Book Review: The Slave Ship, by Marcus Rediker

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Rediker

The cover of my edition of Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship features a quotation from the Sunday Telegraph describing it as “A truly magnificent book.” Such is my prejudice that I imagine Telegraph readers coming to Rediker’s work not to be educated about the shaping of race and class in the Western hemisphere by the Atlantic slave trade but to bask in reminiscences about the source of their wealth or enjoy some tales of derring-do among the savages. An education is what they will receive, nonetheless, whether they like it or not.

By now, the basics of the slave trade are well known, including its triangular pattern; ships starting in Bristol or Liverpool carried manufactured goods to Africa, which were traded for slaves, who were carried to the Americas and sold to work on the plantations, where the raw materials-cotton, tobacco, and sugar-were bought to undergo modification in the factories and mills of Lancashire, Birmingham, and elsewhere up North, for sale in, among other places, Africa. The slave trade was thus perfectly integrated into the other new markets generated by the Industrial Revolution. It was a business just like any other, a reality that tends to escape analyses of slavery that focus on the barbarity and captivity endured by the slaves to the neglect of the logic behind both.

Not that there isn’t plenty of savagery and captivity to go around. The genius of Rediker’s book is that he has relied heavily on contemporary accounts of life on a slaver, from merchants, captains, sailors, and the slaves themselves. This lends a clarity, vividness, and depth to the story that, while not for the faint of heart, will leave readers in no doubt as to what went on and why. The answer to the big why, of course, is the pursuit of profit. The pursuit of profit explains pretty much everything. But what Rediker manages to tease out in his account are the nuances, the subtle tensions, the balancing act that capitalists have always had to perform, in order to extract labour from the exploited. Anyone who has worked in a factory will recognize, or at least understand, the wheedling, coercion, and incentivization of behaviour deployed by ships’ captains to get the most from their crew and human commodities, even if the cat o’ nine tails is no longer the instrument of choice.

The journey from England to Africa typically saw the modification of the ship by skilled labourers-carpenters and smiths, for instance-who turned it in to a floating prison, a Guineaman, as the slave ships were universally referred to, before its arrival on the shores of such places as Benin, Congo, and Angola. In particular, this part of the journey saw the construction of the barricado, a barricade, a high, strong wooden barrier that stretched across the entire main deck of the ship and behind which the crew could retreat in the case of insurrection by the slaves; the barricado contained holes and a raised platform for the crew to fire their guns and cannon at the slaves, as well as a door that allowed only one person at a time to pass through. The barricado also turned the main deck into a kind of prison courtyard, so that when the slaves were allowed up onto the main deck for “dancing,” the crew could keep an eye on them and fire down on them if necessary.

“Dancing” was, by and large, a euphemism for exercise. The slave merchant had no use for damaged goods, so it was important in terms of maximizing his profit that the slaves he sold in the Americas be fit for work. This necessitated some sort of “humane” treatment, so slaves were fed and watered, but at the same time, the captain had to ensure that fit, strong slaves were never in a position to revolt. “Dancing” thus took place in manacles and leg irons, with slaves supervised and motivated by crew members, under instruction to keep the slaves both healthy and acquiescent. This was a tall order, as you might imagine. Slaves understood the meaning of captivity, even if the technology was new to them, and would do everything in their power to escape or deprive the slaver of their labour. Suicide was common, either by hunger strike or leaping to the sharks that followed the Guineamen knowing there would be food. The ships were thus also equipped with netting around the sides of the decks to prevent such attempts-because the slaves believed that when they died their souls would return home, many drowned not just defiantly but happily-and with the speculum oris, an instrument used to force open the jaws of those recalcitrant slaves refusing to eat. The slave merchants knew there would be deaths on board their ships-cramming as many bodies as they could onto their ships was a recipe for epidemics-but death was always factored into the equation when gauging likely profits. Merchants had a good idea how many deaths to expect, providing mass suicides could be prevented, hence the expectation that the captain would nip any form of resistance, passive or otherwise, in the bud, pour encourager les autres.

