Guardians of the Slave Trade

Stephanie E. Smallwood, “African Guardians, European Slave Ships, and the Changing Dynamics of Power in the Early Modern Atlantic,” William & Mary Quarterly 64, no. 4 (October 2007): 679-716.

First Paragraph Steal:

“POWER was nowhere more precariously held in the early modern Atlantic than aboard a slave ship. Because their cargoes were unwilling travelers, slave ships were distinguished by the unmitigated contest between African captives and the European seamen charged to transport them to American markets: between slaves with superior strength in numbers and sailors desperate to prevent rebellious uprising by any means necessary. Though it is true that “perhaps no more than one slave voyage in ten experienced an actual outbreak” of revolt, scholars accept as axiomatic Michael Craton’s further suggestion that “few voyages were ever completed without the discovery or threat of slave conspiracy, and no slaving captain throughout the history of the Atlantic trade ever sailed without a whole armory of guns and chains plus as many white crewmen as he could recruit and keep alive to act as seaborne jailers.” David Eltis’s characterization of the slave ship as a place where “naked physical force determined who would be in control” and where “any relaxation of vigilance or reduction in the amount of force available would mean rebellion” seems squarely on the mark.1 Yet slave ships were more complex than the reliance on naked physical force suggests. The dynamics of power aboard ship could also be affected by the use of African “guardians”: slaves appointed to police fellow captives during the Atlantic crossing.”

Available online (not for free) at History Cooperative and at your local college/university library.

Smallwood’s book, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora was published by Harvard University Press in February 2007.

Photo: Cape Coast Castle, present-day, from the Cape Coast Archive: Exploring and Perserving Cape Coast Ghana (Credit: Michael L. Tuite, Jr.)

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