The Slave Ship: A Human History

Marcus Rediker

Penguin Group, 2007

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

For more than three centuries, slave ships carried millions of people from the coasts of Africa across the Atlantic to the New World. Much is known of the slave trade and the American plantation complex, but little of the ships that made it all possible. In The Slave Ship, award-winning historian Marcus Rediker draws on thirty years of research in maritime archives to create an unprecedented history of these vessels and the human drama acted out on their rolling decks. He reconstructs in chilling detail the lives, deaths, and terrors of captains, sailors, and the enslaved aboard a “floating dungeon” trailed by sharks. From the young African kidnapped from his village and sold to the slavers by a neighboring tribe, to the would-be priest who takes a job as a sailor on a slave ship only to be horrified by the evil he sees, to the captain who relishes having “a hell of my own,” Rediker illuminates the lives of people who were thought to have left no trace.This is a tale of tragedy and terror, but also an epic of resilience, survival, and the creation of something entirely new, something that could only be called African American. Rediker restores the slave ship to its rightful place alongside the plantation as a formative institution of slavery, as a place where a profound and still haunting history of race, class, and modern capitalism was made.


Recipient of the Merle Curti Award, 2008, by the Organization of American Historians
Named a best book of 2007 by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Named a best books of 2007 by Library Journal

“This landmark work provides a timely and unforgettable reminder of what was abolished and hints also, indeed, at what was not.”
The Nation

“Rediker has made magnificent use of archival data; his probing, compassionate eye turns up numerous finds that other people who’ve written on this subject…have missed…. It is a rare, touching moment of human solidarity in an otherwise inhuman story.”
New York Times Book Review

“A deeply researched account of the ships that were the transports for the human cargo that fueld the American economy as well as instruments of war, this powerful book draws on the words of slaves, traders, pirates, ship captains and others to enliven the grim material and make it accessible.”
Chicago Tribune

“It is a stunningly immediate, brutal portrait and enlightening in unexpected ways.”
Los Angeles Times

“Mr. Rediker’s greatest achievement has been to people the hellish world of the Guineamen with the slave traders and their captives – with captains and sailors, men and women, Africans and Europeans, many of whom he allows to speak to us in their own self-satisfied, guilt-ridden or agonized words. In this book, the ghosts all have their say.”
Wall Street Journal

“The new chairman of the Pitt history department is an acknowledged master of maritime life in the 1700s…. A longtime campaigner against the death penalty, Dr. Rediker got the idea for the book while visiting prisoners on death row.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“In a tour de force displaying his mastery of Atlantic maritime matters, historian Rediker details step by step the terrors, toil, technologies, commercial linkages, and business plans that made the slave ship the human triumph and tragedy it was…. Imaginatively conceived, expertly researched, humanely informed, and movingly written, this virtuoso work is essential for collections treating the history of Europe, the Americas, or Africa since 1500.”
Library Journal (starred)

"Making the slave ship real, historian Rediker revivifies the horror of this world-changing machine…. Rediker's dramatic presentation powerfully impresses.”
Kirkus Review

“In this groundbreaking work, historian and scholar Rediker considers the relationships between the slave ship captain and his crew, between the sailors and the slaves, and among the captives themselves…. Rediker is remarkably attentive to the experiences of the enslaved women…. Painful as this powerful book often is, Rediker does not lose sight of the humanity of even the most egregious participants.”
Publishers Weekly
“Rediker uses the scholarship of others plus his original findings to examine the slave trade from an unusual perspective: the decks of a slave ship. Those massive ships become characters in the drama as set out by Rediker, who knows the vessels so intimately that he verges on anthropomorphism in writing about them…. Rediker broadens the discussion of race-based inhumanity. Most likely, such broadening is necessary before meaningful healing can occur.”
Philadelphia Inquirer

“[T]his is a late but timely offering from that eminent historian of the Atlantic slave trade, Marcus Rediker…. A vivid, epic – and very often tragic – account of a brutal world.”
The Good Book Guide, UK

“It says much for the author, whose understanding of the Atlantic maritime history is truly encyclopaedic and for his painstaking research and authorial facility that at no point of this brilliantly wrought historical overview does one consider putting it aside…. The Slave Ship is an outstanding history because it so dispassionately, intelligently and insistently confirms without a trace of imbalance or implausibility the reason for the heinous advent of this slave trade: capitalism.”
Sunday Tribune, UK

“A horrific chapter of British history received belated consideration this year, inspired by the 200th anniversary of The Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act. The best book on the subject was undoubtedly The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker, which used a staggering range of sources to piece together what life was like during the Middle Passage.”
Metro Scotland

