"The Slave Ship"

by Michael O. Allen on January 31, 2008

The Slave Ship opens with an extensive and unforgettable inventory of the trade’s particular horrors. There are the accused conspirators in a failed slave ship revolt forced by their captors to eat the hearts and livers of the recently executed. A captive starves himself to death after several unsuccessful attempts to rip open his throat with his fingernails. A black sailor accused of fomenting an insurrection gets pinned to the mast by the ship’s captain, who leaves him to rot to death without food or water over the course of three weeks. Sharks trail slave ships from one edge of the Atlantic to the other, overgrown by the time they reach Jamaica from feeding on human carcasses tossed overboard en route. Captains embrace the spectacle of grisly executions with devilish glee. The desecration of human bodies becomes at once efficient, whimsical and sadistic. A London merchant orders the captain of his ship to brand each captive with the first initials of his wife’s and daughter’s names. One master lowers a shrieking woman feet first into the Atlantic; when “she was drawn up” moments later, according to Rediker, “it was found that a shark…had bit her off from the middle.” The Atlantic slave trade has been the subject of rigorous historical study for more than four decades, but no previous work comes as close to conveying its terror.
The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker

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