four-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
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A Human History

A-The Slave ShipThe Slave Ship "has been a painful book to write," Marcus Rediker writes, "and if I have done any justice to the subject, it will be a painful book to read." Over three centuries, more than 12 million Africans were uprooted by their captors, who intended to bring them to the Americas through the Middle Passage. As many as 20 percent died en route. Drawing on three decades of research, Rediker chronicles the slave trade's golden age, which spanned the 18th century. The author uses firsthand accounts-many never published before-to put a face on the inhuman horror of the slave trade, relating tales of revolt and describing scenes of torture, genocide, and rape-all of which were rationalized by "the merchants' comforting methods" of accounting for their human cargo.
Viking. 448 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 0670018236

San Diego Union-Tribune 5 of 5 Stars
"I was overwhelmed by Marcus Rediker's masterful, absorbing and heartbreaking book The Slave Ship: A Human History. With the exception of parts of Toni Morrison's Beloved and Charles Johnson's Middle Passage-both fiction-I have encountered no other treatment as intense and compelling as Rediker's of events and characters aboard the notorious vessels that enabled the devastation of lives, countries and cultures, and the accumulation of massive wealth and power." Jacqueline Bacon

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A]n astonishingly large body of evidence remains from those who trafficked in human beings: letters, diaries, memoirs, captain's logbooks, shipping company records, testimony before British Parliamentary investigations, even poetry and at least one play by former slave-ship officers. ... 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, myself included, have missed." Adam Hochschild

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"In The Slave Ship: A Human History, a meticulously researched work, Marcus Rediker, a maritime historian at the University of Pittsburgh, has drawn the slave ship out of the shadows, creating a history that is elegant, readable, and entirely horrifying. It is, as Rediker warns at the outset, a painful book to read, and one the reader won't soon forget." Colin Woodard

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Rediker has a thoughtful eye for recognizing the terrible ironies the slave trade inaugurated. ... 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." Richard Thompson

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"It grippingly tells the story of the trade in human flesh from an unexplored perspective-the decks of the slave ships. ... It may not be easy reading-but the cruel truth of what one group of people is willing to do to others for money never is." Margo Hammond

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Rediker's provocative and briny account chronicles what he calls the 'golden age' of the slave trade, from 1700 to 1808, when at any given time hundreds of slavers cruised the African coast between Gambia and Angola, trading firearms, textiles, metalware, brandy and other goods for human cargo. ... 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." Fergus Bordewich

Critical Summary

Marcus Rediker is professor of maritime history at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1987), The Many-Headed Hydra (2000), and Villains of All Nations (2005), books that explore seafaring, piracy, and the origins of globalization. In The Slave Ship, Rediker combines exhaustive research with an astute and highly readable synthesis of the material, balancing documentary snapshots with an ear for gripping narrative. Critics compare the impact of Rediker's history, unique for its ship-deck perspective, to similarly compelling fictional accounts of slavery in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Charles Johnson's Middle Passage. Even scholars who have written on the subject defer to Rediker's vast knowledge of the subject. Bottom line: The Slave Ship is sure to become a classic of its subject.