Sunday, February 6, 2011
CHARLES JOHNSON TALKS ABOUT MIDDLE PASSAGE
I began the work on Middle Passage in 1971 in a research paper I wrote for a course I took on black history. Then I wrote in ten weeks of that same year (and too quickly) my first draft for a novel about the slave trade. I didn't return to the subject until 1983 (and completed the novel in 1989); but, as earlier, my intention was to dramatize and provide details for the specific horrors experienced by Africans crammed into European ships that carried them to the New World.
However, during this process it became impossible not to see how thoroughly the societies engaged in the slave trade were transformed by it. Originally, my focus was on the dramatic interplay between the ships, the sailors, the slaves, and the sea. But I soon realized, like someone pulling a thread on a sweater, the truth of interconnectedness as it manifested in the slave trade. It took all the landside resources of an entire society---a culture at a particular moment in history like the slaving port in Liverpool in the 1800s---to create those three-masted ships that sailed for centuries. Every bollard and flywheel on the sloops, schooners and brigantines pointed back not only to the financiers of those voyages, but also to the bustling shipyards, to the merchants who prepared the beer casks and barrels of salted beef and pork, and the artisans and workers who provided the tools (and instruments of torture like thumbscrews and manacles) carried on board. There were devilish inventions created specifically for the needs of the slave trade---for example, a nasty-looking device called the speculum oris, which was used to force open the throats of slaves and pour gruel into those who refused to eat. (Think about what it must have been like to apply your imagination and knowledge to create such an "innovation." Did someone once hold a patent on this?) In other words, everyone high and low living in societies that engaged in the trade---including those who never owned another human being---was implicated, directly or indirectly. No one was innocent. No one could be morally clean in a country that profited in any way from traffic in slaves.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 6:37 AM