The Slave Dancer

172111

NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1974

The Slave Dancer

by Paula Fox

Age: 11+

Interests: American history, slavery, racism, ships

New York: Dell, 1973

127 pages

A young boy in 1840 New Orleans is kidnapped and pressed into service on a slave ship headed to Africa. Young Jessie reluctantly falls into the routine of the ship’s crew, learning quickly to avoid the brutally violent captain. Ship life is difficult and harsh, but once they reach Africa and a cargo of slaves is brought on board, things get even more horrifying. Jessie must perform the task he was kidnapped for – playing his tin whistle every morning for the captured slaves to dance to, daily exercise intended to keep them healthy enough during the long voyage to fetch a good price at market. Jessie is sickened at the treatment the slaves receive, but has no choice but to obey the captain. As the days pass starvation and disease takes its toll of both captives and crew. The dead are dumped overboard and everyone is becoming more unhinged, especially Jessie, who goes nearly mad with hatred for his superiors and their horrible business. With British and American military vessels patrolling the seas with the aim of ending the slave trade, the captain grows ever more paranoid, the crew is driven to extremes of debasement and brutality, and Jessie doubts he will ever make it home alive. An American military ship spots them anchored off Cuba, just as they are drunkenly celebrating the imminent sale of their cargo to a local Spanish lord. In a last fiendish effort to save their own skins, the captain and crew cast the slaves into the ocean before fleeing the harbour, right into a terrible storm. The ship is wrecked and the only two survivors are Jessie and a young black boy named Ras. They are washed up on a Mississippi shore more dead than alive, and an escaped slave takes them in. Ras travels northward to freedom. Jessie returns to his mother and sister in New Orleans, much changed and forever haunted by his experiences.

This is a powerful and moving story, one that pulls no punches relating the horrors and barbaric cruelty of the slave ships. Jessie very quickly sees the slave trade as the hypocritical, despicable business it is, and is continually shocked at how his crewmates – especially those he counts as friends – can take part in it. The views of the slavers toward the Africans are repellant to modern ears, and will shock modern readers as much as it does Jessie. The sailors rationalize their actions, but Jessie sees that placing commerce above all ethical concerns is indefensible. The slavers are quite literally ruined by their own trade, on every level, and become even more like beasts than they claim the Africans to be.

I have read reviews of this book that claim Jessie is unrealistically modern in his views, however there was a great deal of anti-slavery sentiment in the States even at this time, not to mention virulent opposition in Britain and elsewhere. For this reason I did not find Jessie’s attitudes to be all that anachronistic. Besides, the reader has to feel some kinship with Jessie for the story to really hit home, so giving him an enlightened outlook serves the greater purpose of the novel.

For those readers who can stand the gruesome details of life on a slave ship, The Slave Dancer is a captivating read. This hasn’t happened to me in a while, but I literally could not put the book down. For such a slim volume, it delivers a weighty historical lesson of great relevance today. Highly recommended.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.