Published: April 23, 2002
The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas
NEWPORT NEWS, VA. – On Saturday, May 4, The Mariners’ Museum will open “: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas.” Unlike any exhibition the museum has ever created, “” is a compilation of more than 200 extraordinary objects and images from The Mariners’ collections and from others around the world to tell the story of the slave trade from a maritime perspective.
This exhibition was organized in cooperation with the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City and the National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside in Liverpool, England. The original Transatlantic Slavery Gallery in Liverpool was initiated and supported by The Peter Moores Foundation.
For nearly 400 years, the transatlantic slave trade fueled the growing economies of the New World. Millions of Africans were torn from their homeland and forced into slavery throughout the Americas. This Diaspora had profound effects not only on Africa but on every aspect of developing New World cultures from Brazil to many parts of North America.
‘”‘ is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and compelling exhibitions ever undertaken by The Mariners’ Museum. Its model is the critically acclaimed exhibition at the Merseyside Museums in Liverpool. That exhibition, and we hope this one as well, has had a profound, positive and lasting effect on those who have seen the exhibition as well as the surrounding community,” said The Mariners’ Museum President and CEO John Hightower. ‘”‘ will travel to cities throughout the country providing similar opportunities to effect a greater understanding of the forced journey that brought millions of enslaved Africans to the Americas and the subsequent contributions they made.”
“The forced migration of millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic to the Americas has not been told in sufficient detail from the maritime perspective” said The Mariners’ assistant curator Randy Wyatt.
Partnering with The Mariners’ in organizing this exhibition is museum professional and visual arts specialist Julia Hotton. With extensive experience as an arts administrator and exhibition curator, Hotton provides a rare and special background for “” as guest curator. Having worked on more than 25 exhibitions for organizations such as the New-York Historical Society, The Brooklyn Museum, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, Hotton played a key role as advisor on all aspects of the exhibition, including locating significant artifacts, and was key to the creation of the “Legacy” portion of the exhibition.
A companion volume entitled : The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas, published by the museum in association with the Smithsonian Institution Press, offers essays from eight well-known scholars and authors on the slave trade. This 208-page book considers various aspects of the trade including the physical, social and enduring emotional Middle Passage, as well as the history of the abolitionist movement in the United States and the struggle for racial justice. This volume also features important material from the collections of The Mariners’ Museum, as well as artifacts assembled from around the world specifically for this exhibition, including rare engravings published for the first time.
The museum has also launched an extensive educational website providing a virtual version of “” at www.mariner.org/captive.
Visitors to “” can trace the geography and timeline of the slave trade while hearing and reading direct narratives from enslaved Africans, traders and many others. Upon entering the exhibition, each visitor receives a “” study guide created with support from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy. This take-home piece serves as an overview of the exhibition and includes essays by Julia Hotton on the challenge of organizing “” and by University of Virginia Professor of History Joseph Miller, who provides an extensive bibliography for further study on the slave trade.
As visitors enter the “Departure” section of the exhibition, they are transported to the West African coast before Europeans arrived there in the 1400s. Artifacts such as copper manilas, Katanga crosses, scales and weights, and guinea show the types of currency traded between Africans and Europeans. Decorative rdf_Descriptions such as Kuba hat exemplify the rich and diverse cultures that existed before the slave trade began.
As the transatlantic slave grew, African traders tapped deep into the African continent, capturing and enslaving people from many societies. Farmers, artisans, leaders, husbands, wives and children were thrown together in the forced migration. The captives were marched from their homes to the coast, a journey that often covered hundreds of miles. Many thousands died on the way. Those who survived were crowded into slave “forts” — heavily guarded prison fortresses from which they were loaded onto waiting ships.
The brutality of the Middle Passage was the one experience shared by all enslaved Africans, and for those who survived, it forged lasting bonds of kinship. For others it served as the impetus for resistance. Hundreds of enslaved Africans were crowded into each ship to endure weeks or months of horrific conditions and dehumanizing treatment. There were many shipboard revolts by the captives. While usually unsuccessful, the revolts were a constant threat to the financial success of the voyage. Thousands of enslaved Africans died en route either from disease, mistreatment or suicide.
This section of “” allows the visitor to experience the hold of a slave ship. Entering the dark area, visitors begin to hear the sounds of shackles clinking, the voices and moans of enslaved Africans, the creaking of the ship on the open sea. Between the braces of the ship, images of enslaved Africans, created by artist Rob Evans, fade in and out. Visitors have the option of entering the slave-ship hold or bypassing it to head directly onto the deck of the vessel if they feel the subject matter to be too sensitive.
Walking onto a mock slave ship deck, visitors see a 1799 pilot’s chart from the Library at The Mariners’ Museum documenting the Middle Passage. Images such as the painting by author and artist Tom Feelings evoke the horror of a slaver’s hold while leg shackles make the travail of the Middle Passage all too real. Visitors get a first-hand look at a one-of-a-kind scale ship model of the slave schooner Dos Amigos, constructed by award-winning ship model builder Joseph McCleary.
After leaving Africa, the enslaved were dispersed throughout the Americas to destinations including the Caribbean islands, Brazil, British North America, Europe and other European colonies such as Madeira and the Canary Islands. Visitors are immersed into the “Arrival” section by a large mural of ports of entry in the Americas. Rio de Janeiro, Belize, Port Antonio, Port au Prince, Charlestown (Charleston) and Havana are some of the many active ports up and down the east coast of the Americas where millions of slaves were unloaded over four centuries.
Engravings show the disembarkation of slaves and active slave markets where Africans were sold to their new masters. Other engravings and artifacts reveal slave life on plantations and in mines.
This portion of the exhibit also tells the story of enslaved Africans’ pursuit of freedom. A rare, colored lithograph shows a view of Montego Bay with Reading Wharf in flames and rebels destroying a main road. A color-printed handbill offers a $2,500 reward for a runaway slave. Portraits of brave captives who led revolts or aided in slave escapes are also included. Lithographs, photographs and paintings of slave ships being captured by the Royal Navy illustrate the long struggle against the illegal slave trade.
There is no question that the labor of enslaved Africans was crucial to the rapid development of the Americas — laying the foundation for its fantastic wealth and prominence in the world economy. But the forced migration of millions of Africans — four times the number of Europeans who came before 1820 — left a permanent cultural imprint on the Americas as well. Perhaps most importantly, enslaved Africans’ struggle for freedom remains a powerful legacy for today’s Americans and for generations to come.
Artifacts such as a candlestand and bureau with a mirror made by North Carolina cabinetmaker Thomas Day show visitors how this free black man owned and operated one of the largest furniture-making businesses in the state during the early 1800s. An engraving of the US Capitol depicts one of the many contributions made by African American slave labor. A portrait by former slave Joshua Johnson, poems by the young African slave Phyllis Wheatley and an almanac created by scientific pioneer Benjamin Banneker, the free son of a former slave, are some of the many African American contributions highlighted in the “Legacy” portion of “.”
“While the story of slavery in America has often been told, it is important to note that this exhibition, told from a maritime perspective, not only provides the audience with many little-known insights into the origins and evolution of Atlantic slavery, it enables the viewers to examine the many and significant legacies that resulted from that infamous trade,” said Hotton. “Most of all, the legacy of slavery can help us better understand who we really are as Americans, how we came to be a unique multiracial society and that from our shared history, how we might learn to go forward and grow into the kind of nation for which all of our ancestors struggled.”
Following its close at The Mariners’ Museum on December 31, “” will begin a national tour starting at the Smithsonian Institution. The tour will include other major venues across the country through 2007.
For information, visit www.mariner.org/captive, or call 757-596-2222.
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