restricted access “A Fixed Melancholy”: Migration, Memory, and the Middle Passage

Given the high mortality rates aboard slave ships, the Middle Passage was known as a “voyage of death.” Disease and death, sickness and mortality, profoundly characterized the lives of Africans during the Atlantic crossing. This essay examines the subjective experience of dispossession, focusing in particular on a psychosomatic disease that was thought to be endemic to Africans forcibly migrated from home: “fixed melancholy.” Drawing on tracts on nautical medicine, slave ship captains’ journals, and evidence generated by the Parliamentary Committee’s testimonies, I argue that “fixed melancholy” is best understood as a form of nostalgia, an affective attempt at return that is simultaneously a symptom of the emotional distress produced by dislocation and a mechanism for slaves to resist their conditions of servitude. Via a brief reading of the opening chapters of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, I also show how nostalgia—or the memory of place—continued to exert a residual influence on the emancipatory imagination in black diaspora.