Review: Slavery at Sea, Sowande’ Mustakeem

          Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage is a handbook to the infamous “Middle Passage.” This is a text anchored in the Atlantic Ocean, taking the reader along each point in, what Mustakeem refers to as, “the human manufacturing process.” Charting the hundreds of thousands of voyages taken by English and American sailors and their enslaved cargoes, Mustakeem “min[es] for the forgotten” shifting our understanding of the Middle Passage from a symbol or transitory event to an empirically grounded lived experience.

          The book is broadly structured through the processes of warehousing, transport, and delivery. It begins along the coast of West and West Central Africa, recounting the numerous ways individuals fell into captivity. From a woman grabbed by two men as she went to bathe in a nearby river to two men tricked aboard a ship and plied with alcohol, the precarious and destabilising impact of Atlantic Slavery is continually emphasised. Whilst this chapter perhaps lacks a better grounding in West and West Central African historiography, it makes clear that the arrival of European ships and the expansion of the slave trade left individuals, often regardless of status, vulnerable.

          The following chapter, “Imagined Bodies,” sets up one of Mustakeem’s important historiographical interventions. She establishes the central importance of the white gaze and its false construction of “perfect laboring bodies”: young, fit, black males. Reading through the archival silences, Mustakeem reveals the diversity of captive bodies washed in and out of the Atlantic economy in people. As the desires of white merchants came up against the reality of African supply, individuals outside the European ideal ended up on board the slave ship: boys and girls, pregnant women, the elderly, and the wounded. Space is not left out for “the refuse” (those individuals who went unsold) either. Quoting from James Fraser’s (a slave trader docked at the River Ambris, north of Angola) testimony, Mustakeem narrates the fate of a man unsold for his repeated attempts at running away:

          “[U]nder the tree, the owner allegedly began the torturous spectacle by “cutting off his wrists, then at the elbows, and then stumps from his shoulders.” He followed by lacerating the man’s “ankles, the rest of his joints, and finished with cutting his head off” in view of the gathered crowd.” (p. 51)

By shedding light on these individuals left behind and the diversity of people brought on board, Mustakeem firmly breaks down the symbolic centrality of the enslaved black male.

          The following four chapters take us out to the Atlantic Ocean, using the captive body as a text to unpack the experience of slavery at sea. Here, Spillers’ division between the body and the flesh seems influential, with Mustakeem giving it an empirical grounding in the “wooden world of slave ships and personal narratives.” In Spillers’ now classic article, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar”, she draws our attention to the captive flesh, the “lacerations, woundings, fissures, tears, scars, openings, ruptures, lesions, rendings, punctures” inflicted upon it. Whilst Spillers was making a broader point about the simultaneous degendering and hypersexualising of Black women, Mustakeem offers empirical clarity. This clarity is particularly evident in the chapter on disease. Here, Mustakeem brings together descriptions of illness on board the slave ship with eighteenth-century medical treatise, unpacking the deadly impact of smallpox, the “bloody flux,” and dropsy on the enslaved person’s body.

          “Battered Bodies, Enfeebled Minds” is exemplary of Mustakeem’s careful textual analysis and bold historiographical intervention. She asks us to consider the psychological toll of the Middle Passage, entering one of the most liminal spaces of Atlantic Slavery: the mind of the enslaved person. Self-destruction, traditionally understood as either an act of resistance or a reconfiguration of Igbo cosmologies, is reframed as ambiguous – “one of the behavioral manifestations of the terror pervasive in the world of slavery at sea.” It is one type of response, among many, to the “shock of enslavement,” a system that, Mustakeem reminds us, had no qualms about breaking apart families or inflicting extreme violence. In imploring us to go beyond an archive that medicalised psychological trauma as “fixed melancholy,” best treated by sailing at night and forced dancing, this book raises important, new questions.

          In the epilogue, Mustakeem brings us to the contemporary, meditating on the “Frankenstein of slavery.” Invoking Mary Shelley’s novel, and its contemporary television adaptation, Penny Dreadful, the Middle Passage becomes a multitude of experiences too “ugly, vile, demonic, and abominable” to be considered in contemporary memory. Mustakeem instead forces our gaze onto the sheer terror of the slave ship experience and asks, “how do we best remember and memorialize their living?” With traditional narratives of Atlantic Slavery focused on the plantation, the insurrection, and abolitionist debates, what do we do with the memory of the “Sixty Million and more”? This haunting question ties Mustakeem’s research to the contemporary, powerfully reminding us that this history remains deeply embedded in the present.

Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (2016) was the 2017 winner of the Wesley Logan prize for best historical book on the African Diaspora and the 2020 Dredd Scott Freedom award for historical literary excellence. Dr. Sowande’ Mustakeem is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Written by Jamie Gemmell


Morrison, Toni. Beloved. London: Vintage, 1997.

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64-81.

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