Published:January 9, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

In my earlier post on John Lewis & sharks, one of the creepier things I linked to was a discussion in which some political commenters joked about actually being the sharks who fed off the bodies of enslaved Africans during the Middle Passage. Turns out this is not a new joke; in fact, it was once employed by a Scottish abolitionist to highlight—rather than grossly dismiss—the horrors of the slave trade.

Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007), read our original post and e-mailed a link to a piece he wrote for the Boston Globe back in 2007. He writes of discovering, in a library in Bristol, England, “The Petition of the Sharks of Africa,” a satire in which the sharks bemoan attempts at abolishing the slave trade lest they go hungry.

The sharks were writing to the British Parliament kindly asking them not to end the slave trade. Taking a sensible conservative view, the sharks denounced the abolitionists’ “wild ravings of fanaticism,” confident that their benevolent lordships would not let His Majesty’s loyal shark subjects starve. The petitioners were sure that they could count on “the wisdom and fellow-feeling” of the House of Lords. Sharks should stick together, after all.

Rediker argues that, while abolitionists have generally been portrayed as pious and nearly perfect, some of them actually had a sense of humor, albeit a dark one. After the jump, you’ll find a transcript of the petition.

IMAGE: “The Petition of the Sharks of Africa”

To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain, in Parliament assembled.



THAT your petitioners are a numerous body, and at present in a very flourishing situation, owing chiefly to the constant visitation of the shipping of your island.

That by hovering round these floating dungeons your petitioners are supplied with large quantities of their most favourite food—human flesh.

That your petitioners are sustained, not only by the carcases of those who have fallen by distempers, but are frequently gratified with rich repasts from the bodies of living negroes who voluntarily plunge into the abodes of your petitioners, preferring instant destruction by their jaws, to the imaginary horrors of a lingering slavery.

That among the enormous breakers and surfs which roll on the shores of your petitioners, numbers of English boats are destroyed, the crews of which usually fall to their lot, and afford them many a delicious meal, but, above all, that large vessels crowded with negroes, are sometimes dashed on the rocks and shoals which abound in the regions of your petitioners, whereby hundreds of human beings, both black and white, are at once precipitated into their element, where the gnawing human flesh, and the crashing of bones, afford to your petitioners the highest gratification which their natures are capable of enjoying.

Thus benefited, as your petitioners are, by this widely extended traffic, a traffic which has never before been molested, it is with the utmost indignation they hear that there are in Britain men, who under the specious plea of humanity, are endeavouring to accomplish its abolition.—But your petitioners trust that this attempt at innovation, this flourishing of the trumpet of liberty, by which “more is meant than meets the ear,” will be effectually frustrated.

Should the lower branch of the legislature be so far infatuated by this new-fangled humanity as seriously to meditate the destruction of this highly beneficial commerce, your petitioners have the firmest reliance on the wisdom and fellow-feeling of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain.

Your petitioners know, that the truly benevolent will ever be consistent – that they will not sacrifice one part of animated nature to the preservation of another, that they will not suffer sharks to starve in order that negroes may be happy;—yet your petitioners are apprehensive, that the baleful influence of this philanthropic mania is already felt even within the walls of your Lordships, wherefore they crave to be HEARD BY COUNSEL at the bar of your august assembly, when, notwithstanding the wild ravings of fanaticism, they hope to evince, that the sustenance of sharks, and the best interests of your Lordships, are intimately connected with the traffic in human flesh.

Fearful of becoming tedious, your petitioners have only to add, that should the abolition take place, which the god of sharks avert, the prosperity of your petitioners will inevitably be destroyed, and their numbers, by being deprived of their accustomed food, rapidly diminished.—But, on the other hand, should your Lordships in your legislative capacity, scorn the feelings of the vulgar, and nobly interfere, either openly, or by procrastination, to preserve this invigorating trade from the ruin that now seems to await it, your petitioners, and their wide-mouthed posterity, as by nature urged, will ever, ever PREY, &c.