11/20/08 - sharks and slavers

In today's encore excerpt - sharks, slave ships and the depravity of man, circa 1780:

"Sharks began to follow slave ships when they reached the Guinea coast [of western Africa]. ... What attracted the sharks (as well as other fish) was the human waste, offal and rubbish that was continually thrown overboard. Like a 'greedy robber,' the shark 'attends the ships, in expectation of what may drop over-board. A man, who unfortunately falls into the sea at such time is sure to perish without mercy.'

"If the shark was the dread of sailors, it was the outright terror of the enslaved. No effort was made to protect or bury the bodies of African captives who died on the slave ships. ... Slaving captains consciously used sharks to create terror throughout the voyage. They counted on sharks to prevent the desertion of their seamen and the escape of their slaves during the long stays on the coast of Africa required to gather a human 'cargo.' ... So well known was the conscious use of terror by the slave captain to create social discipline that when Oliver Goldsmith came to write the natural history of sharks in 1774, he drew heavily on the lore of the slave trade. ... Goldsmith recounted two instances:

" 'The Master of the Guinea-ship, finding a rage for suicide among his slaves, from a notion the unhappy creatures had, that after death they should be restored again to their families, friends, and country; to convince them at least that some disgrace should attend them here, he immediately ordered one of their dead bodies to be tied by the heels to a rope, and so let down into the sea; and though it was drawn up again with great swiftness yet in that short space the sharks had bit off all but the feet.'

"A second case was even more gruesome. Another captain facing a 'rage for suicide' seized upon a woman 'as a proper example to the rest.' He ordered the woman tied with a rope under her armpits and lowered into the water: 'When the poor creature was thus plunged in, and about halfway down she was heard to give a terrible shriek, which at first was ascribed to her fears of drowning; but soon after, the water appeared red all around her, she was drawn up, and it was found that a shark, which had followed the ship, had bit her off from the middle.' Other slave-ship captains practiced a kind of sporting terror, using human remains to troll for sharks: 'Our way to entice them was by towing overboard a dead Negro which they would follow till they had eaten him up.' "


Marcus Rediker


The Slave Ship: A Human History


Viking published by Penguin Group


Copyright 2007 by Marcus Rediker


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