Marcus Rediker: Explains how captains recruited sailors on slave ships where conditions were awful

Historians in the News

The typical slave ship began its life as a merchant vessel, and was refitted later for its grim purpose.

The primary remodeling, which often occurred on the outward leg of the voyage, was to build walls below decks to separate men and women, and then build horizontal platforms halfway between the first and second decks on which to stack the slaves.

The height between the first and second deck usually was only about 5 feet before the remodeling, said Marcus Rediker, University of Pittsburgh history professor and author of "The Slave Ship: A Human History." Once the platforms were built, headroom was about 21/2 feet.

"This produced crowding of a kind that is almost incomprehensible," he said. "One of the things that struck almost everybody about a slave ship was the stench of it.

"It was said in Charleston, S.C., that when the wind was blowing off the water a certain way you could smell a slave ship before you could see it. It was a function of sickness, vomit, diarrhea, death and also the way the human body perspires in the condition of fear."

And while it is true that some slave ship seamen joined the crew because they were sadistic or wanted sexual access to African women, many of them were victimized almost as badly as the slaves, Dr. Rediker said.

"One of the great mysteries I wanted to explore was how sailors were recruited to slave ships when they knew the conditions were going to be horrible and the death rates were going to be high."

He discovered that in many cases, ship captains would get sailors to run up debts in taverns, and then would pay off the tavern owners with some of the sailor's advance wages in return for the sailor being handed over to work on the crew.

Slave ship captains also would offer sailors advance wages worth $800 to $1,200 in today's money or to pay part of the sailors' salaries to their wives once a week.

Once they were onboard, many crewmen were treated almost as brutally as the slaves. For a huge variety of infractions, they were whipped, chained, denied food, stabbed and even shot....

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