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The stench of a slave ship

I finished "The Empire of Necessity" by Greg Grandin. I'm not sure I can replicate the thesis in a more granular way than "follow the money" -- the book is almost a picaresque -- but the "see, hear, feel, touch, taste, smell" language is amazing, and Grandin's sourcing is brilliant. It's pleasant to see that America can still produce scholarship, even if readable, popular scholarship. Here's Grandin on the hold of a slave ship. Typing it in, from page 38:

Along the way, Africans died from contagious diseases or from the miseries of crossing the ocean in a claustrophobically small space. Some went blind. Others lost their minds. Even when the circus [?] followed the best practices of the early nineteenth century, the holds were never cleaned fast enough to counter the accumulating strata of excrement, vomit, blood, and pus. With poor ventilation, baking under the equatorial sun, cargo bays festered and putrefied. Slave ships could be smelled from miles away. "The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies, and by being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and fluxes, which generally carries off great numbers of them." observed a British slave ship surgeon in the 1780s. When bad weather forced the portholes and hatches to be closed for long periods of time, the floors of the holds would become so covered with "blood and mucus" that they "resembled a slaughter-house." "It is not," said the surgeon, "in the power of the human imagination to picture to itself a situation more dreadful or disgusting."

Some quick reactions:

0) Really bad, bad, bad stuff stinks. It just does (though of course not all evil stinks; bits and bytes don't, and no form of money that I'm aware of does[1]). Our backbrains found that being alerted to evil was adaptive.[2]

1) "Slave ships could be smelled from miles away." In other words, everybody knew, much as the Germans knew, from the stench of the chimneys of concentration camps, or the arms and legs waving between the slats of cattle cars.

2) Clearly, "wage labor" (human rental) is a cultural -- rather, civilizational -- advance over slavery (human sale). No matter how bad the dark Satanic mills were, they weren't as bad as slave ships. (Now, I think the next civilizational should regard human labor as a gift, but that is a topic for another day.

3) I wonder if there was a Temple Grandin-equivalent for slaves, as there has been in this century for other animals, in the Nineteenth Century.

4) Racism is horribly real, but money (capital) was the driver. Systemically -- and as the book makes very clear, sytems, like Soylent green, are people -- racism might be said to be the Occasion of Sin, and capital the Mortal Sin. (I'm not Catholic, so I may be getting that wrong, and in any case, by confusing a human person with a system made up of persons in social relations, I have committed a category error. Most, if not all, of the horrible events of the book have money as their root, including going into the slaving (or sealing) business in the first place. That is the "necessity."

5) Now I have to read Melville. Oddly, or not, pre-Civil War issues seem to be coming up on the charts.....

NOTE [1] That's why usury really does need to be stigmatized and taboos formed around it. They are social replacements or functional substitutions for the stink.

NOTE [2] As opposed to "the augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life."

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paintedjaguar's picture
Submitted by paintedjaguar on

In 1848 T. B. Macauley published The History of England from the Accession of King James II. In it he described the conditions aboard ships transporting (white) prisoners to be sold as slaves in pre-Revolutionary America (hanger = sword, blunderbuss = musket):

"The human cargoes were stowed close in the holds of small vessels. So little space was allowed that the wretches, many of whom were still tormented by unhealed wounds, could not all lie down at once without lying on one another. They were never suffered to go on deck. The hatchway was constantly watched by sentinels armed with hangers and blunderbusses. In the dungeon below all was darkness, stench, lamentation, disease and death. Of ninety-nine convicts who were carried out in one vessel, twenty-two died before they reached Jamaica, although the voyage was performed with unusual speed. The survivors when they arrived at their house of bondage were mere skeletons. During some weeks coarse biscuit and fetid water had been doled out to them in such scanty measure that any one of them could easily have consumed the ration which was assigned to five. They were, therefore, in such a state that the merchant to whom they had been consigned found it expedient to fatten them before selling them."

This was not unusual -- under Oliver Cromwell as many as 50,000 Irish rebels were sentenced to slavery in the years between 1641 and 1660. Like African chattel slaves, transportees were treated as property to be bought, sold, used and abused as their owners saw fit and were sometimes treated even more harshly, being less valuable than chattel slaves. Flogging to discourage laziness or escape was commonplace. Henry Pitman, a doctor who was transported to Jamaica after the Monmouth rebellion of 1685, escaped and published an account (A Relation of the Great Sufferings and Strange Adventures of Henry Pitman, 1689) in which he transcribed this regulation concerning the treatment of indentured slaves:

"That if one or more of the aforesaid Servants or rebels convict[ed], shall attempt, endeavour, or contrive to make his or their escape from off this island before the said Term of Ten Years be fully complete[d] and ended; such Servant or Servants, for his or their so attempting or endeavouring to make escape, shall, upon proof thereof made to the Governor, receive, by his warrant, Thirty-nine lashes on his bare body, on some public day, in the next market town to his Master’s town, be set in the pillory, by the space of one hour; and be burnt in the forehead with the letters F. T. signifying Fugitive Traitor, so as the letters may plainly appear in his forehead."

These indentures were for periods of at least ten years, Later, on the mainland, 4 to 7 year terms were usual, but indentures could be extended for bad behaviour or debts and only about half of indentured slaves in the early colonies lived long enough to finish their terms.

