Unearthing the Human Stories of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

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

“The American Slave,” Illustration in Pearson’s Magazine, 1900, From Freedom to Slavery Collection (Schomburg Center Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division)

Buyers like George Washington were invariably precise when it came to the humans they purchased. As the Virginia planter specified in 1772, he preferred bondpeople “not exceeding” twenty years of age, and he desired men more than young women. “Let there be two thirds of them Males, the other third Females,” he instructed Daniel Adams, who conducted his purchases. “All of them to be straight Limb’ed & in every respect strong and likely, with good Teeth & good Countenances” (p. 1).

How and where procurers such as Adams acquired the strength needed to run Mount Vernon is a story often missing from accounts of slavery on the American mainland (which until recent decades was dominated by studies of those American-born slaves who labored in late antebellum cotton fields). Nevertheless, the topic was not completely ignored. For instance, as early as 1896, W.E.B. Du Bois published his pioneering study of the lengthy battle to outlaw the traffic of humans. Yet monographs on slavery outnumbered studies of international trade by perhaps ten to one although, as historian Donald R. Wright has observed, until roughly 1820, more Africans than Europeans shipped west across the Atlantic. And sparked by the 1969 publication of Philip D. Curtain’s The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, specialists increasingly sought to quantify the precise number of Africans lost to their native continent, as well as the exact number of enslaved Africans who arrived alive in the Americas (p. 2).

As important as that line of inquiry was—for numbers do matter—the debate unintentionally minimized the horror and tragedy of the Middle Passage by privileging cold data over human stories. This omission was addressed by two stunning works, both published in 2007: Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History and Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Now, in a reminder that there is always something fresh and important to say about a topic as momentous as this one, Sowandé M. Mustakeem’s Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex and Sickness in the Middle Passage expands and deepens our understanding of this massive movement of peoples and illuminates the desire of buyers like Washington to purchase only “straight Limb’ed” males.

Like other scholars who have written about the trade, Mustakeem organizes her story both geographically and chronologically, as her study begins in Atlantic Africa and then moves west. Each chapter is insightful in its own right, but two are particularly revelatory. Chapter 2, “Imagined Bodies,” examines age, gender, health, and disability in a way that no previous study has done. As Mustakeem observes, while all captives were evaluated by coastal shippers on the basis of sound bodies and minds, African women were examined also for their beauty and reproductive capacity. One British merchant insisted that, although he preferred to purchase two men for every woman, the latter must be “good & Beautiful” (p. 39), given the sexual demands of white colonists, and the ability to produce the next generation of unfree laborers always bested attractiveness. Merchants especially emphasized breasts as indicators of age and value. Although discussions of enslaved bodies have of course appeared in earlier accounts, Mustakeem notes also how slavers often valued nurturing abilities in women who might help care for the few children aboard their ships. One trader instructed his crewmen to identify “some motherly Woman, to take care of this poor Child” (p. 41).

Capture of the American slave ship Martha by the USS Perry off the coast of Angola, 1850, Africa and the American Flag Collection (Schomburg Center Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division)

Aware that American buyers sought young, healthy workers who might survive the brutal “seasoning” period after arrival, African traders tried to avoid acquiring disabled slaves, or if they did, hid the infirmity from prospective buyers. Trader John Newton fretted that one woman “had a very bad mouth” and blamed his foolishness for not having “bought her cheaper” (p. 48). Another seller insisted that a slave covered nearly to his knees with mud had just arrived on the coast; only after the African’s purchase did the buyer discover that the mud had been applied to disguise a case of leprosy.

The final chapter, “A Tide of Bodies,” ingeniously reconceives the familiar narrative of resale upon reaching American harbors. Most accounts depict this as the end of the story, and indeed, the very term “Middle Passage” suggests a clear break prior to the beginning of a new saga of enslaved Africans in the New World. Mustakeem, however, demonstrates that the violence and deprivation suffered aboard the ships conditioned slaves for the coming brutality of life as a commodity. As had African sellers, ship captains readied their human wares by rubbing the Africans down with oil to disguise cracked skin and, in some cases, shaving their heads to eliminate bacteria and any grey hairs that revealed their ages. Whether sold on the ships or in seaport pens, Africans already traumatized by the seaborne passage were poked, prodded, and examined by countless prospective buyers. Mustakeem observes,

Psychologically scarred from their forcible exile, slaves were followed by distress not only as their lives were publicly determined and solidified by the needs of strangers, agents, and buyers, but they also found themselves insulated within yet another violent world of disorienting trauma—this time off ship.

Many of the Africans who were already unwell when they boarded ships only grew weaker during the voyages. No amount of scrubbing or oiling could hide serious and debilitating conditions. One merchant reported that he quickly sold his human cargo but for two of the men who were “sick & lame in their thighs, [with] one almost blind” (p. 173). As Mustakeem wisely observes early on, the “voices of those enslaved do not always exist where we would like,” and as a result it becomes difficult to know just how many disabled bondpersons resided in American slave societies, or indeed even how many of those labeled as incapacitated upon reaching American ports began their journey with disabilities (p. 14). In some cases, of course, the scars received aboard ships were sometimes hard for buyers to see. One Barbadian planter complained that the two girls he had purchased were “so low [in spirit] that I had as Good knock them in y’e head as Protend to carry them away” (pp. 178-9). The seaborne wounds gained during the Middle Passage were carried ashore and lasted as long as any visible lacerations. Thoroughly grounded in both archival documents and secondary literature and passionately argued, Slavery at Sea is a remarkable achievement and one that hints at the important scholarship to come from Mustakeem.


Doug Egerton

Doug Egerton is Professor of History at LeMoyne College. His work deals with the intersections between race and politics in early America. His books include Thunder At the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America (Basic Books, 2016), The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (Bloomsbury, 2014), Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War (Bloomsbury, 2010), and Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Comments on “Unearthing the Human Stories of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

  • I am loving the work you do keep it up

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