The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Part one of a four-part series entitled Slavery: Heritage and Identity. This week: maritime culture, the last slave ships, the atrocities of the slave trade, and the ways in which our cultural identity in the United States has been shaped by an amalgamation of cultures.

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Slave Deck of the Albaroz, Prize to the Albatross. Pencil and watercolor by Lt. Francis Meynell

There is but one ocean, that is perceived historically as a surface for exploration, transport, and trade, all factors in the making of civilization worldwide. But below that surface lies the detritus of the dangerous endeavor of voyaging, loss by storm, warfare, and ignorance of such a dynamic and challenging environment. That ocean has enabled connection for all time, and has built through the exchange of knowledge, skills, and traditions, a vast contribution to world culture.

One of the most tragic illustrations of this process is trans-Atlantic slavery: the buying and selling of slaves from Africa to the west, South and North America primarily, as cheap, dispensable labor. In the United States, there are there three major contributions to our cultural identity: the existing culture of native peoples living here for centuries; the ensuing European culture transferred through waves of immigration from England, Ireland, Scotland, and the continent; and the arrival of African culture through slaves that changed our nation’s patterns of settlement, music and language in powerful, undeniable, positive ways. We are an amalgam of acculturation that lies at the heart of who we are.

We must never allow that fact, and those memories, to be lost, and to guard against such forgetfulness, we turn to material culture — the objects, sites, and other evidence of such history as our foremost tool for preservation. That commitment, evinced by museums, libraries, archives, cultural sites, and national and international organizations such as UNESCO, is an essential part of an endeavor to conserve and honor this collective past in all its forms and manifestations.

The remains of what is purported to be the last ship to transport African slaves to the United States was revealed following the effect of a powerful storm and flood condition in a muddy riverbank near Mobile, Alabama. Researchers claim that the ship may well be the Clotilda, built in the 1850s as a transport for supplies from Cuba, purchased by a local businessman, and, commissioned to purchase 110 slaves in Ouimah, a port town in the present-day African nation of Benin. While slavery was then legal in the state of Alabama, it was in violation of US federal law outlawing the slave trade from some 52 years before. If the vessel is indeed Clotilda, it represents an end, the last shipment of slaves, but also a beginning, the survivors of that ship reported to have formed a nearby community, called Africa Town, in the middle of the American deep south on the verge of the Civil War.

At the 2017 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, artifacts from another slave ship, [the São José-Paquete de Africa] a Portuguese ship wrecked off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1794 en route to Brazil from Mozambique carrying 400 slaves, were displayed as unique remnants memorializing the maritime aspect of the slave trade: an iron ingot used as ballast and a pulley block, recovered from a 200 year-old ship as thought to be the first objects ever recovered from a ship wrecked by transporting enslaved people. The objects were on a 10 –year loan to the museum and their conservation had been partially funded by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, a program of the Cultural Affairs Office of the US Department of State. The grant of $500,000 had been designated in 2016 by the American Ambassador through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as recognition of the importance of these artifacts as symbols of the unifying cultural relationship inherent in the vast interconnected history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The continuity of history carries on through cultural preservation; this is how memory endures. The US Department of State Facebook page related to the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation has this statement: “Due to the lapse in appropriations, this Facebook page will not be updated regularly.” That cannot be. Memory cannot be truncated by budget cuts or ideological dis-appropriation. The implications of acculturation cannot be denied. There is wreckage there — disconnection — real, sad, and final.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.

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