The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade

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9780465028719: The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade

The slave trade is one of the best known yet least understood processes in our history. The popular image of traders in slave ships going to Africa and rounding up slaves as if they were cattle is not only historically inaccurate, it also disguises the fact that the slave trade was a highly organized Atlantic-wide system that required close collaboration at the highest levels of government in Europe, Africa, and the New World. Using the private journal of First Lieutenant Robert Durand, and supplementing it with a wealth of archival research, Yale historian Robert Harms re-creates in astonishing detail the voyage of the French slave ship The Diligent.We have histories of the slave trade, most recently Hugh Thomas's massive and authoritative The Slave Trade, but The Diligent is something entirely different: a deep bore into the economic, political, and moral worldviews of the participants on all sides of the trade, complete with a vivid dramatis personae. Nobody who reads this book will ever look at the slave trade in the same way again.

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Review:

From the 16th to the 19th century, more than 40,000 slave ships plied the waters of the Atlantic, bringing human cargo to the Americas. Drawing on a memoir by a lieutenant, historian Robert Harms tells the story of one such ship, a story that, although shocking to modern readers, "was distressingly ordinary in its own time and place."

Designed to transport grain over short distances, the Diligent was perhaps not the most seaworthy of vessels. Still, by ship's officer Robert Durand's account, it transported nearly 300 victims at a time from the African coast to the French colony of Martinique, often at a terrible cost in life because of disease, malnutrition, and harsh shipboard discipline. Harms carefully reconstructs episodes in the ship's life, including the curious trial that ended its 1731 ocean crossing. More than that, he untangles the complex business of the slave trade, which was far from monolithic, depending instead on ever-shifting alliances and private agendas in the race for profit.

As Harms notes, though more than 17,000 ships' logs from the slaving voyages of the 18th century have been recovered, only a few shed light on daily life aboard those vessels. His troubling narrative does just that, and it gives new evidence of the ordinariness of evil. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Robert Harms is a professor of History at Yale University.

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