From the Ocean Floor: Death, Memory and the Atlantic Slave Trade

This post is part of our online roundtable on Sowande’ Mustakeem’s Slavery at Sea

Jason deCaires Taylor, “Vicissitudes”

At the ocean floor off the coast of Grenada stands the underwater sculpture of 26 children holding hands. Titled Vicissitudes, many have attributed the monument to those lost in the Atlantic Slave Trade, though sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor denies this purpose. Instead, he is quoted as saying that this sculpture and others he created were meant to provide Grenada’s reef a “break,” while being mindful of the environment of the sea and local culture. Despite DeCaires Taylor’s platitudes against naming the sculptures as a monument to the Atlantic slave trade, that so many make this connection speaks of a need to reconcile with the horror of chattel slavery. For many, the sculptures function as a way to make peace with the past. They provide an outlet to honor those lost.

Honoring the dead is precisely where Sowande’ Mustakeem enters the historiography on Africans and the Middle Passage. With few exceptions, the history of the Middle Passage is told through a quantitative lens: How many people were shipped? How many arrived? How many were lost at sea? Often lost is the connection that before they were commodities, Africans were people. As Mustakeem’s masterful study suggests, understanding the Atlantic Slave Trade is more than counting the upwards of 9.5 million who arrived in the Western World. The Atlantic Slave Trade is also about fusing the qualitative with the qualitative. In essence, Mustakeem asks readers to understand the Middle passage from the standpoint of the men, women and children confined to the hull of leaking “waterlogged coffins.”

Slavery at Sea makes four important contributions to studies of the Middle Passage. First, Mustakeem argues that the Middle Passage should be seen as the first part of the human production process. In this way, slavery was not a phenomenon experienced once captives disembarked, but rather, as Mustakeem suggests, slavery began in that liminal space at sea. By repositioning what the author calls the “refinement process,” from land to the slave ship, Mustakeem challenges the notion that the plantation was first initiation into the world of chattel slavery. Viewed from within Mustakeem’s daring paradigm, the experiences at sea constituted the first phase of enslavement. Second, she challenges notions that only able-bodies men were kidnapped, traded and transported to the Americas. Mustakeem gives voice to how women, children, the disabled and the elderly experienced the Maafa that was the Middle Passage. Third, by archiving diverse and painful experiences, Mustakeem engages simultaneously with studies of slavery, the history of medicine and the history of emotion.  Finally, though subtle (or perhaps not so subtle), Mustakeem acknowledges that this seven-chapter study serves as a way to honor slavery’s dead.

Death is all encompassing and ever present in Slavery At Sea. For this reason, I use death both as a metaphor and praxis when discussing Mustakeem’s work. It is too simplistic to say that death in Mustakeem’s work is the same social death espoused by Orlando Patterson. Mustakeem demonstrates that death goes beyond kinlessness and dislocation. In the accounts of sickness and terror aboard slave ships, death was an active protagonist. Death was present in decisions slavers made about throwing diseased “cargo” overboard; decisions of captives to revolt and suffer the consequences if caught;as well as death from disease, depression and suicide to name but a few.

Captives being brought on board a slave ship on the West Coast of Africa (Slave Coast), c1880. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

If death is the archive, medical accounts are the evidence. In 1788, the British Parliament Slave Trade Act ruled that medical doctors must be present aboard slavers. As Mustakeem notes, this ruling coincided with the British government’s vested interest in the slave trading industry. The general sanitation and treatment of the enslaved was seen as protecting against disease and loss of revenue for the Crown. Mustakeem’s examples are visceral and unforgettable such as when discussing male captives aboard the Venus who died when their scrotums were ripped off their body (p. 145). Their skin had welded to the irons and the constant rocking of the boat—the very boat carrying them to ensure live cargo—killed them. Mustakeem provides equally lamentable examples of death and disease concerning African women often died of reproductive illnesses and venereal diseases—venereal diseases that were not present when women boarded the boat but appeared once they came “in contact” with crew members.  In these examples, the generative reproductive organs would not produce life. The women were sterile—in essence and in truth they were reproductively dead.

Mustakeem has a particular gift for capturing the emotion of the enslaved as well as the restless nature of their ghosts. In presenting these accounts Mustakeem is in a cohort of scholars who uses the study of emotion to capture the unimaginable. Mustakeem presents archival evidence that to borrow from Marisa Fuentes, if listened to carefully, one can hear the enslaved scream.

In the epilogue, Mustakeem notes that the Middle Passage should be viewed as a war of the soul (p. 189). In dealing with the cosmology of Africans, Mustakeem shines. In addition to discussing their diverse worldviews, one can almost feel the call to Yemoja, the Yoruba Orisha that protects waterways. Yet it is not enough to count on the protection of Orishas and ancestors, and Mustakeem calls for individuals to acknowledge (to borrow from Nell Painter) the soul murder of Africans.

Mustakeem privileges a quote from Penny Dreadful: “Did you imagine that I was dead? That I could die? You know better Frankenstein…Stand and Face me!” Though the link to Frankenstein and his creation could be lost, Mustakeem skillfully reconciles the “birth” of the enslaved individual, the consumptive nature of greed (the slave trade), the ethereal energy of death with acts of commemoration. Mustakeem asks, “How are the dead remembered?” Mustakeem notes that teaching and writing about the experiences of the enslaved can bring their stories to light. Mustakeem brings the enslaved to life in a manner that haunts the reader.

“United States Slave Trade, 1830,” Cartoon Prints Collection (Library of Congress)

I do have some specific questions for the author. Throughout the book, Mustakeem chooses to use the term “slave” versus enslaved. And it is unclear why. Is it to support the argument that Africans were “slaves” from the minute of their capture—prior to boarding a boat? Does using “slave” support the argument of slavery at sea in a way that using “enslaved” does not? Is it to show a more symbolic social death than previously conceived?

Second, Mustakeem is tentative to enter in to the conversation of when Africans moved from free person, to captive, to slave. In essence when did the person “die” and become a slave? Stephanie Smallwood suggests that the process included a process of commodification that transitioned the captive from African to the enslaved. Some scholars have pointed to a camaraderie among those enslaved on the ship. While I do not go so far as to agree that enslaved people saw each other fondly as shipmates as espoused by my colleague Alex Borucki, I was interested in learning more about the collective vs. the individual. Perhaps this is a romantic exaggeration of unity on my part? Yet, Marcus Rediker’s work suggests that specific communities linked by ethnicity and spirituality existed and perpetuated the Amistad Rebellion. Does Mustakeem follow Walter Johnson’s caution that we should not see resistance at every turn?

Honoring the dead, especially for a scholar of the enslaved, requires piecing together an archive from those held captive on land and on waterways. We wrestle with how to accurately construct the relationship between human bondage, memory and death. Mustakeem’s work provides a compelling model by merging the spiritual, and the archival with the horrific.  What does it mean then when Yemoja and Frankenstein meet? For scholars of the enslaved it means that in honoring lost souls one has to contend with an archive of the unimaginable.  This task is even more daunting when conveying the atrocities of slavery to the general public. From the ocean floor, those lost to the slave trade are calling for recognition, and in Slavery at Sea, Mustakeem not only heeded their call but also provided a model for other scholars to follow.


Jessica Millward

Jessica Millward is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at UC Irvine. Her research focuses on slavery in early America, African American history as well as women and gender. Dr. Millward's first book, Finding Charity’s Folk: Enslaved and Free Black women in Maryland was published as part of the Race in the Atlantic World series, Athens: University of Georgia Press (2015). Follow her on Twitter @drjmil.