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Voices of the Slave Trade

By Amy Lifson | HUMANITIES, March/April 2002 | Volume 23, Number 2

"And when we found ourselves at last taken away, death was more preferable than life, and a plan was concerted amongst us that we might burn and blow up the ship, and perish all together in the flames."

Ottobah Cugoano describes this scene of rebellion in his book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil Wicked Traffic of Slavery and Commerce in the Human Species. It is one of the few eyewitness accounts of revolt aboard a slave ship from the view of a slave. Cugoano, from Ghana, had been kidnapped at age thirteen and imprisoned in Cape Coast Castle before being shipped to the New World in 1770. He later gained his freedom in England and published the book.

Cugoano’s words and those from other slaves, traders, and protesters give a voice to slavery in a new exhibition opening May 4 at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. “Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas” uses firsthand accounts, reconstructions of ships and ports, and discoveries by new scholarship to show a more complete picture of the four hundred-year global event called the transatlantic slave trade.

“It changed the total look of this hemisphere,” says Julia Hotten, guest curator of the exhibition. “We want to show blacks as actors in the development and growth of the Americas. Albeit not at their own will at the beginning, but the results are the same--the economy grew, the nation was built, the culture was developed and all of it could not have been done without them.”

Between 1518, when Spain began transporting captives to the New World and 1888, when slavery ended in Brazil, approximately fifteen million Africans made the forced voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. No one knows the number of prisoners who did not survive the journey, killed by disease or suicide. Scholar Colin Palmer estimates that 40 percent of each shipload died during the sixteenth century, 15 percent during the seventeenth, and 5 to 10 percent during the later years. Of those who did survive, only 6 percent arrived in North America--the rest were shipped to South and Central America and the Caribbean. Yet by the time slavery ended in North America there were more slaves in the United States than all other countries combined.

Showing the numbers may be simple, but the exhibition tries to go beyond the surface in order to tell the whole story and the people who had a role in it. “It’s not about Africans selling Africans, per se--we have to deal with individuals,” says Hotten. “It’s not about white people enslaving black people; I think if you deal with individuals you can look at it in a different way. It’s about a major slave trader in Rhode Island, or a plantation owner in Cuba, or a trader in South Carolina.”

Or an African from Essaka, Nigeria, named Olaudah Equiano. Equiano’s autobiography, which he wrote at age forty after buying his freedom, is one of the most complete records we have of any enslaved African. His book was a bestseller in the late 1700s and was published in English, German, and Dutch. It describes the scene when he was kidnapped at age eleven:

Generally, when the grown people in the neighborhood were gone far into the fields to labor, the children assembled together in some of the neighboring premises to play; and commonly some of us used to get up a tree to look out for any assailant, or kidnapper, that might come upon us . . . . One day, when all our people were gone out to their works as usual, and only I and my dear sister were left to mind the house, two men and woman got over our walls, and in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths and ran off with us into the nearest wood. Here they tied our hands, and continued to carry us as far as they could till night came on.

Kidnappings such as Equiano’s were common in eighteenth-century Africa. For more than a century, African chieftains had been profiting from the sale of other Africans to Europeans. It had become such a staple of the African economy that wars were waged to gain captives for sale and rogue groups of bandits traveled the countryside to secure more bodies. Guns and cowrie shells were units of exchange.

Isabella is one of the kidnapped whose story appears in “Captive Passage.” She was a Fulapo African who became a slave in what is now Colombia. Captured by Mandinga raiders in 1630, she traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in a Portuguese merchant ship, where she was nursed back to health by a Jesuit priest named Pedro Claver. Years later, Isabella testified on Claver’s behalf when the Catholic Church considered him for sainthood.

Another slave profiled in the exhibition is John Pedro, a Catholic soldier from Congo. Pedro was captured in battle in 1622 by an army of Angolans that was led by two hundred and fifty Portuguese. Twenty-five hundred soldiers and their families were taken and sold. Pedro eventually ended up in Virginia and appeared in the 1625 census.

For Europeans involved in the slave trade, it was considered a legitimate business. A trader in the eighteenth century named Nicolas Owen wrote optimistically about his prospects in West Africa: “I have found no place where I can enlarge my fortune so soon as where I now live, wherfore I intend to stay in order to enlarge my fortune by honest means . . .”

