A Dissertation on Slavery

[Trigger Warning for violence.]

It can be a hard thing emotionally. And I imagine it is an unending struggle for historians of slavery (at least, I really hope it is) to process the reality of the institution and the people whom they study. Since I am reviewing lots of documents that I looked at last summer, I came across one of the most upsetting things I ended up transcribing last summer. Before I quote it, I want to do a little set up.

At the British Library, you are not allowed to photograph documents in the manuscript room (which sucks, especially for people like me who are there with limited times and limited means. Your ability to view documents is just much more circumscribed. It is a policy that certainly favors people who live in London or who have hefty fellowship packages that allow them to travel for substantial amounts of time.) So, you sit there with your document on the table and your laptop. You read the document as quickly as you can (which with 17th-century documents may not be a quick process) and you type up what you are reading. You almost split your brain. You are reading but you aren’t really processing. It’s when you go to type the words onto your computer (or write them on your pad of paper) that you actually realize what it is that you are reading. There’s a delay there.

This one day in the Library, I was reading and typing, the story revealing itself to me as I typed the words onto the screen. I had been reading lots of upsetting things about slaves/slavery for days (and, of course, for years in my preparation for being a historian of slavery). But this passage was too much and after typing it, I immediately had to get up from my seat, leave the manuscript room, walk around outside, drink some water, sit and process. I may have even decided to eat lunch before returning to the room and the document.

Without further ado, here is a story that a brother traveling from London to the Caribbean (via Africa) is writing to his sister around 1713. The English have purchased slaves in Africa and are preparing to leave. To get out to the ocean, they must first navigate the rivers that take them there.

After we had purchased 360 Slaves, about 200 Women, 100 Men, & the rest Boys, & Girls, we prepar’d to leave the River. All the men had shackles on their legs, to prevent them from swimming to shore, as we went down ye river, which were taken off, when we got to Sea.

Not suspecting the women, we left them at their liberty, but before we got out of the River, 3 or 4 of them shew’d us how well they could swim, gave us ye slip, though we took one of them again, they could not swim so well as the rest, being big with child.

The author immediately goes on with his story about navigating the ship out to the sea, showing just how not important this story is. Capturing a pregnant woman attempting to flee slavery was nothing special in the larger scheme of their travels. Within lines of this story, though, he again shocks me with his nonchalant description of the slaves and the brutality of the middle passage on their lives:

We caught plenty of fish almost every day, especially Sharks, which were salted, & preferred for the Negros, they eat this fish with much greediness. We brought Horse beans, & Peas from England with us, but most of them were spoiled, the Negros not caring for them.

They [the slaves] now began to sicken very much, & sometimes we threw overboard 4 or 5 in a day; their common distemper was the flux, with a swelling in their limbs. Their opinion is that when they die, they go to their own country, which made some of them refuse to eat their victuals, striving to pine themselves, as the expeditious way to return home.

To put a stop to this danger, the Captain used this Stratagem, to show them he could prevent their returning to their own country. He ordered the Carpenter to cut off the head of a dead Negro with his ax, & fix it on a pole made fast to the Ship’s side, & to throw the limbs about the Deck. He threatned the same to all that would not eat their victuals. This took but little effect, they were yet forced to be flood over with whips to oblige them to it. They were messed by Tens, & over every Mess was placed a white man to keep them in order, for they were much given to fighting, & biting one another; & some of their Bites proved mortal; their victuals was cheifly Yams.

Again, from there he goes on to describe their sea voyage. This was just how it was when you had a ship full of slaves crossing the Atlantic. And even knowing that, these passages are so jarring.

[Side note: the Captain’s strategy – that was a common one in Jamaica and Barbados because suicide was a common “problem” for English slave masters.]

Beyond my complete understanding that those 4 or 5 slaves that they threw overboard every day were actual, living people, I am taken aback every time I read this document by the casual nature with which the author writes this journal. It makes it all feel even more callous.

It is this kind of moment when I must really try to step back from my material and must actively force myself not to judge this historical actor. Or, at least, to not let my judgment affect my understanding of the history. It’s hard. Because those descriptions of the enslaved are fucked up. And that legacy of brutality is still with us, the way Americans still view black people as animals, violent, vicious. The privileged are completely casual in their judgments of those whose histories are full of oppression and hate, they are blind to the why, and purposefully ignorant of their own role in all of this.

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8 thoughts on “A Dissertation on Slavery

  1. Chilling. It’s often hair raising and useful to go back through the notes of what the perpetrators themselves wrote about their actions – just so that no-one can accuse you of somehow hyping up the horror.

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  4. I imagine that you mean that women were just as often sold into slavery as men?

    One my professors, early on in my graduate school career, had us read David Eltis’ work specifically because of the surprising statistics. So, it is something I have been familiar with for a while now. But yes, it is truly surprising especially in light of everything else about gender in early modern England. There is always something amazing, though, about the way a society can create and maintain contradictory beliefs based on arbitrary criteria (African women were okay to do hard labor whereas Englishwomen were not). Sometimes that is the most challenging thing about history. Being okay with the fact that the people you study used to believe two contradictory things at once without caring at all.

    I haven’t done much social history in my work yet. The two chapters I have written are much more cultural history (for example, based on published literature), so I haven’t actually been interested in numbers. I am about to start writing the chapters that will be based around documents more common to social history (like censuses, wills, baptism records) that will reveal numbers much better. We shall see.

  5. Yes – that’s what I was getting at. If the letter you cite is typical, then women were twice as likely to be sold into slavery. That sound you hear is two misconceptions exploding at once! Thanks for your detailed response – I am truly interested in your research (does it help establish my bona fides if I admit I’ve read Paley’s “Natural Theology and White’s “The Natural History of Selborne? My MA Prof & Mentor was Suzanne Zeller – whose interest was in how scientific ideas created the “idea” of Canada.

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