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Getting Rich Off Human Cargo


February 7, 2003

Getting Rich Off Human Cargo: The Grim Details


WASHINGTON, Feb. 6 — Four centuries of trading in slaves, as many as 13 million Africans, left a legacy of horrifying cruelty, but it also tied three continents together in a complex and systematic commercial enterprise that fattened coffers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now, fresh details of the lucrative business that entwined Europe, America and Africa are being shown in "Captive Passage," an exhibition that opened this week at the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in Washington. Using hundreds of items — books, charts, maps, drawings, shipping manifests — culled from several collections, as well as two films, the exhibition shows the slave trade as a gruesomely efficient enterprise that was integral to the economies of many countries.

"Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas" was organized by the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation. After its stop in Washington, the exhibition is to travel to other American cities, including New York.

John B. Hightower, president of the Mariners' Museum, said he had been inspired to take a new look at his museum's vast maritime collection after seeing a similar exhibition in Liverpool, England, once a main port serving the slave trade.

"The forced migration of millions of enslaved Africans has not been told in sufficient detail," Mr. Hightower said. "Nor has it been given the visceral impact it needs, and we are trying to do that."

"Most other exhibits have shown the conditions of slavery," he continued, "but this really focuses on slave trade as a remarkable and grim economic engine that went on for 400 years."

Nearly every Western European country trafficked in slaves, sending ships to Africa with guns, ammunition, rum and other goods to be traded for humans. Thousands of ships plied the Atlantic, transporting captured men, women and children to the Americas in deplorable conditions. The ship captains sold their human cargo to eager American slave traders. They were often respected men like the New York merchant Philip Livingston, who signed the Declaration of Independence and gave money to Yale University.

Slavers returned to their home ports with material that enslaved Africans had produced in Caribbean cane fields and on sprawling plantations in the American South. Europeans needed sugar for coffee and tea, tobacco for smoking, cotton for clothes and tropical hardwood to make furniture. Cotton was among the raw materials imported from the New World to enable European factories and mills to turn out the goods to purchase more Africans with.

The exhibition is "telling a story of critical importance," said Steven Newsome, who directs the Anacostia Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution. "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."

The slave trade was underway by the early 1500's, when Europeans had made contact with African slave traders to obtain labor for their colonial outposts. England, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Denmark, among other nations, filled their treasuries with this money. Stock companies, shareholders and insurers all saw the slave trade as an entirely honorable business, the exhibition emphasizes.

The tentacles of this traffic extended to resource-poor Rhode Island, which by the 1740's had developed a large export business in rum, importing the necessary molasses and sugar from the West Indies. To ensure that the islands' plantation system was supplied with slave labor, Rhode Island's ships were sent to import African slaves.

By the end of the 17th century, England's Royal African Company alone had exchanged cloth, beads, iron and rum for 175,000 captured Africans, according to a companion book to the exhibition published by the Smithsonian and the Mariners' Museum.

Intent on maximizing their profits, slavers almost literally stacked Africans in their ships. In "Revelations of a Slave Smuggler," an 1860 book on view, Richard Drake described loading a boat so completely that not only was the hold crammed, but 50 slaves were also "tied around the mast and rails" so that "every available foot of space had been covered with black flesh."

The wretched conditions the shackled captives endured during the "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic are portrayed in one of the films that are part of the exhibition. In these ships, the lives of slaves were claimed by lack of sanitation, smallpox and other diseases, and despair that drove some to suicide during voyages that typically lasted between 30 and 50 days. "Tight packing" (an actual technical term, as opposed to "loose packing"), shown in a French artist's pen-and-ink drawing from 1784, allowed disease to spread rapidly. But the slavers were satisfied if enough slaves survived to make them a high profit.

The exhibition, whose opening coincides with Black History Month, remains at the Anacostia Museum (1901 Fort Place SE, Washington) through Aug. 21.

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