Maritime History

Institutionalized Violence in Atlantic Ocean Trade in the 18th Century

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, trade and exploration exploded across the Atlantic ocean. Merchants, navies, pirates and colonizers were traversing the sea with more and more ease. As this growth happened, a system that encompassed the entire Atlantic Ocean and its coasts developed to support the increase of trade and sailors on the water. Merchants hired captains, who hired sailors. Pirates attacked the merchants and the navies. Slaves were transported as cargo and American Indians in the New World of North America were being exploited for trade. Each agent in this web used violence to control those they had power over. I am using the word violence here not just to represent physical beating and killing, but to encompass a whole manner of physical tortures that were inflicted at sea; abuses like starving, inadequate medical care, and imprisonment. Violence as a form of control became institutionalized throughout the system of Atlantic trade. The institutionalization, the building of it into common practice and procedures, served not just to make violence more widespread and efficient, but to employ a circular reasoning that distanced the perpetrators emotionally from their actions.

            To show this, a good place to start is with one of the greatest examples of institutionalized violence in history, the Atlantic slave trade. Stephanie Smallwood writes in her book Saltwater Slavery that through experimentation, European sailors and slave companies turned the process of aquiring, shipping and selling humans beings into “a thoroughly scientific enterprise” that consisted of “perfecting the practices required to commodify people and determining where those practices reached their outer limits” (Smallwood, 43). The scientific precision with which this oppression was executed required much more than individual ships willing to sell slaves. Smallwood focuses on the Royal Africa Company, the corporation that chartered the ships, hired the captains and gave them orders. The captains were given specific instructions for each voyage, but the headquarters was in England, far from the ships in question. Sometimes compliance with the directions would require captains to sacrifice the health and safety of their ships. Charles Bowler, captain of the Edgar, had to weigh whether to leave with his slaves at once or wait and pack the ship even more full. Smallwood records that in this case “a speedy departure might preserve lives… (but) leaving the coast altogether was not a viable option, for it would indicate failure to comply with one of the most important provisions in the contract” (Smallwood, 92). Bowler had advocated for the speedy departure, but “his protests (were) silenced” (Smallwood, 93), and he endangered the slaves and his crew by remaining on the Gold Coast. Bowler felt it wasn’t worth it, but justified it because of the pressures from the Royal Africa Company. This is an example of how institutionalized violence served to take some agency away from Bowler, he didn’t feel as if he had a choice in the decision, though of course he did, that may have cost enslaved Africans their lives.

            Another example of this institutional scapegoating was on the slave ship the James by its captain Peter Blake. Smallwood spends a chapter going through Blake’s log of the deaths aboard the ship, emphasizing his detachment. Blake’s very specific language highlights how the institution of  slavery supported him in completely devaluing human life. Smallwood writes that in his notes “the captives themselves bore the responsibility and had the agency – it was they who ‘departed this life’” (Smallwood, 139). In his language, Blake is relying on the presumptions and structures of the institution to forgive himself preemptively. He doesn’t question that these people are commodities to be sold, and so their deaths and the situations that cause their deaths can’t be his fault. It is this circular reasoning that is the hallmark of these cases of institutional violence.

            Marcus Rediker, in his book Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, writes of this kind of reasoning specifically. He writes of violence at sea, and the absolute power that captains had while sailing. After giving examples of brutalities inflicted upon sailors, he quotes a captain named Nathanial Uring, who said that “seamen were ‘unthinking, ungovernable monsters’ … and ‘wretched, ungovernable creatures’” (Rediker, 226). Uring uses this as a justification for his and other captains’ violent practices; practices that were often supported by law. This total normalizing of captains’ authority is another example of how this circular reasoning, that seamen were bad and so must be beaten, justified and excused the violence inflicted upon them. Rediker notes this pattern, writing of Uring’s views that “Such figures of authority could scarcely afford to see matters otherwise, lest they call into question the moral foundation of their own extraordinary, often brutally used, powers” (Rediker, 227).

            In his book, Rediker writes that pirates were the antithesis of the merchants and navies of the time. He frames them as a response to the violent, unrestricted captain; sailors who fled their captains’ violence to become pirates. But when talking about this kind of institutional violence, they fall into the exact same patterns. Along with plundering vessels for goods and prizes, pirates often were in the business of revenge against the brutal captains many of them had escaped. This “cry for vengeance” (Rediker, 269) follows the same pattern of institutional violence. How different were the pirates really, when “many captured captains were ‘barborously used’ and some were summarily executed” (Rediker, 270). The pirates were justifying their violence because of a system that was already violent, and relieving themselves of any responsibility.

            This kind of violence and circular reasoning followed trade through the Atlantic and into the New World. The perpetrators were the English settlers and traders, and they slaughtered the American Indians because of a combination of fear, revenge and economic interest. With an invested interest in using the resources of North America, they saw killing the Indians as a necessary act in order to keep their traders safe and to maintain access to resources. These acts were sometimes justified by previous attacks on the English made by Indians. In Clams, Dams and the Desiccation of New England, Chris Pastore writes of such an instance; the massacre of the Pequots in Mystic. In response to an attack on John Oldham, the English ambushed and attacked the Pequot. Pastore writes that “the bloody abandon with which the English slaughtered the Pequots left even their Indian allies appalled” (Pastore, 15). This is another instance where pressures from the systems of trade and of vengeance allow agents of violence to commit brutality guilt free.

            In this time of rapid expansion of ocean trade, the introduction of a global economy gave rise to these institutions of violence. By putting in place systems that maximize profits over human lives, violence is perpetrated and sometimes endorsed. These systems allowed the agents of violence to engage in circular reasoning that justified their actions and led to some true brutality. It was a system bigger than just the slave trade, it implicated the entire ocean.

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