Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A sad history

Two weeks ago, observing Black History Month, I posted this entry in which I mentioned two books on the history of race in America that I thought were essential reading for anyone who wants to be well informed on the topic. It dawned on me this morning that I should have made it a trifecta; there is a third volume that deserves mention along with Simple Justice and The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

David Brion Davis is one of the leading scholars on slavery, and his 2006 book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World is a captivating--but necessarily grim--account of the horrors resulting from the bizarre and wicked notion that one man could own another. I recently had occasion to refer to his descriptions of slave ships crossing the Atlantic; here's a piece of it:

"In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries... The density of packing slaves in the decks between a ship's bottom hold and main deck far exceeded the crowding of indentured servants or even Irish prisoners shipped to the British Caribbean. The males, especially, had to lie like spoons locked together, with no real standing room above them, surrounded by urine and feces, with little air to breathe. One would need to turn to the suffering of slaves in ancient Greek silver mines or to the victims of Nazi death camps to find worse of roughly equivalent examples...

"Matters hardly improved in the nineteenth century. The illegal slave ships captured by the British between 1839 and 1852 had an average of four square feet for each slave, compared with the twelve square feet required by British law for contemporary North Atlantic immigrant ships--the same space, roughly, given to modern economy fare passengers on a Boeing 747. As David Eltis puts it 'the occupant of the typical slave ship could neither lie full length nor stand upright for five weeks except for the limited time spent above deck each day.'" (pp. 91-92)

David Eltis is, of course, another scholar on slavery. Inhuman Bondage also includes a chapter on the Amistad; he calls the Steven Spielberg film on this maritime uprising "somewhat inaccurate but powerful," p. 12. There are two thorough chapters on the particular nature of slavery in the American South, a section on slave revolts, and chapters on the abolitionist movements in both Britain and in the United States. After reading this book, you'll come away horrified that slavery was ever allowed to happen among civilized people, and you'll probably have a lot of respect for the folks who stood up while slavery was practiced and said "no more."

No comments: