to make mortality the central reality of the slave ship. I think mortality rates are important but I think terror is something bigger and more crucial and that death is a part of terror. Moreover, you can counts deaths you can’t count terror. So how did terror work? Slave ship captains were terrorists. They studied how you controlled people through the application of violence. Sailors as well as slaves. There is actually a dual system of terror on the slave ship â€“ one to do with the crew and the other the enslaved, and the captain had to work very hard to make this work in tandem. But terror was absolutely central. It was not, by the way in terms of these captains an individual moral failure - I want to emphasise that. It was a requirement of the job. And all captains used terror even John Newton. OK?
We have here the infamous cat o’ nine tails. This is the ultimate instrument of authority on a slave ship. It was used all the time, and by that I mean not just in those grisly moments when someone was basically flayed alive â€“ that happened regularly enough â€“ but just in the daily business of the ship. A cut or two of the cat to make people line up, come up on deck, go below deck, exercise, to dance as they called it, believing that health was essential to staying alive which was essential to profits. Now you’ll notice that the ends of the cord are knotted. That’s to make the laceration of flesh more common. And I should also mention that some slave ship captains threaded wire through these cords in order to make them cut more effectively.
On the right we have a page from one of Clarkson’s books. When Clarkson came to Liverpool he started collecting the hardware of bondage. So we have at the bottom the shackles for the ankles. Here we have manacles for the wrists. Usually only used on the men, they would be used on the women if they were rebellious. One to one, right wrist to left wrist, right ankle to left ankle. Men in twos so they would have to move in complete counsel or the pain of the iron digging into the flesh would be very great. It’s to limit their ability and thereby limit their capacity to resist. And yet people continued.
Now, people know what this contraption is? These are thumb screws. Thumbscrews are basically an instrument of torture. They would be used on a slave ship in the aftermath, especially of an uprising, and insurrection in which the ring leaders would have their thumbs placed under the metal loops, the key turned producing a kind of pain that is almost indescribable from what I can learn of it. Leaving a man in that condition for hours if not days and after which the thumb might have to be amputated. In his parliamentary testimony, John Newton said, “I have known slave ship captains to use thumbscrews that produce the most excrutiating pain among the enslaved”. I dare say he did know it because he himself had used them as he describes in his journal, and moreover folks, he used them on children on one occasion because he thought they had passed tools to the men through the gratings which they then used to get out of their irons and to try to rise up and capture the ship.
And then we have this, another instrument of torture. A highly functional one called the Speculum Oris. This is how the captains dealt with hunger strikes. This is horrible, and I am sorry to have to tell you but the truth is that in a closed position this contraption would be put down the throat of an enslaved person who was refusing to eat. The key would be turned and the throat would be forced open from within so that gruel could be poured down the throat in order to keep that person alive because that person was a very significant capital investment and the captains were not going to let them kill themselves if they could help it. Now in some cases it didn’t work. In fact I found a very moving passage by a slave ship physician who was writing advice for other physicians who might work on slave ships and he said, “Do whatever you can to protect the enslaved. Because if they’re abused too much and if they take it in their minds and hearts that they want to die, there’s really nothing you can do about it”. That was the case of that man who clawed open his own throat. He refused to eat. He died of starvation. And quite a few people did.
Now folks, despite all that the enslaved fought back and they fought hard. And this to me is the only redeeming part of this whole gruesome story. The enslaved never accepted the reality that they confronted on board the slave ship. They did everything they could to fight back. And in doing so they demonstrated great creativity. Now it’s kind of hard to imagine that under extreme circumstance like this people can do anything creative. But lo and behold they were doing it. On those slave ships lay the origins of African American culture, when multi-ethnic African people are learning to communicate with people in new ways. Developing new languages, new songs, new dances, new ways of expressing themselves. And new kinship ties. This may be the most powerful example of all. On the slave ships the enslaved were developing what anthropologists call ‘fictive kinship’. Because you see when they were enslaved in Africa, kinship ties were shattered. When they came aboard the ship they began to call each other brother and sister even though they were not related, creating new ties in the midst of misery and extreme oppression for the sake of survival. So I think this is something we have really got to honour. Creativity in the face of the most extreme violent terror and oppression. I think it teaches us something important about what it means to be human frankly. Ok, I think I’ll stop right there and be glad to take your questions. Thank you very much. [applause] Ok, questions? I’ll repeat the questions.
Audience: [indistinct but said “Going back to the case of the actual ship?”]
Marcus Rediker: Would you like to go back to a previous image? [returns to the image of the cross section of the Brooke]
Audience: Please. I noticed the actual deck, the timbers, only come across half way above the lower deck. Is that correct?
Marcus Rediker: Well that’s the railing. They’ve cut away part of the upper deck so you can see the enslaved on the higher deck. It’s not a perfect representation but what they want you to see is the number of bodies and how they were stowed. And of course during the day, I should have mentioned that people would spend about 16 out of every 24 hours locked below decks in good weather. In bad weather they would spend 24 hours below decks, and in bad weather and high seas the airports would be closed. Water would be coming in. They’re just above the waterline. So imagine that situation â€“ violent seas, hundreds of people crowded below decks and very poor ventilation, and sometimes for many days at a time depending on the weather. So people would be brought up on the main deck to be fed and exercised, so to speak, in good weather but this is how people spent most of the voyage.
