Saltwater Slavery by Stephanie Smallwood

“Saltwater,” Stephanie Smallwood suggests, defined the Atlantic slave experience. Metaphorically, spatially, and in terms of one’s identity, it represented a continuous but indeterminate wave of trauma inextricably bound to the experience of forced trans-Atlantic migration.

As a metaphor, Saltwater represented the market forces of the 17th and 18th century Atlantic. Inter-contenintal trade, operable only by the controlled whims of the ocean, drove the early Europeans to the West African coast. In the case of the Gold Coast, the primary subject of Smallwood’s study, the Europeans were, first, the Portuguese, in search of the valuable ore giving the region its European eponym. The turn of the 18th century, however, saw a shift–the Portuguese were replaced by the British, and the trade in Gold fell secondary to the trade in human bodies as the British feverishly sought to satisfy the labor demands of their new and increasingly profitable colonial holdings. Saltwater, in that it could be navigable and that it had to be navigable for purposes of trade, was thus the essential component of Atlantic commerce, thereby making it the origin of African commodification. To be transported across the Atlantic meant that slaves had to be brutally but systematically stripped of their ability to function as social beings, losing their humanity but retaining their physical, laboring form. Saltwater, in short, placed slaves in a deplorable middle ground between human and object, life and death.

Spatially, the open ocean, an unimaginably vast cauldron of salty liquid, presented its own form of trauma. First, the limitations of the water placed slaves in the strict confines of a sailing vessel, whose hollow interior, designed initially for European wares and goods, made for an insufferable home. Bound tightly for the duration of their journey–typically three months across–the captives struggled to not only survive but cope with the perpetual inevitability of death. As Smallwood suggests, death at sea was particularly traumatic as the watery mortuary of the open ocean did not allow for the typical African death rituals. Accordingly, then, one could never return to earth, return to home, in ones afterlife as would have been the case, so they believed, if the deceased had received a proper burial. Even in death, therefore, would remain a slave to the sea. Second, slaves from the African hinterlands, many of who probably had never seen the ocean before, struggled to make sense of what they were seeing and where they were going. The openness of the ocean, Smallwood points out, would have seemed as portal into whole other world, quite possibly a journey into the afterlife itself.

Saltwater also served as a demonstrative marker of Atlantic identity. When in the New World, “Saltwater” slaves were those non-American born slaves, those who wore the physical and emotional scares of the inter-continental trade. But the term “Saltwater” was more than an appellation. It was a window into their traumatic experience and social isolation. “Saltwater” slaves had experienced the social death of commodification, sundering them from their community, fictive or non, and brutally re-organizing them in inorganic and fragmentary collections at each point along their journey. “Saltwater” slaves, in other words, were the slaves still stuck in the social and emotional purgatory of the Atlantic.

Smallwood’s analysis has two major contributions to the larger historiography of slavery. For one, her idea that slavery equated to social death is irreconcilable with the idea of a slave expressing one’s agency, an occurrence, or better yet, an expression we know to be true to a certain degree. She does an odd thing with her book. She writes a social history, that in many ways doubles as a cultural history, while maintaining the preposition of social death. How can one be socially dead but very much culturally alive? Her methodology is tricky, but she makes it work. She also suggests that the slave experience is antithetical to the idea of a “Middle Passage.” Calling it a middle passage denotes that there is a beginning, an in between period, and an end. The actual slave experience was a series of contingent events, each with their own set of traumatic moments. And if the commodification process, a process that begun in the journey’s initial stages, signals social death, is death itself not an end point with extreme finality?

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