Many Middle Passages

Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World, ed. Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Rediker (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif., 2007) takes some of its inspiration from the 2000 Beacon Press book Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, which argued in part that the Atlantic slave trade could be used as a way to understand other slave trades. The editors of Many Middle Passages felt that the Atlantic slave trade’s infamous middle passage — the disorientation, the violence, the occasional resistance — could help us understand other slave trades, in other parts of the world and in other eras. Eleven independent essays explore this idea further.

In “The Other Middle Passage: The African Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean,” Edward A. Alpers sheds some light on the lesser-known slave trade on the other side of the African continent. Alpers raises the obvious point that “it is a mistake to restrict analyses of the middle passage only to oceanic passages, assuming that enslaved Africans embarked from the African coast as if they were leaving their native country, when in fact their passage from freedom into slavery actually began with the moment they were swept up by the economic forces that drove the slave trade deep into the African interior.” [p. 21] Based on this assumption, Alpers traces the Indian Ocean slave trade into the interior of Africa. Relying primarily on freed-slave narratives, Alpers presents us with the horrors of the slave trade on land and by sea. The ocean passages were as horrible on the Indian Ocean as they were on the Atlantic Ocean, with the same high mortality rates and the same dehumanizing conditions. The commodification of human beings seems to take similar forms no matter where it springs up.

In “‘The Slave Trade Is Merciful Compared to This’: Slave Traders, Convict Transportation, and the Abolitionists,” Emma Christopher examines how England transported the earliest convicts to Australia. Some captains of the early ships that carried convicts to the penal colony in Australia had been slave traders previously. As slave traders, they had some financial incentive to keep as many slaves alive as possible. On the trip to Australia, however, there was no financial incentive to keep the convicts alive: “the captains could actually gain financially from the death of the convicts, as the food of the deceased was saved and could be sold once the ship reached its destination.” [p. 110]

Emma Christopher quotes from a letter sent to England by a soldier stationed in Australia at the time who said, “the slave trade is merciful compared to what I have seen in this fleet.” She then goes on to point out that whereas the incredible suffering on slave traders resulted from the commoditization of human beings, the absence of financial incentives helped create the incredible suffering on the convict transports: “Inured to the kind of cruelty that pervaded the trade in slaves, and with no financial incentive to check their behavior, [the ship’s officers] cared little for their charges.” [p. 122] Once back in England, the ship’s officers were tried and quickly acquitted, yet pressure from abolitionists and others forced the government to make sure the convicts were treated better thereafter. The real point, left unspoken, is that it would have been better if we hadn’t commodified human beings to begin with.

In “La Traite des Jaunes: Trafficking in Women and Children across the China Sea,” Julia Martinez studies the trade in sex slaves in and around the China Sea. This slave trade came to prominence in the late 19th C., peaked in the first half of the 20th C., and continues today. Many of the victims of this trade were children — some from destitute families who may even have sold their children out of desperation, but some kidnapped from prosperous families. The children sere sold as young as eight years old, and girls would be forced into selling sex at about age thirteen; they might be released from “debt bondage” at age eighteen [p. 214]; it is horrible to think that children treated as commodities, not as human beings, even if they were eventually released from bondage.

The China Sea sex slave trade was partially repressed through the middle 20th C., but there was a resurgence in the 1980’s as the times brought increased prosperity to the region. The sex slave trade continues today throughout the region. The final chapter of the book, titled “Afterword: ‘All of It Is Now'”, points out that more people are enslaved today (27 million) than at any previous point in history. The good news is that a smaller percentage of the world’s population is enslaved now than in earlier centuries, and that slavery is now illegal everywhere. But still — there are 27 million people enslaved even as I write this.

I was expecting this to be the usual boring academic book, but it wasn’t. Not all of the eleven essays were as powerful as the ones I have discussed, but all the essays are worth reading. The subject matter is so shocking and fascinating (in a horrible kind of way) that it overcomes even the occasional turgid academic prose. And the book is particularly compelling because several of the writers go out of the way to provide lengthy excerpts from first-person freed-slave narratives, so we get to hear the voices of slaves firsthand — at least, we get to hear the voices of those lucky slaves who somehow made it to freedom.