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The Slave Ship

A Human History


“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 wielding absolute power over any creature in chains, the violence of attempting to dominate and possess what is innately free. For 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, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Color Purple

“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 tour de force. Never before has the reality of the trade been so comprehensively and subtly conveyed. Marcus Rediker ‘s intimate knowledge of sea faring in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries enables him to reconstruct the life – and death – of those on the slave trading vessels more vividly and convincingly than any previous historian. I am sure that the book will continue to be read as long as people want to understand this crucial episode in the birth of the modern world.”
— Robin Blackburn, Distinguished Professor, New School for Social Research and author of The Making of New World Slavery

“I admire this book more than I can easily say. At the heart of it is the slave ship, engine of wood and hemp and canvas, instrument of terror. From this dark heart Marcus Rediker ranges outwards over four centuries and three continents. He brings to his task a combination of dedicated research, deep human concern and narrative power of a high order. By insisting on the realities of individual experience, he counteracts our human tendency to take refuge from horror in comforting abstractions. We are all indebted to him for this. In range and scope and in the humanity of its treatment, this account of the Atlantic slave trade is unlikely ever to be superceded.”
— Barry Unsworth, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel, Sacred Hunger

“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 the maritime Atlantic, unravels its history with unmatched knowledge of the material changes and moral ruptures it created. The Slave Ship is the best of histories, deeply researched, brilliantly formulated, and morally informed.”
—Ira Berlin, author of Many Thousands Gone

“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

“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

“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‑rending 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.”
—Steven Hahn, author of 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

“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