Last week, in the course of working on an entry about slave ships and the Middle Passage, I had occasion to write the following paragraph:
In the water, there were often sharks, which followed the ships in warm waters, feeding off refuse. “When dead Slaves are thrown over-board,” the Dutch merchant William Bosman wrote in A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea (1705), “I have sometimes, not without horrour, seen the dismal Rapaciousness of these Animals; four or five of them together shoot to the bottom under the Ship to tear the dead Corps to pieces, at each bite an Arm, a Leg, or the Head is snapt off; and before you can tell twenty have sometimes divided the Body amongst them so nicely that not the least Particle is left.”
As it happens, sharks have been the focus of a bit of political controversy when it comes to the slave trade. Five years ago Congress passed a resolution commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the trade’s abolition. On the floor of the House, Representative Donald M. Payne of New Jersey said the following:
The transatlantic slave trade is known as the largest forced migration in the history of the world. Estimates range from 25 to 50 million Africans were forcibly brought to the United States, the Caribbean, Central and South America and to Europe. Sharks[‘] migratory patters were changed because these predators followed the ships in the Middle Passage because when a slave died they were thrown overboard, or if they were killed because they were protesting of if they committed suicide, the sharks knew that they could follow the ships, and it changed the migratory patterns of sharks during this period of time.
A couple things jump out here. First, although the original House resolution is vague about the number of Africans who made the Middle Passage (“millions”), and historians do not all agree, 25–50 million is two to four times larger than what is generally accepted. David Eltis, in his Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (2010), suggests that between 1500 and 1866 about 12.5 million Africans were loaded onto ships bound for the New World, with about 1.8 million of them dying along the way (for a mortality rate of about 15 percent). In addition, many Africans died before ever making it to the ships, and another 15 percent died soon after their arrival.
So those are the numbers as I understand them. The other thing that jumps out is Payne’s claim about the migratory patterns of sharks. A bit of googling does not turn up any scientific evidence of long-term migratory-pattern shifts, although what does seem to be true, based on numerous primary accounts, including the one written by William Bosman, is that sharks followed the slave ships and were happy to feed off whatever bodies were thrown overboard.
Representative Payne’s two misstatements aren’t particularly interesting in their own right; I imagine that worse stuff gets said on the House floor all the time. What is interesting is the strange way these sharks have continued to live on the Internet. I first noticed it on the Yahoo! Answers site, where people ask questions and the “crowd” answers. To wit, this question, asked around the same time as the congressional resolution:
Q: Is it true that the migration patterns of sharks was affected by the slave trade (being thrown overboard)?
A: No. Because liberals have little knowledge of how business operates they continue to try and sell this myth. The liberal black GA. congressman that first came up with this claimed over 100,000,000 slaves were thrown overboard by slavers trying to avoid capture by British navel ships that were enforcing the empires ban on slavery. 1) Slave traders were in the trade to make a buck. 2) does it make sense to engage in a business that has a one in 50 chance of success (only about 2 million slave were exported to the new world over a 300 year period) 3) all the sharks that were alive during that time are dead now.4) animals(like sharks) go where the food is, they do not hang around because of some genetic memory passed on hundreds of years ago. 5) Who cares, the US fought a war to end slavery over 100 years ago, unless those who now engage in the African slave trade are able to establish a US market today the sharks will be OK.
So Donald Payne has morphed into John Lewis—he’s the “liberal black GA. congressman.” And the Africans’ bodies were not thrown overboard because they died “protesting” or by committing suicide (or by dying of disease, which was far more common); instead, they were chucked by “slavers trying to avoid capture by British navel [sic] ships.” One hundred million of them! In picking this answer as the best, the original question-asker wrote, “He was slightly flippant, but still, he gave some good information.”
While I could find no actual record—in Congress, in the major national newspapers, anywhere really—of John Lewis speaking on this subject, that does not mean he did not. Still, what I did find was reference after reference to John Lewis & sharks by angry partisans itching to discredit the congressman. Here are a few examples, some of them from just last year:
* Isn’t this the stupid [redacted] who claimed “sharks still patrol the slave trade routes, looking for lunch.”
* John Lewis claiming that the slave trade, by dumping slaves overboard, permanently altered the Migratory Patterns for Sharks. i’m no shark, but i feel i can speak for them when i say, well, thats just not true. [To which someone replied: “he’s probably right. dark meat is delicious”]
* [Responding to the fact that Lewis was beaten with other Freedom Riders in 1961] I didn’t realize he had been beaten, perhaps that explains why he speaks like he has a mouthful of half-chewed taffy… Isn’t this the Congress-Critter who believes that the sharks still follow the old slave-trade routes, because so many dead and dying slaves were tossed overboard??
* Rep. Lewis, (D-GA) once was quoted as saying sharks still follow ships, “to this day across the Atlantic,” looking for people that have been thrown overboard, referring to the slave trading vessels of long ago. No one with any common sense should take anything he says with anything other than a grain of salt.
* I believe Lewis is the one who once proclaimed, during a speech on the House floor, that slave traders dumped hundreds of millions of blacks overboard of slave ships to feed them to the sharks. And to this day the sharks still swim the slave trade routes looking to eat more black people. While all my details may not be 100% accurate, I did not make that up.
* The assertion is something vocalized by Congressional dingbat John Lewis, and he got it from a 1840 painting by British artist Joesph Turner entitled “The Slave Ship” (seen here). The part about it “forever changing shark patterns” is something the imbecile made up on the fly, as best as anyone can tell, along with his claim that slavers threw “millions” of blacks to waiting sharks.
There are more, but you get the idea. One should be careful what one says about sharks, lest you be called names and mocked for having been beaten bloody while protesting segregation.
In the meantime, additional information on sharks and the slave trade can be found in The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007) by Marcus Rediker. He writes how the predators fed on crew and slave alike. And while they were especially dangerous in the warm waters of Africa, sharks also sometimes “followed the slavers all the way across the Atlantic into American ports, as suggested by a notice from Kingston, Jamaica, that appeared in various newspapers in 1785:
“The many Guineamen [slave ships] lately arrived here have introduced such a number of overgrown sharks. (The constant attendants on the vessels from the coasts) that bathing in the river is become extremely dangerous, even above town. A very large one was taken on Sunday, along side the Hibberts, Capt. Boyd.” Abolitionists would do much to publicize the terror of sharks in the slave trade, but this evidence comes from a slave society, before the rise of the abolitionist movement. More came from Captain Hugh Crow, who made ten slaving voyages and wrote from personal observation that sharks “have been known to follow vessels across the ocean, that they might devour the bodies of the dead when thrown overboard.”
All of which is to say that perhaps the gentleman from New Jersey wasn’t that far off after all. And it makes me wonder why some folks are so quick to dismiss the horrors of slavery and the slave trade.