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  • Slave Ship Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes, 1730–1807 by Emma Christopher
  • Jeffrey A. Fortin
Slave Ship Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes, 1730–1807. By Emma Christopher. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

With Slave Ship Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes Emma Christopher launches headlong into the complex and oftentimes charged historiography concerning issues of race, class, and order shipboard. Christopher’s book focuses on the complex social structures that developed on slave ships during the eighteenth century until the 1807 abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and by highlighting the tension between liberty and bondage that defined individual and group identities whilst on the Atlantic, the author skillfully complicates our understanding of whiteness and the meaning of race in a social environment where crossing the equator often led to ceremonies that temporarily “turned the world upside down” (xv). These Sons of Neptune lived difficult lives, often impressed by gangs or, at the very least, coerced to work on what amounted to the least desirable seaman’s job: that of a crew member on a slave ship. By delving into the records of Parliament and the Admiralty courts, Christopher accomplishes the remarkably difficult task of uncovering those voices hidden by illiteracy and an underclass existence. In so doing, Christopher illuminates a world that many Atlantic and maritime historians knew existed, but too often overlooked.

Slave Ships and Their Captive Cargoes slides neatly into the existing Atlantic and maritime historiograhies by focusing on the relationship between men on land and at sea. W. Jeffrey Bolster, Marcus Rediker, Jesse Lemisch and others turned their scholarly gaze towards these societies at seas, revealing the ways in which life on board the ship did not necessarily mimic life on land: African Americans were just one group to benefit from the egalitarian impulse caused by challenges of survival on the ocean.1 More recently, however, some of these same scholars have turned their attention to the ships themselves.2 Christopher’s book, published in 2006, bridges these two strains of literature. Slave Ship Sailors vividly describes the violent, sometimes vile, multi-racial, multi-ethnic and filth-ridden world of seamen by injecting historical verse and numerous archival images to expose this desperate milieu of men.

To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, life for seamen involved in the slave trade was nasty, brutish, and short. Beyond the constant threat of insurrections, the ships reeked of human feces, urine, and death, making for extremely high mortality rates to the point that “it was not unknown for a ship to lose all her original crew” (29). Christopher argues that these conditions, along with brutal treatment by their superiors, placed slave ship sailors firmly in the middle of “The Bloody Rise of Western Freedom” (91). Tasked with controlling the captives on board, slave ship sailors themselves were often whipped and beaten by their superiors. This dichotomous existence, according to Christopher, gave slave ship sailors a unique perspective on the calls for liberty by various citizens of the Atlantic world. Intimate with the inhumanity of slavery, slave ship sailors were fed up with their own brutal oppression. In resisting violent rule, these seamen “asserted their own claims to liberty, while holding the musket or whip of repression firmly in their hands” (94). What may seem like a contradiction was indeed a struggle for whiteness — a way to be released from the pain of the razor-like slices of the whip brandished on them by their superiors. By the late eighteenth century, these bottom dwellers of the maritime underclass sought a piece of fruit from the vine of liberty being cultivated around the Atlantic.

The sad reality in an age when the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was at its peak, as Christopher’s book so eloquently reminds us, was that liberty could only be defined against slavery. For seamen onboard a slave ship, attaining liberty meant participating in the production of slaves. These sailors understood that every lashing doled out to an African captive confirmed their own complex identities as both captives and free men: every time a ship unloaded its enslaved cargo, slave ship sailors “regained their liberty” away from the brutal regime that governed their lives at sea (201...

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