- Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World
As Atlantic history programs continue to proliferate, arguments continue over how best to approach the subject. In a recent forum on Atlantic [End Page 474] history, Alison Games stressed the accumulated experience of European “globetrotters” and these individuals’ cultural assimilation; Philip Stern urged historians to compare connections between colonial empires in Asia and the Atlantic; Paul C. Mapp argued for a consideration of Atlantic history from imperial, continental, and Pacific perspectives; and Peter A. Coclanis advocated that historians engage in what he termed a “conjuncto-atlantic” history. (“Forum: Beyond the Atlantic,” William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 4, 2006), 675–742). Many Middle Passages does not settle the disputes among these differing approaches. What it does do is provide a persuasive basis for widening our geographic lens when considering coerced voyages across the Atlantic.
In their Introduction to this collection of twelve essays edited from the 2005 “Middle Passages: Oceanic Voyages as Social Process” conference, Marcus Rediker, whose work has centered on labor and coercion, with his coeditors, Emma Christopher, the author of Slave Trade Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes, 1730–1807 (Cambridge, UK, 2006) and Cassandra Pybus, author most recently of Epic Voyages of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston, 2006), provide a strongly argued framework to consider the book’s essays. The editors situate the essays within a set of ideas that Rediker and Peter Linebaugh explored in Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000). These ideas include the concepts that capitalism forced the migration of millions to the Americas and that “middle passages” (defined by the editors as “the structuring link between expropriation in one geographic setting and exploitation in another”) are a useful tool for considering the social and cultural transformations of a variety of people coercively transported. Additionally, they consider a variety of “prisons” central to these middle passages, and claim that the history of labor transported across oceans is a “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” of terror, resistance, and cultural creativity (2).
Edward Alpers, Iain McCalman, and James Warren use three different perspectives—the enslaved, the third-party observer, and the slave raider—to examine the slave trade in the Indian Ocean, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. Through judicious use of slave narratives, Alpers demonstrates the cultural transformation that young enslaved African boys often underwent even before they left Africa. Iain McCalman uses David Livingstone’s writings of his failed Zambesi expedition to illustrate the inhumanity of the East African slave trade. Piled up on bamboo racks, in [End Page 475] a manner not very different than found on Liverpool slavers, “slaves lay face down in the stifling heat of their own excrement,” as they were transported east to the Indian Ocean (45). James Warren considers the lives of Lanun seafaring warriors who raided widely across Southeast Asia seeking workers for fisheries and rice paddies. Warren demonstrates how both religion and language served as barriers to and openings for captives to work on Lanun ships.
Indentured servitude is the subject of Nigel Penn’s and Lawrence Brown’s essays. Penn illustrates how the Dutch East India Company recruited large numbers of Germans to undergo lengthy difficult voyages to serve overseas. Using the accounts of forty-seven German servants, Penn depicts a group of desperate individuals whose economic plight compelled them to sign indentures that resulted in most dying without ever returning home. Brown’s essay on Melanesians who moved between enslavement and contract labor is perhaps the most fascinating in the collection. Brown reveals a complex labor market where migrant laborers were able at the end of their indenture to find work as seamen on returning vessels and demonstrates that they became vital to the very labor system that first constrained them.
The essays by Cassandra Pybus, Emma Christopher, and Claire Anderson show reformers often turning a blind eye...