Stephanie E. Smallwood, associate professor of history at the University of Washington, Seattle, has been selected as the winner of the 2008 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, awarded for the best book written in English on slavery or abolition.
Smallwood won for her book, "Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora," published by Harvard University Press. The book examines the transatlantic slave trade and the relationships between Africa and the new world.
Frederick Douglass Book Prize is awarded by Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
"Stephanie Smallwood uses records of the English Royal African Company's trade with the Gold Coast to provide insights into the lives of the men and women the company bought, transported, and offered for sale in the Americas," said Christopher Clark, who led the panel of judges for the award. "This is a subtle, powerful study of the deep horrors of slavery and the slave trade."
In addition to Smallwood, the other finalists for the prize were Anthony E. Kaye for "Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South" (University of North Carolina Press); Kristin Mann for "Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900" (Indiana University Press); and Chandra Manning for "What this Cruel War was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War" (Alfred A. Knopf Publishers). The $25,000 annual award is the most generous history prize in the field.
"Saltwater Slavery is a remarkable account of the transatlantic slave trade that will lead scholars to rethink their understanding of the 'middle passage,' Africa's diaspora, and the relationships between Africa and the New World," said Clark.
He said Smallwood carefully traced the steps that led from captivity in Africa to final sale in the New World, building a narrative that digs deeper than the generalities that often characterize studies of the slave trade.
"She shows how at each stage captives found themselves transformed and re-presented as commodities – for purchase by merchants; for confinement aboard ship; and for resale as plantation workers or servants," Clark said.
"Above all, Smallwood depicts the estrangement that removed captives not only from the social and familial circles of kinship, but also from the spiritual connections with kin that could sustain a good life and a good death."
Clark said enslaved workers built new kinship networks to save themselves from social death, but often their efforts were cut off by resale or premature mortality.
"Deploying their own metaphor of "saltwater slavery" to illuminate the meanings of the Atlantic slave system, Stephanie Smallwood opens up new avenues for historians and anthropologists to explore," he said.
The Frederick Douglass Book Prize was established in 1999 to stimulate scholarship in the field of slavery and abolition by honoring outstanding books. Previous winners were Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan in 1999; David Eltis, 2000; David Blight, 2001; Robert Harms and John Stauffer, 2002; James F. Brooks and Seymour Drescher, 2003; Jean Fagan Yellin, 2004; Laurent Dubois, 2005; Rebecca J. Scott, 2006; and Christopher Leslie Brown, 2007.
The award is named for Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), the slave who escaped bondage to emerge as one of the great American abolitionists, reformers, writers, and orators of the 19th century.
The prize will be presented to Smallwood at a dinner in New York City in February 2009.