NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14993517/14993501" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Slave Trade Satire Shows Dark Abolitionist 'Humor'

Around the Nation

Slave Trade Satire Shows Dark Abolitionist 'Humor'

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/14993517/14993501" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

History professor Marcus Rediker discovered "The Petition of the Sharks of Africa." He is the author of The Slave Ship: A Human History. Bill Bollendorf hide caption

toggle caption
Bill Bollendorf

A recently discovered, 18th-century satire petitions the British Parliament not to end the African slave trade — for the sake of African sharks. The disturbing satire is written in the voice of sharks that ate the bodies of slaves who jumped or were thrown overboard from slave ships.

Marcus Rediker, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, discovered "The Petition of the Sharks of Africa." He discusses the document and his new book, The Slave Ship: A Human History.

Excerpt: 'The Slave Ship'

Slave Ship Book Cover

Captains believed that exercise was essential to the health of the enslaved aboard the ship. The slaves were forced to dance on deck each day. Courtesy of the Haverford College Library hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of the Haverford College Library

Captains believed that exercise was essential to the health of the enslaved aboard the ship. The slaves were forced to dance on deck each day.

Courtesy of the Haverford College Library

The slave ship was a floating prison in which the captives outnumbered the guards by an order of 10 to one; male prisoners and rebellious females were shackled to limit their capacity to resist. Collection of the Author hide caption

toggle caption
Collection of the Author

The slave ship was a floating prison in which the captives outnumbered the guards by an order of 10 to one; male prisoners and rebellious females were shackled to limit their capacity to resist.

Collection of the Author

The "cat" was used to move people around the decks, to "stow" them below decks, and to punish them for infractions. The nine knotted tails were designed to lacerate the flesh and maximize pain. National Maritime Museum hide caption

toggle caption
National Maritime Museum

The "cat" was used to move people around the decks, to "stow" them below decks, and to punish them for infractions. The nine knotted tails were designed to lacerate the flesh and maximize pain.

National Maritime Museum

Introduction

Lying in the bottom of the canoe in three or four inches of dirty water with a woven mat thrown over her travel weary body, the woman could feel the rhythmic pull of the paddles by the Bonny canoemen, but could not see where they were taking her. She had travelled three moons from the interior, much of it by canoe along the rivers and through the swamps. Several times along the way, she had been sold. In the canoe-house barracoon where she and dozens of others had been held for several days, she learned that this leg of the journey was nearing its end. Now she wiggled upward against the wet torso of another prostrate captive, then against the side of the canoe, so she could raise her head and peer above the bow. Ahead lay the "owba coocoo," the dreaded ship, made to cross the "big water." She had heard about it in the most heated threats made in the village, where to be sold to the white men and taken aboard the owba coocoo was the worst punishment imaginable.

Again and again the canoe pitched up and down on the foamy surf and each time the nose dipped she could glimpse the ship like an oddly shaped island on the horizon. As they came closer it seemed more like a huge wooden box with three tall spikes ascending. The wind picked up and she caught a peculiar but not unfamiliar odor of sweat, the pungency of fear with a sour trail of sickness. A shudder rippled through her body.

To the left of the canoe, she saw a sandbar and made a decision. The paddles plashed gently in the water, two, three, four times, and she jumped over the side, swimming furiously to escape her captors. She heard splashes as a couple of the canoe-men jumped in after her. No sooner had they hit the water than she heard a new commotion, looked back, and saw them pulling themselves back into the canoe. As she waded onto the edge of the sandbar, she saw a large, stocky grey shark, about eight feet long, with a blunt, rounded snout and small eyes, gliding alongside the canoe as it came directly at her. Cursing, the men clubbed the shark with their paddles, beached the watercraft, jumped out, and came after her. There was nowhere to run on the sandbar and the shark made it impossible to return to the water. She fought, to no avail. The men lashed rough vine around her wrists and legs, and threw her back into the bottom of the canoe. They resumed paddling and soon began to sing. After a while she could hear, at first faintly, then with increasing clarity, other sounds — the waves slapping the hull of the big ship, its timbers creaking. Then came muffled screaming in a strange language.

The ship grew larger and more terrifying with every vigorous stroke of the paddles. The smells grew stronger and the sounds louder — crying and wailing from one quarter, low plaintive singing from another; the anarchic noise of children given an underbeat by drumming on wood; the odd comprehensible word or two wafting through: someone asking for menney, water, another laying a curse, appealing to myabecca, spirits. As the canoemen maneuvered their vessel up alongside, she saw dark faces, framed by small holes in the side of the ship above the water line, staring intently. Above her, dozens of black women and children and a few red faced men peered over the rail. They had seen the attempted escape on the sandbar. The men had cutlasses and barked orders in harsh, raspy voices. She had arrived at the slave ship.

