Slave Trade Exposed  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Endless waves.  Storms.  Cramped quarters.  Poor diet.  The journey to the New World on 18th century slave ships was anything but easy.  Ship compartments were often one foot wide--built for barrels not humans. 

The best way to help them is just let them help themselves.
— Frederick Douglass

An estimated 15 million slaves were shipped to the Americas between 1540 and 1850.  Males were chained together by twos, hands and feet, with virtually no room to sit, stand or lie down.

Between the 17th and the 19th centuries slave ships grew in size from 100 to 300 tons--the bigger the ship, the bigger the payoff.  Rigged for speed, most vessels carried between 200-300 captives.

When slaves were actually fed their meals consisted of horse beans, yams, rice and occasionally a small serving of beef or pork.  Death rates were high.  More than half the captives died before reaching the Americas.  Disease and starvation were the main causes.  

Age, health, endurance and an ability to produce children determined how much each would ultimately fetch on the block.  Purchased in Africa for $25, slaves sold in the Americas for about $125. 

All slaves shared one thing in common.  They were someone else’s property.  Many were shipped south to make farms profitable and there was no money in idle slaves.

Deck plans for the slave ship “Brookes” built in Liverpool in 1781 revealed that each male captive was given less than a 6-foot by 16 inch area to move around.  The vessel packed in some 450 slaves and measured 297 tons with main, lower, and half-decks, a cabin, gun room, gratings, and slave compartments for men, boys, and women.    

Like a mass grave its decks were loaded with hundreds of slaves packed spoon wise, head to toe and toe to head.  An early poster of the “Brookes” showed its captives stacked like silverware and revealed firsthand the inhumanity of the slave trade.  The poster helped bring about abolition.  It was one of the first political posters demonstrating the power of imagery. 

As Union armies pushed their way into the Confederacy during the Civil War slaves began to slip away from their plantations and head north to safety.

“I make up my mind to go,” said one slave when he realized Union troops were close at hand, and I leaves with de chunk of meat and cornbread an am on my way, half skeert to death.”

By the time the American Civil War ended in 1865 about four million slaves were emancipated.

“The best way to help them is just let them help themselves,” said abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

But Jim Crow segregation laws kept most ex-slaves from their basic civil rights for decades.

On Feb. 25, Swann Auction Galleries featured a selection of slave era items in its auction.  A number of early slave ship diagrams were offered for sale.

African Americana

Slave ship diagram; untitled engraving of Arab slavers herding Africans toward ship; circa late-18th century; together with another engraving of a slave ship hold;  $1,560.

Brooks (Brookes) slave ship diagram; as seen in cutaway diagram from Thomas Clarkson’s “History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the Slave Trade”, London; 1808;  $2,645.

Runaway slave poster; $100 reward for Negro James; 1813; 10 inches by 8 inches;  $3,120. 

Slave shackles; middle passage; wrought-iron; circa late-18th early 19th century; $4,080.

Runaway slave poster; $200 reward for Negro Henry; 1857; 10 ½ inches by 14 inches;  $5,280.

Slave ship woodcut; from “The Mirror of Misery” or “Tyranny Exposed” vignette title page; seven large woodcuts in text; 1807;  $6,480.     

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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