Book Review: Slavery at Sea by Sowande’ M. Mustakeem

Sowande’ M. Mustakeem. Slavery At Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage. (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016). pp. 288. $24.95.

Sowande’ M. Mustakeem’s Slavery At Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage redefines the existing narrative of the transatlantic slave trade by offering vastly new perspectives to the literature. This ambitious study brings together a wide array of archival sources – including diaries, medical logs, ship logs, account sales, and newspapers – to consider ‘this horrific period in time’ which ‘continues unchallenged’ and so remains ‘a bloodied yet sanitized chapter in global history’ (6). Further adding to the originality of Slavery at Sea is the soundtrack which accompanies the text, ‘a first of a kind scholarly musical project’ which facilitates an even deeper emotional connection to the terror of the Middle Passage.

Expertly diverging from previous slave trade studies which have favoured a ‘number-centred methodology’, such as Philip D. Curtin’s The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969), Slavery at Sea is a ground-breaking contribution to the growing scholarship of what Mustakeem terms ‘Middle Passage studies’, situating her work alongside scholars including Marcus Rediker, Emma Christopher, Stephanie Smallwood, and Eric Taylor (3-4). In considering new questions, Mustakeem moves away from the traditional quantitative approach, as well as the conventional focus on the masculine experience of the transatlantic slave trade. In doing so, Mustakeem reveals a diverse, lived experience of slavery at sea, therefore broadening our understanding of the Middle Passage by expanding the narrative to include everyone who experienced its horrors.

Opening Slavery at Sea with the story of two unnamed enslaved women, Mustakeem highlights the significance of the unrecorded and forgotten histories of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the unanswered questions in previous scholarship. By addressing issues of mental health, disability, and the physical and psychological terrors which were inflicted on the bodies of enslaved people, Mustakeem broadens the conversation to include the unwritten histories of enslaved women and children, as well as elderly and disabled people. This is achieved through a careful analysis of the archival material, which includes reading the body ‘as a text’ in order to ‘better understand the tangible effects of slavery at sea’ (12). Mustakeem argues that the inclusion of these groups is essential since ‘we can no longer simply trace the history of the slave trade solely through the prism of black, male, perfect, and presumably healthy bodies’ (180).

Of particular significance is the book’s fifth chapter, ‘Battered Bodies, Enfeebled Minds’. In this chapter, Mustakeem considers how captives coped with their enslavement, highlighting that their emotional responses took many forms, including self-sabotage and suicide. By focusing on the psychological toll of enslavement, Mustakeem reveals the true brutality of the transatlantic slave trade. As a result, Slavery at Sea broadens the resistance narrative by breaking down the varied coping mechanisms enslaved people engaged in during the Middle Passage. Rather than a giving up on life, Mustakeem highlights how suicide can be viewed as a liberationist act which many captives chose to free themselves from a life of suffering, with the sea serving as an ‘underwater railroad and passage to freedom’ (129).

The idea of the sea as a ‘transformative space’ which was able to directly impact the lives of enslaved people runs throughout Slavery at Sea (5). Mustakeem persuasively argues that the Middle Passage represented more than just the route forced upon captives, but was instead where captives were made into a life of enslavement: ‘the Middle Passage was not about the final destination but rather the violent production of slaves through the journey’ (16). As a result, Mustakeem broadens the narrative of slavery to include the process from the point of capture to the point of sale, which she terms the ‘human manufacturing process’ (6). This therefore expands our view of the enslaved experience away from plantation slavery to also include slavery at sea, challenging ‘the idea of plantations as the formative site in the production of bondpeople, thereby pushing greater expansion of the critical sites of slavery’s devastation to make meaning of the slave ship experience’ (191).

In focusing on the lived experience of the diverse range of enslaved people, the reader experiences a deeply emotional response to this more inclusive history of the Middle Passage, which is further intensified when read alongside the soundtrack. Despite the text’s emotionally complex and distressing themes, Mustakeem handles the terror of the Middle Passage with great sensitivity, gifting us with a carefully crafted, deeply human piece of historical writing, which general audiences would find accessible. Slavery at Sea is merely the beginning of this ground-breaking scholarship, reclaiming the stories of many previously forgotten in past studies of the transatlantic slave trade.

About Katherine Burns

Katherine Burns is a second year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral project focuses on African American family histories and memorials to enslavement, and her research interests broadly include Slavery Studies, African American Studies, Memory Studies and Nineteenth-Century US Studies.
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