I'll Be Reading This

Posted by Isaiah Too | 10/07/2007 07:40:00 PM

The slaves, he said, "never gave up. They never accepted the reality of slavery. So this is not a book about victimhood. "Without their resistance, the middle-class abolitionist movement in England and New England wouldn't have gotten anywhere. That's a very important thing to remember."

With so much revisionist history underway regarding American slavery, it's good to see that the reality hasn't escaped everyone. More excerpts are below, but check out the entire review.

The Thinkers: Pitt Prof's new book an entree to excesses of slave trade

In many ways, Marcus Rediker believes, the African slave trade actually created the black and white races. Before the slave trade to North America took hold strongly in the 1700s, the University of Pittsburgh history professor said, most Africans thought of themselves as members of different tribes and language groups.

Slave rebellions on board the ships were extremely common, and the way that the ships were designed acknowledged that fact. The frequency of slave uprisings is a fairly recent discovery in historical research, Dr. Rediker said, and helps explain two common features on slave ships -- the netting that surrounded the deck, and the "barricado" -- a wooden wall that was built midway along the top deck. The netting was there to prevent slaves from leaping overboard, although many of them still managed to do so. The barricado gave the crew protection if the slaves started to rebel, and had holes in it through which they could fire muskets at the insurgents. The protective measures proved that "even though the slaves were in dire circumstances, they never gave up. They kept fighting even though there was no real chance of winning. In many cases, even if they managed to rise up and kill the crew, they couldn't sail the ships."

Slave resistance took other forms, too.

The refusal to eat was so common, he wrote, that "the Atlantic slave trade was, in many senses, a 400-year hunger strike" In other cases, he said, "the goal was not to capture the ship but to commit mass suicide to get off that ship." One reason slaves were willing to throw themselves overboard, even when many could not swim, was the traditional West African religious belief that when they died, they would be transported back to their homeland to live in an ideal Africa. It was called "going home to Guinea," the common term for the African coast.

"Many captains developed specific practices of terror to try to overcome that belief," Dr. Rediker said. "One captain said, 'If they think they're going home to Guinea, I want to make sure they understand they're not going home in the bodies they inhabited.' "

That captain would pick out a victim, he said, "and sever the limbs of the person, and he would throw those limbs into the areas where the people who were still in chains were forced to live, and would use the dismemberment of corpses as terror to control those who were still on board the ship."

In other cases, captains used a tactic that relied on one of the slave ship's constant companions -- sharks. He tied a rope under her armpits and lowered her into the water, Goldsmith wrote, "and when the poor creature was thus plunged in, and about halfway down, she was heard to give a terrible shriek, which at first was ascribed to her fears of drowning; but soon after, the water appearing red all around her, she was drawn up, and it was found that a shark, which had followed the ship, had bit her off from the middle."

Despite such brutal tactics, slave rebellions never died off, and that is a major reason why the abolition movement against the slave trade finally succeeded 200 years ago, in 1807 in Great Britain and a year later in the United States.