Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"A Fixed Melancholy": Migration, Memory, and the Middle Passage

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"A Fixed Melancholy": Migration, Memory, and the Middle Passage

Article excerpt

The Hannibal, a Guineaman financed by the Royal African Company, sailed with a cargo of 700 slaves (480 men and 220 women) from the West African kingdom Whydah to the Caribbean on 27 July 1694. Before the voyage began, as the ship took on slaves at the Guinea coast, more than a dozen captives died by drowning themselves and self-inducing starvation on account of their en- forced removal from home, their dread of Barbados, and their belief that via death they would return to "their country and friends again."1 The Hannibal's subsequent journey across the Atlantic proved even deadlier: upon its arrival in Barbados on 4 November, after a relatively long voyage of 3 months and 8 days, the ship had lost nearly one third of its crew and half of its cargo, 14 seamen and 320 slaves, to white flux (dysentery) and smallpox. Estimating the price of each African at 20 pounds and converting the ravages of disease into the loss of capital, Captain Thomas Phillips calculated the cost to the investors, the ves- sel's owners, and the Company, at 6,560 pounds sterling. After having endured "so much misery" and after taking so many precautions to preserve the slaves' health-feeding them at regular intervals, keeping the hold clean, and making them jump and dance for an hour on the deck every day-Phillips recalled, "all our expectations" were "defeated by their mortality."2

The story of the Hannibal is virtually paradigmatic of transatlantic slaving voyages between the mid-fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when more than 10 million Africans were transferred to the New World, nearly one third of them in British ships, in what is considered the largest coerced intercontinen- tal migration in human history.3 Throughout the period, suicides and revolts were common on slave ships, but the principal causes of high mortality were epidemic diseases, precipitated for the most part by the practices of profit- conscious owners: overcrowded vessels, strict rationing of food and water, and the shackling of the majority of captives in twos throughout the voyage.4 Al- though mortality averages gradually declined over time, the Middle Passage nevertheless remained a deadly enterprise. Not surprisingly, slave ships were frequently referred to as "floating coffins," the Atlantic crossing as "a voyage of death," and the Guinea coast as "the white man's grave." Sickness and mortal- ity, disease and death, thus fundamentally shaped the lives of Europeans and Africans in the course of the latter's "expropriation on one side of the Atlantic to exploitation on the other."5 Yet, as Vincent Brown has recently observed, schol- arship on the slave trade has primarily been concerned with statistical analyses, mapping trends in mortality rates, and quantitative data, to the near-exclusion of the "experience of historical subjects."6 To be sure, since evidence concerning the experience of slavery was largely generated by the enslavers themselves, any attempt to reconstruct the social worlds of slaves must remain provisional. Yet, at the same time, attention to how Africans responded to their dislocation from Africa and to their alienation under slavery, and how "the individual ex- periences of memory intersected with the interests of community"-i n short, how slaves forged "political life" under conditions of social and physical death- remains a necessary, if admittedly challenging, endeavor. This is especially the case, given that current scholarship on slavery has focused overwhelmingly on plantation life in the Caribbean but has neglected to examine the experience of slavery prior to the slaves' arrival in the New World.

This essay examines the subjective experience of dispossession by focus- ing in particular on a malady occasioned by enforced migration: nostalgia, or homesickness. Coined in 1688 by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer from the Greek nostos (home) and algos (suffering or grief) to designate a fatal illness that afflicted conscripted Swiss soldiers serving abroad, the term "nostalgia" gained currency in an age of migration and settlement. …

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