Manufacturing Bodies: A Review of Slavery at Sea

Sowande’ Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016).

slavery-at-seaWriting a book review a day after Karin Wulf’s entertaining analysis of what makes for a good review might be hubris at its worst, or simply bad timing. And, while I will never have the expertise, style, and prose that made Annette Gordon-Reed’s review of Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution so good, I do hope this review will explore the central ideas of Slavery at Sea in anticipation of a Q&A between the author and The Junto’s own Rachel Hermann tomorrow. Stay tuned for that!

In the introduction of her new book, Assistant Professor of History and African and African American Studies, Sowande’ Mustakeem, writes that, “not all slaves endured the transatlantic passage in the same way.” That statement serves as the driving force behind an unflinching exploration of the “multiplicity of sufferings” endured by aged, infirm, and infant Africans carried across the Atlantic and into slavery. Despite the simplicity of that premise, Mustakeem’s concise monograph exposes how the focus on young and able-bodied African men as the predominant population of captives held in slave ships overshadows the experiences of the “forgotten” of the transatlantic slave trade. As a result Mustakeem’s narrative lingers on the painful details of what she describes as “a massively global human manufacturing process” that commodified the bodies of young and old, healthy and infirm, female and male (9).

The book loosely follows the three stages of Mustakeem’s “human manufacturing process”: warehousing, transport, and delivery. Despite that structural language, each chapter focuses on understanding the “social conditions and human costs embedded in the world of maritime slavery” as captured people moved through the process of enslavement (3). As such, in the first chapter, Mustakeem describes both violent acts of enslavement in Africa and the European systems of money and power necessary to send captains and ships to purchase captives. Although the reader might approach this chapter seeking a specific analysis of time and place—where, precisely, were captives coming from and which European trading companies at which moments were the most heavily involved—those are questions answered in other monographs.[1] Mustakeem chooses instead to plot the “sequence of violence” that led to enslavement, including the kidnapping of up to 70% of enslaved individuals by the middle of the eighteenth century (31).

The second chapter centers on the meeting of captive Africans and European slavers in port cities along the West African coast. However, like the first, Mustakeem proves more interested in exploring the “multitudes of captives” whose physical or mental state made them “refuse slaves” (46). Her emphasis on the often “fatal consequences of market refusal”—such as when captives who Europeans rejected were subsequently murdered by their captors—reveals a paradoxical anxiety on the part of African captives (53). Mustakeem argues that slaves sometimes sought to hide ailments from the scrutinizing gaze of European surgeons in order to be purchased, as they likely knew that being labeled refuse would mean death. She therefore calls on historians to spend more time analyzing these “hidden costs of slavery mitigated against bondpeople” who confronted market rejection in West Africa, and not just those sold and transported (53). The decision of African captives to hide their flaws in order to be sold becomes more horrifying in Mustakeem’s third chapter, which emphasizes the nightmarish conditions of slave ships where hunger, violence, and isolation left psychological and physical scars on the captives held below decks.

It is in the second half of the book that Mustakeem’s gendered analysis of the lived experiences of enslaved Africans at sea contributes the most to historians’ understanding of the transatlantic slave trade. In chapter four, for example, Mustakeem explores eighteenth-century newspapers as conduits of information for both financiers and the families of seamen in Europe about the progress of transatlantic slaving voyages. But, just as news of shipboard rebellions caused shockwaves in reading communities in Europe, the “dangerous whispers” of possible rebellion also shaped how seamen interacted with enslaved Africans held on their ships. As Mustakeem argues, fear of unrest “took on explicitly gendered overtones routinely centered on black men as the primary targets of uprisings” (80). At the same time, seamen often also exerted sexual prerogative over enslaved African women, such as when one crew referred to the women’s quarters of the vessel as “‘the whore hole’” (85). Reminiscent of Terri L. Snyder’s The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America, however, Mustakeem balances the near-total power of European mariners at sea with moments when suicide, abortion, and self-mutilation can be read as exertions of agency on the part of enslaved Africans.

In the concluding two chapters of the book, Mustakeem delves into what she refers to as the final phase of the human manufacturing process, delivering enslaved individuals for sale in the Americas. Delivery of healthy slaves in the colonies after months in festering, pestilent, putrid slave ships, however, proved difficult for European slavers. As such, captains and financiers expected surgeons to accompany vessels as they traversed the waters of the Atlantic. As Mustakeem argues, however, as a result of “the successes and failures of their seaborne medical residencies” those same surgeons gained valuable knowledge and advanced in their own careers through their “migratory medical apprenticeships”—even when that experience came at the cost of unsanctioned medical experiments on dead and dying African captives (150). Mustakeem leaves readers in the final chapter by evoking the chaos and horror of “shipboard scrambles” that occurred when ships landed and purchasers rushed aboard to seize “the most viable human goods” (162). With that final scene of the human manufacturing process, Mustakeem writes that the chapter “unveils the importation of bruised, diseased, scarred, disabled, and, most of all, manufactured black bodies shaped and refined by their seaborne experiences” (158). The terror of the Middle Passage was not a byproduct of the transatlantic slave trade; it was essential to the commodification of black bodies.

Mustakeem’s work contributes to a growing number of scholars reacting to the number-centered approach to the study of the transatlantic slave trade, from Stephanie Smallwood’s 2008 Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora to Marcus Rediker’s foundational work, The Slave Ship: A Human History. Like this other authors, Mustakeem rejects quantification for an intensely social history of the transatlantic slave trade, thereby delving into the lived horrors of a trade in human beings. Unlike her predecessors, however, Mustakeem consciously centers her narrative on the very young and old, women, and the infirm to demonstrate the ways in which there was no one Middle Passage. As she asks in her epilogue: “in remembering some of slavery’s dead and long since gone, who do we in turn permit to become, or perhaps remain, historically forgotten?” Thanks to Slavery at Sea and Mustakeem’s diligent research, the answer to that question is fewer than before.


[1] Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969); David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000) and Robin Law, The Slave Coast of West Africa, 1550-1750: The Impact of an Atlantic Slave Trade on African Society (London: Clarendon Press, 1991).

4 responses

  1. Thanks for this review, Casey–you do a nice job of explaining Mustakeem’s book and putting into context. I’m looking forward to reading & discussing the book with my 18th C America students this winter.

    But, can we please all just say NO to the word “seminal?” Because, eeeww. (“Germinal” or “foundational” are good substitutes.)

  2. Pingback: Q&A with Sowande’ Mustakeem « The Junto

  3. Pingback: Girls! Girls! Girls! | Historiann


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