Isn't history fun? I mean apart from the nausea? Most of this I cribbed from a fascinating article describing the real history behind Rafael Sabatini's classic novel Captain Blood, which was the basis for the 1935 swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn. (Both worth looking up, by the way)

Captain Blood - The History Behind the Novel

Captain Blood_Project Gutenberg

Captain Blood_feedbooks

IMDB - Captain Blood (1935)

paintedjaguar's picture
Submitted by paintedjaguar on

Not theoretical, but the time could be extended and you were lucky to live long enough to get out from under. In the meantime, you were a slave - "servant" was a euphemism. When you see "servant" in a Bible, it probably means slave. Slavery has been around forever, but has taken many forms. I've never run across a comprehensive history of slavery, but it would be interesting, I think.

In ancient Rome, slaves were considered property, with few rights or protections but some were skilled professionals and might be manumitted or allowed to earn enough money of their own to purchase their freedom and even own property (through their master). A freed male slave was allowed to vote and any children became full Roman citizens. Roman slavery had nothing to do with race or nationality, though conquest was a primary source of new slaves. In the later Empire, the Roman economy became dependent upon large numbers of slaves for work on large, consolidated farms (latifundia).

The Janissary Corp of the 14th century Ottoman Empire were elite slave/soldiers who were originally recruited only from Christian boys. These were enslaved, then housed with foster families and converted to Islam before joining the ranks. They were under strict discipline and not allowed to marry, but had high status and received salaries and retirement pensions. The Janissaries eventually became one of the ruling classes of the Empire.

Many Native Americans kept slaves, often war captives, in some tribes hereditary. Some were adopted by or allowed to join their captors' tribe. After European colonies were established, many tribes raided each other for slaves to be sold to Europeans, especially for work on southern plantations.

Both Athens and Sparta were slave-based economies of course. Democracy was only for citizens. Curiously enough, although Egyptians had slaves the pyramids of Egypt may have been built primarily by farm workers during the off-seasons. Pace, Cecil B. deMille.

paintedjaguar's picture
Submitted by paintedjaguar on

Mm. Seems to be some progress over the years, but knowing how mutable the forms of slavery can be, when I use the term "wage-slave" I mean it quite literally, not as a metaphor. Wish more people felt that way.

Vis-a-vis progress, if you ever need a disturbing thought for the day, look up an old SF novel by Damon Knight called "A for Anything". He posits a future society that invents a Star-Trek style replicator, so any material good can be produced more or less out of thin air with no labor involved.

Utopia? Naturally the powers-that-be try to seize control of the technology and maintain artificial scarcity, but the real kicker is that because commodities are now essentially zero cost, the new economic heirarchy that evolves is based on ownership of the one thing that can't be replicated -- human services. That's right, a full-bore return to chattel slavery, just like in good old Athens.

Submitted by lambert on

rather than backward to sale.

I disagree on "wage slavery" (let alone "debt slavery") after reading Empire of Necessary. Those phrases, er, denigrate the real experience of chattel slavery. (I'm not saying they are good, of course.)

paintedjaguar's picture
Submitted by paintedjaguar on

"Those phrases, er, denigrate the real experience of chattel slavery"

I'm aware that would be the reaction of a lot of people nowadays** as I'm aware many people associate slavery so strongly with race that any other context seems offensive. However I don't believe it denigrates anything. Saying both things belong to the same class of phenomena doesn't imply equivalence. For instance, being employed in a Victorian hellhole of a factory or third-world sweatshop bears only a faint resemblance to a decent job in a modern developed nation. Yet you wouldn't be offended to hear me describe both as "employment" or a "job", would you? Both "jobs" involve a boss, power differentials, rules and exploitation -- they are essentially the same social relationship. None of that implies that one situation isn't far preferable to the other.

** Note to self -- see if anyone's claimed the Internet handle "anthropologist-from-Mars".
Just between us, I'm honestly offended at the implication that I don't have intellect and empathy enough to make distinctions. (I'm not directing that at you, Lambert.) My attitudes and emotions are also coloured by the very real likelihood that I will die from lack of money.
Which would you actually choose if your alternatives were either chattel slavery or death from pure neglect and lack of resources? We don't allow that choice to be legal anymore but of course people die in the gutter every day in this country -- as an individual, which is the greater evil? My immediate reaction is that I'd rather die, but that may not be the reality. It's a fact that historically, many people have chosen to sell themselves or their children into slavery. You see the relevance, I hope.

Submitted by lambert on

Slavery clearly is "associated with" race. I think the economics (human sale) are deeper, more foundational or tidal; as seen for example when Jefferson does some marginal calculations in one of his notebooks, and decides not to free his slaves; or when (as I recollect) we can actually see racism in the act of construction in Virginia, well after the economics of slavery were firmly in place. And as you point out, slavery as an institution has happened and is happening all over the world, and not only to black people. That said, it is (mostly) black slaves that the British, Spanish, and Portuguese slavers brought to this hemisphere from Africa, and so it's almost inevitable that we consider racism when we grapple with the persistent evils of what was the original sin of our own poltical order (see Dark Bargain).

I very explicity do not deny that human rental (wages) is also a very great evil that kills people. But human (sale) really killed a lot more people and is a far greater evil. That's the stench of the slave ship. I think you're treating the human rental and human sale as ordering principles for managing "human resources" as equivalent, and they're just not. Once again: