Professor Thomas Rushford
Western Civilization I
25 November 2013
The exhibit, Forced Crossings, at the National Museum of American History has done an outstanding job of providing an opportunity for visitors to learn about one of the impacts of the European voyages of exploration—“a new era in slavery” (Hunt et al. 428). The thesis presented is “the Atlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration of people by sea in history,” which is valid in my opinion. As part of a larger exhibit, entitled Living in the Atlantic World, which explores how Atlantic-based trade shaped modern world history, Forced Crossings reminds us that not only were resources like gold, sugar, and tobacco traded across the Atlantic Ocean, but people were traded as well.
As I wandered through the museum, a model of a slave ship immediately attracted my attention. It vividly shows the filthy, suffocating and life-threatening the conditions onboard. Specifically, we see that slaves on this vessel are able to lie on their backs, yet it would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to stand up or turn around. Additionally, I could tell a lot by looking at the slaves’ postures. A few of them are bowing and kneeling, as if they were praying for immediate deaths. Others are sitting either with their legs crossed or with their arms wrapped around their knees, looking down. These are all signs of closed body language, implying a lack of security and confidence. I can quickly hazard a well-informed guess that the desperate slaves have been mistreated and abused without reading the captions, though it is not explicitly shown. As horrifying as this image was, I learned that conditions on other boats could actually be worse. Some captains decided to carry fewer slaves in order to reduce disease and death, but plenty of captains tried to transport as many slaves as possible, hoping that most would survive. The diagram titled “The slave decks of the ship Brooks, 1788” next to this ship model demonstrates how 450 people, including men, women and children, were packed into a boat. Much to my disbelief, the Brooks once carried 609 slaves, in 1786.
The overall thesis is also clearly supported by other types of evidence, including two chilling artifacts. There are ankle shackles, informing us that slaves were usually put in irons to avoid rebellions. At the side of the shackles is placed a “manilla from Nigeria,” which reveals that African traders used to exchange slaves for a copper or bronze bracelets. Other objects displayed are a “map of Africa, 1644,” which shows the places from which slaves were commonly taken, a drawing of “slave factories on the Gulf of Guinea” from 1746, and a mural reproduced from a watercolor picture, “The Slave Deck of the Albanez, 1845.” Above all, visitors are apprised of the fact that between eleven and fifteen million Africans were brought to the Americas. Considering all of the information provided, I strongly believe the thesis of Forced Crossings is accurate, and balances some of the more positive aspects of trans-Atlantic travel, which heralded the Age of Exploration.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, slaves could be Greek, Slav, European, African or Turk (Hunt et al. 429). Mainly, they were captured either in war or by pirates and sold as slaves. Male slaves worked in the galleys of Ottoman and Christian fleets, while females worked for well-off Mediterranean families as domestic servants (428). However, this scenario changed dramatically after the fifteenth century. African merchants sold other Africans to Europeans in exchange for foreign goods, and as the New World grew, the number of African slaves could not stop escalating. Except for the few who were employed as domestic servants, the majority worked on sugar and coffee plantations for hours on end.
Even now, it is hard for me to accept this unpleasant truth. Africans enslaved each other for financial gain. European traders turned a blind eye to ethics because of the enormous profits. It is slavery at this time in history that leaves a huge negative impact on current society—stigma and discrimination against the African American. Thanks to this exhibit, I have understood Western societies better; equally important, I have come to appreciate my life. Millions of people have immigrated to the United States, but not many have had the chances that I do.
“Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829.” EyeWitness to History. Ibis Communications, Inc., 2000. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
Plous, Scott. “Christopher Columbus: The Untold Story.” Understanding Prejudice. UnderstandingPrejudice.Org, 2013. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.
“Conditions on Slave Ships.” The Slave Trade. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.
Hunt, Lynn, et al. The Making of the West. 3nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. Print.
“Life on Board Slave Ships.” International Slavery Museum. National Museums Liverpool, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.
“The Middle Passage.” PortCities Bristol. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
“The Middle Passage: from Africa to America.” UNESCO ASPnet Projects. The UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.
These photos are taken by QuynhNhu Phan.