The Slave Ship, A Human History

Written by Marcus Rediker
Review by Edward James

‘One of the recurrent sounds of a slave ship was song. The sailors sometimes played instruments and sang, but more commonly, day and night, the Africans sang.’

Not one’s first thought about a slave ship, but why not? The story of the slave trade is a tale of inhumanity and suffering but also an epic of the resilience of the human spirit. Rediker’s book does not pretend to be a history of the slave trade (the best book remains Hugh Thomas’ The Slave Trade, Picador 1997). It concerns only one aspect of the trade, the slave ship, in one century, the ‘long’ 18th century (1700-1807), for two nations, Britain and the American colonies. Within this narrow compass it is as good as one can get. It is based essentially on a mass of personal testimonies by captains, seamen, and where available, the slaves. Essential reading for anybody interested in the slave trade or in maritime history of the 18th century.