Class tensions asserted themselves, too, in the relationship between captain and crew. Few sailors appear to have wanted to sign up on Guineamen. The mortality rate was exceedingly high for crewmembers, the captains were notoriously barbaric, and the morality of slavery was naturally an issue. Many sailors signed up either to get out of prison or to avoid prison. Captains would scour the taverns of port cities with a couple of reliable mates, often family, in search of likely crew, who they’d attempt to get drunk and, with the connivance of a tavern owner in on the scam, draw into debts of such magnitude that they found themselves the next day with the options of either signing up or going to jail. This was no way for a captain to generate loyalty and devotion among his crew, but then he only required their obedience, not their love, and he relied upon the perception of a shared interest in survival once the slaves were on board to solicit the crewmembers’ allegiance. Rediker describes how captains’ personalities and attitudes slowly changed during the journey. Sweetness and light to the crew on the way to Africa, he would turn into a brute to slaves and crew alike once loaded and bound for the Americas. Crews did mutiny, but rarely in unison with slaves, and with a view to selling the slaves themselves on occasion. By and large, though, the captains and mates formed a cohesive group dedicated to realizing the profits at any cost, and so to the extent that they depended upon the crew to do this, the captains would do anything in their power to elicit compliance. A ratio of 8 or 10 slaves to every one crewmember was considered sufficient to meet all needs, including repression. However, once the ship had deposited its cargo in the Americas, many crew became surplus to requirements and would be travelling back to England with nothing to contribute to the bottom line; on the contrary, they constituted a cost insofar as their wages would be paid on arrival. Consequently, toward the end of the second stage of the voyage, just as the slaves were receiving improved treatment to ready them for market, the captains would try to alienate those crewmembers who would not be needed for the journey home, so that they’d jump ship in the Caribbean rather than face the final leg under the captain’s command. This persecution of the crew was deliberate and at the behest of the merchants, who sometimes gave explicit instructions to the captain that they dispose of superfluous crew, even though such a practice was illegal. Rediker tells us that the slave ports were crammed with these pitiful wretches, former crewmembers crippled by disease or unable for one reason or another to get passage home.

Rediker demonstrates how the trade played a part in shaping not just the economic relations between Britain, Africa, and America, but also the social relations and the perceptions of race and class of those involved. Captains often tried to purchase slaves who would struggle in mutual comprehension. If they spoke many and different languages, it followed that they would less likely form a cohesive unit, find common ground, and revolt. A lack of common language made insurrection less likely. Nonetheless, the common experience of captivity transformed slaves, for both themselves and the crew, from being members of discrete, sometimes even antagonistic, African tribes, into “Negroes”, pure and simple, and crewmembers into “White Men”, regardless of the colour of their skin. Race relations were simplified, in effect, because of the universal experience of slavery. Slaves became brothers and sisters regardless of origin, by virtue of their shared experience. New bonds were formed in the face of necessity. Hardship produced co-operation. Slaves may well have found themselves in their predicament as a result of capture by other Africans, but on board ship every African became a brother or a sister. And for the plantation owners who received them, the slaves’ origins were of little consequence; they were a source of labour power and nothing else.

The book closes with accounts of the insurrection by sailors in Liverpool in 1775, in which a thousand sailors wearing red ribbons and armed with muskets, blunderbusses, and cannons attempted to destroy the Mercantile Exchange, and of the role of the slave ship in mobilizing forces to ultimately abolish the trade in Britain. It isn’t part of Rediker’s remit to explore the social and economic factors that contributed to the demise of the slave trade in Britain, only to explain how the slave ship itself played a part in shaping the struggles of those who took part. He does so convincingly, engagingly, and perceptively. This is a book in the tradition of “history from below”, and I couldn’t help but compare it to Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch for the way it demystifies social relations and explains the interplay between class, race, gender, and empire. It isn’t really the kind of book you’re likely to buy as a gift, but it’s a compelling read, and you’ll be doing a really big favour for anyone you buy it for, even if it’s just yourself.

The Slave Ship: A Human History, by Marcus Rediker. 2008. John Murray. 468 pp.

You Lovely People!!

