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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Middle Passage (p. 74)

From chapter "Power"

Slaves captured in Africa for eventual use in the Americas were transported in ships across the Atlantic Ocean in what is called the Middle Passage. Between nine and sixteen million human beings survived the voyage. Yearly mortality rates varied from 3 to 10 percent, meaning that maybe an additional million people died on board. The length of the journeys varied, depending on where the people were eventually to be sold. The shortest journeys lasted thirty to fifty days, from Angola to Brazil, while some trips lasted much longer. The longest was 284 days.

Conditions for the “migration,” as most scholars call it, were inhuman. I mean this not hyperbolically, but precisely. Conditions were fitted to maximize revenue, and suggested scant interest in promoting life. This meant packing the most niggers—I use this word to emphasize that the enslaved were property, and thus objects, as opposed to subjects—into the smallest space while causing the least loss of product viability (much like in modern factory farms). Thus we can read that on at least one ship, the Brookes, that if every adult male slave was allotted six feet by one foot four inches of platform space (with a ceiling space of three to four feet), every adult female slave was allotted five feet ten by one foot four, every boy was allotted five feet by one foot two, and every girl four feet six by one foot, the ship could hold 451 slaves. We can read also that the ship carried upward of six hundred slaves.

Because fresh air was required for product viability, five to six air ports were provided on each side of the ship, each being about four by six inches. It was necessary to close these whenever it rained, or when the seas grew rough. One ship’s doctor noted, “The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies and by being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and fluxes which generally carry off great numbers of them. … I frequently went down among them till at length their rooms became so extremely hot as to be only bearable for a very short time. But the excessive heat was not the only thing that rendered their situation intolerable. The deck, that is, the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the flux [i.e., diarrhea], that it resembled a slaughter-house.”

The constant motion of the ship frequently rubbed the skin and even the flesh off the shoulders, elbows, and hips of the slaves, revealing bones and reducing the ultimate value of the cargo.

Those slaves who could, often threw themselves overboard, preferring to drown or be eaten by sharks rather than continue the migration. Shipowners tried their hardest to prevent this, because insurance sometimes did not pay for losses due to suicide. Those slaves who found no opportunity to jump ship often tried to kill themselves by not eating, and because this too cost their owners money, those who refused to eat had their mouths forcibly opened, or, failing that, had their lips burned with hot coals.


Those who say that seeing is believing have it all wrong. Only when we believe do we begin to see (what we are supposed to see). An example of this is the scientific defense of slavery, which, while it had the same inescapability and internal consistency as the Biblical and historical defenses, had as well the same tautology manifested in Justice Marshall’s decision: “If the principle has been asserted in the first instance, and afterwards sustained … it becomes the law of the land.” It seems clear that the scientific defenders of racism—and I wonder how much of the rest of our science is similarly selective— went looking for physical differences between themselves and those they enslaved to justify exploitation. “There is a marked difference between the heads of the Caucasian and the Negro,” wrote the physician and scholar Josiah C. Nott in 1844, “and there is a corresponding difference no less marked in their intellectual and moral qualities.” He was saying by this, I suppose, that the enslavers were morally superior to the enslaved. So far as the physical difference, Nott wrote, “The head of the Negro is smaller by a full tenth—the forehead is narrower and more receding, in consequence of which the anterior or intellectual portion of the brain is defective.” He continued, “There is in the animal kingdom, a regular gradation in the form of the brain, from the Caucasian down to the lowest order of animals, and the intellectual faculties and instincts are commensurate with size and form.” He compares the teeth of the Negro with “those of carnivorous animals,” and their “nerves coming off the brain” with “animals, where the senses and sensual faculties predominate.”

He’s driving at three points. The first is that Caucasians and Negroes are not merely different races but different species (“Now it will be seen from this hasty sketch, how many points of resemblance Anatomists have established between the Negro and Ape”). The second is that, based on anatomy and history, one can deduce that the species of Caucasians are intellectually and morally superior to the species of “the Mongol, the Malay, the Indian and Negro.” The third and most crucial point is that the intellectual and moral superiority of the Caucasians gives them just as much a right—and duty—to enslave (domesticate would now probably be a better word) members of these other species (Mongols, Malays, Indians, and Negroes) as it does other nonhumans, for example, horses, oxen, and pigs.

Ultimately, though, as with Marshall’s legal commentary, Nott stresses that it doesn’t much matter what case he or anybody makes in defense of (or, for that matter, against) slavery, because the bottom line was, as he quoted the poet Alexander Pope in glorious all to end his argument: “One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.”