In January 1773, aboard the New Britannia, enslaved African children managed to slip tools to the men chained in the ship's cramped middle deck. The men used them to break out of their chains, cut through the wall of their wooden prison, and take possession of the gun room and the weapons inside.
For more than an hour they fought a pitched battle with the ship's crew, with many killed on both sides. When it became clear that defeat was inevitable, they set fire to the gunpowder magazine, triggering an explosion that destroyed the ship, killing almost everyone onboard. Death, they had decided, was preferable to what they had seen on the slave ship.
Literature on the Atlantic slave trade is voluminous, tracking the origins, flows, scale, and profits of history's greatest forced migration. The slave ship itself – the instrument that facilitated the process and, by extension, Europe's commercial revolution – has remained on the margins of scholarly and public consciousness, an apparition from which eyes were instinctively averted.
In The Slave Ship: A Human History, a meticulously researched work, Marcus Rediker, a maritime historian at the University of Pittsburgh, has drawn the slave ship out of the shadows, creating a history that is elegant, readable, and entirely horrifying. It is, as Rediker warns at the outset, a painful book to read, and one the reader won't soon forget.
The story is largely told through a tapestry of firsthand accounts from slave merchants, ship captains, sailors, abolitionists, and the enslaved themselves, who are tracked from their initial capture in interior African villages (typically by rival tribes) to their ultimate sale in the Americas. The result is akin to a good documentary film in which greater truths unfold from a sequence of personal stories.
This method also allows readers to slowly absorb and process the full range of horrors, which a more conventional approach might have allowed them to become numb to: people chained in hot, densely packed, poorly ventilated quarters covered in the bile, blood, and excrement of the sick and dying; the routine rape of enslaved women and girls; the ghastly reprisals against those unwilling or unable to follow the officer's commands; the packs of hungry sharks that followed slave ships, waiting to consume the bodies of the dead, dying, or suicidal.
In his previous works – "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "Villains of All Nations" and (with Peter Linebaugh), "The Many Headed Hydra" – Rediker has approached maritime history from below, revealing the exploitative character of 18th- and early 19th-century seafaring, how this motivated rank-and-file pirates, and sailor's critical role in the lead-up to the American Revolution. In the process, he's helped democratize our understanding of colonial seafaring, previously studied almost exclusively from the perspective of the ruling classes.
He turned to the slave ship to overcome the "violence of abstraction" that he says has plagued the study of the slave trade, in which an estimated 5 million died and 9 million were enslaved. As he puts it: "the use of ledgers, almanacs, balance sheets, graphs, and tables – the merchants' comforting methods – has rendered abstract, and thereby dehumanized" the ugly reality.
Rediker also shows how slave ship crews often fared nearly as badly as the slaves they guarded. To boost profits, captains often starved their crews, or marooned them in the Caribbean before heading home so as to avoid paying their wages. Sailors were whipped or tortured for minor infractions. Tropical diseases felled the weakened men in enormous numbers. On average, 1 in 5 died, a mortality rate close to that of the slaves themselves.
Like their "cargoes," slave ship sailors resisted, most notably in a massive uprising in Liverpool in 1775, when they seized control of the town and ransacked the homes of slave merchants. From this action – in which the seamen struck the sails of all the slavers – comes the term "strike."
Rediker views events with a Marxist's eye, emphasizing the tension between capital and labor, enslaved or otherwise. But one doesn't need to ascribe to this paradigm to appreciate the underlying warning that unfettered capitalism and trade are not virtuous in and of themselves. "The Slave Ship" provides a sobering reminder that there are insufficient limits to what humans, when left to their own devices, will do to one another in the name of profit.
• Colin Woodard is the author of "The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and The Man Who Brought Them Down and The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier."