For all we know, or think we know, about the long, dark history of the slave trade, it seems there is always more to learn. In The Black Joke: The True Story of One Ship’s Battle Against the Slave Trade, A.E. Rooks adds global and historical context to the travesties and tragedies that took place along the coast of West Africa in the 1800s. A versatile, accomplished scholar, and two-time “Jeopardy!” champion, Rooks introduces a cast of ambitious commanders, insensitive rulers and policymakers, heroic ship captains, beleaguered sailors and heartless enslavers.
Cuba, Jamaica, Africa, Brazil, Portugal, France, Spain and the United States were among the countries that played a role in the brutal enslavement of Africans. After England abolished slavery at the beginning of the 19th century, the British Royal Navy’s West African Squadron commissioned a ship called the Black Joke to pursue ships that continued to transport enslaved people illegally. Before that, the brig was itself a slaving ship, but in its reincarnation as “the scourge of traffickers,” it freed “at least three thousand people from bondage . . . a figure to compare with how many the ex-slaver had itself brought to that bondage.”
Rooks greatly enlarges the context of the Black Joke’s legendary four-year run, delving into the maritime, economic and political issues of the day. England and France spent years debating and occasionally trying to repudiate the barbarity of it all, but their policies were often carried out by far-off, corrupt enforcers. And with so much money on the line, justice became harder to secure. Countries like the United States required the free labor (and reproduction) of enslaved people to keep plantations prospering and to supply growing manufacturing industries. The vessels caught by the Black Joke were sold at auction, often to slave traders who sent them right back to West Africa. Pirates and pestilence added to the chaos. Many Africans whom the Black Joke intercepted were returned to Freetown in Sierra Leone only to be recaptured, sold and enslaved again. Meanwhile, governments watched, profited and looked away.
Rooks accumulates these daunting details with a wry but respectful touch. Her occasional wit, perhaps incongruous given the dire events she relates, may be her way of reminding us of our common humanity, still present even amid inhumane conditions.