In Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (1999), which fueled the current anti–human-trafficking movement, Kevin Bales suggested that slavery today is harsher than slavery in the past because today’s slaves are so cheap that they are considered disposable, whereas in previous eras slaveholders viewed slaves as valuable property that needed to be maintained (15). Although Sowande’ M. Mustakeem does not mention Bales, in Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage she offers solid refutation of this claim, packing virtually every page with examples of the horrific violence of the transatlantic slave trade. Death, destruction, and “disposal” were ubiquitous. Mustakeem documents the trade’s violence through extensive quotations from eighteenth-century primary sources written primarily by white British participants: diaries, letters, ship logs, manifests, cargo receipts, newspapers, published narratives, and “the curiously underutilized volume of testimonies given before the British House of Commons during the closing decade of the eighteenth century by a broad range of slave trade actors” (12). Aside from making two brief citations of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Mustakeem largely ignores the extant texts in which enslaved Africans described their own experiences (e.g., Olaudah Equiano, Venture Smith, and Jeffrey Brace). Slavery at Sea is organized along two vectors. Its seven chapters follow the trajectory of the slave trade from moments of capture in Africa to points of sale in the Americas. At the same time, “each chapter represents one or some specific corroding limbs and body parts violently fragmented through the uproar of slavery and reattached, albeit in unfamiliar and disparate parts, through the human manufacturing process” (184). Presenting vignette after vignette of violation, torture, trauma, starvation, and disease, Mustakeem focuses chapter 1 on hands and arms, chapter 2 on “the chest, torso, and genitalia,” chapter 3 on bacteria, vermin, infections, “blemished skin, weakened skeletal bones, and blackened internal organs,” chapter 4 on blood, “fragmented hips,” “muscle-torn thighs,” poisoning, and “gynecological power,” chapter 5 on head, neck, and face, chapter 6 on “knees, shins, and calves,” and chapter 7 on a summary of the violence done to enslaved bodies (185–186). Mustakeem concludes that “the slave ship experience concretely parallels the abominable and manlike monster comprised of the stitched-together parts of the dead and the living embodied in the impermeable fusion of both the creator (Viktor) and his creation (the monster) known best to many through Mary Shelley’s iconic work, Frankenstein” (186). Unlike Shelley, however, Mustakeem does not give her stitched-together body parts a voice. Fixing our attention on spectacles of horror and suffering, she does not trace change over time, contextualize her sources in specific places or eras, or engage meaningfully with current historiography. She neglects to consider differences in rhetorical purpose between texts written at the peak of the British slave trade compared to testimony presented as part of the abolitionist struggle that led to the 1807 outlawing of the trade. Presenting a fairly static narrative about how European and American slave traders, in their “quest for ideal black bodies” (133), tortured, traumatized, and murdered millions of women and children, as well as men, she does pause briefly, in some of the book’s most interesting passages, to describe a few strategies and regulations aimed to promote the health and survival of the enslaved cargo. They include, for example, a 1788 British law requiring surgeons to be on board; the medical use of diet, alcohol, “herbs, medicines, and other preventive tonics” (148); and captains encouraging or requiring participation in activities on deck such as dancing, wrestling, drumming, games with stones or shells, and beading. However, the question of how millions of enslaved people managed to survive the Middle Passage does not seem to hold much interest for Mustakeem. While acknowledging that the “core operation in the sale and traffic of shipped Africans was the import of live bodies, most preferably healthy,” she focuses on the trade’s ghastly horrors, which leads her to conclude that the conditions at sea made “historically impossible the import of strong, healthy, prime, desirable, and disease and trauma-free captives” (155). Overlooking many foundational studies that could have strengthened her analysis, such as Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982), Mustakeem does cite some key works, but often seems to miss how their central arguments challenge or complicate her overarching narrative. For example, a more careful reading of Emma Christopher’s nuanced analysis of the spectrum of oppression linking and dividing European sailors and African slaves in Slave Ship Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes, 1730–1807 (2006) would help Mustakeem move away from her tendency to conflate slavery with blackness. Similarly, Saidiya V. Hartman’s insights in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997) about slaveocracy’s claim to “enjoyment” could help Mustakeem address the paradox of traders’ habit of viciously endangering their valuable “cargo.” Mustakeem describes her research methodology as a “historically shamanic approach employed to move between worlds, recover stories, moments, and secrets of the dead” (189). Apparently unmoved by fictional representations of the slave trade, Mustakeem sees herself as “reclaiming the history from literary imaginings that has in ways blurred the memories of what really happened on slave ships” (184). (Take that, Herman Melville and Toni Morrison!) Her view, unlike the perspectives of previous historians, she says, is “multifaceted, three-dimensional, historically inclusive, and more than just the theoretical sum of stories and gendered bodies” (184). In sum, Slavery at Sea catalogues the graphic, pervasive violence that shaped the experiences of enslaved Africans from the moment of capture to sale in America. Anyone who doubts the brutality of the trade should read this book. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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