Middle Passage Summary

Charles R. Johnson

Middle Passage

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Middle Passage Summary

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Middle Passage is a 1990 historical novel by Charles R. Johnson, set in 1830 during the days of the illegal slave trade. Despite the slave trade being abolished in the United States in 1807 except for those slaves already here, secret smuggling rings continued to kidnap slaves from Africa and traffic them to the United States. Set amid the final voyage of an illegal slave ship, the novel presents a personal and historical perspective of the slave trade, and in particular, the conditions aboard the slave ship. Centered on Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave who unwittingly boards a slave ship bound for Africa to escape an arranged marriage, Middle Passage is considered one of the most thorough depictions of the slave trade in American literature. Exploring themes of race, redemption, and the ability of the human spirit to survive traumatic events, as well as weaving in spiritual and supernatural elements, it is frequently used as literature in high school and college classes centering on race and American history. The winner of the 1990 US National Book Award for Fiction, it is Johnson’s most famous book and has been compared to other classic sea-based novels such as Billy Budd and Moby Dick.

As Middle Passage begins, Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave, flees from New Orleans on a ship called the Republic. Isadora Bailey, a teacher who has convinced Papa Zeringue, a ruthless man to whom Rutherford owes money, that she will pay Rutherford’s debt if he marries her, is trying to blackmail him into marriage. Not wanting to get married and seeking to escape his debts, he meets the ship’s cook, hears about the voyage, and stows away to escape his troubles. He is discovered and put to work as an unpaid laborer to earn his keep on the ship. Captain Ebenezer Falcon is an illegal slave trader traveling to Africa to capture members of the Allmuseri tribe to take back to America for sale. Calhoun, a self-absorbed, educated man, who does not understand the struggles of slave life, is indifferent to the moral issues of the ship’s mission, at first simply viewing it as a job.

On the return trip from Africa, Rutherford discovers that the Allmuseri are not the only cargo on board. Falcon, in addition to his slave-trading business, is a raider of cultural artifacts. He claims to have purchased the Allmuseri’s god. The other sailors become paranoid, thinking the Allmuseri are sorcerers and the ship will be cursed as a result. When one young sailor attempts to check on the cargo, he returns driven to insanity. The ship is soon caught in a violent storm, and nearly capsizes. The sailors, convinced that Falcon is driving them to their deaths, decide to mutiny. However, the Allmuseri get hold of the keys, escape in the chaos, and take over the ship. Calhoun manages to broker an uneasy peace between the two groups, getting the tribesmen to spare the sailors so they can get out of the storm safely. The sailors agree to the truce, but Falcon is enraged by the idea and commits suicide rather than agree to help them. His former first mate, Cringle, attempts to steer the ship but becomes lost. Calhoun decides to go down to feed the creature in the hold that is claimed to be a god. The creature gives him a mystical vision of his future that renders him unconscious. When he wakes up three days later, he learns Cringle has died, leaving just him, the cook, and the remaining tribesmen aboard the disintegrating ship.

Before the ship collapses into the ocean, it is spotted by another vessel, the Juno, which rescues the survivors. Rutherford is shocked to discover Isadora is aboard the ship and being forced to marry Papa Zeringue. When Zeringue learns Rutherford has the ship’s log and can prove his involvement in the illegal slave trade, he tries to bargain with him. Rutherford lets him know that he knows about the illegal slave trade, and bargains with him not just for Isadora’s freedom, but for the freedom of Santos, Zeringue’s black servant as well. Through the trials of the voyage, his vision when he encountered the mysterious creature, and his meeting with the Allmuseri, Rutherford Calhoun has gone from being a shallow, self-centered, young man to a courageous and heroic figure. He is able to see Isadora for the caring person she is, and he winds up adopting the youngest of the Allmuseri tribespeople, a little girl who looked at him as a protector on the ship. Isadora leaves Zeringue and marries Rutherford, this time, both of their own free will, and the story ends with Rutherford returning to his free life in America.

Charles R. Johnson is an African-American scholar, writer, and philosopher, whose works address the Black experience in America. In addition to his US National Book Award for Fiction for Middle Passage, he has received awards, including the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is an inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Science. He is the author of eight works of fiction, ranging from children’s stories to novels, as well as two books of philosophy and eight non-fiction books.