Now, one other point I should have made about this â€“ I think I did mention it â€“ nobody is chained to a particular place. Now this is important for the genesis of intra-African communication. In other words if you are among the men there and you want to find five other people who want to try to jump somebody next time you go up through the gratings, then you can find them if you can communicate with them. People can meet in groups and talk. I also found a fascinating case whereby a physician told something to an African woman â€“ they had arrived in Barbados and the physician said, “Well you know, we are here on land but we’ll be at sea another 10 or 12 weeks”. It was kind of a cruel joke. Well, what the sailor describing this said was the woman went down below decks and told several women in her compartment, and this news moved like wild fire throughout the lower deck, and a great grumbling was heard and the captain was then forced to invite people up on the main deck and tell the physician to apologise. He was afraid of an insurrection.
But most fascinating to me was the movement of the information, and you’ll find there’s some evidence of men telling boys to go back and forth and carry information from this compartment to this one. You can separate people but you can’t separate their sound. Another sailor says, “The men would sing and women would answer but I could never figure out what they were saying”. Of course not, that was the point. Yes, over here.
Audience: [indistinct] â€¦rather later period after the abolition of the slave trade as far as the British were concerned and the Navy takes on. And you have this great technological problem that the ex-Napoleonic boats couldn’t keep up with the Portugal clippers. And I just wonder what the conditions were like on those American ships. We know an awful lot because of the 19 volumes of the Parliamentary Reform Act â€“ incredible but boring reading- the amount we can gather from them was that that whole exercise was quite simply a failure because if you remember the number of slaves that actually got through. I mean in 1859 for example over 50,000 got into Cuba alone. But some of the accounts of the naval surgeons when they got board are some of the most horrible, I think. And it wasn’t until you get steam power in the 50’s and paddle boats, and even then you had to land on the coast and attack the [indistinct]. It’s an extraordinary story that I don’t think has been adequately told. So I think one of the big puzzles of slavery in this country is that it is almost completely Anglo-American oriented. One doesn’t realise that an infinitely larger number were exported to Cuba and to Brazil. I think the museum down below needs to stress this a little more. In fact that naval blockade went on until the 1890s â€“ it’s an extraordinary story. But I just wonder about the conditions on board. And of course, all you had to do was put up the Stars and Stripes and of course you were covered by international law â€“ that’s the big trouble.
Marcus Rediker: I would agree with you. I would say that we don’t have a good account of that period in terms of the transportation of the enslaved either. I think there is an abundance of material that can be used but I don’t believe we really know that part of the story. I think there is an interesting way in which we don’t study the slave ship in this period or in the one you are discussing because we have an instinctive belief that history happens on land. I’ve even made up a name for this bias â€“ it’s called terracentrism. But history happens on these ships and so consequently we need to study them, and I think the technology of the Baltimore clipper ship is a very important part of the story. I have always studied up to 1807/08 so I can’t speak about those records with any expertise, but I would also agree with your claim that Brazil and the West Indies are the two major places where the enslaved are taken. About 40% to Brazil â€“ most people don’t know. But quite a few to Brazil in English ships. In fact the Brookes ends its life in Uruguay. It’s actually rotted and ends up there in 1804 I think is the year when it is condemned. It had made 11 voyages and transported about 10,000 people to the New World but ends up in one of these Latin American ports which many English merchants were busily involved in supplying. So that is a very important part of the story, I would agree. Yes, back there.
Audience [indistinct]: What kind of food did they have? Was it just enough to keep them alive because they needed to feed them well?
Marcus Rediker: Well, one thing that interested me about this story is that the slave ship captains were culturally sensitive, if that’s the right word. And that they bought food in the region of West Africa where they were exporting people, so that they would be familiarity with the food on board the ship. And the way it worked was if you’re bringing people from the Windward coast you bought rice. If you’re bringing people from the Gold Coast you bought corn. If you’re bringing people from the Bight of Biafra you bought yams. And the idea was, ‘this is what they know, this is what the women on board the ships know how to prepare’ â€“ actually, women are working, men too on these slave ships. That’s not as well known as it needs to be. So they are feeding them food that is familiar and actually I think they are not feeding them just enough to keep them alive, because they want them to be, in the words of the famous Liverpool slave ship captain, Hugh Crowe, ‘as plump as bags of cotton when they get to the market to be sold’. Now that doesn’t often happen. Crowe thought that was the way his enslaved people arrived because he treated them so very well. This part of a slave ship captains’ self-justification about what they do. But basically it is a crucially important fact that buying slaves was a tremendously big investment, and so you wanted to do whatever you could to keep them alive. Now oddly enough this is one reason why terror is an operative principle. That is, you would terrorise one or two to rule the rest. And you might even execute those one or two in a particularly grisly way by dismemberment for example. But there’s no question they wanted to deliver as many of these people alive as they could and that meant feeding them as well as they could, Now, longer voyages they could run out of water, they could run out of provisions â€“ it did happen if they got in the doldrums. Things like this happened. But these ships were usually fairly well provisioned and captains knew exactly what it took. Yes?
Audience [indistinct]: Where can one get hold of your book?
Marcus Rediker: I’m told there are copies downstairs and if anyone wants to buy them I would be happy to sign a copy and I would be happy to donate my royalties to the museum. Ok. Thank you very much.
Tony Tibbles: Thank you very much. I gave a lecture in London earlier this year and someone came up to me after and said it was the most depressing lecture they had ever heard. I think Marcus takes that from me because you can’t talk about the slave trade in a way you can talk about most other subjects. It is a particularly gruesome event, activity, whatever you want to call it. But I think you have shown us what the richness of the sources are for really bringing home life on board a slave ship, and that really is very important, not only historically but also for the consequences today. So I’d like to thank you for those very interesting reflections and to encourage you to go down to the shop and buy the book.