Slave Trade Satire Shows Dark Abolitionist 'Humor' 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.

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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

We've been discussing online networking. But ideas went viral long before the Internet came around. Two centuries ago, the U.S. and Britain ended the slave trade, thanks in part to what amounted to a viral social movement. Most of us tend to think of abolitionists as somber, devout puritans, and that the slave trade ended thanks to a handful of aristocrats. But that's not the whole story.

While researching his new book, Marcus Rediker stumbled on a document entitled "The Petition of the Sharks of Africa." It turns out that the sharks had a steak in the slave trade.

Marcus Rediker is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. His upcoming book is called "The Slave Ship." And his op-ed about the sharks' petition and the slave trade appeared in The Boston Globe recently. He joins us now from member station WKQED in Pittsburgh. And Marcus Rediker, thanks for joining us.

Dr. MARCUS REDIKER (Professor of History, University of Pittsburgh; Author, The Slave Ship: A Human History): Thank you, Anthony.

BROOKS: Now in the op-ed, you referred to the petition of the sharks as a vivid and harsh piece of satire. Tell us about this document.

Dr. REDIKER: This was a document that was probably the most surprising that I found in the course of my research for this new book, "The Slave Ship." And when I began - when I first found it, I really was not at all sure what it was, what it meant. It was so surprising. Basically, an abolitionist in Edinburgh, Scotland pretended to be writing a petition on behalf of the sharks of Africa to parliament, saying, in essence - please don't abolish the slave trade because if you do, we, sharks, will lose our favorite food, meaning the bodies of human beings who are thrown overboard, over the sides of these vessels every day.

BROOKS: So talk about this, I mean, this is based - I mean, this obviously refers to something very true. The slave ships that were moving from Africa to the new world, frequently bodies would be tossed over, what, to make room for space or because they were dying - either of those two reasons, correct?

Dr. REDIKER: That is correct. Abolitionists made a great deal of the fact that sharks were known to gather around the slave ships and to consume the corpses of the Africans who died on the middle passage. I wanted to know if this was actually true, so I spoke with some specialists in modern shark behavior and learned that sharks could indeed follow deep-sea sailing vessels for a long time because they could be easily trained to a source of food. So these slave ships frequently had levels of high mortality; bodies would be thrown overboard - although I might mention, both the enslaved and the sailors, the crew of the ship - and sharks would consume them in most grisly and terrifying ways.

BROOKS: Well, take us back - you're an historian, what was the effect? What would have been the effect of this kind of satire injected into this very, you know, emotional debate about slavery?

Dr. REDIKER: Well, it is important to understand, Anthony, that this document appeared in 1792 after five years of intensive campaigning against the slave trade. 1787 to 1792 was a period in which people all over Britain and up and down the East Coast of the United States were campaigning against the trade. So this actually appeared at a moment when victory was within reach, and, in fact, the kind of national consensus grew up in Britain that the slave trade should be abolished. The thing that makes this document so remarkable is that it was a very daring kind of humor, daring to make light of a situation that everyone had come to know about precisely because the abolitionists had made it a national issue.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. We're talking to Marcus Rediker. He's a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. And we're talking to him about an op-ed piece that he wrote for the Boston Globe entitled "Slavery: A Shark's perspective. A strange text sheds new light on the true roots of abolition."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Marcus Rediker, tell us a little bit about the person who wrote this piece. His name, James Tytler, do I have that right?

Dr. REDIKER: Yes, you do. James Tytler.

BROOKS: And he wasn't your typical abolitionist, was he?

Dr. REDIKER: Well, he was a man who had a most unusual career path, if we may say so. He was a physician. He was a poet. He was a composer. He was one of the early editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. And he was Great Britain's first hot air balloonist. I think quite remarkably, he was also a political radical who got into trouble for writing things like "The Petition of the Sharks of Africa," and was forced into exile not very long after he wrote it. 1793, he went to Ireland and eventually to Salem, Massachusetts.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Well, we have a caller on the line. Mark(ph) is calling from Salt Lake City. Hi, Mark. You're on the air.

MARK (Caller): Hi. I was just wondering if you're familiar with the J.M.W. Turner painting of the slave ship which has sharks in the foreground feeding on the bodies that they've been throwing overboard. It's very abstract, but you can distinguish the sharks in it.

BROOKS: Very interesting. Marcus Rediker, have you seen that?

Dr. REDIKER: That image is on the cover of my book.

MARK: Oh, okay. Great.

Dr. REDIKER: It is a very powerful painting. And, in fact, it is based on a specific incident in which a ship captain in 1781 threw several live people over board - they were sick, and he hoped to collect insurance premiums on them. This became a matter of some publicity when the insurance company refused to pay the premium. And the - at that point, youthful abolitionist movement made a great deal of it. But I would agree that that painting by Turner is one of the very best depictions of the horrors of the slave trade.

BROOKS: Mark, thanks for the call. And I appreciate it because, you know, here, I've got a copy of your book right in front of me and there's the painting. It's nice to know who it's by.

What does this document, Marcus Rediker, what does it say about the abolitionist movement that we might not have understood - that is who were the actual forces behind the end of the slave trade?

Dr. REDIKER: I think, Anthony, for the longest time, we believe that the abolitionists, both in England and America, were very earnest, serious, somber middle and upper class people who had some sort of lofty moral station and objection to the slave trade. But what we found in recent years is that the abolitionist movement itself was extremely diverse, that it contained within it a great many different kinds of people.

And I would emphasize the importance of the enslaved themselves aboard the slave ships who in fact fought back fiercely in every conceivable way against the condition they were in. They were part of the movement, as were sailors -sailors, who, in fact, told their stories of slave ships to abolitionists like Thomas Clarkson, who, in turn, circulated that information in building a national movement.

Working people like men and women in factories, what Blake called dark, satanic mills, signed petitions for an end to slavery. So we're discovering that a great many people had a hand in this important event ending the slave trade.

BROOKS: And in the piece, in your op-ed piece, you talk about why it's so important to understand this today, to understand this sort of rich tapestry of opposition that there was to slavery at the time.

Dr. REDIKER: If we understand that the movement that brought abolition to an end was broad-based and included many different kinds of people, I think that might actually help us as we begin to discuss how the injustice of slavery in the slave trade might be overcome.

BROOKS: Important. Marcus Rediker, tell us a little bit about your book "The Slave Ship: A Human History." Does this go into that or - give us a sense of what's in this.

Dr. REDIKER: This is a book that is really a human history of an inhuman institution. The slave ship itself is one of the least studied aspects of the history of slavery, and what I wanted to understand was what actually happened on these vessels. So I studied the relationships among captain, crew and enslaved over the long 18th century and discovered that there was a kind of war going on aboard these vessels. I guess…

BROOKS: A war between?

Dr. REDIKER: A war between the captain and the crew on the one hand, and the enslaved on the other. And in that war, the instruments of violence were the cat-o'-nine-tails, various other instruments of torture. But the thing that impressed me about the enslaved was that they never submitted. They fought back even when their prospects of winning were extremely limited.

BROOKS: Well, Marcus Rediker, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. REDIKER: My pleasure.

BROOKS: That's Marcus Rediker, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. His newest book "The Slave Ship" is in stores on October 8th. You can read an account of one woman's terrifying experience on a slave ship and see illustrations from the book on our Web site, npr.org/talk.

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