Sunday, 2 February 2014

Black Cargoes by Daniel P. Mannix

Ridley Scott's film Gladiator was conceived by screenwriter David Franzoni, and Franzoni got the idea from a book called Those About to Die by Daniel P. Mannix. He describes Mannix's book as "sort of a tawdry slash semi-serious novel about the Colosseum." 

Well, for a start it's not a novel, but a very compelling historical over-view. And "tawdry"? If he means in the sense "cheap, showy, of poor quality" then absolutely not. But arguably it is somewhat sensational. Mannix had a gift for choosing utterly compelling, and often gruesome, subjects and writing books about them which you can't put down. 

Besides the Roman games he also wrote historical accounts of torture, the Hellfire Club, Aleister Crowley... and the slave trade. Which brings us to the book at hand. Following on rather neatly from last week's post about that slavery malarkey (it's a pure coincidence, I swear guv) Black Cargoes is subtitled 'A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade.' It is co-written with Malcolm Cowley, but I'm not really doing him a disservice by discussing it as Mannix's book. In the introduction Cowley says "This is Daniel Mannix's book, based on his researches in London and East Africa. My own contribution was chiefly editorial." Cowley also wrote  three of the book's twelve chapters.

In common with many of Mannix's other works, Black Cargoes is an intelligent and informative catalogue of horrors. If you want to learn about the slave trade I doubt there's a better or more readable book on the subject (despite it being published half a century ago). 

Among the fascinating facts that I gleaned from it: the guinea coin, which was worth slightly more than the pound, got its name because it was made from exceptionally high quality gold from Guinea on the slave coast of Africa. The term "piccaninny" for a black child comes from the Spanish word "pequeƱo", meaning small. 

The infamous "middle passage" which referred to the hellish sea journey from Africa to the West Indies, on which so many slaves died, is so called because it was the mid-stage of a triangular trade which ran from Europe to Africa (you buy the slaves, swindling the seller as much as you can), Africa to the New World (you trade your surviving slaves for goods like sugar), and then from the New World back to Europe (you cash in and buy a big house in Liverpool). 

And, lastly, Wall Street is named after the wall which was put up to keep the slaves captive. The shrewd early American settlers soon discovered that the native American 'Indians' made lousy slaves — "either they proved intractable or they simply died." Indeed the Massachusetts Legislature complained that they were "of a malicious, surly and revengeful spirit; rude and insolent in their behaviour and very ungovernable." Good for the Indians.

The solution found by the canny Yankee traders? Sell off their ungovernable Indians in the West Indies before the word got out, and exchange them for more useful African slaves. Ah, business... Isn't it wonderful?

Daniel Mannix is rather frowned upon in serious circles because, I suspect, he writes highly readable ("enjoyable" isn't quite the right word) studies of the darker side of human nature, and explores some of the most disturbing episodes in our history. Such subject matter shouldn't be fun to read about. But Mannix comes close to making it so. Which makes for guilty readers... who can't put his books down.

Incidentally, I can't help wondering if David Franzoni wasn't also acquainted with this book by Mannix. After all, Chapter 10 of Black Cargoes contains a detailed discussion of the Amistad slave mutiny of 1839. And what was Franzoni's breakthrough script? You guessed it, Amistad for Steven Spielberg.

Perhaps we shouldn't throw words like "tawdry" around when discussing such a valuable and rewarding writer as Daniel P. Mannix.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are taken from Amazon UK, except for this one from Amazon USA. Click on the links and buy a copy.)

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