PITTSBURGH - Over more than three centuries, more than 12 million Africans were loaded on ships, bound for the Americas to be slaves.
Aboard the slaver, or Guineaman, as the vessels were also known, the kidnapped Africans frequently had to travel in living quarters as cramped as coffins, and suffered savage beatings, outright torture and death to quell uprisings and forced dancing to keep them fit.
While the plantation system and other aspects of slavery have been widely studied, the history of the slave ship itself is largely unknown, says historian Marcus Rediker, author of "The Slave Ship - A Human History."
"What I'm basically interested in is how captains, ship captains, officers, sailors and the slave interacted with the slave ship. What was the actual reality? Of course, it was quite horrifying," said Rediker, a University of Pittsburgh history professor. "In many respects, the development of the Americas through slavery and the plantation system is unthinkable without the slave ship."
For a couple hundred years, most people thought they knew what happened during the Atlantic crossing, Rediker says. Abolitionists had produced evidence of life aboard slave ships, but many scholars were suspicious of what they'd gathered, thinking it propaganda.
Perhaps the most significant reason for lack of scholarship, he says, is an assumption that "history happens on land, that the landed masses of the world are the real places and that the seas in between are a kind of void."
Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland professor who has written about slavery said Rediker's book addresses a difficult subject.
"And that is what happened to slaves and others in the middle passage. It speaks with great authority and he's able to balance his knowledge with his deep anger with what has transpired," Berlin said. "It has an edge of moral outrage which gives it a certain kind of authenticity."
Rediker acknowledges a fascination with elements of the sea and seafaring, the romance and adventure of pirates and explorers, but says, "We're fascinated by all tall ships except the most important one, and that's the slave ship. And that one we can hardly bear to look at."
Slave ships arrived on the west coast of Africa, where it took an average of six months to gather the entire human cargo of slaves. The middle passage, as the journey to the Americas was known, could take eight to 13 weeks. Death was common. Some 1.5 million Africans died, either of sickness, suicide or by murder-as-example. Crews also faced death, either by illness, insurrection or sinking.
In one example in the book, an African man who refused to eat was tied up and lashed with a horse whip until he was raw and bloody "from his neck to his ankles."
After the beating, Captain Timothy Tucker ate his dinner, then returned to inflict more punishment to prevent the man - who had apparently decided to end his life by self starvation - from inspiring others to starve themselves.
Tucker ordered a cabin boy to get his pistols. He pointed a pistol at the man's head and told him he'd kill him if he refused to eat. The man replied "Adomma" in his native tongue - "so be it."
Tucker fired into the man's forehead. The man clapped his hand to his wound, but did not die. Tucker placed the gun to the man's ear and fired again. Again, he did not die. Tucker then ordered another sailor to shoot the man through the heart, which finally killed him.
"Captains ruled this potentially rebellious mass of humanity by enacting terrible examples, enacting violence and terror on one in an effort to cow the rest," Rediker says.
Slaves, who far outnumbered the crew, also plotted rebellion.
"What's impressed me in doing this research, is even though the odds of insurrection were low, enslaved people kept trying. They kept trying," Rediker says. "They refused to accept this reality and the captain and the sailors assumed the enslaved would rise up and kill them given half a chance, to escape this horrible reality of the ship and this slavery they were being carried into."
A prevalent west African religious belief that when someone died, they would return to homeland, also prompted suicides.
"They would jump overboard. Captains put netting around the rail to prevent them from doing that. Some would actually try to cut their own throat with their fingernails. This was a desperate business," Rediker notes.
Life was not much better aboard the slaver for common sailors, many of whom were duped into signing up for duty. Men were often rounded up while drinking in pubs or yanked from jails.
Once the kidnapped Africans were delivered to slave markets in Jamaica, South Carolina and elsewhere, captains frequently forced sailors - who, after all, had to be paid - off the ships, bilking them of their wages.
"You need a lot of sailors to guard the slaves on the middle passage, but once you've sold the slaves, you need a much smaller crew to return to the home port," the author says. "So these sailors become beggars, and many of them close to death ... were nightmarish in appearance."
Rediker discovered that frequently, slaves took the sailors into their huts and cared for them.
"This is a very powerful and hopeful commentary that people who suffered tremendously on board these ships could have this compassion for other people who were literally their prison guards, who were now suffering because of their own experience aboard the ship," Rediker says. "It's just a stunning thing."
Eventually, abolitionists focused on the horrors of the slave ship, which help lead to the outlaw of the slave trade two centuries ago. "The slave trade happened far beyond the shores of most people's experience. (The public) really didn't know what happened on these ships," Rediker says.
A print of the slave ship Brooks, showing slaves packed sardinelike below deck in the ship, which was published in England and America, was particularly effective in the campaign against slavery. Rediker devotes a chapter to the print.
"Once (the public) could see the physical layout of bodies, they were struck with horror: What must that be like?"
The book also details the work of British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who traveled to Liverpool and Bristol in 1787 to gather information about the slave trade. While ship merchants and captains refused to talk with him, he gathered evidence from sailors that fueled the abolitionist movement.
The slave trade was abolished in Britain in 1807 and in America in 1808.
Rediker also devotes a chapter to John Newton, the slave ship captain perhaps best known for writing the hymn "Amazing Grace." Newton had a Christian conversion while a slave captain, but did not immediately renounce the trade and continued to serve as a captain until a stroke forced him to retire.
He did not write "Amazing Grace" until well after his retirement.
"The dark side of our history is one we don't like to face, and yet, I believe that progress depends on coming to grips with it," Rediker says.
On The Net:
Marcus Rediker's Web site: http://www.marcusrediker.com