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YouBeaute!Best Indie Comedy 2018

A huge thank-you to everyone who voted in ReadFree.ly‘s search for the 50 Best Indie Books of 2018. Here’s the site’s own report:

Over the past 6 weeks, 10,000 votes were cast in a world-wide search for the very best indie books. The range was breathtaking – from personal stories of new love, to epic sagas of new worlds. We could have easily compiled a list of 500 titles without a drop in quality.

These, dear friend, are the books you’ve enjoyed reading the most over the past year. They will all receive fabulous Olympic-style medals, with the top place book also receiving a gorgeous jade glass trophy.

I’ve been on tenterhooks over the past week as the site gradually revealed the top 50 books, and it wasn’t until last night that the top ten were finally revealed, including Fowl Play at the outrageously high position of No. 8. Not only that, but it was the highest -ranked book in the Comedy category, making it the Best Indie Comedy of 2018!

It’s always a real boost for indie writers to receive recognition from readers. By and large, we have limited finances to spend on publicity, marketing, distribution, and PR, so it’s usually word-of-mouth and the organic process of building a reading community that sustains us in our endeavours (as well as bloody-mindedness and a maniacal need to dump our brainz on the page). Consequently, readers are something other than a meal-ticket for us—what indie writer makes a living from their work?—they’re partners in a dialogue. Rewards are nice and all, but really they’re just confirmation that that dialogue is taking place. Thank you for listening and speaking. You’re only gorgeous.

The Anti-Austerity Anthology

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I’m very proud to be included in the newly published Anti-Austerity Anthology alongside some of the best indie authors around. All proceeds from the book will be going to food bank charities, so why not do yourself and others a favour by grabbing a copy now? It’s available in both paperback and eBook versions. In addition to Goodreads reviews, there have already been early online reviews from the Canary, Jack Stark, and The Art of Being Left, the last of which I particularly like for its appreciation of my “works of satirical mastery.” Such taste!

Looking for Ivy Feckett (looking for love)

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As she passed through the main doors of the library, she was greeted by a splendid, blinding glare, a bright summer’s afternoon in June that had put both a frown and a smile on the faces of everyone in Centenary Square. The joy of surviving another working week had combined with an unanticipated warmth to overwhelm the usual melancholia that came with the territory, the territory being Birmingham city centre; while the frowns, caused by a perfectly understandable failure to pack sunglasses, did resemble the more traditional facial expression, they were mere simulacra, disguising a less traditional cheeriness.

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Centenary Square from the Library 

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Centenary Square in the sunshine: The Hyatt Regency and Symphony Hall

Breezing through the square, Ivy resisted the temptation to pop into the Repertory Theatre to see what was on, distracting herself with thoughts of getting home and wondering, with an element of annoyance with herself, exactly why she’d asked Sam to help out with her research. The obvious answer, that he was quite brilliant, didn’t satisfy her. Wasn’t she brilliant enough herself? And it wasn’t like she was helping him out, especially since he had his own research to do for his Ph.D.

Grudgingly, she owned up that she knew the answer. It was because she knew he wouldn’t say no. She and Sam had grown up together. Of course, it was also because he was cheap, although he was cheap because he was a friend. A good friend. A friend who went way back. A friend willing to help another friend in need, regardless of his own commitments. A friend who was already getting on her tits.

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Birmingham Repertory Theatre: Restricted Entry

She crossed over Paradise Circus towards Colmore Row and turned right, onto Temple Row West, changing to the other side of the road to avoid the Old Joint Stock pub and to cut the corner round the side of the cathedral.

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The Old Joint Stock Pub

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St. Philip’s Cathedral (Front)

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St. Philip’s Cathedral (Side)

She pressed on with her head lowered because she could still feel the heat of her flushed face, not realizing that had she looked up, she would have seen many other Brummies equally pink; the sun’s unusual heat rendered her embarrassment indistinguishable from their incipient sunburn.

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Temple Row: Bloody Hot

Just past Needless Alley, she reached the doors of the Hartfield Foundation, the HQ of those very astute and discerning folk who had spotted Ivy’s genius, who had hired her to produce a series of position papers on. On? On what, exactly? Even after a couple of months, Ivy still wasn’t entirely sure.

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Needless Alley: It’s all downhill from here

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Yes, it exists! Needless Alley!

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Needless Alley just ahead. Could that be the HQ of the Hartfield Foundation?

