March 1, 2004

Pitt Professor Talks On Middle Passage

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Marcus Rediker, historian, writer, activist and professor at University of Pittsburgh, gave a lecture last Friday titled “Toward a History of the Slave Ship” in the A.D. White House.

The study of slave ships is a departure from Rediker’s past research topics, which include pirates in the Atlantic World. In spite of this, it’s been Rediker’s career-long goal to incorporate social action into academia and his study of the slave ships and black resistance is apart of that effort.

He has authored several books, including Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750, which won the OAH Merle Curti Social History Award and the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Prize and, with Peter Linebaugh, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, which won of the International Labor History Book Prize.

Before starting his talk, Rediker stressed that his research was still a work in progress.

He began by looking at Olaudah Equiano, one of the first chroniclers of the slave trade and the Middle Passage. “We, like Equiano, have been at a lost to describe it [slave ships]. The slave ship is the ghost ship of our modern consciousness,” Rediker said.

Rediker reasoned that the slave ship not only produced a work force on a global scale and the racialized division of labor, but also it constructed race itself. When slavers left European ports, they represented several ethnicities and nationalities. Much the same way, Africans were representative of a wide range of societies and ethnicities before being

sold into slavery. Sometime during the Middle Passage, the crew became “white” and the slaves became “black”; the “greatest forced migration” dichotomized many peoples of Europe and Africa into two races, according to Rediker.

He explained that the history of the slave trade is distinctively tied to the history of the world, particularly the Americas. The first person sentenced to death in the United States was a slaver who killed the captain of his slave ship. Veterans from the slave trade could be found begging in most major American ports. Daniel Defoe’s model for Robinson Crusoe was a slaver. Even the composer of “Amazing Grace” was a sailor on a slave ship.

“The words ‘a wretch like me’ take on new meaning,” Rediker said.

Rediker introduced his coinage “terra-centrism.” He argued that power, sovereignty and the rise of the nation-state are historically linked to landmasses. This history has perpetuated the idea that the sea is not real and therefore has no real history. One of the objectives of Rediker’s research is to undo these “terra-centric” biases. He research intends to “unlock the secrets of the sea” and re-narrate the story of the Middle Passage.

Rediker also said that “dispossession was a motor of colonization.” The Middle Passage was the first step in the process of “expropriation to exploitation,” which has consequences to this day .

Lastly, Rediker showed a painting by the Haitian artist Frantz Zephirin that depicted a hand reaching out of a ocean full of European sea vessels. Using Zephirin’s painting as an example, Rediker concluded his talk by saying that the slave ship was the setting for cultural destruction and creation. Afterwards, he took questions from the audience.

“Who thinks of ships, slaves ships, as floating universes where established social institution and dynamics are inverted, disrupted, or wholly ignored,” said Jermaine Thibodeaux ’04.

The event was sponsored by the Office of the Provost and hosted by the Committee for the Comparative Study of Race, Ethnicity and Indigeneity.

Archived article by Jonathan Square