Thursday, October 18, 2007

Slave Trade

Marcus Rediker's new book, "The Slave Ship , A Human History," looks like it could be a valuable contribution. It certainly attempts to fill one of the big holes in American historical scholarship. As Rediker himself notes here, and suggests a reason:

Perhaps the most significant reason for lack of scholarship, he says, is an assumption that "history happens on land, that the landed masses of the world are the real places and that the seas in between are a kind of void."

I would suggest a different one. The slave trade was carried on almost exclusively by New Englanders, who profited mightily from it. Curiously, I don't see this emphasized much in the writing about Rediker's book or his own comments on it.

In the wake of the Civil War, the national history narrative, shaped naturally by the victorious faction, took pains to write around the embarrassing facts about the slave trade. Later, in the national reckoning with institutional racism, America "solved" the problem by scapegoating the South as the locus of racism, then purging and curing it there. This allowed the bulk of the nation to feel like the good guys, the righters of wrongs perpetrated by others.

In all these various currents, the story of the North's extensive involvement in, and reliance on, slavery never became a convenient truth.