Slavery at Sea


In her new book Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passagehistorian Sowande' Mustakeem reveals the forgotten world of 18th century slave ships. Here, she shares the tragic story of one enslaved woman and discusses why it's so important for Americans to confront this foundational, brutal chapter of history. Mustakeem's research focuses on the experiences of those most frequently left out of the history of the Middle Passage - women, children, the elderly, and the diseased.

A version of this episode was first released in 2013, in our American Identities series.



Claire Navarro (host): Thanks for listening to Hold That Thought. I'm Claire Navarro. This week on the podcast we return to an episode from 2013 featuring historian Sowande Mustakeem. Mustakeem studies the horrific world of 18th century slave ships. In her newly released book, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage, she brings to light the experiences of those often left out of the history of slavery - women, children, the elderly, and the diseased. These stories can be brutal and difficult to even think about, but for Mustakeem, this violent chapter in history deserves to be studied and remembered. 

Sowande Mustakeem (guest): This is central to American history, but yet it's been so marginalized and sidelined because it's so gruesome - because it represents sort of that worst in human interaction. I mean, some people want to leave it at baggage, you know they want to see it as a stain in American history. But it's foundational.

CN: Perhaps because this history has been so sidelined, Mustakeem was determined to tell the story.

SM: When I was a graduate student, I was just hell bent on thinking, "No one is gonna tell me there's no history here. I'm not buying that there are no documents." So even as a broke and poor graduate student, I worked it out and I went to 25 archives, which is extremely unusual for a graduate student.

CN: These archives were located all over the world - in Jamaica, in Liverpool, the US - and she went to each place with the same attitude.

SM: I just wouldn't let people tell me no, because there were a lot of people that pretty much said, "No we don't have anything on that history" and I was like, "Well no, no, no, unless I'm just not allowed as a graduate student, let me go look and see." It's not about even discovering any sort of new documents. It's about reading these documents with a different lens and a different gaze that can produce new questions.

CN: These new questions are meant to challenge presumptions about the slave experience. Too often, people want to leave this history behind with some sort of acknowledgement that slaves had it bad, that slave ships were dangerous and dehumanizing and that's all we need to know. But according to Mustakeem, by engaging in this type of thinking, people may be making generalizations without even really realizing it.

SM: Whenever we think about the slave trade, almost without our own realization of what we're doing, we're perpetuating this idea of a general understanding of the slaves.

CN: Frequently this general understanding of enslaved people focuses on black men. And not just any black men, but young strong men that would bring in a profit.

SM: Even when I've done presentations and stuff, people have said, "I didn't realize that I forgot black women were on slave ships." You can even broaden it out to children and elderly people. It's often times left at this male dominated enterprise, which it is. But we also really come to conclude about everything on the slave trade based upon the bodies of black men.

CN: To challenge this limited view, Mustakeem focuses in part on the gendered experience. What was the world of a slave ship like for women? Because women were captured and transported as slaves. Some were married. Some were single. Some were pregnant. There was no universal experience of the Middle Passage. And in her research, Mustakeem came across one woman's story in particular.

SM: One of the first things with this story, in particular, it surprises a lot of people that it ended up being just a side project. I took it out of the original manuscript and said, "I'll do something with it later." And I just sort of sat on it because I questioned myself as a historian and thought, "I don't have a whole lot of documents to really tell this woman's story". But for several years, I won't say I was haunted, but I always would go back to her story and just think, "Damn, I know there's something there."

CN: Through small, indirect references in different articles and archives, Mustakeem was able to piece together a tragic episode in which an enslaved woman, thought to have smallpox, was murdered rather than risking the health of the remaining slaves and the ship's crew. Here's the story:

SM: So what happens is the ship Polly docks into western Africa, estimated between 1790 and 1791.

CN: The slaves purchased on this expedition included women, one of whom began showing symptoms of ill health.

SM: About two weeks into the passage, some of the sailors began to notice pustules or the beginnings of smallpox starting to formulate. So the ship captain decides to quarantine her and put her into a separate room. They give her a little bit of food and an old blanket to heave over her. During that time, he has a meeting with the sailors. But I guess it's important to dismantle this illusion of a meeting because he's pretty much telling them what's going to happen and yes, he did solicit their input, but at the end of the day, he's the one that really begins to execute the plan.

