Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World

By Waters, Tony | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World


Waters, Tony, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World. Edited by Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus, and Markus Rediker. The California World History Library 5. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Pp. x, 262; illustrations. $24.95 paper.

Many Middle Passages is a collection of twelve essays about slavery, transportation of British prisoners to Australia, transportation of indentured servants from China to Latin America and the Pacific, coerced labor migration, and modern sex slavery. The geographical range includes the Indian Ocean World (including East Africa), China, Australia, and the Pacific Ocean. The writers are mostly historians, and the essays are interesting, well written, and easy to read. Sources include a range of written documents that victims, perpetrators, shipping companies, and courts have left.

Two theses are implicit to this essay collection. The first is implied in the book's title: that the Middle Passage across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas provides a context for understanding other forced migrations. A number of the case studies make this case well. The second thesis is that forced migrations of the early modern world provide a context for understanding the modern sex-slavery trade. I was less convinced that this comparison applies.

The essays in this book implicitly measure themselves against the much better known "Middle Passage" of the Atlantic slave trade. By the end of the slave trade in the nineteenth century, the Africa trade involved about ten million Africans, forcibly taken and enslaved in Africa, penned into depots on the West African coast, shackled in ships, and then sold in South America, the Caribbean, and North America. These tasks required an extraordinary brutality on the part of ships' captains who had two often contradictory goals: that of delivering as large a cargo as possible, but also preventing a mutiny of the enslaved, and piracy by competitors. As is well documented, this involved brutal conditions below-decks where slaves were shackled, and crowded as densely as possible.

The Middle Passage in the Atlantic was the largest and most sustained forced movement. But there were other places in the world where the forced movement of populations occurred. Slavery markets existed in the Indian Ocean world until the late nineteenth century, and involved the capture of Africans in central Africa, slave depots on the East African coast, and transportation around the Indian Ocean world. Slave raiding also took place among the islands of Southeast Asia in the early nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, perhaps many of the same shipboard conditions developed as occurred in the Atlantic trade. Slaves were chained below-decks; mutiny and revolt were constant threats to the crew, as was piracy.

But this is not the full extent of such voyages of forced migration by sailing ship, or by other means. By the late eighteenth century, Europeans were being exported in large numbers as indentured servants and soldiers to places like the Dutch East Indies, and as prisoners to Botany Bay in Australia. As the essays about these "Middle Passages" point out, the trips were similar to those undertaken across the Atlantic in terms of brutality, in large part because ship masters faced the same challenge: delivering an unwilling human cargo which did not mutiny.

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