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Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and ArchivesProfiting from the slave trade

The slave trade was instrumental in the development of capitalism, as the Maritime Museum’s collection shows

Review by Susan Jappie

This beautifully presented Maritime Museum’s collection of pictures and memorabilia of the slave trade explores its effects on Africa, the Americas and Europe. It combines a series of essays on different aspects of this era of capitalist commodification of human beings for profit, with some visual evidence.

The contributors are experts in their fields and analyse the pictures to demonstrate the racial prejudice towards those of African origin as well as the smug self-congratulation of the British for their efforts to abolish the trade once they have made huge profits out of the slaves. By then, the slaves’ progeny were plentiful enough to make the trans-Atlantic journey unnecessary!

Half this huge tome consists of a catalogue of the various forms of artefacts, from diagrams of the sardine-can lay-out of the ships’ holds, to carvings by Africans and pictures of key characters in the narrative.

The slave trade’s real nature and dynamics began to be better understood and analysed this century after the museum bought a huge collection of artefacts, which has led to new perspectives, including African involvement in and opposition and resistance to slavery.

James Walvin’s essay examines the global context of slavery in terms of the economic demands in the production and consumption of sugar and tobacco. John Oldfield looks at the changing face of capitalism during the industrialisation of the nineteenth century, when Adam Smith argued that slave labour was costly and inefficient.

Eric Williams, the first president of Trinidad and Tobago and a noted historian, depicted the abolition movement as being the natural progression to “mature capitalism” rather than a “moral crusade” in his ground-breaking work Capitalism and Slavery, which was published in the US in 1944 but was denied to British readers until 1964.

The African origins of slavery are explored by Paul Lovejoy, giving us some insight into how the practice of gathering enemies defeated in conflict situations as unpaid workers was expanded across west and central Africa, especially in the Congo basin and Angola, and used to trade with Europeans at coastal forts.

The ever-increasing demand from the Portuguese, Dutch and French colonisers devastated the local population and their land through raiding. But we also learn that the exported slaves took with them strong cultural ties which they developed on arrival in the Americas, as shown by the ivory carvings and their musical and religious practices.

David Richardson shows how a unique document written by a Nigerian slave, Olaudah Equiano, in the 18th century, gives us some idea of the trauma experienced by the slaves in their “floating prison” below deck where they were treated as “black cattle”. One in eight died during the so-called Middle Passage, mostly due to disease, but increasingly because of the actions of white crew. Women were raped and some committed suicide, preferring death to slavery. Some Africans believed in “white cannibalism” and many made strong bonds with fellow slaves on board.

In the chapter on slave life in the Caribbean, Douglas Hamilton describes how the slaves outnumbered the whites by twenty to one, and were organised into gangs to carry out different tasks, and driven to work ever-longer days to increase profits. This not only lowered their life-expectancy, but as the slaves maintained their dignity and humanity through culture and kinship when living in self-catering slave houses, it gradually fomented rebellion.

The runaway slaves formed their own groups of Maroons in several islands and by the end of the 18th century some of these were successful revolutionaries. The attempt to set up a West African state in the Caribbean in 1760 was brutally suppressed, but the Haitian Revolution of 1791 led to wider debates on the morality of slavery.

The history of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is looked at by Oldfield by asking “how and why” it happened. He tells us how Britain dominated the trade and grew rich from it during the 17th and 18th centuries, “as a necessary part of the empire”, but was the first to try to dismantle the system from the start of the 19th century.

He argues that the American Revolution led to a re-evaluation of the importance of slavery to Britain, which instead tried to tighten its reigns on Canada and Ireland! Imperialism in Africa also replaced slavery in Britain’s economic ambitions.

Equiano eventually came to England and played an important role in the abolitionist movement in the late 18th century, a movement which went back to 1657 when the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, wrote about the inequality of the trade. Some 100 petitions were presented to Parliament, which dragged its feet until 1807 when William Wilberforce re-invigorated the campaign and British Atlantic slave trade was outlawed.

Emancipation of the slaves working on Caribbean plantations took another quarter of a century and huge sums of taxpayers’ money to compensate the “owners”, who retained the former slaves as “apprentices” for four more years!

3 September 2014

Representing Slavery: Art, Artefacts and Archives, published by Lund Humphries in association with the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, £25

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