CN: During this meeting, the Captain James DeWolf said, "She must go overboard and shall go overboard." He was determined that this one life would not threaten the rest of his human property and thus his profit. But the sick woman was not simply tossed overboard.

SM: What's so important is that the ship captain orders a sailor to go up with him and they tie her down to a chair.

CN: She was then blindfolded and muffled. The chair was passed to separate members of the crew and lowered into the sea.

SM: And so that then becomes almost ritualized, because it's not like she's just casually tossed over. That would almost be too easy.

CN: There's a record that the woman cried out when she first hit the water, and then the ship sailed on.

SM: After that the ship continues on its docks into Cuba and pretty much everybody else survives. So some could argue that he did do it for the good of the ship. And basically after this, he goes on and continues to live his life. He dies the second richest man in the country in 1837.

CN: This wealthy Captain, known as Captain Jim, was documented as saying that he regretted the loss of his chair more than the woman who was tied to it. This sort of callousness is hard to hear, but Mustakeem wants to be clear that Captain Jim can't be written off as some sort of villain.

SM: He represents the second generation of active slave traders. There are three consecutive generations within their family alone that are involved in the slave trade, he and seven of his brothers. But at the same time, I would never want him to be seen as a sort of unusual person because he's really not. What is sort of unusual is that you have a very small paper trail that begins to show that this person's violence.

CN: Stories like this one are rare, somewhat shockingly rare.

SM: Prior to my article, there's only been one other article that's even looked at the experience of a black female in the slave trade. So essentially there's only two. But yet we're just too comfortable in saying, "There are no records, and well, all they wanted was men." So here it is, an opportunity that you can say, "Even with these few documents, what can we say about the slave trade? What can we say about a black woman's experience?"

CN: These types of histories are necessary if we want to know enslaved people by more than numbers and ethnicities - if we want to reclaim something of these sidelined American identities that were first compromised by the slave trade itself.

SM: So someone can go from their whole lives known as Akua or Kwabena and the moment that they are forcibly placed into the trade, your name is stripped and you now are defined by what your enslavers define you. So for this woman, the closest that we can get to a name is a negro wench or a middle aged woman, and that doesn't tell us anything. That can be any particular woman.

CN: But even the brutal experience of slavery can't completely erase someone's identity.

SM: It's not even about "Oh, were they able to bring drums?" It's about what people remember. So oftentimes people say, "Oh, they're just stripped of everything!" But you're not going to forget your memories. You're not going to forget what happened on that passage nor are you going to forget that mother or grandmother or grandfather that taught you how to basket weave. You're never going to forget those sort of things. It just may be a matter of how do you maintain and how do you adapt it to these sort of new world understandings.

CN: And as the slaves themselves still had their memories, scholars can preserve the historical memory of this time by pulling together the fragments of stories that remain.

SM: In many ways, I've really tried to think about who is represented on these ships, even if it's jus, "this boy trying to cut his throat today." That's important to think about, because it is in many ways shaping people's identity of themselves, as horrific as it is.

CN: Though her work deals with unearthing historical memories of trauma and violence, Mustakeem believes that in order to form a truer picture of the nation, the lost stories and identities of the slave trade can and should be revealed. The Atlantic slave trade knew no national boundaries. Several nations were involved. Yet nobody really claims this history. After all, who would want it? But in the US, it is part of us.

SM: It's difficult to live with this history as a nation, but even more to write it and live with it and sleep with it. And you know, to really try to be objective and say that this is the history and we need to really think about that. It's been rewarding because I feel like stories of those whose lives have been affected or have been passed on, that their stories are now being able to be told even in the smallest way, even just a sentence to say that 'this young boy died because of this disease.' That allows him to be remembered in a way that if I had left him to a number, you wouldn't recognize anything about what he went through.

CN: Many thanks to Sowande Mustakeem for contributing to Hold That Thought. You can find a link to her faculty profile on Hold That Thought's website. We're at You can also find Hold That Thought on facebook, twitter, soundcloud and PRX.



Image Wikimedia Commons: Brooks of Liverpool 

Audio Free Music Archive: Ending Satellites, Reed Blue