A dark, definitive history that reads like a novel

It’s always as hard as it is important to read accounts of large-scale human cruelty, but in his excellent new book The Slave Ship: A Human History (available October 4), Marcus Rediker has turned what could have been a merely horrific chronicle of the history of slave ships into a gripping experience. By breaking up the historical narrative with detailed descriptions of individual players (including an African who cut his throat with his own fingers rather than submit to enslavement, and a slave-ship captain, John Newton, who would later write “Amazing Grace”), Rediker has written an authoritative history that reads like a deeply researched novel, filled with striking characters and top-notch drama.

Thankfully, for all its descriptions of floggings, slaves’ being fed to sharks, and bloody uprisings, it’s not always grim: Rediker also illustrates how Africans on the slave ships endured and resisted brutality, forming the beginnings of a culture that would help them survive in their new lives.

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A dark, definitive history that reads like a novel