Volume 10, Issue 4
Spring 2009

Stephanie E. Smallwood. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007. 273p.

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Stephanie Smallwood, a professor of History at the University of Washington, Seattle uniquely and interestingly comes up with a book with a subject of its own kind on the Atlantic slavery. Intellectually, the book catches the attention of the reader with its compelling force and stories of what slave trade was like during the early seventeenth century Africa, the nature of the Sea journeys and its related experiences and how that might have transmitted to the New World. The book shows the wisdom of understanding the collaborations that existed between Africans, Europeans, and the European and American slavers. The volume effectively analyzes the history of American slavery which begins in the West African shores, through the Atlantic Sea to the New World. It comprises of seven chapters. Chapter one tracks the history of Atlantic slavery going back to the Gold Coast of West Africa and basically examines the roles played by Africans and foreigners (Dutch, Portuguese, and English) in the commercialization of slavery.

In chapter two, Professor Smallwood tackles the topic, “Turning African Captives into Atlantic Commodities” whereby this section articulates the nature of African resistance against Europeans who attempted to force them into slavery with limited success. The chapter continues to show the unsuccessful attempts against the Europeans slavers and the treachery of African compromisers of the trade. The methods used in capturing slaves, their sufferings and death through the Middle Passage in the name of economy come out vividly in this chapter. The Third chapter deals with “the political economy of the slave ship” which provides details of how African slaves became commodities in exchange of European goods rather than the use of Gold. Professor Smallwood brings into content the statistics of those who were enslaved from early 1700 and the kind of ships that were used in shipping them to their destination (71-42). Not only was the issue of shipping slaves a major concern, but also negotiating their prices is masterly argued in this chapter. “The Anomalous Intimacies of the Slave Cargo” is the fourth chapter which critically analyzes the formation of a new community in the cargo that was imposed onto Africans on their way to the unknown destination. With this, came a new challenge that slaves had to deal with as they faced forced migrations from their homeland into the New World. The book argues that even as much as some of the slaves in the Ships were able to communicate in their tribal languages, in many cases most slaves were not able even to find someone to communicate with in their language (118).

The atrocious conditions under which slaves went through in the slave ships cannot even be put into words. Professor Smallwood does an excellent job in bringing into picture essentially those horrible experiences in the Ships showing that the Sea lifestyle was not accustomed by Europeans and Africans at the time forcing them into a learning adjustment process. The European colonization of the New World is presented to have been a source of indent and control of the innocent Africans. The last two chapters deal with the immersion of African slaves into American slaves and their life challenges in the New World. Of course those who survived the Sea arrived in the New World with continued mistreatment as commodities contributing to their increased mortality rate in Diaspora.

It must be argued here that while this magnum opus boldly communicates a new message to the reader, chapter one would have drawn more data on the role played by the Dutch in the trade and also show the nature the historical background of slavery in Africa from the fifteenth to seventeenth century. This however, does not affect the book’s well done job. Brightly written and meticulously appealing, the book still stands as a groundbreaking text with detailed substantiation of African experiences, authentications, and verified reactions. Unlike the vast majority of books on the same subject, this volume brilliantly shows a history before, during, and after the Middle Passage in a more persuasive manner.

In summary, Saltwater Slavery stands out to be one of the few well written, researched, and intellectually presented to the readers (Africanists, African, and African American history students) and other interested parties. This volume is a must read text for every class that deals with the history of slavery or African History.

Saneta Maiko
Fort Wayne, Indiana