Text from Chapter 1 of Ivy Feckett is Looking for Love: A Birmingham Romance

But wait!!

A Special Bonus: Here, on Temple Row, yards from the headquarters of the Hartfield Foundation, I found Ivy!! What are the chances of that?!!

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Yes, THE Ivy!

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Serendipity or Synchronicity?!

Competition Winners!

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A randomized draw has selected the five winners from the Readers’ Gallery to receive free copies of Fowl Play as a reward for sending in photos of themselves with their copies of Ivy Feckett is Looking for Love and/or Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s. The winners are Lucas in Bermondsey, Alison in Acocks Green, Brian and Debbie in Los Angeles, Bernard in Donegal, and Lorcan in Monaghan. Thank you to everyone who took part. The prizes will be sent out in the next two weeks.

If you would like a chance of winning one of five copies of my next book, Manuel Estimulo’s Fascist Book of Everything, the delightful zombie/Brexit/road-trip sequel to Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s, you can enter by sending a photo of yourself for inclusion in the third Readers’ Gallery, OR by posting a review of any of my books on Amazon and Goodreads (reviews posted as of July 1, 2018, will be eligible).

Plucking Awesome!

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publicitypicfowlplayA thing of beauty is a joy forever. A Jay Spencer Green novel, by contrast, will haunt your dreams like an abusive waiter.

Fowl Play now available in paperback!! Strategically priced on Amazon at a tenner so that you don’t have to pay for post and packaging. Discover for yourself why it’s been favourably compared to The Bible*, James Joyce’s Ulysses**, Slaughterhouse Five***, Pride and Prejudice****, and Orgasms for Beginners*****.

YouBeaute!Full frontal. This photo has not been enhanced in any way. The book is genuinely this gorgeous.

Available at Amazon UK, USA, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and possibly more.

Get yours now!

 

 

*Marginally less nudity (The Watchtower)

**Set in Manchester (Timperley Village Anarchist)

***Many scenes depict a fully operational slaughterhouse (Vonnegut’s book was very disappointing in this respect) (Butchering Today magazine)

****More shower scenes (My uncle Dave)

*****No distracting photographs of pubic hair (Also my uncle Dave)

 

Fake Interview: Stumpy Sue

The Gnome Appreciation Society has an interview with Stumpy Sue that some of you might enjoy.

(Warning: Includes swear words and a dead Keanu Reeves)

Gnome Appreciation Society

RockyVSueI would like to welcome our first literary character to the Interview chair. Stumpy Sue is the awesome 11 year old hacker chick from the novel Fowl Play by Jay Spencer Green, You can see my review of this book HERE>.  

Hello Sue, how do you do?  (hehe), nice to have you here in this groundbreaking literary/reality crossover. 

Q1. My first question has to be about the sport Chicker.  You are the mascot right?  Have you got to wear a costume?  Also any chance you could explain how the sport works?  Maybe give me the run down on the rules?

This is my costume. On non-game days, I’m a 17-stone pie-eating nightclub bouncer with steroid problems and a fondness for the works of Jean Genet. Need to keep the public at arm’s length, know what I mean? As to the rules of Chicker, FIIK. Go ask someone…

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A Poultry Affair

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Just to keep your pecker up, here’s a preview of the cover for my third novel, Fowl Play, winging its way in your direction sometime soon. Yet another fantastic design from the brilliant, beautiful, and beneficent Jon Langford, who never ceases to amaze. Here’s the blurb for those of you who don’t want to squint:

Ladies’ man Josiah Joshua Jordan King is a rising star for the Trafford Titans in the new and wildly popular sport of Chicker. But he’s also a professional hitman and union-buster for the league’s management.

With the European final looming against Barcelona, Jo gets wind of a filthy commie plot to scupper the whole shebang. Can he lead his team to victory while neutralizing the filthy Reds, or will his dreams of international glory be thwarted by a dastardly conspiracy that threatens civilization itself?

A mutant hybrid of Rollerball, The Wicker Man, and Chicken Run, Fowl Play is satirist Jay Spencer Green at his weirdest and most outlandish, a laugh-out-loud dark comedy in which the headless chickens are not confined to the farmyard.