“Marcus Rediker escapes the 'the violence of abstraction' in this history of slave ships that richly mines the extant writings of captains, sailors and slaves…. Rediker has a thoughtful eye for recognizing the terrible ironies the slave trade inaugurated…. The Slave Ship is a virtual must read for students of the slave trade. A powerful research achievement itself, it also includes material from a vast array of recent studies, making it a terrific starting point for further reading…. Rediker’s book offers once again a minute that few accepted two centuries ago and lays bare the wounds that have never fully healed. Without the eyes of humanity, they never can.”
Star Tribune

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 faint-hearted, 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 book, like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, that will change the way we see history and ourselves.  In this brilliant work, Marcus Rediker achieves the impossible: he enables us to imagine centuries of unimaginable cruelty. He also enables us to imagine the resistance to slavery that eventually brought it down, through the evocation of unforgettable characters: Olaudah Equiano, a slave who recorded the ordeal of the Middle Passage in his autobiography; James Field Stanfield, the anti-slavery sailor and poet; John Newton, the slave ship captain turned abolitionist who wrote 'Amazing Grace.' Rediker writes with the care of a scholar, the eye of a poet, and the heart of a rebel. He does justice to the story of a monstrous injustice.”
Martín Espada, author of The Republic of Poetry

“This Atlantic epic brilliantly reveals the slave ship as a ‘vast machine,’ transforming its human cargo into slaves – but it is also a precise portrayal of Africans, free and captive, in their choices and desperate struggles.”
Patrick Manning, author of Slavery and African Life

“The Atlantic’s foremost historian from below has written a masterpiece. In this human history you can hear the shrieks of pain, the groans of loss, and uproar of rebellion. In the midst of mass and calculated murders Rediker finds the genesis of a human story that delineated ethnicities, that created musical lamentations, that caused heart-rendering resistance, that produced African and human consciousness, and in the end, with ex-slaves offering amazing graces to discarded sailors, the cry still rises up from this magnificent book for justice and for reparation.”
Peter Linebaugh, author of The London Hanged

“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 transport and a deep theoretical perspective on the slave trade’s role in the rise of capitalism. His is a ‘human history’ with all its dramas and complex lineaments.”
Steve Hahn, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning A Nation Under Our Feet

“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. Now Rediker brings his informed passion, energetic research, rich storytelling, and stark analysis to perhaps the most wrenching, important and neglected topic in the early modern Atlantic World. Following in the wake of such pioneers as W.E.B. DuBois and Elizabeth Donnan, Rediker joins a growing group of scholars who are reinvigorating historical research on the huge traffic in enslaved Africans. Two centuries after the abolition of the English and North American slave trade, he uses his unique gifts to take us below decks, giving a human face to the inhuman ordeal of the Middle Passage.”
Peter Wood, author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept

“Mixing powerful vignettes with astute analysis, Marcus Rediker brings the terrible dramas of the middle passage to life. 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

“The slave ship is an open metaphoric wound lying at the heart of attempts to understand the middle passage. Marcus Rediker’s remarkable new book combines a uniquely profound understanding of the maritime industries in the eighteenth century with an imaginative humanism. No other book has displayed such combined practicality and compassion regarding the actual workings of ‘the abominable traffick.’ Rediker’s work is important not only because of what it uncovers, but because it suggests ways of overcoming the disastrous legacy of the slave trade. The Slave Ship struck me with the force of prophecy, it is a superbly realized work that will actually change the living memory of slavery, and only Marcus Rediker could have written it.”
Marcus Wood, author of Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography

“I was hardly prepared for the profound emotional impact of The Slave Ship: A Human History. Reading it established a transformative and never to be severed bond with my African ancestors who were cargo in slave ships over a period of four centuries. Their courage, intelligence and self-respect; their fierce efforts to free themselves (and, though cruelly bound, to create community) moved me so deeply that, for several days, I took to my bed. There I pondered the madness of greed, the sadism of welding absolute power over any creature in chains, the violence of attempting to dominate and possess what is innately free. Fore all Americans and indeed all those who live in the Western world who have profited by, or suffered from, the endless brutality of the slave trade, during all its centuries and into the present, this book is homework of the most insistent order. There is no re-balancing of our wrecked planet without sitting with, and absorbing, the horrifying reality of what was done, by whites, by the West, by the wealthy, to our beloved ancestors, The Africans, who endured and sometimes survived “the middle passage” to bring their radiance and their indomitable spirits into the New World. What, now, is to be done? That is the question that can only have a collective answer.”
Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winner, author of The Color Purple

“The slave ship was a machine that manufactured modernity. As it moved across the Atlantic, the world changed. It joined Europe, Africa, and the Americas, creating enormous wealth and untold misery, and its hellish voyages continue to cast a shadow over our lives. Marcus Rediker, a preeminent historian of the maritime Atlantic, unravels its history with unmatched knowledge of the material changes and moral ruptures its created. The Slave Ship is the best of histories, deeply researched, brilliantly formulated, and morally informed.”
Ira Berlin, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland, and author of Many Thousands Gone (Winner of the Bancroft Prize), Slaves Without Masters, and Generations of Captivity