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Spotlight: Slave Ships and the Middle Passage


I’m going to go ahead and admit to some frustration here: what is up with people who want to apologize for slavery? I’m thinking in particular about a commenter on this post, who implies (without evidence) that we are guilty of presentism and then seems to defend the barbaric punishment of an enslaved man whose only crime was to resist his enslavement—which even the commenter admits is “immoral.”But it’s more than just one commenter. There’s this dude, too, making the case that slaves in America actually had it pretty good, all things considered. Meanwhile, a commenter on our Facebook page (please “Like” us!), argued that the “Confederate Heritage Movement” is about “honoring memory” more than anything else. I have no way to know for sure; all I can say is that the need not simply to honor ancestors but to justify their beliefs—in secession, in slavery—represents its own kind of presentism.
All of which serves as a throat-clearing introduction to the news that we have just published our entry on Slave Ships and the Middle Passage. For me, anyway, the article is a reminder of the terrible violence and dislocation that came with enslaving Africans and shipping them to America, and that the violence was perpetrated by Europeans and Africans alike.

Africans lived in terror on the slave ships. Many of them had been separated from their friends, families, and communities when first captured, and then separated again aboard ship. They were the victims of often-terrible punishments and sexual exploitation, and many believed that the white men planned to kill and eat them. (This misapprehension was actually encouraged by some African elites who manipulated their people with the fear of enslavement.) Africans did resist, however. Some committed suicide by jumping overboard, while others refused to eat. The latter were fed with the help of the speculum oris, a scissors-shaped instrument that, with the help of a thumbscrew, forced the jaws open. Officers often treated hunger strikers with special force because such acts of resistance were prone to spread.

The crew of slave ships were also the victims of disease and violence. According to one historian, “Half of all Europeans who journeyed to West Africa in the eighteenth century, most of them seamen, died within a year.”
While you’re visiting the entry, click on the many primary-source documents linked to therein. They’re a fascinating and often disturbing look at a system too many then, and too many even today, saw fit to defend.
IMAGE: An anti–slave trade cartoon published in London in 1792; the captain depicted was tried and acquitted for the murder of a slave girl (Library of Congress)

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