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Book Review


Rafe Blaufarb and Liz Clarke, Inhuman Traffick: The International Struggle Against the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a Graphic History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. Xiii-198. Bibliography and Glossary. $19.95 (paper).


     For researchers and teachers alike, studying the transatlantic slave trade presents a host of challenges. One of those has been creating a historical narrative that balances the personal experiences of individuals with the sheer scope of a global era that involved millions. Blaufarb's and Clarke's Inhuman Traffick utilizes the innovative format of "graphic history" to answer this challenge with a historical account and teaching resource that will interest many.

     Inhuman Traffick was created by the partnership of French history expert Rafe Blaufarb, Professor of History and Ben Weider Eminent Scholar at Florida State University, and professional illustrator Liz Clarke, based in Cape Town, South Africa. The book centers on the graphic history rendition of the Neirsée incident and includes an accompanying historical overview of the transatlantic slave trade era, and selections of the incident's archival documents. The book also includes a timeline, bibliography of recommended additional readings, and a helpful glossary.

     The history of the little-known Neirsée incident brings together a host of familiar and not-so-familiar historical actors of the transatlantic world. Blaufarb and Clarke's graphic history begins with the 1829 British naval capture of the slave ship Neirsée off the West African coast. The British Royal Navy's West African Squadron had assembled a crew of British and Kru sailors to sail the captured slave ship to Sierra Leone where the recently liberated Africans could resettle. Accompanying the sailors were a number of skilled Sierra Leonean craftsmen, including George Thomas and his wife Sarah, who planned to join the colony. Their plans and hopes were thrown awry, however, when the captured slave traders (prisoners on this same ship) successfully mutinied. They sailed the Neirsée instead across the Atlantic to Guadeloupe where the crew and re-enslaved Africans were sold. Some of the crew escaped and began an international legal fight to protest the incident and liberate their fellow crewmen and the illegally sold Africans. Their battle yielded a bittersweet victory as many of the Africans, including Thomas' wife Sarah, were unable to be located or rescued. Their efforts, however, did achieve a victory for historical records, as this incident, unlike so many other protests, was documented in diplomatic accounts.

     As a graphic history, Inhuman Traffick underscores well the complexities of this era. The transatlantic slave trade – in both its making and its ending – was a truly international history. The history of the Neirsée presented here emphasizes this aspect well and, unlike so many similar accounts of the era, has the refreshing additional virtue of presenting Africans as key participants in the narrative. The story's pivots from the high seas to diplomatic offices and courts in Europe emphasize the multitude of parties involved in shaping the transatlantic slave trade. The graphic history also centers on the difficulties of ending the slave trade, another important insight for the classroom. Using cinematic-style scene changes, Blaufarb and Clark weave in brief references to concurrent political events, which provides helpful global context. This is done particularly well for the Americas and Europe (for example, with references to the American and French Revolutions). More might have been included on the West African side to show relevant political and economic developments.

     The medium of this history itself– that of the graphic narrative – offers valuable opportunities for classroom conversations on how historians create history. Blaufarb and Clark elected to produce a work tightly focused on the history contained in the Neirsée incident. This allows for important classroom (and professional) dialogues on the process of converting archival records to historical narratives for public audiences. Thinking about this process and aspects of the story that are silenced by such official records (such as the fates of many of the re-enslaved Africans) promise provocative and interesting classroom uses as students have for comparison both the archival accounts and the graphic history in this book.

     Given the many payoffs of having students of all levels think about doing history 'behind the scenes,' the authors might have gone further to include a wider variety of sources they used to contextualize their archival-record based history. They hint at the wealth of other sources consulted in their short preface; however, students and interested readers could benefit immensely by having a plethora of other potential historical sources (samples of statistical, art, archaeological, or linguistic records, for instance) available in the book's source section to allow for more side-by-side comparison of other forms of raw historical data with the final product. Readers might also enjoy seeing expanded attention to this process in the graphic history's concluding scenes of the historian at work, for example, seeing how the authors determined period clothing and uniforms. Such details could further enrich classroom uses of the book and will hopefully appear in later editions.

     Nonetheless, in its present form, Inhuman Traffick offers valuable insights into the complex world of the transatlantic slave trade. It also inspires students and historians alike to cultivate conversations about doing public history through myriad mediums and formats.

Andrea Felber Seligman is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She will join the faculty of City College of New York in fall 2016 as an assistant professor of African History. Her specialties include precolonial Africa, world history, and histories of trade and culture in East Africa. She may be reached at


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