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Authors: Marcus Rediker

The Slave Ship

Table of Contents
The Slave Ship
is truly a magnificent and disturbing book—disturbing not only because it details the violence and barbarism of the free market in human beings, but it reminds us that all actors in this drama are human, including the ship’s crew.
The Slave Ship
is not for the fainthearted, but like the millions who took this voyage in the past, we have no choice. We have to come to terms with this history if we want to understand how this modern, racialized and globalized economy based on exploitation came to be.
—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of
Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
The Slave Ship
is a tour de force that conveys the reality of the slave trade more vividly and convincingly than ever before. I am sure that it will continue to be read as long as people want to understand a crucial episode in the birth of the modern world.
—Robin Blackburn, author of
The Making of New World Slavery
This beautifully written and exhaustively researched book gives us unforgettable portraits of the captives, captains, and crewmen who came together in that particular kind of hell known as the slave ship. This is Atlantic history at its best.
—Robert Harms, author of
The Diligent
Marcus Rediker is one of the most distinguished historians of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, and he brings to the slave ship both an unrivaled knowledge of maritime labor and a deep theoretical perspective on the slave trade’s role in the rise of capitalism.
—Steven Hahn, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning
A Nation Under Our Feet
This Atlantic epic brilliantly reveals the slave ship as a ‘vast machine,’ transforming its human cargo into slaves, and portrays precisely the variety of Africans, free and captive, in their choices and desperate struggles.
—Patrick Manning, author of
Slavery and African Life
Marcus Rediker, like the incomparable Herman Melville, understands both the immediate human drama and the sweeping global context of life aboard a cramped ocean vessel in the age of sail. He uses his unique gifts to take us belowdecks, giving a human face to the inhuman ordeal of the Middle Passage.
—Peter H. Wood, author of
Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America
The Atlantic’s foremost historian from below has written a master-piece; we hear the shrieks of pain, the groans of loss, and uproar of rebellion. In the end, with ex-slaves offering amazing graces to discarded sailors, the cry rises up from this magnificent book for justice and for reparation.
—Peter Linebaugh, author of
The London Hanged
Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age
The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the
Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic
(with Peter Linebaugh)
Who Built America? Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics,
Culture, and Society,
Volume One:
From Conquest and Colonization
Through Reconstruction and the Great Uprising of
(with the American Social History Project)
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates,
and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin Group (Canada), 90
Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada
Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green,
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24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in 2007 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Marcus Rediker, 2007
All rights reserved
Rediker, Marcus Buford.
Slave ship : a human history / Marcus Rediker.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-0-670-01823-9
1. Slave trade—Africa—History. 2. Slaves. 3. Merchant mariners.
4. Race relations. I. Title.
HT1322. R42 2007
306.3’62096—dc22 2007018081
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

To Wendy, Zeke, and Eva
with love and hope
Lying in the bottom of the canoe in three or four inches of dirty water with a woven mat thrown over her travel-weary body, the woman could feel the rhythmic pull of the paddles by the Bonny canoemen, but could not see where they were taking her. She had traveled three moons from the interior, much of it by canoe down the rivers and through the swamps. Several times along the way, she had been sold. In the canoe-house barracoon where she and dozens of others had been held for several days, she learned that this leg of the journey was nearing its end. Now she wiggled upward against the wet torso of another prostrate captive, then against the side of the canoe, so she could raise her head and peer above the bow. Ahead lay the
owba coocoo,
the dreaded ship, made to cross the “big water.” She had heard about it in the most heated threats made in the village, where to be sold to the white men and taken aboard the
owba coocoo
was the worst punishment imaginable.
Again and again the canoe pitched up and down on the foamy surf, and each time the nose dipped, she could glimpse the ship like an oddly shaped island on the horizon. As they came closer, it seemed more like a huge wooden box with three tall spikes ascending. The wind picked up, and she caught a peculiar but not unfamiliar odor of sweat, the pungency of fear with a sour trail of sickness. A shudder rippled through her body.
To the left of the canoe, she saw a sandbar and made a decision. The paddles plashed gently in the water, two, three, four times, and she jumped over the side, swimming furiously to escape her captors. She heard splashes as a couple of the canoemen jumped in after her. No sooner had they hit the water than she heard a new commotion, looked over her shoulder, and saw them pulling themselves back into the canoe. As she waded onto the edge of the sandbar, she saw a large, stocky gray shark, about eight feet long, with a blunt, rounded snout and small eyes, gliding alongside the canoe as it came directly at her. Cursing, the men clubbed the shark with their paddles, beached the watercraft, jumped out, and waded, then loped after her. She had nowhere to run on the sandbar, and the shark made it impossible to return to the water. She fought, to no avail. The men lashed rough vine around her wrists and legs and threw her back into the bottom of the canoe. They resumed paddling and soon began to sing. After a while she could hear, at first faintly, then with increasing clarity, other sounds—the waves slapping the hull of the big ship, its timbers creaking. Then came muffled screaming in a strange language.
The ship grew larger and more terrifying with every vigorous stroke of the paddles. The smells grew stronger and the sounds louder—crying and wailing from one quarter and low, plaintive singing from another; the anarchic noise of children given an underbeat by hands drumming on wood; the odd comprehensible word or two wafting through: someone asking for
water, another laying a curse, appealing to
spirits. As the canoemen maneuvered their vessel up alongside, she saw dark faces, framed by small holes in the side of the ship above the waterline, staring intently. Above her, dozens of black women and children and a few red-faced men peered over the rail. They had seen the attempted escape on the sandbar. The men had cutlasses and barked orders in harsh, raspy voices. She had arrived at the slave ship.
The canoemen untied the lashing and pushed the woman toward a rope ladder, which she ascended with fifteen others from her canoe, everyone naked. Several of the men climbed up with them, as did the black trader in a gold-laced hat who had escorted them from the canoe house to the
owba coocoo.
Most of the people in her group, herself included, were amazed by what they saw, but a couple of the male captives seemed strangely at ease, even speaking to the white men in their own tongue. Here was a world unto itself, with tall, shaved, limbless trees; strange instruments; and a high-reaching system of ropes. Pigs, goats, and fowl milled around the main deck. One of the white men had a local parrot, another a monkey. The
owba coocoo
was so big it even had its own
ewba wanta
(small boat) on board. Another white man, filthy in his person, leered at her, made a lewd gesture, and tried to grope her. She lunged at the man, digging her fingernails into his face, bringing blood in several places before he disentangled himself from her and lashed her sharply three times with a small whip he was carrying. The black trader intervened and hustled her away.
As she recovered her composure, she surveyed the faces of the other prisoners on the main deck. All of them were young, some of them children. In her village she was considered middling in age, but here she was one of the oldest. She had been purchased only because the clever black trader had sold a large group in a lot, leaving the captain no choice but to take what he was offered, all or none. On the ship she would be an elder.
Many of the people on deck seemed to speak her language, Igbo, although many of them differently from herself. She recognized a couple of other groups of people from her home region, the simple Appas and the darker, more robust Ottams. Many of the captives, she would learn later, had been on board the ship for months. The first two had been named Adam and Eve by the sailors. Three or four were sweeping the deck; many were washing up. Sailors handed out small wooden bowls for the afternoon meal. The ship’s cook served beef and bread to some, the more familiar yams with palm oil to others.

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