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Slave Ship Sailors: New World Maritime History

Updated on March 26, 2011

Slave Ship Sailors...

This book was created as a revision of Emma Christopher’s Doctoral dissertation, placing it into book form.  Christopher earned her PhD from the University College in London in 2002, and also traveled extensively over the Atlantic region to research this field.  She also wrote many other articles on the slave trade and convict transportation, and is considered an expert in those areas.  Even though she intersperses many quotes and lively expressions of the day for the 18th century into her book, the addition of more pictures or photographs would really help to draw the reader into the unfolding story, as opposed to the few illustrations included now.  She also successfully attempts to tie in the subject of liberty with regards to the slave trade shipping sailors to their fellow black sailors, in addition to the other captive blacks below decks.  Freedoms normally assumed for non-sailors are studied in depth in relation to the freedoms or liberties afforded aboard these vessels.

One thing that Christopher does not do very well is bring the reader up to date on various terms or ideas when she first introduces them.  For instance, no place in the book does she explain the reference to “Jack Tar” or what it means in relation to maritime shipping for that time period.  As a reader, it can be easy to assume that it is either a term of endearment or disrespect for the sailors and deckhands of most ships, including the slave trade industry; however it should be explicitly spelled out for the intended reader so that assumptions are not needed.  In another spot in the book, Christopher mentions a location known only as “Maghreb”, which again can be assumed to be somewhere on the Barbary Coast.  By not assuming that the reader understands information such as this, the book would probably be more interesting for many other people. 

Slave Ship Sailors...

The author seems to do a good job in regards to her dissertation subject with expounding on the lives of common seamen working on slave trader ships during the 1700’s. She seems to leave no stone unturned, and delves into the personal areas of these men including why and how they came to be there, impressments by the Royal Navy and other ships, their relation to and how they viewed black seamen who they were shipmates with, how they were treated by the ships officers and captain, and how they spent their “liberty” while away from the ship. It seems that most lowly sailors of the day were not there by choice, but by necessity due to the economic conditions at home. If a man had no real skills that could translate into a viable occupation ashore, sometimes the only option left to him was a life on the open sea and risking life and liberty in order to earn an income. Others were forcibly either “shanghaied” into serving onboard a slaving vessel through illicit bars and drinking establishments, or officially impressed into service by the various governments in the area, mainly the British Royal Navy.

Christopher uses a variety of graphs and charts associated with the numbers of slaves exported from Africa during the timeframe of the book and what their destinations were with regards to the New World. However, a reference to “Rhode Island Slave Ships” that appears in several locations does not explain very well what it is that the author means by the phrase. It could be just a general or generic term, but it seems that there is something more official or specific she wants to communicate, such as a shipping company by that name. Unfortunately, the reader is left to his own assumptions in that area and many others in the book. The format of the book is also something that the author should rethink, as it is in totally black and white form with only a few drawings or illustrations to break up the monotony of extended reading. A few pages of color would be nice to help draw the reader into the book, and for a much needed visual break.

Slave Ship Sailors...

One of the premises of the dissertation is that sailors of all colors and races fit into the shipboard camaraderie very easily with most of the Europeans not having a problem at all with other sailor’s skin color or differences. That seems very likely, because on long ocean voyages each sailor depends on the next for his own safety and welfare. Once a sailor was onboard and doing his job, he was accepted just like any other man. They lived among each other on a day to day basis and there was not much room for intense squabbling or infighting among the common sailors. They also enjoyed liberty ashore together at times, and most of them had the same entertainment interests, which usually included the local drinking establishments and houses of prostitution. So as long as a fellow sailor did his job, no matter what color he was, he usually was accepted by his fellow seamen. Christopher did a very good job in describing this interaction among the sailors, which may also have helped stir the fires of liberty and freedom in the seaports around the world, especially once arriving back home in England or other home country.

Even though this book can be very dry at times with regard to the subject matter, Christopher conveyed what life as a common slave ship seaman must have been like at that time in history. According to her, most men who signed on voluntarily to a slave ship did so only because there was no other viable work to be found. A non slave ship was much preferable, but if there was none hiring in their area they still had to make a living, and often joining up was the only alternative for them. Captains and ship owners viewed them as a liability on the balance sheet, but a necessary one. This book is a very interesting and useful read for anyone that has ever wondered about the slave ship sailor and how he was viewed by others, and his associated interactions with the slave cargo.

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