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Slaves to History 

A local author and historian asks why we're not marking the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade.

On Jan. 1, 1808, the U.S. government banned the transatlantic importation of people as slaves. By any account, it was landmark legislation. But its 200th anniversary passed with little public acknowledgement -- and certainly with nothing like the commemorations for the 1976 bicentennial, or even, locally, for Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary.

This inattention puzzles Marcus Rediker, the University of Pittsburgh history professor who recently published his groundbreaking The Slave Ship: A Human History (Viking), timed to coincide with the anniversary. Rediker's book tour visited Great Britain, whose seaports were for two centuries the corporate headquarters of the Western slave trade. There, the 2007 bicentennial of England's abolition of the trade brought a year of public and scholarly events, everything from news articles and museum exhibits to the feature film Amazing Grace, about British abolitionist William Wilberforce.

"I had hoped that we might actually have a discussion about the legacy of the slave trade and slavery in this country," says Rediker. So far, we haven't. The biggest public event seems to have been a Jan. 10 scholarly symposium, at the National Archives, in Washington, D.C. And while President Bush, on Feb. 5, signed HR 3432, creating a national commission on the abolition of the slave trade, the bill includes no funding for commemorations. "I think the collective denial of this part of our history is very powerful," says Rediker. "Many people would just rather not know about this."

"We've done virtually nothing," agrees Thomas N. DeWolf, author of Inheriting the Trade, which chronicles his research into his prominent New England family's lucrative role in the slave trade.

If you're researching the business that brought 10 million or more captured Africans to the Americas, Rediker's book is a fine place to start. The Kentucky native, at 51 a leading maritime scholar, scoured sources including little-used British maritime court records to reclaim the trade's history from the cold abstractions of numbers -- how many Africans captured, how many dead. "We had talked about mortality rates, but we didn't talk about the poignancy of death," says Rediker.

Rediker does "people's history" -- stories not of the wealthy and powerful, but of the ordinary folks who are often history's victims. He emphasizes that in the slave trade, cruelty wasn't a character flaw -- it was an essential management skill. In close detail, Slave Ship chronicles not only the horrific lot of the slaves, but also their heroic yet seldom-noted rebellions at sea. Rediker also parses the struggles of common sailors, who were often tricked or extorted into laboring on ships subject to the iron rule of merciless, all-powerful captains -- and who suffered death rates similar to the captives'.

The book also argues that, despite what Rediker calls our historical "terracentrism," history is often made at sea, including the history of modern capitalism. It's the slave ship as factory, turning Africans into "blacks," and into the slaves upon whose unpaid labor America was built.

Moreover, as Rediker puts it, "African-American culture is being formed on those ships. Africans of many different ethnicities are thrown together, and they suddenly have to learn to cooperate."

And, as Rediker shows, it was the image of one slave ship, the Brooks, its hull crammed with captured Africans, that ignited the British push to abolish the trade and,eventually (in 1833), slavery itself.

The Slave Ship has been widely and favorably reviewed, called "masterly" (The New York Times Book Review) and "[e]legant, readable and entirely horrifying" (The Christian Science Monitor). In terms of drawing attention to abolition, Rediker's book has thematic company in DeWolf's recently published Inheriting the Trade. And in a Dec. 30 New York Times op-ed, prominent Columbia University scholar Eric Foner, also calling attention to the anniversary, argued that "[h]ad the importation of slaves continued unchecked, the United States could well have become the hemispheric slave-based empire of which many Southerners dreamed."

"Abolition of the slave trade is just as important to American civilization as the Revolutionary War," says Samuel W. Black, curator of African-American Collections at Pittsburgh's Heinz History Center. Without the trade ban, Black argues, such prominent abolitionists as Frederick Douglass might even have fled the country.

Still, if awareness of the anniversary remains low, it's partly thanks to some complicated history. The British might be "a more historically conscious society than ours," as Rediker says. But as Ira Berlin, a leading slavery scholar based at the University of Maryland, argues, abolishing the trade "changed [the British] more than it changed us."

By 1808, most U.S. states had already outlawed importing slaves. And of course slavery itself persisted here another half-century -- as did a significant illicit transatlantic slave trade. Moreover, Berlin notes, abolition sparked a thriving internal U.S. trade, with some 1 million men, women and children -- more than twice as many as ever were imported to North America from Africa -- sold from the upper South to the lower South, mostly to labor in the burgeoning cotton industry.

"The Brits had reason to celebrate," Berlin says. "I don't think there's much reason to celebrate here."

Yet Berlin, too, says that the anniversary deserves more notice, if only to emphasize how deeply slavery is woven into the American fabric. Indeed, as DeWolf points out, that might be precisely the problem: To note abolition means recalling that the trade might have been abolished sooner had the U.S. Constitution not explicitly forbade such action until 1808. It means knowing that, as DeWolf's own family history demonstrates, slavery and the trade were hardly limited to the South. (In New York, for instance, slavery was legal until 1837.)

Perhaps most importantly, history reminds us of what's not yet history: Even today, millions worldwide are enslaved in the sex trade, agriculture and industry. In the U.S., there are continuing, pervasive and destructive gaps in health, wealth and education between Americans of different skin colors. In fact, Rediker, a political activist, conceived of The Slave Ship during his visits with death-row inmates, where he came to understand the death penalty as "a modern form of terror."

"We've got a lot of work to do," says DeWolf. "We can discover that by studying our history."

click to enlarge Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship illuminates the slave trade from the very decks.
  • Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship illuminates the slave trade from the very decks.
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