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Modern Voices
Barry Unsworth on the threat of fasting during the Middle Passage
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Q: As a form of resistance sometimes slaves refused to eat during the Middle Passage -- what kind of threat did that pose?
Barry Unsworth

A: This was regarded as a very, very dangerous tendency, because if one refused to eat, the others would follow suit. There would be large numbers of Africans [who] would die. They already died in large numbers, sometimes from what everyone would call "fixed melancholy," which was a loss of the desire to live. They just died. This didn't depend on eating in particular. They just died. And some peoples were much more prone to that than others, I think. This was temperamental, as well. One of the ways in which they tried to bring death on when they couldn't jump overboard: they tried to just starve themselves to death.

And so, in order to discourage this they would force the slave to eat. They would try beating him or putting on thumb screws or torturing him in some way in order to break him and make him eat; or they would force-feed him by forcing open his jaws and forcing food into him.

The idea, I think, was that a slave cannot be allowed to die by his own will and intention. He cannot be allowed to die voluntarily. If he's going to die, it must be at the hands of his captors, so that...he doesn't spread a dangerous example. One has to remember that this was all down to profit. It was just money. There was no more care than there would have been for horses or sacks of potatoes, It was just a very valuable cargo which had to be safeguarded as far as possible. Even God-fearing and relatively humane slaving captains would use thumb screws on recalcitrant slaves....
Barry Unsworth
"The Sacred Hunger"

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