Here it is again—the horrors of the Middle Passage, the callous inspection of the naked human cattle in the slave pens, the dreadful auction by scramble when child was torn from mother. The old stories re-emerge: the young fourteen-year-old Negress flogged to death; the Negro boy of nineteen in his spiked collar, his body covered in festering ulcers, his buttocks mortified through the wounds inflicted by his sadistic master; the ten-month-old baby that was whipped with a cat o’ nine tails, scalded in boiling water, and then flung into the sea. And discreetly the sex and the hatred and the corruption get their due—the nubile Negresses handed out to house guests; the secret poisoning in the nurseries for revenge. Boldly painted are the suspicion and fear that loomed like nightmares over plantation society—the suspicion of treachery, of witchcraft, the fear of slave revolt. These pages are alive with pain, heavy with human misery. We hear the sad lamentations, we see again those dark silhouettes dancing against the sky but to the crack of a whip. On and on the book goes until we are bludgeoned into insensitivity by the endless barbarity.
The main evidence for these stories was collected and published by Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce in their campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. It has been used time and time and time again. Most of it is true, for Clarkson and Wilberforce were too aware of the ferocity of the opposition to use palpable lies. Nevertheless it was evidence for propaganda. No one denies that the collection of slaves along the African coast, from Hawkins’s first expedition to the last illegal ones in the nineteenth century, was bestial, nor that the six-week-long sea voyage to America could be as death-haunted as Auschwitz. We know that in the long history of slavery there have been few worse systems than that practiced in the southern states of America and the British West Indies. There is every reason for us and our children to be reminded of this over and over again, for it is relevant not only to our society but also to our humanity.
Before we denounce the loathsome policy of extermination practiced by Hitler and his cronies and connived at by the German nation, we should remind ourselves that our great-grandfathers and the generations before them were behaving with an almost identical sadism and criminality to fellow human beings. Power over men combined with lust for profit can destroy all human warmth, all human generosity. The intellect will twist and turn any way to create justification that callous unimaginative men can morally use to ease what conscience they may still possess. These things Pope-Hennessy demonstrates clearly enough as he guides the reader along the old, well-trodden paths, and his book will be useful to those who are ignorant about the Atlantic slave trade. But that is about the limit of praise to which one can go. The book is ill-written and ill-constructed and often rendered irritating by the author’s personal recollections of old African slave ports or stray encounters in hotel foyers. It contains no new information, no new thoughts, no perceptive historical analysis. It adds nothing to history, nothing to literature. It is a pity, for the need for such a book is very great; or rather what is now needed is a much more careful study of particular aspects of the slave trade.
THE HORRORS of the Middle Passage were seized on by Wilberforce and his associates, and exploited with exceptional panache: indeed Pope-Hennessy uses plans of the packed slaving ships drawn up by the Wilberforce committee for his end papers. Pope-Hennessy quotes some contrary evidence—the voyage, for example, of William Snelgrave, who took a ship with 600 slaves across the Atlantic with little loss of life. However, he never places these voyages in the context of their age. The conditions of the ships transporting felons from England to Australia were little better than the slave ships: the journey was far, far longer and the incentives to keep the cargo alive far less. The hulks in the Thames which were used as floating prisons probably matched the slaving ships in inhumanity, in overcrowding, in wretched food, in savage discipline.
After all, the slaves were valuable property and their death meant a loss of profit and, in consequence, difficulties with the sponsors of the voyage. Self-interest dictated care, and much of the suffering of the Middle Passage arose from the pestilential nature of eighteenth-century ships. Crews as well as cargoes were often decimated by disease and the percentile loss of life was often as great among the white crew as among the black cargo. Better living conditions naturally aided the crew, but the forecastle conditions of the ordinary seamen were only marginally better. They too, were crowded, ill-fed, and frequently lashed. Most voyages must have been reasonably successful, otherwise the trade would not have flourished. The Middle Passage needs to be brought into perspective (not palliated, no one wishes to excuse trade in human beings), compared with the general conditions of sea-faring and also assessed by a statistical investigation of its toll of human life. To pick out the sensationally bad voyages, temper this by a few good ones, is not enough.
As with the Middle Passage, so with slavery in the islands and plantations of the South. Pope-Hennessy skims along the surface like a water beetle, darting this way and that as a colorful piece of evidence attracts his attention. There is little comparative study here except between the laws governing slavery in the British and French sugar plantations. There is nothing about Brazil, although Freyre is listed in the bibliography; next to nothing about the Spanish attitude to and use of slavery; no comparison between slavery on large and small plantations, nor between estates with residential and absentee owners. The ideology of slavery is treated just as superficially—a sentence on Aristotle, a paragraph or so on Bryan Edwards; once again the old, old story, and this time brief.
As with ideology, so with economics: the effect of the trade on Liverpool, Bristol, and the chief French ports is dealt with in four pages. Yet it is profit that lies at the heart, or rather the heartlessness, of the trade—gleaming, golden profits not so much for the planter as for the financier and entrepreneur, as Richard Pares showed long ago in his masterly study, A West Indian Fortune, which is notably absent from Pope-Hennessy’s bibliography. Anyone turning to this book for a study in depth of the ideology, sociology, and economics of slavery will look in vain. It will teach him next to nothing about the social structure which slavery created, and which still creates vast problems not only for the modern world but also for the West Indian and American Negroes. When one thinks of the recent work on slavery, widely known, widely admired, yet mostly ignored in these pages, one wonders for whom this book was written—presumably for Wilberforce’s aunt.
February 15, 1968