Q&A with author and historian Marcus Rediker

Historians in the News

Kelly Folkers: You just wrote The Slave Ship: A Human History. What aspects of the slave trade do you highlight?

Marcus Rediker: I think what I do in this book is try to understand the slave ship as a set of human experience. In other words, it's different from previous scholarship, which addressed the statistics of the slave trade, like how many people were transported from specific places. I wanted to make people understand what an instance of extreme violence this was and how people were treated on board the ship. It's a history of the enslaved first and foremost, but also of sailors that worked on the ship, who were there by no choice of their own, and the captains, who made a great deal of money transporting slaves.

KF: What about the slave trade is interesting to you? Why did you decide to research it?

MR: I decided to do this research because first of all there was a specific anniversary coming up when I began working on this. 2007 and 2008 were the anniversaries of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the United States. These were two great moments in human history when people decided that the slave trade must be stopped, to a large extent for humanitarian reasons. I decided I would write this book in the hopes that there would be a national discussion about the slave trade in the United States.

KF: What can we gain from knowing the stories of the people involved in slave trade?

MR: I think we can gain an understanding of where many of the social problems in the United States and around the world have their origins. I think that poverty and the extreme inequality we have in this country around the axis of race is directly traceable to slave history. We are only going to make progress with these problems if we are going to face the past. How can we go forward and overcome these problems if we don't face the past? Around the world, people think of slavery as not only an unfortunate thing but a crime against humanity, so we can make changes.

KF: You are involved in social justice campaigns and peace movements, including a worldwide campaign to end the death penalty. Can you tell me a little more about that?

MR: I have been an activist on these sorts of issues for quite a while. I believe that the death penalty is unjust and immoral. There is an interest, and the terror of slavery lives on in the death penalty. People often talk about the fact that European countries don't have the death penalty, and they function perfectly well without it. Those countries had slaves, but they didn't have extreme institutions of slavery within their borders. Slavery was based on violence, and it wasn't that way in Europe. You see the death penalty practiced the most in Southern states, where slavery was instituted the most. There is a link between slavery and where the death penalty occurs most often...

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