Hotten stresses the importance of telling all sides of the story, even those that chafe against our modern sensibilities. “The slave trade was more than meets the eye. The informa-tion for the most part has been told through the eyes of the abolitionists.” She cautions about stating just one statistic or one point of view, noting that the words from the traders and ship captains convey their biases and preconceptions about Africans. “Although it’s an account of somebody who might have been there, it doesn’t tell the whole story,” warns Hotten.

One of the traders in 1693 was British Sea Captain John Phillips of the Royal African Company, who wrote in his journal very matter-of-factly about the practice of branding humans: “When we had selected from the rest such as we liked, we agreed what goods to pay for them . . . how much of each sort of merchandise we were to give for man, woman, and child. . . . Then we mark’d the slaves we had bought in the breast, or shoulder, with a hot iron having the letter of the ship’s name on it, the place before being anointed with a little palm oil, which caused but little pain, the mark being usually well in four or five days, appearing very plain and white after.” After a disastrous voyage on the Hannibal where a great number of captives died and Phillips became deaf, Phillips never made another slaving voyage.

The horrific voyage was one experience that every slave had in common. The journey across the Atlantic was called the Middle Passage, because it was the second leg of the triangle trade route between Europe, Africa, and America. Enslaved Africans from central Africa called it crossing Katunga, or “the expanse that eyes could see but the foot could not traverse.” The gallery that houses the exhibit on the Middle Passage is built to resemble the deck of a slave ship. As visitors walk in they hear the sounds of the wind, ocean, and creaking sails and see the hatch covering the hold where the slaves were carried and nets strung to prevent suicides. Visitors listen to Olaudah Equino’s description of his first moments on a slave ship: “When I was carried on board . . . I was immediately handled and tossed up, to see if I were sound, by some of the crew, and I was now persuaded that I had got into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me. Their comlexion too, differing so much from ours, their long hair and language they spoke . . . united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.”

Equino was not alone in his fear of the journey. Numerous accounts describe prisoners leaping to their deaths during the transfer from the prisons to the ships rather than face slavery in an unknown land. Captain Phillips writes, “The men were all put in irons, two and two shackled together, to prevent their mutiny or swimming ashore. The negroes are so wilful and loth to leave their own country, that they have often leap’d out of canoes, boat and ship, into the sea, and kept underwater till they were drowned, to avoid being taken up and saved . . . they having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbadoes than we have of hell.”

The exhibition emphasizes the Africans’ resistance from the moment of capture. Because revolt was a constant fear, armed guards were ever-present--from the marches to the coast, the holding at the slave forts, to the transfer onto the ships, and then during the journey. On board, male captives were kept in shackles and could be stowed “spoonways” for up to twenty-three hours a day (women were allowed to be free of bondage and were kept in a separate area of the ship). The cramped quarters and inability to move independently made storms at sea particularly perilous. Visitors to the exhibition can hear the words of crewmember Zamba Zemola describe one gruesome episode: “Poor slaves below, altogether unprepared for such an occurrence, were mostly thrown to the side, where they lay heaped on the top of each other; their fetters rending them helpless, and before they could be arranged in the proper places, and relieved from their pressure on each other, it was found that fifteen of them were smothered or crushed to death.”

Simply surviving all the dangers of the Middle Passage--storms, disease, starvation, dehydration, and melancholy--took extreme will. The exhibition points out that despite the horrific conditions, slaves continually resisted bondage. Palmer claims that rebellions took place on at least 313 slave ships, with another 148 ships lost at sea for unknown reasons. Rebellion continued when the ships reached land. Runaway slaves often founded maroon communities in remote areas and waged guerrilla warfare against slave owners.

The exhibition recreates the dock area of Charleston, South Carolina--a slave trading hub that still stands much as it did in the eighteenth century. A 1769 broadside advertising a Charleston slave auction shows the business side of slavery at the same time the colonies were beginning to grumble about liberty and freedom for themselves. It would be another thirty-nine years before the importation of slaves into the United States was made illegal; another ninety-four before the Emancipation Proclamation.

“The struggle for freedom was an ongoing process,” says Hotten. Besides the obvious attempts--by open revolt or running away--Africans fought bondage by maintaining elements of their cultures and building communities in their new circumstances. The last section of the exhibition delves into the contributions that Africans have made to the Americas--from supporting the fast-growing economy of a fledgling nation to their influence on institutions of religion and education. The exhibition uses oral histories, contemporary scholarship, and genealogical resources to show this part of American history. “By learning how demeaning and dehu-manizing the process of slavery was and then understanding how those who survived were able to overcome it,” says Hotten, “to achieve the things they did in spite of all that. That message is powerful.”