* photos supplied. Voyage of the damned: Slave ships like this took kidnapped Africans to the new world.
* photos supplied. Voyage of the damned: Slave ships like this took kidnapped Africans to the new world.
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The majesty of elegant tall ships with towering masts of ­billowing sails is now an icon of Bermuda's ­history.

The ­lovingly ­reconst ructed replicas, which formed an awe-inspiring flotilla in Hamilton harbour last month, were almost perfect ­imitations of their 18th century counterparts - but for one crucial ­detail.

Their exterior ­beauty ­often disguised the horror stories of the lower deck.

In 1783, as the tall ship Brooks set sail from the Gold Coast in Africa bound for Kingston, Jamaica, it cut an impressive sight.

But beneath the deck was a manacled African man who had been kidnapped and was being taken to the new world as a slave.

Terrified, he was slowly shredding his own throat with the frayed ends of his fingernails.

The Slave Ship was the most important of all tall ships, claims renowned ­historian Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship: A Human History.

His unflinching account of life on board exposes the harrowing human histories of the slaves, sailors, ­captains and merchants and reconstructs the tall ship in a way that no ­replica ever could.

Through the eyes of an African woman seeing the ship for the first time, it is re-imagined as "the tall, shaved, limbless trees of the owba coocoo", a ­village horror story come to life to carry her to slavery.

Mr. Rediker, who speaks at Bermuda College tomorrow night, hopes his ­"human history" forces people to face the reality of the trade in people that he believes has shaped and ­defined today's economy.

He said: "I want to talk about the romance of the tall ships. We see these replicas and they are quite magnificent.

Dark pages

"But I want to talk about that romance and how ­awkwardly the slave ship fits into that.

"We love all tall ships ­except one - and that is the most important of all."

Mr. Rediker's book and talk go against the grain of the official events organised to celebrate Bermuda's 400th anniversary.

But he believes the "dark pages" of our past are the most instructive.

Bermuda's history is not all about the 1609 wreck of the Sea Venture.

Many slaves sold in ­auctions in St George's and Hamilton in the 18th Century, or their mothers, were brought to the new world from West Africa on the horrific "floating prisons" described in Mr. Rediker's book. He said: "Every one of them would have come to this part of the world on a slave ship.

"They may not have ­arrived in Bermuda directly on slave ships but almost every person of colour in North America has this ­history attached to them."

Many slaves working in Bermuda were skilled shipwrights who helped design boats that would bring more slaves to the new world.

The Bermuda sloop, built from rot-resistant cedar, was one of the most sought-after designs for British and U.S. slavers.

Mr. Rediker said: "Bermuda, as a maritime hub, exerted an influence on the Atlantic slave trade that far outshone its size and population."

It is ­estimated 11 million slaves were transported to the Americas over three centuries before slave trading was abolished. Millions more died in transit.

But The Slave Ship carefully avoids getting bogged down in numbers - a "comforting abstraction" compared to the real-life stories Mr. Rediker dredged from maritime archives during his seven-year ­research project.

The characters in his multi-layered book ­include a rebellious slave dangled overboard to be "bitten off from the ­middle" by a shark. The book also ­features an African village chief who led armed resistance to the slave trade only to be ­captured and sold himself as an emasculating punishment.

We also learn about ­countless merchants and politicians who saw the business simply in the ­comfortingly abstract terms of profit and loss.

Mr. Rediker, who claims he has received threats for writing the book, believes many people would like to forget the slave trade - or at least view it as something that has no bearing in the 21st Century.

He said: "A lot of energy goes into denying this type of history.

"The legacy of slavery is so great. So much wealth was produced at such tremendous human cost that history has been ­transmuted to the present, which is why it is so hard for some people to have the conversation.

"Power, politics, the deep structural inequality of the world was shaped by the slave ships.

"Maybe the book will ­agitate and horrify people enough to realize that we need to have a productive conversation about the legacy of slavery. In some ways you are ahead of the States in that respect. We don't have anything called the Big Conversation."