The canoe-men untied the lashing and pushed the woman toward a rope ladder, which she ascended with fifteen others, from her canoe and two others, everyone naked. Several of the men climbed up with them, as did the black trader in a gold-laced hat who had escorted them from the canoe house to the owba coocoo. Most of the people in her group, herself included, were amazed by what they saw, but a couple of the male captives seemed strangely at ease, even speaking to the white men in their own tongue. Here was a world unto itself with tall, shaved, limbless trees, strange instruments, and a high-reaching system of ropes. Pigs, goats, and fowl milled around the main deck. One of the white men had a local parrot, another a monkey. The owba coocoo was so big it even had its own ewba wanta (small boat) on board. Another white man, filthy in his person, leered at her, made a lewd gesture, and tried to grope her. She lunged at the man, digging her fingernails into his face, bringing blood in several places before he recovered, disentangled himself from her, and lashed her sharply three times with a small whip he was carrying. The black trader intervened and hustled her away.

As she recovered her composure, she surveyed the faces of the other prisoners on the main deck. All of them were young, some of them children. In her village she was considered middling in age, but here she was one of the oldest. She had been purchased only because the clever black trader had sold a large group in a lot, leaving the captain no choice but to take what he was offered, all or none. On the ship she would be an elder.

Many of the people on deck seemed to speak her language, Igbo, although many of them differently from herself. She recognized a couple of other groups of people from her home region, the simple Appas and the darker, more robust Ottams. Many of the captives, she would learn later, had been on board the ship for months. The first two had been named Adam and Eve by the sailors. Three or four were sweeping the deck; many were washing up. Sailors handed out small wooden bowls for the afternoon meal. The ship's cook served beef and bread to some, the more familiar yams with palm oil to others.

The main deck bustled with noisy activity. A white man with black skin, a sailor, screamed domona! (quiet) against the din. Two other white men seemed to be especially important to everything that happened. The big man on board was the captain, whose words caused the other white men to jump. He and the doctor busily checked the newcomers — head, eyes, teeth, limbs, and belly. They inspected a family, a husband, wife, and child, who had come aboard together from her canoe. The man was taken, with tears in his eyes, through the barricado door into the forward part of the ship. From beyond the barrier she heard the cries of another man getting pem pem, a beating. She recognized his anguished intonation as Ibibio.

Soon after she had been examined, a white man barked at her, "Get below! Now! Hurry!" and pushed her toward a big square hole in the deck. A young woman standing nearby feared that she did not understand the order and whispered urgently, "Gemalla! Geyen gwango!" As she descended the rungs of a ladder into the lower deck a horrific stench assaulted her nostrils and suddenly made her dizzy, weak, queasy. She knew it as the smell of awawo, death. It emanated from two sick women lying alone in a dark corner, unattended, near the athasa, or "mess-tub," as the white men called it. The women died the following day, their bodies thrown overboard. Almost instantaneously the surrounding waters broke, swirled, and reddened. The shark that had followed her canoe had its meal at last.

* This reconstruction of the woman's experience is based loosely on an account by sailor William Butterworth of a woman who came aboard his vessel, the Hudibras, in 1786 in Old Calabar in the Bight of Biafra. Other details are culled from numerous primary source descriptions of captives transported by canoe to the slave ships. Igbo words are taken from a vocabulary list collected by Captain Hugh Crow during his voyages to Bonny, a different port in the same region. See William Butterworth [Henry Schroder], Three Years Adventures of a Minor, in England, Africa, and the West Indies, South Carolina and Georgia (Leeds: Edward Barnes, 1822), 81-82, and Memoirs of the Late Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool. Comprising a Narrative of his Life together with Descriptive Sketches of the Western Coast of Africa, particularly in Bonny, the Manners and Customs of the Inhabitants, the Production of the Soil, and the Trade of the Country, to which are added Anecdotes and Observations illustrative of the Negro Character, chiefly compiled from his own Manuscripts: with Authentic Additions from Recent Voyages and Approved Authors (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1830; rpt. London: Frank Cass & Co., 1970), 229-230. See also Robert Smith, "The Canoe in West African History," Journal of African History 11(1970), 515-533. A "moon" was a common West African way of reckoning time, equal roughly to a month.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Slave Ship Copyright © Marcus Rediker, 2007

Books Featured In This Story

The Slave Ship

A Human History

by Marcus Rediker

Hardcover, 434 pages |

purchase

Buy Featured Book

Title
The Slave Ship
Subtitle
A Human History
Author
Marcus Rediker

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?