University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Rediker’s concern for the individual lived experiences of the participants in the trade is aided immensely by his command of the history of what life at sea is like. While scholars have been using the narrative of Olaudah Equiano to illuminate the experiences of enslavement for decades (Burnside and Robotham 1997), chapter 8 of The Slave Ship titled “The Sailor’s Vast Machine” contains a learned and astute description of work and suffering at sea. What sticks out is violence, and the shocking degree to which physical and emotional terror was used as a tool for control and psychosexual masochism.
Rediker rightly points out that both captives and crew were being exploited by the captain, officers, and sponsors of slave ship voyages, without going so far as to suggest that the sailors somehow had it worse than the slaves. Far from it; Rediker makes clear the degree to which the nascent concept of “race” was lived out onboard, and relates truly debauched tales of rape, torture, concubinage, and murder of essentially helpless children. Anthropologically inclined readers will find much of interest in chapter 9 of Rediker’s book, titled “From Captives to Shipmates.
The argument is of course not new; Mintz and Price raised it in the 1970’s as have others. In this chapter Rediker discusses favored anthropology themes such as resistance, revolt, music, dance, and other dimensions of the ethnogenesis of African-American culture. On page 305 he observes Slowly, in ways surviving documents do not allow us to see in detail, the idiom of kinship broadened, from immediate family to messes, to workmates, to friends, to countrymen and –women, to the whole of the lower deck. And in so observing, Rediker has given underwater archaeologists of the slave trade and the slave ship a research agenda.
It’s an agenda with which I happen to agree and that I have discussed in greater detail elsewhere (McGhee 2007). Rediker ends his book with a discussion of the fight to end the slave trade and with the moving testimony of cast-off and dying sailors being cared for by enslaved people in Caribbean ports. He writes, “Theirs was the most generous and inclusive conception of humanity I discovered in the course of my research for this book. ” I wonder what conceptions of humanity continue to motivate certain anti-treasure hunting nautical archaeologists.
The Henrietta Marie and Fredensborg remain the two most representative archaeological examples of slave ships in existence. The former, first located in the water by Moe Molinar a Panamanian of African descent in the employ of treasure hunter Mel Fisher, is particularly important. Yet it took an African-American recreational SCUBA diving club, the National Association of Black SCUBA Divers, to denote and demonstrate that shipwreck’s importance and to bring its significance to wide attention. Properly trained nautical archaeologists still won’t publicly touch that wreck with a ten-foot pole.