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The Lost History of the Middle Passage

An interview with Sowande’ Mustakeem.

By Corey Atad


A diagram of the Brookes slave ship, published in 1788. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A recent wave of popular historical scholarship on slavery and racism has swept the non-fiction landscape. One valuable new voice here is Sowande’ Mustakeem, whose debut book, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage, charts the human history of the Atlantic slave trade.

Most people are familiar with the famous diagram of the Brookes slave ship, published by British abolitionists in 1788. The simple, two-dimensional engraving depicts cross-sections of the slave ship Brookes with the image of hundreds of African enslaved people lying on their backs in tight proximity, filling every available foot of the ship. The Brookes diagram and similar renderings have stayed in the common imagination of the slave trade, but despite the image’s ubiquity, many aspects of the Middle Passage have remained a mystery.

Mustakeem, an assistant professor of African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, took that gap in knowledge as a challenge to fill in with as much detail as possible. In Slavery at Sea, Mustakeem begins with the kidnapping of Africans and their sale into slavery aboard European vessels, and then quickly moves into a broad but highly detailed examination of life on a slave ship. Most important, the book doesn’t limit itself to the popular tales of African men kidnapped into slavery, nor is it interested only in violence. Instead, the book brings into focus the wider range of experiences, including those of women, children, and the infirm.

The complexity Mustakeem unearths in doctors’ journals, ship documents, and a trove of other archival material brings surprising new dimensions to our current vision of the Middle Passage. Those indistinguishable figures in the Brookes diagram represented the fate of actual human beings, and that’s what Mustakeem uncovers in Slavery at Sea. Reading the book, it’s hard not to feel as though a veil has been lifted off one of the most important and awful chapters in world history, bringing to it fresh light and arresting new details.

To get a sense of what it took to uncover this history, Pacific Standard spoke with Sowande’ Mustakeem about Slavery at Sea and the importance of the Middle Passage.


Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage. (Photo: University of Illinois Press)

You talk a lot in the introduction of the book about “re-centering” the slave story to the Middle Passage. What were you looking to learn by shifting focus back to people being kidnapped and sold onto slave ships?

As I was writing, I felt like I had this 3-D look at the Passage. I was trying to write it in such a way that could allow people to feel instead of just saying what happened — but feel through emotions, or through details, the things that I thought I wanted them to know. A couple men would die from a torn scrotum. That’s important.

Really, [the goal was] trying to be more specific as opposed to getting lost in other details that distract us.

The other thing you explore is the circumstances of women who were enslaved.

I was fortunate to be trained by, I would say, pioneers in black women’s history. That meant that I was getting it from all directions. They were asking me: “So tell me more about the women? What else could we see? What else could we broaden out?” I would push back to say gender is not just women. Gender has to be both the male experience and the female. I knew I was telling a new narrative to put women in. This is the first book ever to center a lot of bond-people who have never had a place in the narrative.

There’s only two black women now in the world that even have a book on the Middle Passage: myself and Stephanie Smallwood.

Obviously, the whole tale of the Middle Passage is horrific, but suicide in particular is very, very hard to take. Why was it important to write about the prevalence of suicide on the slave ships?

I started there. I realized, OK, we have mental health, and then we have physical health. They are both important, and I’m tired of people conflating them. Let me make my mark and separate them. Let’s think about space, let’s think about water. What does that mean when someone dies? Where are they going? There’s no cemetery, there’s no land.

For me, I’m literally out here in the middle of the ocean, so what do we have? What are the tools? Because everyone did not jump overboard. Everyone did not claw their necks and try to cut their throats. How do we begin to put it together? Where do we see the pattern?

I totally wanted to separate resistance from what many want to make it into. Whenever I would present, people would say, “Tell me how they fought and rose up.” But what about the ones who didn’t? What about the ones who just willed themselves to die? Are they heroes? Do they have a place in history? Because they were eaten by sharks and just left out there, do we now devalue their place?

You go into it a little bit, but the ship revolts were not actually as common as we sometimes think.

Yeah, especially when we’re trying to locate women. For a lot of people, the Middle Passage is left at suicide and ship revolts, barely. Especially ship revolts—it’s so iconic, it’s almost a constant projection of heroes who just fought back. I just really needed to—not just complicate it, but define it for what it is, and separate it so we could think about it hopefully more deeply.

More deeply than just picturing the Amistad revolt, right?


You remind us about these popular imaginings that kind of—

That shape how we choose to remember it. When I think about it, I was an undergrad, and I remember I was taking a Slavery in the Americas course when Spielberg’s film [Amistad] came out in ’97. I had no clue that one day this film that I remember—“Oh gosh, it’s three hours. It’s so long”—would shape how I would be engaged, and it still is my only clip that I have and have continued to use to evoke emotions from students.

What I find very interesting is that historians are not always dominant in the public understanding. In that sense, literature and journalism have largely shaped how slavery is understood, and, more importantly, that story is less about the slave trade, and more about slavery itself. You think about the most popular slavery books, we’re looking at largely literature.

Yeah, like right now, obviously the big one is Colson Whitehead’s book [The Underground Railroad].

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m excited about it.

Do you think this spate of new non-fiction will change people’s understanding?

In whole new exciting ways, yeah. Yeah, I’m thrilled at it. In fact, I’m following all of what’s going on with all of those books. Again, going back and looking at where historians fit, this is like such a monumental year. I don’t even really know just yet how much people are getting it. The fact that you have almost, I want to say there might be three to four black women this year that have published books on slavery — historians.

Even if it was just one, if it was just me, that’s showing where the conversations have evolved.

I’m very clear in my terms that I studied the Middle Passage. Some people I knew who studied the slave trade have never and have no interest in dealing with the people’s experiences on the ship at all.

Right, it becomes more of an economic view or political view.

And numbers, numbers, numbers.

Obviously, we’re talking about history, but the fact that this is all kind of bubbling up now, what do you think that says about where we are in the current moment?

Race now matters all over again. You cannot escape it, and the world is watching in every direction. What that means is our discomfort with race makes us try to understand where it should begin. For me, having taught at a private, predominantly white institution, and having taught black history, and, more importantly, taught a class on slavery and memory in American popular culture, I see it more than the average person. That means that, early on, I barely would get like eight students. And then it was sort of busting at the seams. It just changed, and now we’re right back at it, where these students are interested in Black Lives Matter, and I’m here because I know I need to be.

It’s just so wild to see that, “Man, OK, so slavery’s about to matter all over again, because race matters.” The two are very entangled, it’s just a matter of where you want to go with that. I just think I’ve fallen, fortunately, into that wave a little bit.

What do you hope people who aren’t totally immersed in the history will get out of your book?

I want the Middle Passage to be understood for what it is and not conflated and buried and forgotten while we continue to perpetuate these imagined ideas of the American South. Meaning, let’s broaden out the narrative. Let’s make it much more holistic so that it includes every component of slavery, but, within it, the Middle Passage needs to be seen more concretely for its making and unmaking of enslaved people. It’s critical, and it’s just not a sideline to history. It needs to be more centered.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.