If We Must Die

If We Must Die, by Eric Robert Taylor, is the first work I've come across that focuses exclusively on African revolts aboard slave ships.  Shipboard insurrections, as the author points out, were regular occurances and he goes on to illustrate that fact in the introduction with the curious case of the slave ship, Hope.  (It never fails to amaze me how such innocuous sounding names could be bestowed upon ships engaging in the foul business of human trafficking).


Anyway, the Hope sailed into port at the Carribbean Island of St. Thomas, having suffered the loss of its captain and two crew members at the alleged hands of revolting African captives.  It was later discovered that the victims were actually killed in a mutiny sparked by fellow sailors.  The fact, however, that everyone believed an uprising of captives actually took place was an indicator of the real threat slave ship captains and their crews existed under when transporting stolen men, women, and children.


The author reveals just under 500 documented cases of insurrections at sea during the course of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.  Many more undocumented cases were likely to have occurred, because slave ship captains were quick to cover up any instances of uprisings not damaging enough to attract the attention of their employers and investors.


The author has loaded this book with tons of detail relating to the conditions leading to shipboard revolts, the origins of the Africans involved in the various actions, as well data on the actions themselves. What the reader is presented with is a picture of captives, who, regardless of the slave trade's timeframe, exhibited an unwillingness to be passively transported to a destination unknown. They took advantage of opportunities to rise up, and when they did strike, they did so with utter ruthless determination.  The author makes a very good observation in his anaylsis of the Amistad revolt, which has been given a prominent place in mainstream history, such that the event was made into a movie a few years back.  Yes, the Africans under Cinque resisted and took the ship, but in the end, the Amistad revolt was publicized only because of the involvement of whites in securing the Africans' freedom in the aftermath.


If We Must Die provides accounts of freedom being seized by captive Africans without the aid of whites.  A good portion of the Africans who revolted, it should be noted, possessed military training and familiarity with firearms.  After all, many captives were prisoners of war.  That the Africans not only knew firearms, but were highly proficient in their use was demonstrated in an insurrection in 1757, when Africans took the ship Marlborough after killing or capturing the crew.  A group of Africans debarked at a location along the African coast close to their homes.  The remaining Africans on board opted to coerce the surviving crew into sailing them toward the former's home region.  The Africans' skillful use of muskets and cannon fended off another slave ship attempting to intercept the Marlborough. 


Now that is an event that screams for a cinematic adaptation.  And Eric Robert Taylor brings us more such stories of African seaborne resistence that has been woefully neglected, even by historians, who have tended to gloss over the topic of shipboard insurrections, to focus on land based African resistence.


If We Must Die, is a very enlightening study of African valor and resistence in the most despairing and depraved of circumstances.  There was only one detail I had an issue with, and the author is by no means the only one guilty of this error.  He often referred to captive Africans aboard slave ships as 'slaves.'  Africans arriving in the Americas were not slaves until they were actually put to work.  The term 'captive' for captured Africans is more appropriate and accurate.


Otherwise, If We Must Die is a very compelling and informative book.    

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